The Chinese Emperors Who Succeeded in Winning the Hearts and Minds of Generations

Not politics, not conquest, but principles
July 1, 2015 Updated: July 4, 2015

Leaders of all types—presidents, CEOs, managers, parents—all grapple with the challenge of gaining and maintaining influence. Terrorists employ fear and desperation; politicians do it through endless posturing. Indulgent parents appease their spoiled children with toys and candy.

These measures are driven by the desire for immediate gain; they cannot be long-term solutions, and the side effects are often worse than whatever short-lived advantage they initially deliver.

What makes a leader effective, and how to achieve the ultimate influence—legacy?

The Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China.(Wikimedia Commons)
The Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China. (Wikimedia Commons)

Principles, Not Force

In his work “The Republic,” Plato of ancient Greece envisioned a utopia run by the “philosopher king.” In accordance with this great Athenian thinker’s teachings on rationalism, the king would strive to cultivate universal ideals in his rule, unmoved by what he called “phenomena”—the temptation of myriad uncertain events that invite reaction and therefore deviation from the higher path.

Ancient China’s most important and respected monarchs ran their empires in accordance with Confucian principles, transcending race, class, and borders in promotion of merit, rectitude, and restraint.

When Confucius lived about 2,500 years ago, just several decades before Plato and the other progenitors of Western thought roamed the city-states of Greece, China was in an age of disunity and civil war called the Spring and Autumn Period. Confucius yearned for a return to the harmony of the early Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 B.C.), in which the king reigned with virtue over a league of independent vassals, who in turn respected his throne.

Detail of a painting commemorating the Kangxi Emperor's second "southern tour" in 1689. (Wikimedia Commons)
Detail of a painting commemorating Emperor Kangxi’s second “southern tour” in 1689. (Wikimedia Commons)

Confucius taught that while social and political hierarchy was a natural and desirable aspect of civilization, everyone—from peasant to prince—was beholden to the same filial piety and cardinal virtues of benevolence, justice, propriety, wisdom, and faith.

The traditional emphasis on values over coercion is summed up in this line of “The Rules of Students,” a 16th-century educational primer famous for its poetic summary of the Confucian creed:

“People may be compelled through force, but their hearts will be in rebellion; only when compelled through principles will they have no voice for disagreement.”

No Shortcuts

Abraham Lincoln spoke of power as the test of a man’s character. One may be given agency, but only by using it to express inner strength and bearing will his actions prove effective and his legacy respected.

In 1662, the emperor Kangxi, age 8, began his 61-year reign over China. Twenty years earlier, his people, the Manchus, had broken through the Great Wall and conquered China, establishing the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912).

The Qing Dynasty emperor Kangxi at age 40 (Wikimedia Commons)
The Qing Dynasty emperor Kangxi at age 40. (Wikimedia Commons)

Kangxi knew that the Han people, who made up the overwhelming majority of China’s population, were not thrilled at the prospect of life under the Manchu conquerors. Rather than give up the throne or force the natives to abandon their ways, Kangxi studied the teachings of the Confucian sages. He conducted an enlightened policy based on principles acceptable to all peoples in the empire.

While marriage into the Qing imperial family remained open only to Manchus, Kangxi and his court respected Chinese bureaucratic traditions such as the merit-based imperial exam system, by which anyone with the educational prowess could become a government official.

During and after Kangxi’s rule, the Manchus gradually learned to coexist with the native Han. Exchanges between the two peoples, unified by the ancient traditions of education and governance embodied by Kangxi and his descendants, contributed to the overall enrichment of Chinese civilization.

Armoured Kangxi Emperor.  (Commons Wikimedia)
Emperor Kangxi in armor. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Manchus were not the only foreigners to rule over China. Four hundred years before Kangxi, the Mongol empire—the largest in history—conquered China, but they took a decidedly more heavy-handed approach.

Under the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), Han Chinese were the lowest of five races and handled brutally. By imposing a caste system, with the majority at the lowest rung, Mongol rulers found themselves compelled to waste precious human and material resources keeping the Chinese in their place. Rebellion abounded and the invaders were forced to abandon the Middle Kingdom less than a century after they took it.

Power predicated on conquest and manipulation is empty; though a powerful army or a wily politician may force others to his will, this outward display of strength cannot compensate for the dearth of conviction.


Two hundred years before Christ, the mighty king Ying Zheng unified China under one dynasty, the Qin, following hundreds of years of division. He became Qin Shihuang—the first emperor.

Legalism, Qin’s ideology, demanded total obedience of mind and body to the state and its leader. Burned were the books and teachings of differing schools of thought; buried alive were their authors.

A painting of Qin Shihuang.  (Wikimedia Commons)
A painting of Qin Shihuang. (Wikimedia Commons)

But for all its strength and terror, Qin Shihuang’s dynasty could not survive without its founding tyrant. After the first emperor died and his reign of fear was no more, the country quickly descended into civil war. The subsequent Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220) revived Confucianism, ushering in a golden age for Chinese civilization.

Confucius believed in order established through education and morality, not force of arms. In his view, this harmony had been best demonstrated in the example of the first Zhou Dynasty kings, who, following their defeat of the earlier Shang kingdom, took care to base their legitimacy on the universally applicable Mandate of Heaven. Accordingly, the ruler—known as the Son of Heaven—was always obligated to hold himself to higher standards. His authority was not in doubt, but he could not exercise absolute power at will.

King Wen, first monarch of the Zhou Dynasty around 1100 B.C. (Wikimedia Commons)
King Wen, first monarch of the Zhou Dynasty around 1100 B.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Zhou Dynasty lasted 800 years and was China’s longest. The early kings, reigning from the western capital of Haojing, ruled over their vassals and people through cooperation and mutual respect. Plato would have been proud. Later, even after Haojing was sacked by invaders and the Zhou kings lost most of their actual power, they still commanded enough prestige that regional lords continued to recognize their royal titles for another 500 years.