CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 25, March 2011


Kangxi and Tomás Pereira's Beard | China Heritage Quarterly

Kangxi and Tomás Pereira's Beard
An Account from Sublime Familiar Instructions, in Chinese and Manchu
With Three European Versions

Eugenio Menegon
Boston University

Aphorisms from the Familiar Instructions of Shengzu, the Emperor Ren (Shengzu Ren huangdi tingxun geyan 聖祖仁皇帝庭訓格言, hereafter Tingxun geyan) is a text that has been used by generations of historians of the Qing dynasty. One of the best known examples is Jonathan Spence's fascinating Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of Kangxi (New York: Knopf, 1974). Tingxun geyan reveals the personality of the Kangxi (or 'Ren', Gosin in Manchu) emperor like few other documents, and the gamut of topics it covers—from morality to material culture, from natural sciences to Manchu customs—offers a rare window on the imperial view of the world.

Fig.1 Portrait of the Kangxi Emperor in his library, Palace Museum, Beijing

Several popular and lightly annotated editions of this text as well as reprints of old editions have appeared both in China and in Taiwan in recent years, but in spite of this wide diffusion of material the book's textual genesis has attracted no serious scholarly attention.

Today this work is best known in its Siku quanshu 四庫全書 edition, which has become easily accessible through electronic digital databases. That version is in turn based on the first Chinese edition, published by the printing press of the Imperial Household Bureau (Neiwufu 內務府) in 1730. A Manchu edition, entitled Šengdzu gosin hûwangdi-i booi tacihiyan-i ten-i gisun (literally, 'The exalted words of the familiar instructions by Shengzu, the emperor Ren'), was published the same year.[1] Eventually, a complete Italian/French translation was produced in Paris in the late-eighteenth century. Here I will use these Manchu, Chinese, and European versions of Kangxi's instructions to illuminate the transcultural history of this text, and include the multiple linguistic incarnations of an entertaining passage from the work.[2]

The 'aphorisms' are allegedly brief 'lessons' imparted by Kangxi to his sons, the imperial princes, when they were young, probably starting in the late 1680s or 1690s. As we read in the Preface by the Yongzheng emperor (1678-1735) himself:[3]

On the occasion of our visits at the prescribed times to offer [to our father Kangxi] our humblest reverence and discharge our filial duties, He composed on our behalf wonderful instructions, and after having gathered them together, He assembled them in a single volume, which He kept inside a golden box, embossed with jade: a truly enlightening, precious, noble and sublime work. When as a young man I went into the palace together with my older and younger brothers to serve Him and receive His orders, we would see Him always happy, with a graceful smile on His mouth. Every time we attended His meals, or went into His Presence to offer our wishes for good fortune, He would reply and instruct us about all manner of things, important or trivial, with a happy and pleasant demeanor, looking upon us with tender love.[4]

From Yongzheng we also learn some details of the editorial process involved in the composition of the work:

For forty years[5] I have reverently listened to [my father's] lessons and have impressed them in my mind, and sooner or later I have followed them in my actions. Since I have been on the throne [starting in 1722], I have made every effort to apply them in practice and to emulate them in my own behavior. Alas! I recall the fortunate time when I enjoyed the pleasure of talking with and hearing the Emperor my Father! My memory goes now back to the caring prohibitions He issued and the pressing instructions He offered me. I even seem to hear his words clearly even now. Nevertheless, to avoid that such precious memories be lost, together with my brother the Truthful Prince, Yun Cy [Manchu: Unenggi cin wang Yun Cy; Chinese: 誠親王允祉, Cheng qinwang Yunzhi, i.e. Yinzhi 胤祉] and others, I have written them down and composed a book entitled Sublime Familiar Instructions; far-sighted teachings of my Father, long-reaching and boundless, so much so that only a small portion of what I heard then, and recalled later, could be committed to paper. Since the [written] instructions are so lacking [as compared to the original oral exchanges], I should truly be ashamed. In spite of this, the words and the wisdom of this book are subtle and of great importance. Their aim and deep meaning will carry far into the future.[6]

Fig.2 Yongzheng in European attire, Palace Museum, Beijing

As stated in this Preface the text was allegedly based on notes left by Kangxi himself. Unfortunately we do not know in what language they were compiled. The Preface clarifies that the original notes were edited and supplemented from memory by Yongzheng and his brother Yinzhi (1677-1732), and perhaps also by others. Yinzhi, third son of Kangxi, had been an opponent of Yongzheng during the bitter struggle for the throne, and as a consequence he had been demoted and banished to the isolated Qing imperial tombs in 1723. In 1730, the year Tingxun geyan was published, Yinzhi had been temporarily reinstated as prince, only to be accused of several misdemeanors (including unfilial behavior toward Kangxi) soon after. He was imprisoned and died in confinement two years later.[7] Perhaps the emperor conceived the editorial project as a show of publicly reconciling with his brother (who was his elder by one year) under the charismatic spell of their father's instructions. This was to little avail. We will probably never know the truth about the editing process behind the text, beyond what Yongzheng would have us believe. We should keep in mind that the original notes were certainly doctored to suit Yongzheng's own aims, and to display his credentials as a filial son and as the legitimate successor on the Qing throne.

In spite of this, the aphorisms in the collection retain a freshness and flair that seem to reflect genuinely the personality of Kangxi as we know it from other sources. Yongzheng in his Preface talks, for example, about Kangxi's great curiosity for all kinds of knowledge and phenomena, and his pride in Manchu customs:

He recommended geographical maps, painting, books on history, ritual and music, and literary elegance, as things of the utmost importance. He also added that no less care should be spent on astronomical observations; in learning about the qualities of each land; in the precise distribution of days in seasons through the use of the most accurate calendars. Besides, he would point to himself as example. He would tell us the ways he regulated the palace and the empire; how, in order to strengthen his body, he used to practice wrestling and archery; and which medicines he himself used to prevent or cure his bodily illnesses.[8]

The collection is indeed replete with anecdotes that reveal Kangxi's voracious curiosity, as well as his commandeering presence as both father and monarch. In places, it is a really good read, and yet the moralistic tone of most pronouncements always ends up killing the fun. This double nature of the collection, both edifying and entertaining, is probably the reason why it was translated into Italian in its entirety with an eye to publication in Europe by Louis Poirot (He Qingtai 賀清泰, 1735-1814; in Beijing 1771-1814), one of the last Jesuit missionaries at the Qing court.[9] The Jesuits had already been publishing in series a famous collection of letters from their missions for European readers, the Lettres édifiantes et curieuses.[10] After the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773, a similar, though less coherent, enterprise continued with the production of the monumental Mémoires concernant les Chinois. Initiated under the sponsorship of Henri Léonard Jean Baptiste Bertin (1720-92), a minister under both Louis XV and XVI, the Mémoires appeared between 1776 and 1814, eventually totaling seventeen volumes.[11]

Poirot's translation of Tingxun geyan was published in an Italian and French bilingual version in 1783, with the following incipit: Da me Imperatore scritta. Prefazione o introduzione alle Sublimissime Famigliari Instruzioni di Ceng-tzu-quogen-hoang-ti / Écrit par moi, Empereur, Préface ou introduction aux Instructions Sublimes et Familières de Cheng-tzu-quogen-hoang-ti.[12] The translation, however, was based not on the Chinese version, but rather on the 'Tartar original' (i.e., the Manchu version) of the book, as we read in the 'Avertissement' of Volume 9 of the Mémoires:

…one can read [here] a piece as interesting for its authorship as it is for its contents. These are the instructions of the Kangxi Emperor to the princes his sons. This emperor, one of the most famous ever to have ruled over China, died in 1722, after a sixty-year long reign. He enjoyed instructing his children through conversations with them. After his death, Yongzheng, his son and successor, put in writing all he had retained of these instructions, and titled this collection Sublime and Familiar Instructions: familiar for their form, and sublime for the wisdom and the importance of the precepts and the maxims therein contained. This work written in the Tartar language has been translated into Italian by Mr. Poirot, missionary in Peking. We have printed this version, which reflects the Tartar original on which it has been done. However, for those readers who ignore Italian we have added a French translation of the Italian translation. We owe this translation to Madam Countess [de Mellek], who has accomplished it for her own amusement, and has allowed us to enrich our Mémoires with it. She has abridged some long passages and eliminated some repetitions, but the meaning is everywhere rendered with exactness and precision.'[13]

The references in this passage to 'this work written in the Tartar language' and to the 'Tartar original' simply indicate that Poirot used the Manchu edition for his translation, although we cannot exclude that Manchu might have also been the language in which the oral exchanges between Kangxi and his sons originally occurred, and that the Urtext of Tingxun geyan might have been in Manchu.

