Last Updated on January 6, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524
The Emperors Wanli of the Ming dynasty and Kangxi and Qianlong of the Qing dynasty, as well as Mao Zedong, are among the figures portrayed by Jonathan Spence in The Search for Modern China.
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Wanli ruled from 1572 to 1620. He was well-educated and conscientious, and his rule started auspiciously. In the latter part of his reign, however, he withdrew from contact with the world outside the Forbidden City. In doing so, he ceded important duties to the court eunuchs, seriously weakening imperial power. This period also saw the emergence of the Manchurian warlord Nurhaci. His rebellion placed significant strains on the Chinese peasantry, who were taxed mercilessly to finance the Ming defenses. Wanli faced rebellions on many fronts, but it would be the incursion from Manchuria which finally overthrew the Ming.
Kangxi was one of the most illustrious rulers China has had. He ascended the throne in his early teens after ousting his regent. Known for his assiduous study of the Confucian classics, he reinstated the examination system which decided all appointments to higher officialdom. He also promoted the compilation of the immense encyclopedia known as the Gujin Tushu Jicheng. After a long struggle, he quenched a revolt by the generals of the southern Three Feudatories, and the rest of his reign was generally peaceful.
Qianlong's reign lasted from 1736 to 1799, the longest in the history of China. He continued his predecessor's resistance to the incursion of foreign traders. A famous missive from Qianlong to King George III stated that China had "never valued ingenious articles" and denied the English request to establish a diplomatic presence in the capital. His reign was characterized by an economic revival and a resurgence in the Chinese population. His most important achievement was the conquest and assimilation of large territories in the west of the country. In the cultural sphere, he greatly enlarged the imperial collection of art and calligraphy and also ordered the creation of the compendium of learned and literary works known as the Four Treasuries.
Mao Zedong was born in a farming family in 1893. He rebelled early in his life against his family's way of living and an arranged marriage. Turning to intensive self-studies, he acquainted himself with both European and Chinese political philosophers. At the age of twenty-six, he published a call for the Chinese people to form "a union of the popular masses." In 1919, he began to follow a Marxist study group in Beijing, and Marxism became the basis for the political philosophy he developed throughout his life. He formed a communist group in Hunan and proceeded to rise in the ranks of the Communist Party as it disassociated itself from the ruling Kuomintang. By 1929 he was successfully conducting guerrilla warfare in Hunan province. As the conflict between the Communists and the Kuomintang escalated, he rose to lead the party during the Long March as the Communists escaped Chiang Kai-shek's encircling forces. After victory over the nationalist forces, Mao was the undisputed ruler of the Chinese people until his death in 1976. Even though some of his policies cost tens of millions of Chinese citizens their lives, he was revered by followers around the world.