Ethical Emperor Kangxi Takes Responsibility for the Death of a Guard

Emperor Kangxi.

The Kangxi Emperor: The longest reigning emperor in China. (Image: via Public Domain)

Emperor Kangxi, named Xuan Ye, was the most legendary Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. This majestic Qing Emperor once issued a “self-crime edict” for the death of a guard. Does the following story highlight what happened?

Xuan Ye came to the throne at age 8, took office at age 14, and established the territory of the Qing Dynasty during his 60-year-long reign.

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His political and military achievements laid a solid foundation for the future prosperity of the Kang xi era, Yongzhen, and Qian Long eras. Notably, Kangxi was seen as a significant contributor to the thriving success of the Qing  Dynasty and is deemed to be ‘The Wisest and Most Intelligent Emperor in Chinese History.’

During the 37th year of the Kangxi era, the 45-year-old Emperor Kangxi led a group of royal families and ministers to the royal hunting grounds at Mulan Paddock for the sport of hunting. Emperor Kangxi suddenly became interested during this hunting trip and expressed his desire to play chess.

The then 14-year-old Kangxi Emperor took over the administration of state affairs.
The then 14-year-old Kangxi Emperor took over the administration of state affairs. (Image: Public Domain)

The ministers who played chess with Emperor Kangxi often refrained from showing their skills and respectfully avoided playing chess to beat him. Kangxi, however, was fully aware of his ministers’ tricks. So he naturally wanted someone to play and reveal their chess skills against his own genuinely.

To bribe them, Emperor Kangxi immediately decreed that the person who beat him in chess would be rewarded with one hundred taels of gold and promoted three ranks.

A guard plays chess with Emperor Kangxi

However, when the decree was declared, no one in the ministry dared to play chess with Kangxi; only a guard named Renfu came forward to compete with him. Emperor Kangxi was surprised by this offer and asked: “Are you sure you know how to play chess — as a guard?”

Renfu politely replied, “Your Majesty, I have been learning chess since childhood, and I have learned a lot, so I came here to try.”

The two players began the game. In just a few minutes of play, Kangxi found that his opponent possessed excellent chess skills, with fierce offensive moves. Kangxi couldn’t help but frown and kept glaring at his tricky situation. The ministers on the sidelines watched with trepidation as a mere bodyguard dared to “defeat” Kangxi.

Seeing Kangxi was about to lose the game, a servant hurriedly made a sound, trying to give Kangxi a hand, reminding him of the tiger on the mountain.

But, since Kangxi decided to play chess on a whim, he did not forget he was leading the hunt. He got up instantly and asked Renfu to wait until he returned from hunting the tiger; both sides would resume playing the chess game.

Emperor Kangxi mounted on his horse and accompanied by his guards. (Image: Public Domain)

After going up the mountain, Kangxi failed to find the tiger; so he diverted his attention to hunting numerous muck deer and hares, and this made him even more addicted to the pleasure of using bows and arrows; completely forgetting the guard who was still waiting for his return to finish playing the chess game.

More than ten days passed. Finally, Kangxi remembered and ordered Renfu to come and finish playing chess with him. However, the eunuch replied that Renfu was dead. It turned out that after Kangxi went hunting, Renfu kept waiting by the chessboard quietly until the end of his life.

Upon learning of the guard’s death, Kangxi felt remorseful and personally issued a “self-crime edict.” However, he also said, “If a ruler has no credibility, how can he be a ruler?” This pointed out that ‘integrity’ was the foundation of being a human; without it, how can one be a ruler?

This incident has made people realize that even Kangxi, the emperor of a large country, could not abandon integrity. On the contrary, his lack of integrity would have him questioned and cast aside by the people, but more so, he may have even put the country in danger of destruction.

Of course, Kangxi’s ability to self-reflect enabled him to proclaim his guilt. Kangxi wrote memorable poems to commemorate and praise Renfu, who kept his promise to Emperor Kangxi.

Translated by Joseph Wu and edited by Maria Meyer 

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