We can even trace the specific edition on which Poirot based his translation. In the Manchu collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, a copy of the Manchu Tingxun geyan, covered in pale yellow silk, carries a note on the internal flaps of the work's two fascicles: 'Instructions de Cam-hi à ses enfants en tartare-mandchoux. Envoyé par Mr. Poirot de Pékin en 1778, reçu en 1779'. This is in all likelihood the original palace edition of 1730, as it bears an imperial red seal at the end of its preface identifying it as a precious item: Yongzheng zunqin zhi bao 雍正尊親之寶).[14] We can surmise that this edition was obtained by Poirot after his arrival in Beijing in the early 1770s, and translated by 1778 and sent to France with the Italian manuscript translation.

To give a sense of the linguistic layering of the text versions, I offer below an entry on a curious episode regarding one of the court Jesuits, the Portuguese Tomás Pereira (1646-1708), whose Chinese name was Xu Risheng 徐日昇 (Sioi Ži Šeng in Manchu). The episode in which Pereira figures has been noted by scholars long ago, and its Chinese version has been translated at least twice in recent years.[15] Below I supply the following series of multiple linguistic avatars:

• Manchu text (nineteenth-century edition) and Manchu transcription;
• English rendering of the Manchu text (by this present author);
• Chinese text (Siku quanshu text) and punctuated text;
• Italian rendering by Poirot (1770s/1783); and,
• French rendering by de Mellek (1783).

I will not make a detailed comparison of all texts and variations, nor note mistakes in translation (especially in the French version, which is twice removed from the 'Tartar original'). I will simply let the texts speak for themselves.

Manchu Version

Page Page Page Page

hese wasimbuhangge . bi injeme gisurere ajige baita de seme urunakū giyan be baimbi .. neneme amba age . yang sin diyan i weilere arara baita be kadalame yabure fonde emu inenggi age . si yang ni niyalma sioi ži šeng ni sasa dosifi . mini baru bai sula gisun gisurere de . amba age . sioi ži šeng ni baru yobodome . sini salu be fusiki seme henduhe manggi . sioi ži šeng inu hercun akū . fusiki seci fusi seme sarkū i gese bihe .. bi uthai gūninaha . amba age daci fudasihūn niyalma . aika bi han ama de wesimbuhe seme sioi ži šeng ni salu be fusiki seci uthai fusimbi kai .. tulergi gurun i niyalma salu be mimbe efime fusiha seci ombio . tede bi inu injeme . age fusiki seci . urunakū minde wesimbufi jai fusici ojoro dabala sere jakade . sioi ži šeng mini ere gisun be donjifi gaitai cira aljafi . yasai muke hafirafi emu gisun tucikakū .. geli emu udu inenggi ofi . sioi ži šeng ni teile dosika de . i mini baru songgome wesimbuhengge . ejen ai uttu ferguwecuke. ejen i jui age uthai mini emu tulergi gurun i niyalmai salu be fusiha seme ai holbobuha babi . ejen uttu ai boljon seme gūnin isinafi . hese wasimbuha be . bi yargiyan i alime muterakū sehe .. amala dehi nadaci aniya mini beye elhe akū de . sioi ži šeng . i adarame tulergi balai gisurere be donjifi . mimbe ojorakū oho seme gūnifi . yang sin diyan de jifi kesi akū seme gasame ambarame songgofi . boode isinafi uthai akū oho .. emu gisun de niyalmai gūnin be bahaci ombi . emu gisun de inu niyalmai gūnin be ufarabuci ombi kai ..

