Ancient China: How a Child Emperor Conquered a Powerful General

Kangxi outsmarts the most dangerous man in the kingdom, saving himself and his empire
By Taste of Life
Taste of Life
Taste of Life
December 15, 2016 Updated: January 2, 2017

It’s quite evident that the murder of Hamlet’s father was just the beginning of the prince’s troubles. Ruled by his emotions and clouded by a bloodthirsty desire for vengeance, Hamlet couldn’t see clearly enough to peacefully bring his uncle to justice, and ended up destroying the entire royal family.

However, if Prince Hamlet had seen Shen Yun’s dance piece “Defending the Throne,” maybe things would have turned out differently.

“Defending the Throne” tells the story of a mid-17th-century Qing emperor who fell sick and died, leaving the throne to his 8-year-old boy, Kangxi. Before passing, the emperor appointed his four most trusted advisers to guide and protect his young son until the boy turned 14, the Manchurian age of adulthood, when he would officially become emperor.

But one of the advisers, a decorated war general named Aobai, quickly changed tune after the ruler’s death. Aobai disregarded Kangxi’s authority and threatened all the nobles in the royal court, forcing them to pledge allegiance to himself and not the young emperor.

Kangxi, just a child, stood no chance of defeating Aobai, who was not only the greatest Manchurian warrior and martial artist in the kingdom, he now controlled the top politicians and military. The greedy minister also remained acutely aware of any plots the young emperor might employ to take back his rightful power.

When one of Kangxi’s loyal advisers opposed Aobai and tried to impeach him, the ruthless traitor killed the adviser and his entire family, solidifying a reign of terror that no one would challenge thereafter.

But the wise young emperor refused to give in to tyranny. Kangxi recruited the brightest and strongest youth to become his elite cadre of guards. In order to not alert Aobai, they’d only train playing buku, a popular Manchurian wrestling game among boys. So whenever Aobai visited Kangxi, the young ruler pretended to be engrossed in his game. Over time, Aobai believed Kangxi only cared about playing with his friends and showed no signs of political ambition. Consequently, he lowered his guard, feeling he was truly invincible.

Kangxi waited, forever patient, forbearing Aobai’s insults and treasonous disregard for his authority. On the day Kangxi turned 14 and officially became an adult and the emperor, Aobai even had the audacity to wear golden robes, a color reserved only for the emperor himself.

Kangxi felt it was now time to bring Aobai to justice, but the traitor could very likely still overpower the youthful group of guards and ruin the young emperor’s only chance at regaining his power.

Kangxi invited Aobai to a casual meeting to discuss some political matters. Showing no hidden intentions, Kangxi cordially invited Aobai to sit down. But the general’s chair was rigged—cut so that it would easily topple over with any sudden movement. On cue, boiling tea was served and Aobai burned his hand. As he jerked away, the chair collapsed. Two of the young guards pretended to help the traitor to his feet, but in truth they each used buku wrestling techniques—one held Aobai’s head down, the other grabbed his waist.

At that moment, coordinated perfectly after years of training together, all of the young guards surrounded Aobai in perfect unison and detained him. Kangxi declared 30 acts of treason, confiscated Aobai’s lands, and sent him to prison for life.

A glorious 61-year reign under the new Emperor Kangxi began, the longest in the history of the Middle Kingdom. He stabilized the dynasty, pacifying inner rebellions and foreign contenders. He also promoted classical Chinese arts, such as calligraphy, poetry, and music, and advancements in geography, science, mathematics, and astronomy.

Kangxi’s lasting reign reflected his inner spirit—courage and morality matched with an ageless wisdom that allowed the young ruler to patiently, peacefully outmaneuver his opposition.

Originally published in Taste of Life magazine: