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Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K'ang-Hsi

3.88  ·  Rating Details ·  291 Ratings  ·  31 Reviews
A remarkable re-creation of the life of K'ang-hsi, emperor of the Manchu dynasty from 1661-1772, assembled from documents that survived his reign. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index.
Paperback, 256 pages
Published October 22nd 1988 by Vintage (first published 1974)
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Nov 21, 2012 Hadrian rated it really liked it
This is something original and wholly fascinating, somewhere between historical fiction, memoir, and biography. Jonathan Spence has assembled the life of the Kangxi Emperor in his own words. The words are rearranged and given context, but this is a cross between a biography and a work of fiction such as the Memoirs of Hadrian.

The book is grouped into five sections. The Emperor is a diligent and hard-working man, who refuses to accept mediocrity and flattery. He prides himself on hunting not only
Nov 21, 2012 William1 rated it really liked it
An fascinating window on Imperial Qing China in the words of Emperor K'ang-Hsi (reigned 1661-1722). I've never read anything like it. To think that author Spence created this "memoir" by assembling disparate fragments. The result is a dazzling continuous whole. Outstanding and highly recommended.
Dec 19, 2011 Asma rated it it was amazing
The Chinese Emperor K'ang-hsi (1654-1722) reigned from eight years old for sixty-one years. This biography about him is pieced together from his fragmented writings and is illustrated from his own authentic brush-and-ink ideographs and from the marginal drawings with which he would have been familiar. Its fragmentary origin is hard to detect because the book reads like a good story, or even like a letter. K'ang-hsi tells about his actions, his worries, his practice of governing, his country, and ...more
Frank Stein
Aug 13, 2016 Frank Stein rated it really liked it
One of the strangest and most worthwhile books I've ever read on China. Back in the 1970s, the historian Jonathan Spence realized that China's early modern history had few of the detailed autobiographies and personal memoirs so important to historians of the West. Spence doesn't speculate on why, but he implies that the autocratic and hierarchical court and focus on official documents left little time for independent and personal literature. Spence therefore worked to compile all the personal an ...more
Kaitlin Weiler
Sep 16, 2011 Kaitlin Weiler rated it really liked it
A very interesting read for historians. Spence gives readers amazing insight into the life and mind of Kangxi, one of the Qing dynasty's longest reigning emperors. I had to read this for a history class and write a position paper on what made Kangxi's role as emperor so "heavy". My professor couldn't have picked a better book; Spence's text is very rich and engrossing.
Rob Solomon
Nov 05, 2016 Rob Solomon rated it it was amazing
Fascinating insight into the life of and times of an Emperor in ancient China told in an interesting way, with original documentation. Not a story to read, but rather more an historical document to study.
Oct 09, 2014 Greg rated it really liked it
This book, a memoir constructed and arranged by primary sources, but by Jonathan Spence 360 years or so after his subject’s death, is a piece of highly original and interesting scholarship. Spence’s books are wonderfully written pieces of Chinese scholarship, none more than this. Kang-hsi was the Manchu dynasty Emperor from 1661 to 1722.

The organization of the writings is interesting, and I was absolutely surprised by the frankness and wisdom of this absolute ruler. He was condescending toward
The Uprightman
Jun 30, 2014 The Uprightman rated it liked it
Through fastidious research, Spence draws together the life of China's longest reigning emperor. This work (introduction aside) could easily be regarded as translation rather than historical scholarship proper, as it is a compilation of primary documents with no analytical component. More than a translation, however, Spence arranges carefully considered source material in a manner which affords the reader a glimpse into the Son of Heaven’s soul. When considering the highly ritualized language us ...more
What a HUGE disappointment! I was SO excited to learn there was a book about the K'ang-Hsi emperor, so I could learn more about the man who was at the center of the Chinese soap opera program I've been watching. I was also interested to learn more about his various sons. Several years ago, I read "The Search for Modern China," which was also by Jonathan Spence. That book gave a very detailed, yet interesting account of the history of China from around the middle of the 16th century until around ...more
Jul 02, 2013 Andre rated it liked it
Jonathan Spence's account of Emperor Kang- Hsi comes from the unrelated documents written by the emperor himself. Spence puts these isolated parts together and creates an intriguing cohesive report. The topics span from Kang-Hsi's relationship with his sons, his hunting expeditions, to a farewell speech. My favorite chapter is about the emperor's contemplation on aging. "Growing Old," as the chapter on aging is called, reveals the importance of exploiting opportunities at the right time and havi ...more
Jul 05, 2015 Anne rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This consists of fragments of writings by the emperor himself that are selected, translated and arranged by Jonathan D. Spence. According to Spence's foreword, this particular emperor left a larger and more comprehensive written record of his reign than most emperors did. I found the book very interesting, but I definitely felt that I was missing a lot because I didn't know who the various people mentioned were or anything about the events alluded to. This is by no means a comprehensive biograph ...more
Jan 24, 2017 Rebecca rated it really liked it
Shelves: china
A really interesting portrait of the emperor in his own words. The way that the author constructed the book is really creative and shows a lot about the inner thoughts and life of the emperor. If you're looking for a biography that will tell you dates and times and important events, this isn't it. But if you are looking for the thoughts, the life and times of the emperor this book is for you. The only thing that really bugged me was the use of the wade-giles romanization system instead of pinyin ...more
Apr 22, 2008 Thomas rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: history buffs, china lovers, experimental readers
Shelves: china, history
In this book, Jonathan Spence takes his personal style to an extreme. Even those who love his in-depth textual analysis may find this book hard to stomach. Why? Spence abandons any in-body commentary and simply translates excerpts from K'ang-Hsi's letters. The result is a book that is neither your professor's academic reference nor your mother's detective novel.

