I just completed watching two period drama serials on Manchu China. Each comprises 40 chapters. The two blockbuster serials are about Emperors Kangxi and Yongzheng. I plan to watch Qianlong soon. I’ve gained much insight esp the historical and cultural aspects of ancient Chinese after watching them.
Most of us think that being the emperor of China is the best job in the world. He has everything in terms of wealth, power, women and so on. Actually, it’s not that simple. There are many unknown sad side behind this normal facade.
In the ancient Chinese context, the emperor is very powerful. He rules by edicts. He has absolute control over the country and people. He should be happy right? Not so.
The Chinese emperor is actually subjected to many rules and regulations. He is bound by ancient traditions when making decisions. There are also much vested interest groups from previous earlier emperors or generations ago when their ancestors fought and die along side in the early years of building the empire. Whatever the emperor does must take into account views of his ministers and top mandarins. He must justify his decisions even though his edict is final. Failure to comply with his edict means certain death.
For example, he can’t simply sentence an official to death. He must investigate and preside in the open court to convict him. Sometimes, the task is assigned to a minister to investigate and report the findings before punishment is meted out. Sometimes, even that also subject to the hundreds of mandarins in his court. If a majority of the ministers or mandarins kneel down begging the emperor to reconsider his decision to punish the corrupted minister or wrong doing minister by citing his past contributions to the empire etc, the emperor sometimes may relent.
Before any final decision is undertaken by the emperor, debate and discussions are held with all his senior ministers and top mandarins. After all views are heard, the emperor will then make the final decision by issuing an edict. Failure to comply may result in severe punishment.
The Manchu or Qing dynasty starting from Kangxi to Qianlong with Yongzheng in between is generally considered the glorious period. It was at its height with about 135 years of rule between the three emperors. Kangxi and Qianlong reigned slightly for more than 60 years each with Yongzhen only 13 yrs. The latter died due to work exhaustion and stress.
I’ll just quote few examples from the drama serials. They may be exaggerated. The events may not be true cuz it’s only fictional movies based on the actual historical figures.
I was shocked when I watched emperor Kangxi went under cover as a “beggar” in order to understand the living conditions and to investigate local corrupt officials. Of course, he brought along some of his trusted officials with him always within reach. On another time, he bought over the whole restaurant lock, stock and barrel selling porridge to disguise himself as the owner of said restaurant in order to carry out his discreet investigation of powerful corrupt local officials.
Emperor Kangxi says that he’s always told by his ministers and mandarins that there are no beggars or poor peasants in his empire. The empire is so powerful that everyone is living very well! He wanted direct no nonsense feedback from the masses, so he dirtied himself, lived amongst the beggars with fleas all over his body etc. He vomited when he ate those beggars’ food which was actually leftover food. His loyal assistants had to think of ways to sneak in basic food for him. He appreciated the commoners’ decent food after going hungry for days!
Emperor Yongzheng – succeeded Kangxi, was trying to convince the Manchus to be farmers. Those Manchus from the northern grasslands near to Mongolia were traditionally horsemen and hunters. They were never farmers unlike the Han Chinese. The Manchus refused to plough the field. They had vast lands but never used for productive farming. The Manchus depended on the Han Chinese for their basic farm produce which was heavily taxed. Emperor Yongzheng was determined to stop this arrangement by implementing equality between the Manchus and the Han Chinese. The policy of “满汉平等” where everyone is equal irrespective of races. Equal rights and opportunities. This is for the overall long term good of the empire. He didn’t want the Manchus to be useless parasites and not working on the large swathes of farm land.
First, Emperor Yongzheng identified an original ethnic Manchu peasant who embraced farming. He awarded the chosen Manchu an official post and title making him a role model. Next, he personally took up basic lessons on farming from the Manchu farmer. Emperor Yongzheg had to bow and pay respect to a commoner – just like a disciple paying respect to a martial arts teacher, in full view of all his ministers and mandarins gathered in the farmland under the scorching sun. This was to send a clear message to the Manchus in his empire that he meant business. Emperor Yongzheng was a farmer for the whole day working hard on the field with the entire hundreds of ministers and top mandarins in full ceremonial uniform witnessing him “Using his hands” campaign! That’s the crude form of propaganda and publicity overdrive in ancient 18th century China.
When Emperor Yongzheng got back to the palace to catch up on his admin work which he had to set aside when he spent the whole day farming in the field. His enunchs broke down in tears when they saw his feet badly sored and his bruised hands not able to hold the brush (pen) to write! After all, he’s an Emperor never subject to hard manual work. Without resting, he continued his work throughout the night next to the candle lantern. There’s a pile of reports and petitions to read. Usually, it’s 5,000 to 10,000 petitions on a given day. He had to reply and consider every petition.
In the morning, it’s the usual court conference with all his ministers and mandarins. Sometimes in the day or middle of the night when there is a crisis, there would be more meetings with his senior ministers and mandarins etc. He is always worried about the frontiers or war front in the northern and north-western regions where those barbarians are always giving trouble. Sometimes, it’s the southern parts near to the present day Vietnam. If there’s a flood in the Yellow river, it’s going to be a big headache cuz those commoners suffer. Aid need to be directed to them. But sometimes inefficient or corrupt officials siphoned off part of the aid. In one instance, he personally went down to assess the situation and returned to the palace to rid of those incompetent corrupt officials and promoted efficient ones.
There are 40 chapters each in the two period China drama serials. It’s not easy to relate all the stories and anecdotes here. Now you know why I’m quite addicted to them. I’ve also watched the Taiwanese Justice Pao production. I’ll blog about Justice Pao on another time.
In Singapore, we live in a totally different world from the ancient Imperial China. Seemingly, we are world’s apart. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them? The principles and virtues of an enlightened ruler will remain unchanged forever throughout the ages.
Today is our 47th National Day!
I wish our leaders will emulate the virtues of Emperors Kangxi and Yongzheng by really listening to the sentiments of the rakyat.
I do not expect our leaders to disguise themselves as “beggars” or “farmers” in order to understand the wretches, homeless poor and the downtrodden.
All I ask for is for them to be more humane and compassionate when implementing policy. Think of the poor and wretches in our country. Do not treat us as digits with dollars & cents or costs & profits as the bottom line for all policy. When we bring up issues or problems, pls don’t take the easy option by simply increasing the charges, fines or more draconian measures! That’s not the way.
For a start, pls don’t just issue parking summons like nobody’s business. Be flexible and selective on enforcing non criminal offences – I’m referring to parking offences. In our high density compact society with so much space constraints, there bound to be illegal parking here and there. No need to be harsh in it’s enforcement.
Remember, every summons ticket you issue deprives the poor despatch rider / biker’s wife and children the whatever little he earns. As a despatch rider, his daily pay is about $50 a day (monthly pay is $1,500), a parking summons ticket with offer of compound at $70 – touch your heart honestly and tell me how his family going to live and survive? Do you really feel their pain?
Be flexible with your laws especially non-criminal offences. That’s my wish for this National Day 2012!
Happy National Day!
Happy 47th Birthday Singapore!