From Šengdzu gosin hûwangdi-i booi tacihiyan-i ten-i gisun, nineteenth-century edition. Harvard-Yenching Library, Rare Books, call number Ma1686/3213, ce 1, pp. 123b-126a.

An English Translation of the Manchu Text

The Exalted Words of the Familiar Instructions of Šengdzu, Emperor Gosin

An edict was issued: One should be sensible [even] in small matters that are spoken of in jest. One day, while he was supervising construction at the Yangxin Dian [the emperor's private quarters], my first son came with the Westerner Xu Risheng [Tomás Pereira]. While idly chatting with me, my son jokingly said to Xu Risheng: 'I want to shave your beard!' Xu took no notice and responded: 'If you want to shave it, then shave it!' as if he did not mind. I was thus reminded that by nature my son was unruly. If [my son] were to say 'I sent a memorial to the khan father', [then] if he wished to have the beard of Xu Risheng shaven, it would have happened. Foreigners would say that I have shaved [Pereira's] beard to amuse myself! At the time I too laughed and said [to my son]: 'If [you], my son, wish to shave [Xu's] beard, all you have to do is to send me a memorial about it.' But after hearing those words of mine, Xu's face suddenly changed color. Holding back his tears, he was speechless. Again several days passed, and Xu Risheng came alone and reported to me tearfully: 'Your Majesty is truly admirable! But that Your Majesty's oldest son shaves the beard of a foreigner like me, why should this matter? How it is that Your Majesty has set his mind on issuing such a decision [about this]? It is truly difficult for me to accept the imperial decree you have issued.' Later on, in the 47th Year [of my reign=1708] when I was not feeling well, Xu Risheng took notice of some rumors [circulating] outside [the palace] and, thinking that I was about to die, came to the Yangxin Dian and cried profusely, lamenting the loss of [imperial] favor. After returning home, he passed away. One word can win the mind of a person, but one word can also lose the mind of a person.

—translated by Eugenio Menegon

Chinese Version



Siku quanshu, vol.717, pp.638-39.

Italian Translation of the Manchu

Sublimissime Famigliari Instruzioni di Ceng-tzu-quogen-hoang-ti

Dicea: Io nelle cose eziandio che di poco rilievo, e perfino da ridere, cerco sempre la ragionevolezza e convenienza. In questi mesi addietro, lorchè il mio figlio maggiore aveva la soprintendenza del Iang-sin-tien, un giorno intrò egli in palazzo insieme coll'Europeo Su-gi-sceng. Alla mia presenza parlando di cose indifferenti, tutto all'improvviso voltatosi verso quell'Europeo, 'vi voglio radere codesta barba,' gli disse per ischerzo. L' Europeo, che restò smarrito per un poco, senza accorgersi, 'se volete raderla, radetela alla buon'ora' gli rispose. Io subito riflettei meco medesimo, che questo mio maggior figlio era naturalmente alquanto stravagante, e che se mai fosse ito fuori dal palazzo, ed avesse detto: 'io ho fatta rappresentanza all'Imperatore mio padre', ed avesse voluto assolutamente far radere a quell'Europeo la barba, conveniva necessariamente farla radere, cosa che non conveniva, perchè dettami per gioco, e perchè si tratta di uno straniere [sic]; perciò io al mio figlio pure ridendo soggiunsi, 'se voi desiderate che si rada la barba a quest'Europeo, fatene prima a me legitima [sic] rappresentanza, quindi potrà radersi, o nò.' Su-gi-sceng appena intese queste mie parole, tenendo appena le lagrime, non fece nemmeno una parola. Di lì a qualche giorno, quell'Europeo medesimo venne solo a palazzo; egli in mia presenza singhiozzando mi rappresentò, e così parlommi: 'vostra Maestà è veramente degna d'ogni ammirazione, il maggior di lei figlio ancorche mi avesse fatta radere la barba, di che consequenza era poi finalmente questa cosa? Sua Maestà come ha degnato di abbassarsi a farvi sopra le sue considerazioni? Io non merito che a mio favore abbia vostra Maestà fatto simil decreto responsivo.' Scorsi io i 47 anni dell'età mia, stando io alquanto male di salute; non sò come mai quest'Europeo sentisse dire fuori che la mia infermità era incurabile: venne egli al Iang-sin-tien, e chiamando se stesso infelice, e piangendo amaramente, tornato apena alla sua chiesa, morì. Da [p.170] ciò si rileva, che con una parola può ottenersi il cuore dell'uomo, e con una parola può altresì perdersi.

