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  • Ruling from Sedan Chair:Wei Yijie (1616-1686) and the Examination Reform of the "Oboi" Regency
  • Lynn A. Struve, Professor in the Departments of History and East Asian Languages and Cultures

The political history of the first nine years of the Kangxi reign is the most difficult to penetrate of any period in the Qing era. It is defined temporally and thematically by two dramatic, "book-end" events. On one end is the premature death of the Shunzhi emperor in early 1661 and the release of his altered will, which repudiated his disregard of staunch Manchu advisors (in favor of corrupt Han-Chinese) in making appointments and dictated that a joint regency of four Manchu nobles administer the state during the minority of the heir apparent. On the other end is the removal from power of the man who became dominant among the regents, Oboi, and the purge of his clique, marked most dramatically by Oboi's death under imprisonment in 1669. Apart from the propagandistic documents that were issued to justify these actions post hoc (backed up by official historical information on why the Oboi cohort deserved its fate), the primary record of politics and governance of the "Four Princes/Oboi Regency" is dauntingly thin, even in Manchu-script materials.1 Biographies of no small number of Manchu officials who held high court positions during the regency are to be found in neither the dynastic nor the Banner histories, and biographies of the important Han officials tend to abbreviate or elide their regency-period service.

Modern historiographical treatment of the regency, picking up on the themes of the salient, prominently documented book-ends, has made the story of that "book" one of cutthroat maneuvering among factions within the Manchu leadership and of reasserting Manchu supremacy vis-à-vis the Han-Chinese elite with harsh, persecutory measures such as the Jiangnan tax-arrears case and [End Page 1] the Zhuang-family Ming History inquisition.2 The general impression conveyed is of an anomalous Manchu-atavistic reaction against the sinifying tendencies of the Shunzhi reign. Beyond the several notorious get-tough cases, governance during the regental period is scarcely explored.3 Succinctly illustrating this historiographical profile are the following words by Jonathan Spence in his chapter "The K'ang-hsi Reign" in the Cambridge History of China:

The terseness of the official sources, the air of intrigue surrounding the Shun-chih emperor's death and the K'ang-hsi emperor's accession, the curious nature of the Shun-chih emperor's last will and testament, the policies followed by the regents . . ., and much of the entire history of the K'ang-hsi reign, can only be understood if we look at this period from the standpoint of the leading princes and banner officers. The official historiographers, with their emphasis on normative bureaucratic practice and cyclical imperial patterns, are of secondary importance here. We must focus instead on events through the lens of baronial intrigue, and see imperial power as the prize of conquest, fought over by the great Manchu clans.4

The cited basis for Spence's account of the regental period is Robert B. Oxnam's book Ruling from Horseback: Manchu Politics and the Oboi Regency, 1661-1669, which has stood as the principal English-language secondary source on the period since its publication in 1975.5 The product of Oxnam's doctoral dissertation research in the 1960s, this work well earned [End Page 2] the respect it has long been accorded. Therein Oxnam, working on a difficult subject previously unbroached in Western sinology, made conscientious use of the sources available then: the veritable records, standard histories, official biographies, and collected statutes of the Qing dynasty. And he did address certain institutional matters at length, especially the central decision-making and administrative bodies and the systems for selecting, evaluating, and assigning provincial officials. This he undertook forthrightly within a dichotomous interpretive paradigm that seemed cogent at the time: "sinification" versus "Manchu dominance." In Oxnam's words, "The politics and policies of the Oboi Regency . . . were charged with tension between the regents' quest for Manchu supremacy and the powerful force of sinification to which several non-Chinese dynasties had succumbed in the...


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