The Emperor’s Dilemma: Selecting a Successor in Ancient China

'The Kangxi Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour.'
In ancient times, an emperor's selection of a successor was a critical decision, setting the course of the nation and impacting the lives of its people for generations to follow. (Image: Public Domain via The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In ancient times, an emperor’s selection of a successor was a matter of paramount importance, a decision that could not be taken lightly. The future of the “realm” rested on this choice: Which son would inherit the throne? Who possessed the capability and wisdom to sustain a nation? With only one crown for the taking, what criteria determined the “chosen one” among the princes? Unsurprisingly, those not selected often harbored resentment, posing potential threats to the new dynasty. How to forestall such dangers was a concern of no small order.

Addressing these challenges was far from trivial. However, history records one Chinese emperor with exceptional foresight, who, after careful deliberation, chose a successor who would benefit countless generations. Let us explore how the sagacious Emperor Kangxi undertook the crucial task of choosing his heir.

Emperor Kangxi’s prudent strategy

Around the 50th year of the Qing Dynasty under Emperor Kangxi, with the emperor advancing in years, his primary mission naturally shifted to choosing from his numerous sons a successor characterized by integrity, uprightness, and exceptional capabilities — qualities essential to ensure the dynasty’s lasting prosperity.

Chinese painting of Emperor Kangxi wearing armor and riding a white horse.
As Emperor Kangxi approached the twilight of his reign, his focus shifted to choosing a successor characterized by integrity, uprightness, and exceptional capabilities. (Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia)

The Manchu Qing Dynasty, from its founder Nurhaci, adopted a practice unlike any other — sons were groomed for leadership from a young age. They learned statecraft either by internships in various government branches or by traveling incognito throughout the country to understand the people’s conditions. This approach allowed for a comprehensive display of each prince’s character, capacity, and overall aptitude, aiding the emperor’s discernment and selection.

The contenders’ conduct

How did Kangxi’s sons fare in practice? The 8th prince, Yinsi, was assertive yet reserved, adept at currying favor with the influential and winning hearts, rallying many, including the 9th, 10th, and 11th princes, around him. His imposing influence led many to view him as the undeniable successor. Princes like the 13th, Yinxing, and the 14th, Yinti, were valorous and open-hearted, but lacked the subtlety required for statecraft. The 14th prince, in particular, maintained a complicated relationship with Yinsi, marked by both dependency and rivalry.

In contrast, the 4th prince, Yinzhen, stood apart — vigilant and upright, especially in recovering embezzled funds and combating corruption. This earned him the nickname “living hell,” and had he not been born to the purple, he may well have been silenced by his many powerful enemies.

The Emperor’s choice

After assessing his sons’ strengths and weaknesses, Emperor Kangxi’s heart leaned toward Yinzhen, the 4th prince, and Yinti, designated as the 14th prince, yet he struggled to make the final decision. He consulted Fang Bao, a scholar of the Tongcheng school, an informal advisor in the royal court, asking for guidance on who should inherit the empire.

Fang Bao, a true scholar, did not answer directly, but offered a metaphor: Ruling a great country was like cooking a delicate dish, requiring a chef who could adjust the flame and season boldly. The choice of heir should consider not only the prince, but also his progeny — ensuring a wise lineage would herald continued prosperity for the Qing Dynasty.

Chinese street food.
Fang Bao told the Emperor that ruling a great country was like cooking a delicate dish, requiring a chef who could adjust the flame and season boldly. (Image: 06photo via Dreamstime)

Taking this advice to heart, Emperor Kangxi ultimately chose Yinzhen, father to the intelligent and capable Hongli (later Emperor Qianlong), as his successor.

Bold moves to ensure a smooth transition

In the twilight of his life, Emperor Kangxi made several bold and politically savvy decisions — notably, he did not install his confidants in key positions, but took the surprising step of arresting several high officials aligned with Yinsi, the 8th prince. This move effectively clipped Yinsi’s wings and paved the way for Yinzhen.

Despite knowing that Longkodo, the commander of the infantry and “Admiral of the Nine Gates,” was aligned with Yinsi, Kangxi issued him two contradictory edicts. The first promoted him to a high position, and the second, only to be read in case of emergency, stripped him of all ranks and sentenced him to death. This unprecedented strategy capitalized on the extremes of human motivation, ensuring Longkodo’s allegiance to the new emperor.

Finally, in a lucid moment before his death, Kangxi summoned Yinzhen, entrusting him with the military authority by appointing Yinxing, the 13th prince, who had strong military connections and a close bond with Yinzhen, to manage the army. This solidified Yinzhen’s position and laid a firm foundation for future governance.

In his selection and preparation for the transition, Emperor Kangxi displayed a deep understanding of power dynamics and human nature, ensuring the Qing Dynasty’s stability and the welfare of its subjects for generations to come.

Translated by Chua BC

Follow us on XFacebook, or Pinterest

  • Michael Segarty

    Careers in Web Design, Editing and Web Hosting, Domain Registration, Journalism, Mail Order (Books), Property Management. I have an avid interest in history, as well as the Greek and Roman classics. For inspiration, I often revert to the Golden Age (my opinion) of English Literature, Poetry, and Drama, up to the end of the Victorian Era. "Let us, then, be up and doing, With a heart for any fate; Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait." H.W. Longfellow.