Chinese Emperors — Ultimate Introduction to Sovereigns of Ancient China
How Many Chinese Emperors were There in Ancient History?
Throughout the history of ancient China, there have been many versions regarding the total number of emperors.
And Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), the first unified feudal empire, was an important line of demarcation.
Unearthed Bamboo Slips Recording the Laws of the Qin Dynasty — Hubei Museum
Before the Qin Dynasty, over 400 kings, lords, and dukes had ruled a part of ancient China, including suzerains and monarchs of vassal states.
After the unified Qin Dynasty was established, its monarch Qin Shi Huang claimed himself the first Chinese emperor, which made "emperor" the supreme sovereign of ancient China.
From Qin Shi Huang to the last Chinese emperor Puyi (reigned 1908 — 1912), there were around 494 people who had the title of "Emperor of China", and about 73 of them had posthumous titles that their descendants bestowed.
Meanwhile, some emperors were on the throne for a very short period, and others' reigns were lack of legitimacy or were only recognized as separatist regimes or local warlords, who were not accepted as Emperor of China in other versions.
Therefore, the two standard versions of China's total number of emperors are 310 or 408.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Certificate (Hu Fu) to Deploy Forces Garrisoned in Yangling — National Museum of China
How to Address Emperors in Imperial China?
In ancient China, it was forbidden to use or call the ruling emperor (including ancestral emperors of this dynasty) names or personal pronouns like "you" or "him".
To Address the Current Reigning Emperor
Common honorific appellations that correspond to "Your Majesty" like Bixia (陛下), Wansui (万岁), Shengshang (圣上), and Huangshang (皇上).
Particular appellations in certain dynasties, like Xianguan (县官) in Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), Shengren (圣人) in Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), Guanjia (官家) in Song Dynasty (960 — 1279).
Dragon Shaped Jade Decoration of the Han Dynasty — Xuzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
To Address Departed Emperors
Posthumous Title or Shihao
Since the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), noble kings and lords would get a Posthumous Title (in Chinese Shihao) after they departed, given by their descendants and ministers.
One's Posthumous Title can be commendatory, mediocre, or derogatory, based on his achievements as a sovereign.
The usual format is Position + Posthumous Title + Dynasty, such as Emperor Xuan of Han (91 BC — 48 BC), which Han refers to Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), and Xuan is a commendatory Posthumous Title meaning accomplished, brilliant, sincere, benevolent, strong, and highly respected.
In ancient China, only emperors of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC) didn't have Posthumous Titles because Emperor Qin Shi Huang considered it impolite for descendants and ministers to appraise the departed emperor.
Before Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), most emperors were addressed using Posthumous Titles.
Jade Goblet Unearthed From Site of Royal Palace (Epang Palace) of the First Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Temple Title or Miaohao
Originated in Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC) and recovered since the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), only those extraordinarily successful and contributive monarchs would be enshrined in the Imperial Ancestral Temple for their descendants to worship and offer sacrificial ceremonies.
One's title in the Imperial Ancestral Temple is the Temple Title (in Chinese Miaohao).
After Han Dynasty ended, standards of obtaining a Temple Title became quite loose, and most successive sovereigns had one afterward.
Dragon Shaped Golden Belt Buckle of Han Decorated with Turquoises — Shouxian Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
In addition, their Posthumous Titles were getting longer and longer, with more characters added especially commendatory ones.
Therefore, since the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), emperors were addressed using the more honorable Temple Title.
The usual format is Position + Temple Title + Dynasty, such as Emperor Taizong of Tang (598 — 649), which Tang refers to as the Tang Dynasty, and Taizong as the Temple Title representing the monarch that established, largely expanded, and flourished the empire.
The honorable Temple Title had been used to address emperors on official occasions until the last feudal empire ended in 1912.
War Horses of Emperor Taizong of Tang in His Six Important Battles — Forest of Stone Steles Museum of Xi'an and Penn Museum
Reign Title or Nianhao
In 140 BC, Emperor Wu of Han started to use Reign Title (in Chinese Nianhao) to record the years of a period under his reign.