I found this book an innovative work to marvel at and a satisfying read. I recognize that not all readers will share my high rating, bu
May 15, 2015 Shane rated it really liked it
Jonathan Spence has arranged the randomly surviving writings of Kangxi into a readable montage covering broad topics such as "Thinking," "Ruling," and "Growing Old." Daunting as it might seem to read primary accounts from a 17th century Chinese emperor, the excellent editing work by Spence and the likable, everyman quality of Kangxi's writing make this book easily accessible. Worth reading for the fascinating glimpse into day to day matters of the Qing dynasty's royalty.
Jul 31, 2007 Britt rated it liked it
I think a lot of people read/teach this book as history when, in fact, it is fiction (although, yes, I have placed on my fiction and history bookshelves). It's just historical fiction written by an historian.

If it had been written by Kangxi it would be amazing, but alas. On the otherhand, I don't think I can blame Spence for trying to bring a voice to this iconic emperor, but just keep in mind that what you're reading came out of an academic at Yale and not Kangxi himself.
Jun 23, 2010 Tom rated it really liked it
This book is not for anyone who doesn't like history and especially Chinese history. It took me a year or so to get through it, so its not really a thrilling read, but it is all in the emperor's own words. It's fantastic to read something like that from someone who lived in the 1600's. It was amazing historical work to put the thing together and have it make sense.
Durell Smith
Aug 30, 2014 Durell Smith rated it it was amazing
Very interesting to get into the mind of a man who lived centuries ago, yet held many of the same concerns and skepticisms of the world that we do today. I related heavily his skepticism and empirical view of the world from a man regarded as a living god at the time, yet has such disregard for mysticism and pseudoscience. I'm going to stop there because I don't want to give away any spoilers. :P
Dec 23, 2015 Aaron rated it it was amazing
Being a monarch is an unimaginably difficult job, and many, perhaps, most of the people who have done it have been terrible at it. Therefore, it's fascinating to read an autobiography of an emperor who was dedicated to his job and was genuinely good at it. Jonathan Spence does a great job of arranging Kangxi's writings in such a way as to enable the reader to understand him.
Oct 21, 2009 Weiyan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: tool-books

《康熙字典》總共有 4萬7035 隻字,分成 12 集,用 214 個部首分類,有反切注音、出處、參考等等。另外仲附有《字母切韻要法》同《等韻切音指南》。


Mar 17, 2016 Robyn rated it really liked it
A stunning display of life as an Emperor of China. Includes some awesome tidbits of wisdom, and descriptions of the scenery that make you want to book a ticket to China right now. Overall, an enjoyable read for the history buff, and (myself included in this pool) the person who doesn't adore history.
May 27, 2010 Charles rated it really liked it
Shelves: in-taiwan
Great book. I would have liked to learn more about the time he was alive and what he did. But, I think the book gave a good idea of what he was like, as a man.

Best quote: "Don't have too much sex when you are young...For example, I only have 300 women in my palace."
Ethan Fulwood
Aug 20, 2012 Ethan Fulwood rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, china
This is a really unique book of history. Jonathan Spence writes Kangxi an autobiography by collating various of his writings and organizing them around the topics the Emperor addressed in his unusually frank valedictory edict. Kangxi's active mind and powerful personality are able to shine through.
Jul 26, 2011 Erin rated it liked it
Parts of this book were hard to read (boring). But overall, I learned a lot from this book. I came away wanting to be a better person. I underlined many things that I wanted to be able to look back and remember.
Mar 23, 2016 Isabelle rated it really liked it
But I'll definitely look for the copy of this in Chinese:)
Manuel Paradela
Jun 27, 2016 Manuel Paradela rated it it was amazing
Spence at his best is one of the best and most imaginative scholars I've ever read.
Jul 23, 2011 David added it
i assign this book in my world 2 class
Oct 24, 2016 Rachel rated it it was amazing
Completely fascinating first-hand account of life from one of the longest-reigning monarchs in history.
Oct 17, 2008 Nate rated it really liked it
Shelves: china
Very good use of source materials and very educational but I found it slightly less than I had hoped for.
Chris Bitzios
Oct 12, 2012 Chris Bitzios rated it it was amazing
One of my favorites!
谧 田
谧 田 rated it it was amazing
Sep 02, 2016
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“If you want to really know something you have to observe or experience it in person; if you claim to know something on the basis of hearsay, or on happening to see it in a book, you'll be a laughingstock to those who really know.” 15 likes
“The written word has its limits and its challenges, for the primal sound in the whole world is that made by the human voice, and the likeness of this human voice must be rendered in dots and strokes...Yet I never forget that the voice, too, is important...Don't mumble or hesitate. a loud voice, clearly, and without fear.” 9 likes
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