Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period/Tsêng Ching
TSÊNG Ching 曾靜 ( 蒲潭), 1679–1736, Jan. 31, executed for defaming Emperor Shih-tsung, was a native of Yung-hsing, Hunan. A licentiate in the district school, he was deprived of his degree when he failed in one of the annual examinations. Thereafter he made his living by teaching children, for whom he wrote an elementary text-book, entitled 小學開蒙 Hsiao-hsüeh k'ai-mêng. Having read a book by Lü Liu-liang [q. v.], then deceased, which recommended the doctrines of the Sung philosopher, Chu Hsi (see under Hu Wei), Tsêng came to believe in those teachings of Lü which advocated revolt against Manchu rule in China. Since his school was situated beside a highway in the An-jên district, Hunan, he heard in the summer of 1727, according to his own testimony, that Emperor Shih-tsung had murdered his father, the late Emperor Shêng-tsu, and had put to death his own brothers. These and other stories caused Tsêng to regard the Emperor as a wicked man, and induced him to plot a revolution. He sent his loyal disciple, Chang Hsi 張熙 ( 敬卿) to the home of Lü Liu-liang in Shihmen, Chekiang, where he purchased some of Lü's books and met Lü's ninth son, Lü Yi-chung 呂毅中 ( 無盡, d. 1733). Through the latter, Chang met one of Lu's disciples and some others interested in Lü's teachings. Returning to Hunan, Chang reported to Tsêng his adventures, and the latter recorded the names of the men whom Chang had met and regarded as possible assistants in a revolution.
When certain rivers in Hunan overflowed in 1728, Tsêng imagined that an opportune time for the revolt had come. Having no one to help him except his disciple, Chang Hsi, he hit upon the idea of persuading some general to start the revolution. His choice fell on Yüeh Chung-ch'i [q. v.], then governor-general of Shensi, perhaps the most famous military man of the time, who, according to rumors, had already condemned the Emperor in a memorial for his evil conduct. Tsêng wrote a letter to Yüeh urging him to lead his men in a revolution, and giving the impression that he himself had organized men in six provinces who were ready to take up arms at his bidding. He maintained also that Yüeh, as a descendant of the famous general of the Sung dynasty, Yüeh Fei (see under Yüeh Chung-ch'i), who fought bravely against the Ju-chên invaders (see under Nurhaci), should in the nature of things be hostile to the Manchus. He stressed also the evil conduct of the Emperor and the popular feeling of unrest (due to floods and corrupt officialdom), in order to show that the time for action had come. He signed the letter with the fictitious name, Hsia Ching 夏靚. He styled himself "Masterless Vagabond of the South Seas" (南海無主游民). The bearer of the letter was Tsêng's sole co-plotter and disciple, Chang Hsi, who assumed the alias, Chang Cho 倬 and out of loyalty to his master mortgaged the farms of his family to finance the journey to Shensi. Tsêng himself had no resources except his imagination.
On October 28, 1728, Chang submitted the letter to Yüeh in Sian, Shensi. The governor-general was astonished to find himself addressed as "Heaven's Official and Generalissimo" (天吏元帥), an odd title which betrayed an indifferently educated writer. On reading it Yüeh was stirred by the treasonous plot and at once summoned a Manchu subordinate to witness the trial of the bearer. After two days of threatening, coaxing, and torturing, Chang Hsi still held his counsel. However, on October 31, Yüeh, on pretense of joining the rebellion, took an oath of loyalty, and only so obtained from Chang the names and addresses of Tsêng and his supposed confederates. At the same time Chang cited the works of Lü Liu-liang as the source of Tsêng's inspiration.
In December Tsêng was arrested at his school and he knew then that his doom was sealed. He stoutly asserted that he and Chang Hsi had themselves contrived the plans and that no other persons were involved. Nevertheless all those implicated in the case, mostly from Hunan and Chekiang, were delivered to Peking and tried, early in 1729. The Emperor was perhaps grateful to Tsêng for bringing to his attention the views of Lü Liu-liang about the Manchus, and for affording him an opportunity to proclaim to the entire country that he had not murdered his father nor his brothers. Whether or not the Emperor actually committed these crimes will probably never be known; but rumors to this effect, not only in Peking, but in such distant places as Kwangsi and Hunan had continually harassed him. He imposed on the long-deceased Lü Liu-liang and on his descendants the severest possible indignities, excusing his harshness on the ground that Lü had insulted his father (Emperor Shêng-tsu) and that he was bound by filial piety to act so. Tsêng Ching, on the other hand, was well-treated, and to obtain his freedom was required only to show proof of repentance and to answer the Emperor's inquiries. The rumors which he had heard were traced to a few eunuchs, who, as servants to Yin-ssŭ and Yin-t'ang [qq. v.], both arch-enemies of the Emperor, had been exiled in 1727 to Kwangsi by way of Hunan. These eunuchs were brought back to Peking and made to confess that what they had said about the Emperor was groundless. Tsêng was finally "convinced" that the Emperor was benevolent, wise and tolerant; that the Manchus were the rightful rulers of China; and that the rumors about the Emperor's character and conduct had been invented by unscrupulous persons.
All the arguments of the Emperor in defense of himself and his throne, as well as the testimony of Tsêng Ching, were finally edited into a work entitled 大義覺迷錄 Ta-i chüeh-mi lu, 4 chüan, which was printed in 1730 and was at once distributed throughout the country. Every licentiate in the empire was required to read it. At the same time (1730) Tsêng was sent back to Hunan, not only unpunished but as an official to serve under the commissioner appointed to "examine and rectify social abuses" (see under Cha Ssŭ-t'ing). The Emperor justified this lenient treatment on the ground that Tsêng had only offended his (the Emperor's) person and that as Emperor he was free to treat the criminal in the way he thought best. Furthermore, since Yüeh had taken an oath of allegiance to the plotters, he could not, in consideration of his loyal general, break the oath by punishing the offenders.
When Tsêng returned to Hunan he became something of a hero, for he was granted leave, in 1731, for a year's rest in his home district, and was given funds to purchase for himself a house and lands. In 1735, however, the succeeding Emperor Kao-tsung, after he ascended the throne, commanded that Tsêng and Chang Hsi be arrested and brought to Peking. On January 30, 1736 he ordered that both should be executed by the "lingering death" (ling-ch'ih) process. The Emperor justified this action on the grounds that as a filial son he had merely followed his father's conduct in the case of Lü Liu-liang. In addition, Emperor Kao-tsung, disliking the freedom with which his father had exposed the affairs of the Imperial House, ordered all copies of the book, Ta-i chüeh-mi lu, returned to Peking and destroyed. An edition of the Yung-chêng period is to be found, however, in the Library of Congress. There are numerous discrepancies between the official records of the life and sayings of Emperor Shih-tsung (compiled in Emperor Kao-tsung's reign) and the edicts printed during his life-time. Particularly in the Ta-i chüeh-mi lu, there are documents which have been omitted in other official compilations and which stand as proof of Emperor Shih-tsung's guilty conscience.