Reign Titles were granted and changed by the current emperor and were beautiful phrases with auspicious meanings.
An emperor could have many Reign Titles during his reign period. They usually would change to a new one to memorize important events or the appearance of lucky omens, such as auspicious astronomical phenomena or animals.
During this period, Reign Titles were mostly used to record years.
Brocade Barcer of the Han Dynasty — Xinjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Therefore, in Ming and Qing (1368 — 1912) dynasties, people mostly used Reign Titles to address emperors, including the current and departed emperors.
However, Temple Titles were still widely used on official occasions.
Hence, for example, Zhu Zhanji is addressed as Emperor Xuanzong of Ming (Temple Title) and Xuande Emperor (Reign Title).
Blue and White Porcelain Bird Food Pot of Emperor Zhu Zhanji, on Which Noted His Reign Title "Xuande" — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
How Many Wives Can A Chinese Emperor Have?
In ancient China, most emperors would have one empress and some imperial concubines.
The Empress was the most honorable, and imperial concubines were classified into different ranks.
However, if an emperor had large numbers of imperial concubines, his low-rank and childless ones usually wouldn't leave their names in history.
Therefore, there's not enough proof to show precisely which emperor had the most imperial concubines.
Blue and White Porcelain Plate of Ming Dynasty Decorated with Dragon Patterns — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
But it is widely believed that Emperor Wu of Jin (236 — 290) and Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (685 — 762) might have had the most concubines.
According to historical records, each of them had over 10,000 women in their royal palaces.
Meanwhile, Hongzhi Emperor (1470 — 1505) was the only emperor of China that had only one wife.
He strictly followed Monogamy and loved his empress for his entire lifetime.
Portrait of Hongzhi Emperor Zhu Youcheng, By Court Artist of the Ming Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum
How were Emperors Chosen?
In ancient China, there were five ways to become an emperor: inheritance, court competition, usurping the throne, abdication, and war.
Inheriting the throne as the crown prince was a common way to become an emperor in ancient China.
The crown prince usually was the oldest son of the honorable empress.
If the empress had no sons, then the crown went to the oldest son of the emperor, who was given birth by other imperial concubines but would respect the empress as his mother.
Imperial Jade Seal of Empress of Han Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
If the emperor had no sons, the throne might go to his oldest younger brother. If the emperor had no brothers, he usually would choose a close relative from the royal clan (like his cousin) to ascend to the throne.
The crown prince system ended during Yongzheng Emperor's reign (1722 — 1735).
He hid his heir's name in a secret envelope and commanded people to open and welcome the new emperor after his departure.
This had been the inheritance system of the four successive emperors of the Qing Dynasty after him.
Golden Box of the Qing Dynasty Decorated with Gems — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Imperial Court Competition
However, being chosen as the crown prince didn't mean it was a guarantee to be the emperor.
Throughout the history of ancient China, a few crown princes were abolished, usually under the name of rebellion.
One of the most important reasons a crown prince would rebel was feeling the risk of threat and competition, mainly from their talented younger brothers, their younger brothers' ambitious mothers, and their clans.
13-Block Golden Jade Belt (Die Xie Jin Yu Dai) of Yang Guang, the Highest Format of Jade Belt for Emperors — Yangzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Usurping the Throne
If the court competition was among members of the royal clan competing to be the position of the crown prince, the usurper of the throne, on the other hand, was aimed at replacing the current emperor.
Mirror of the Han Dynasty with Inscriptions, Praising Wang Mang's Enthronement and His Replacement of the Former Royal Liu Clan — Fuyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Abdication was not a common way to pass the throne in ancient China, since it was not easy to give up the supreme power after tasting it.
However, abdicating the throne had been implemented by some emperors in history.
Auspicious Crane (He Rui Tu), Painted By Emperor Huizong of Song — Liaoning Museum
Establishing Empire Through War
In ancient China, when a dynasty fell into chaos and was full of rebellions, the central government usually lost control.
During these circumstances, someone (usually started as a civilian) would defeat all other forces and establish a unified new dynasty, which made him the founding emperor.
