Emperor Kangxi of China
Emperor Kangxi (reigned 1661-1722) was a man of enormous energy, talent, and
passion. He left behind a vast number of documents. The following passage is drawn
from pp. 63-73 of Jonathan Spence’s book
Emperor of China
(1969), which pulls
together diverse texts to form a continuous narrative based very closely on Kangxi’s
Lines in Praise of a Self-Chiming Clock
The skill originated in the West,
But, by learning, we can achieve the artifice.
Wheels move and time turns round,
Hands show the minutes as they change.
Red-capped watchmen, there’s no need to announce dawn’s coming.
My golden clock has warned me of the time.
By first light I am hard at work,
And keep on asking, “Why are the memorials
Too many people claim to know things when, in fact, they know nothing about them.
Since my childhood I have always tried to find things out for myself and not to pretend to
have knowledge when I was ignorant. Whenever I met older people I would ask them
about the experiences they had had, and remember what they said. Keep an open mind,
and you’ll learn things; you will miss other people’s good qualities if you just concentrate
on your own abilities. It’s my nature to enjoy asking questions, and the crudest or
simplest people have something of value to say, something one can check through to the
source and remember.
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. For instance the ancients
used to speak of
deer as two species, taking the shedding of their horns as
evidence, though they didn’t understand the sequences by which the horns grew. In fact
there are a great many species of
deer—in mountains, marshes, on rivers, near the
seashore—and the ancients didn’t know the difference.
Sometimes an exact answer is hard to find, as with the morning and evening tides.
Whenever I was on the seashore—whether in Tianjin or near the mouth of the Yangzi—I
would observe when the tides rose and fell. But when I would question the locals they
generally all gave different answers, and the records of the times kept in different places
were also different. Later I found that even water in springs and wells fluctuates slightly
in level, though again one can’t be precise about the time. I questioned Westerners and