—translated by L. Poirot, Beijing, ca. 1778. See Sublimissime Famigliari Instruzioni di Ceng-tzu-quogen-hoang-ti, Mémoires, vol.9, pp.168-170.

French Translation of the Italian Version

Instructions Sublimes et Familières de Cheng-tzu-quogen-hoang-ti

Il disoit: Je cherche toujours la raison & la convenance dans les choses les moins importantes, meme dans les plaisanteries. Il y a quelques mois, lorsque mon fils aìné avoit la surintendance du Iang-sin-tien, il entra dans mon palais avec l'Européen Su-gi-cheng, parlant devant moi de choses indifférentes; il se tourna tout-à-coup vers lui, 'je veux lui', dit il, 'vous raser cette barbe'. Il le lui disoit en badinant: l'Européen qui ne le sentit pas, fut un peu effrayé, & lui répondit: 'si vous voulez la raser, rasez-la.' Je réfléchis aussi-tôt que mon fils etoit naturellement un peu etordi, e que si, hors de mon palais, il avoit dit, 'j'ai présenté une requête a l'Empereur mon pere'; & qu'il eût voulu absolutement faire raser la barbe de cet Européen, elle l'auroit eté: ce qui ne convenoit point, parce qu'il n'en avoit eté question qu'en plaisantant, & qu'il s'agissoit d'un etranger. Je dis a mon fils en riant, 'si vous desirez faire raser cet Européen, présentez-moi requête en regle'. Su-gi-cheng entendant cela, eut peine à retenir ses larmes, & ne proféra pas une parole. A quelques jours de là, il vint seul à mon palais, & me parla ainsi en sanglottant: 'Votre Majesté est vraiment digne d'admiration. Quand son fils aìné auroit fait raser ma barbe, de quelle consequence cela pouvoit-il être? Comment sa majesté s'est-elle abaissée à y faire attention? Je ne mérite pas qu'elle ait daigné faire une réponse si formelle en ma faveur'. A 47 ans [sic], je tombai malade. Je ne sais comment cet Européen avoit entendu dire que ma maladie etoit incurable. Il vint au Iang-sin-tien, se lamentant & pleurant amérement; & à peine retourné à son eglise, il mourut. On peut conclure de-là qu'une parole suffit pour perdre ou gagner les coeurs.

—translated by Countess de Mellek, published in Paris, 1783.

Related material from China Heritage Quarterly:


[1] At least twenty-five copies of this text, both xylographs and manuscripts, are recorded in catalogues of Manchu collections worldwide; see Giovanni Stary, 'What's Where' In Manchu Literature, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2005, pp.116 & 256. The title in some of those copies carries the additional initial formula 'Han-i araha…', that is 'written by the emperor'.

[2] I would like to thank Mark Elliott (instructor), several colleagues in the Manchu course at Harvard University in the summer of 2010 (Elif Akcetin, Geremie R. Barmé, Kwangmin Kim, Carla Nappi, and Yulian Wu), Giovanni Stary (University of Venice, Italy) and Hartmut Walravens (Berlin) for offering comments and helping polish the translation of the Manchu text of this episode. My thanks also to the editor of China Heritage Quarterly, my classmate in Manchu, for encouraging me to write and publish this short essay, and for his editorial refinements.

[3] Kangxi started taking an interest in his sons' education when he assigned tutors to the crown prince Yinreng in the 1670s, and set up a formal teaching program for him. See the discussion of the education of the crown prince in Silas Wu, Passage to Power. K'ang-Hsi and His Heir Apparent, 1661-1722, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979, pp.32 & 37-51.