This was the most challenging way to become a sovereign. The most successful ones are Liu Bang (Emperor Gaozu of Han), the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), and Zhu Yuanzhang (Emperor Taizu of Ming), the founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644).
Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang's Self Description, Wrote on the Painting "Lin Weiyan Fang Mu Tu" of Artist Li Gongling (1049 — 1106) — Palace Museum
Why were Some Emperors of China Overthrown?
Later in Qin (221 BC — 207 BC) and Han (202 BC — 220 AD) Dynasties, the emperors of China were believed to be the Son of the Heaven (in Chinese Tian Zi), whose legit reign was granted by the Mandate of Heaven.
In ancient China, however, the legitimacy was not permanent and could be transferred from one clan to another.
Therefore, after an emperor was enthroned, he still needed to face the possibility of being overthrown, if:
An emperor didn't reign the empire well and brought civilians miserable lives, such as Hu Hai (second emperor of the Qin Dynasty) and Yang Guang (second emperor of the Sui Dynasty);
An emperor was enthroned to a falling kingdom and didn't have a chance or ability to make a significant change to save his empire, such as Li Ye (penultimate emperor of the Tang Dynasty) and Zhu Youjian (last emperor of the Ming Dynasty).
A weak emperor (young or incapable) with ambitious, powerful people around, like an empress dowager, a regent, a minister, a general, or powerful eunuch groups, who would abolish and replace the emperor with a new one (such as Empress Dowager Feng), or usurp the throne (like Wang Mang and Empress Wu Zetian).
Painting of Queen Wu Zetian Patrolling in the Royal Palace, by Court Artist Zhang Xuan of the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China
Among people that overthrew the emperors' reigns, from royal members and powerful officials to rebel peasants, some brought society a better monarch or empire (such as Yang Jian), and some caused more wars and nationwide chaos (such as Zhu Wen).
But for emperors that got overthrown, living the rest of their lives in peace was a wild wish since most ended up being murdered or suicide.
Therefore, being an emperor of China meant paramount power and wealth, but it also required wisdom, responsibility, and a lifelong sense of crisis.
Ways to Standardize and Restrain the Emperor's Power.
As the Son of Heaven, the emperors had supreme centralized power and were respected as models for their civilians.
Imperial Censors were set in most dynasties of ancient China to standardize emperors' behaviors and restrain their power to criticize emperors and officials on all levels (from personal behaviors to policies).
Not every emperor would listen to all imperial censors' suggestions, and it was not the only way to restrain their supreme power.
But for emperors who were willing to be good monarchs with respectable reputations, it was an efficient system, as well as the Imperial Qijuzhu.
Carved Lacquer Pen of the Ming Dynasty — Zhejiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
What is the Emperor's Qijuzhu?
Qijuzhu, which originated during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (156 BC — 87 BC), was the Imperial Diary in ancient China that recorded emperors' words and activities, written by female officials and later by historians.
Places the emperors went to, decisions they made, words they said, officials they talked to, and women they had been with would all be documented in the Qijuzhu.
These documents were basic materials for writing official national history.
To maintain objectivity, emperors could not read their own Qijuzhu records.
Meanwhile, as materials regarding emperors' private lives, most emperors' Qijuzhu were confidential.
Gilding Belt Decoration (Tao Huan) of Wanli Emperor Decorated with Gems — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Where Did Chinese Emperors Live?
Throughout the history of ancient China, every unified dynasty had some famous imperial palace complexes for the emperors and their families to live in.
Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC): Xianyang Palace and Epang Palace in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province.
Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD): Weiyang Palace and Changle Palace in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province.
Eastern Han Dynasty (25 AD — 220 AD): Southern and Northern Palace in Luoyang, Henan Province.
Sui Dynasty (589 — 619): Daxing Palace in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, and Ziwei Palace in Luoyang, Henan Province.
Tang Dynasty (618 — 907): Daming Palace in Xi'an of Shaanxi Province, and Shangyang Palace in Luoyang of Henan Province.
