In 1670, when the K’ang Hsi emperor was sixteen years old? he issued a list of sixteen principles that briefly illustrate how he expected his subjects to conduct themselves in order to ensure their goodness, happiness and prosperity. These so_called “Sacred Edicts” were to be read aloud twice a month in every village and town of the empire. Both the literati and the common people were expected to attend these lectures. The practice of “expounding the Sacred Edicts” was still in use after 1900, yet it was observed that only those that had to attend would be present. The original Edicts translated here were written in literary Chinese style and are more concise than this translation suggests: each maxim consists of seven Chinese characters, and they all show the same construction. The first three characters represent a command. The fourth and central character is always identical and could be translated as “in order to,” “so that” or briefly “to.” The last three characters represents the means and ends of the proposed action. It is typical for the Chinese style of rule and the image of the ruler as a benevolent father, that no law or command should be given without a reason. Following the publication of the original edicts , several versions in the Chinese vernacular were published, some with detailed commentaries or illustrations, to make sure that people of all backgrounds were able to fully understand the contents and implications of these imperial commands. The ” Sacred Edicts” do not only provide a digest of the practical side of Confucian rule. Some of them also give insights into the “darker side” of China, for example the incapability of its legal system to guarantee a fair trial.

What values do these teachings reflect? What is considered valuable? Dangerous? Explain how some of these edicts are especially advantages to the ruler.

1. Highly esteem filial piety and the proper relations among brothers (1) in order to give due importance to social relations.

2. Give due weight to kinship in order to promote harmony and peace.

3. Maintain good relations within the neighborhood in order to prevent quarrels and lawsuits.

4. Give due importance to farming and the cultivation of mulberry trees (2) in order to ensure sufficient clothing and food.

5. Be moderate and economical in order to avoid wasting away your livelihood.

6. Make the most of schools and academies in order to honor the ways of scholars.

7. Denounce strange beliefs (3) in order to elevate the true doctrine.

8. Explain laws and regulations in order to warn the ignorant and obstinate.

9. Show propriety and courtesy to improve customs and manners.

10. Work hard in your professions in order to quiet your ambitions.

11. Instruct sons and younger brothers in order to prevent their committing any wrong.

12. Put a stop to false accusations in order to protect the good and honest.

13. Warn against giving shelter to deserters in order to avoid punishment with them.

14. Promptly and fully pay your taxes in order to avoid forced requisition.

15. Get together in groups of ten or a hundred in order to put an end to theft and robbery.

16. Free yourself from resentment and anger in order to show respect for your body and life.

Translated by Lydia Gerber


(1) Since brothers usually remained in the same household, it was not always easy to maintain harmonious relationships. The commentaries mention that very often their wives would start sowing dissent among them.

(2) Mulberry trees were cultivated to provide food for silkworms.

(3) Besides Christianity and witchcraft, Buddhism and Taoism are also listed as strange beliefs. According to these Edicts, only Confucianism counted as a true doctrine.

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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 2, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books.The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

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