[4] Here I follow Poirots' eloquent rendering of the Preface, which I compared with a Manchu version of the preface in the manuscript Booi tacihiyan-i ten-i gisun, Daoguang period, Harvard-Yenching Library, Ma1686/3214; see Mémoires concernant l'histoire, les sciences, les arts, les moeurs, les usages etc. des Chinois par les missionnaires de Pe-kin, Paris: Chez Nyon, 1783, vol.9, p.66.

[5] Since Yongzheng wrote this preface in 1730, at the age of fifty-two, he must be referring to a period between the late 1680s and early 1690s, when he was in his early teens.

[6] See Mémoires, vol.9, p.69. The character Yin (胤) is substituted by Yun (允) to avoid the taboo character in the personal name of the Yongzheng Emperor as a prince, Yinzhen (胤禎).

[7] For a biography see Arthur W. Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1943-44, pp.922-923.

[8] See Mémoires, vol.9, pp. 67-68.

[9] One wonders whether Poirot translated the book as a sort of linguistic exercise to learn Manchu. Poirot, a native of France, grew up and was educated in Italy; he worked as painter and translator at the Qing court and acted as interpreter during the Macartney embassy of 1793. Biographical information on Poirot is available in Louis Pfister, Notices biographiques et bibliographiques sur les Jésuites de l'ancienne mission de Chine, Shanghai: Imprimerie de la Mission Catholique, 1932-34, pp.965-970; and Joseph Dehergne, Répertoire des Jésuites de Chine de 1552 à 1800, Roma-Paris: Institutum Historicum S.I., 1973, p.207. On his linguistic works, see Kim Dongso 金東昭, '最初中國語滿洲語聖書譯成者賀淸泰神父—P. Louis De Poirot, S. J., the First Translator of the Bible into the Chinese and Manchu Languages' (in Korean), Altai Hakpo, Journal of the Altaic Society of Korea (Seoul), 13 (2003): 15-39.

[10] The Lettres were published in installments over the course of the eighteenth century. A widely available edition is M.L. Aimé-Martin, ed., Lettres édifiantes et curieuses concernant l'Asie, l'Afrique et l'Amérique, avec quelques relations nouvelles des missions, et des notes géographiques et historiques, Paris: Paul Daffis Libraire-Éditeur, 1875-77, 4 vols.; vols. 3 & 4 on China.

[11] Joseph Dehergne, 'Une grande collection: Mémoires concernant les Chinois (1776-1814)', Bulletin de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient, 72 (1983): 267-97.

[12] Mémoires concernant les Chinois, vol.9, 1783, pp.65-281; the original Italian-language manuscript translation is preserved in the Fonds spécial des mss occidentaux of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Fond Bréquigny, ms.113, ff.242-363.

[13] 'Avertissement', in Mémoires, vol.9,

[14] This seal stamp might be translated as 'Precious [item] from [the era of] our [imperial] ancestor Yongzheng', and must have been added during the Qianlong era. A French handwritten notation on the book further explains that the book was acquired by the Library in 1810. See Jeanne-Marie Puyraimond, Walter Simon and Marie-Rose Séguy, eds., Catalogue du fonds mandchou, Paris: Bibliothèque nationale, 1979, p.28.

[15] See Yazawa Toshihiko 矢沢利彦, 'Materials on Chinese Catholicism in Tingxun Geyan' (Niwa kun kakugen shosai no Shina Tenshukyō shi kankei shiryō 庭訓格言所載の支那天主敎史關係资料 ), Rekishigaku kenkyū 歴史學硏究, 7.3, March 1937, p.80; cf. renderings of the Chinese version in Catherine Jami, 'Tomé Pereira (1645–1708), Clockmaker, Musician and Interpreter at the Kangxi Court: Portuguese Interests and the Transmission of Science', in The Jesuits, the Padroado and East Asian Science (1552-1773). History of Mathematical Sciences: Portugal and East Asia III, edited by Luis Saraiva and Catherine Jami, Singapore: World Scientific, 2008, pp.187-204 at p. 204; and Ronnie Hsia Po-chia, 'Tomás Pereira, French Jesuits, and the Kangxi Emperor', in Tomás Pereira, S.J. (1646-1708): Life, Work and World, edited by Luís Filipe Barreto, Lisboa: Centro Científico e Cultural de Macau, 2010, pp.353-74 at p.360