Restoration Picture of the Daming Palace
Northern Song Dynasty (960 — 1127): Song's Imperial Palace in Kaifeng, Henan Province.
Southern Song Dynasty (1127 — 1279): Song's Imperial Palace in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.
Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368): Imperial Palace of Yuan Dadu in Beijing.
Panoramic View of the Forbidden City, Photo from the Official Site of Palace Museum.
As for emperors of separatist regimes, some of them would use an available royal palace from former dynasties or construct smaller ones in their capital cities.
Mountain Resort Chengde the Imperial Garden of Qing Dynasty, Photo from Official Site.
What Did the Chinese Emperors Wear?
A common concept regarding the outfits of emperors was that they mostly wore yellow dragon robes. But the truth is, they varied in different dynasties and occasions.
During Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), red was the most popular color for the emperor's daily imperial robe.
In Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368), red and light yellow were emperors' most used colors.
Since Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), royals used yellow exclusively; however, ochre yellow was still the most honorable one.
Until Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), bright yellow was the primary color of the emperors' robes.
Meanwhile, in ancient China, an emperor also would wear other colors on less official occasions.
Patterns of Chinese Dragons, in history, were not widely used in the clothes of emperors as expected either.
Before Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), in emperors' solemn ceremonial robes, the 12 Imperial Patterns were the official patterns.
In the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), emperors still used the 12 Imperial Patterns on their robes and promoted dragons as the main patterns.
Portrait of Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen (1427 — 1464) in Imperial Robe — Taipei Palace Museum
In Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), more dragon patterns were added, which formed today's most frequently mentioned dragon robe.
Qianlong Emperor (1711 — 1799) in Court Dress, by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688 — 1766) — Palace Museum
Besides different colors and patterns, each emperor also had many types of imperial robes to wear on different occasions.
In Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), for instance, an emperor had at least 14 basic styles of imperial robes for them to wear in sacrificial ceremonies, important events, meeting with officials, seeing guests, during funeral or grief periods, and everyday daily lives.
Some Imperial Robe Styles of Emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), By Dong Jin (Xie Fang Zhu Ren).
Mausoleums of Emperors of China.
In ancient China, the afterworld was believed to be as important as one's life.
Therefore, ancient Chinese mausoleums were usually copies of the grave owners' daily lives before death, as fabulous as possible.
Graves with good Fengshui are believed can bless their descendants.
Therefore, the emperors' mausoleums were considered one of an empire's most important national projects.
Mausoleums of emperors from the same dynasty usually won't be far from each other, in a place with good Fengshui near their capital city.
Generally, an emperor would start constructing his mausoleum as soon as he ascended the throne and was closely involved in selecting the location and design.
Traditionally, an emperor's mausoleum would include a grand underground palace piled with large numbers of his daily necessities and treasures, statues of funerary figurines and grave guardian creatures, complicated underpasses to avoid being broken in, mountain-scale mounds on top (later, some mausoleums were constructed inside real mountains), memorial temples on the ground for descendants to worship, and a troop to guard outside.
Near the emperor's mausoleum were the graves of his women (some were buried in the emperor's tomb) and trusted officials and generals.
These candidates were mostly chosen by the emperor, which was considered a great honor in ancient China.
These mausoleums were exceptional representatives of the empire's culture, system, history, architecture, art, literature, military, and so on.
Bronze Chariot Unearthed from the Terracotta Army Pit
However, the large number of treasures buried in those mausoleums also attracted many greedy eyes.
Usually, the reigning empire of a unified, stable dynasty would send a troop to protect their emperors' graves, as well as imperial mausoleums of the former dynasty (except the Yuan Dynasty).
However, in chaotic wartimes, many emperors' mausoleums were broken into and robbed by tomb thieves.
Till today, only a few known emperors' mausoleums stayed intact, for:
Qianling Mausoleum in Xianyang City, Shaanxi Province
Clever Structures and Political Concerns: such as most mausoleums of emperors of the Ming Dynasty;
Protection Policy: such as about half mausoleums of emperors of the Qing Dynasty.
In today's China, the policy regarding intact ancient mausoleums is: NOT to initiate any activities.
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