Chinese Emperors — Ultimate Introduction to Emperors of Ancient China

 

How many Chinese emperors were there in ancient China?

 

Throughout the history of ancient China, there are many versions regarding the total amount of Chinese 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 emperor of China, which made "emperor" the most 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 an "Emperor of China", and about 73 of them posthumous titles that were bestowed by their descendants. 

 

Meanwhile, some emperors were on the throne for a very short period, others' reigns were lack of legitimacy, or were only recognized as separatist regimes or local warlords, who were not accepted as an Emperor of China in other versions.  

 

Therefore, other common versions of the total number of Chinese emperors are 310 or 408. 

 

How to address the emperors of China?

 

In ancient China, it had been taboo to use or call the ruling emperor's (including ancestral emperors of this dynasty) names, or personal pronouns like "you" or "him". 

 

To address one's current reign emperor in ancient China: 

 

Common honorific appellations that correspond to "Your Majesty" like Bixia (陛下), Wansui (万岁), Shengshang (圣上), and Huangshang (皇上).

 

Special 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). 

 

To address departed emperors of China: 

 

  • 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 Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), and Xuan is a commendatory Posthumous Title meaning accomplished, brilliant, sincere, benevolent, and strong, and highly respected. 

 

In ancient China, only emperors of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC) don't have Posthumous Titles, because Emperor Qin Shi Huang considered it was impolite for descendants and ministers to appraise the departed emperor.  

 

Before Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), most emperors of China were addressed using Posthumous Titles.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Certificate (Hu Fu) to Deploy Forces Garrisoned in Yangling

Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Certificate (Hu Fu) to Deploy Forces Garrisoned in Yangling — National Museum of China

  • Temple Title or Miaohao

 

Originated in Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC) and recovered since the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), only those extremely 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).

 

Among 12 emperors of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD), only 4 of them were conferred with a Temple Title: Liu Bang, Liu Heng, Liu Che, and Liu Xun

Jade Cup of Emperor Xuan of Han

Jade Cup of Liu Xun the Emperor Xuan of Han — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

After Han Dynasty ended, standards of obtaining a Temple Title became quite loose, and most successive sovereigns had one afterward. In addition, their Posthumous Titles were getting longer and longer, with more characters were added especially in commendatory ones.

 

Therefore, since the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), Chinese 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 the Tang Dynasty, and Taizong as the Temple Title that represents the monarch that established, largely expanded, and flourished the empire.

 

The honorable Temple Title had been used to address emperors of China on official occasions until the last feudal empire ended in 1912. 

Sculpture Stone Horses in Tang Tai Zong's Mausoleum (Zhao Ling), War Horses of His Six Important Wars.

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 the year 140 BC, Emperor Wu of Han started to use Reign Title (in Chinese Nianhao) to record 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; and usually would change to a new one to memorize important events or appearing of lucky omens, such as auspicious astronomical phenomena or animals.  

 

During this period of ancient China, Reign Titles were mostly used to record years.

Unearthed Brocade Barcer of the Han Dynasty

Brocade Barcer of the Han Dynasty —  Xinjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Since the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), one emperor only had one Reign Title, from his enthronement to departure, except for Zhu Qizhen (1427 — 1464) that enthroned twice.

 

Therefore, in Ming and Qing (1368 — 1912) dynasties, people mostly used Reign Title 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 both 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"

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 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 proves to show exactly which Chinese emperor had the most imperial concubine. 

 

But it is widely believed that Emperor Wu of Jin (236 — 290) and Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (685 — 762) might have the most concubines. According to some 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.

Blue and White Porcelain Plate Decorated with Dragon Patterns, Produced During Hongzhi Emperor's Reign Period

Blue and White Porcelain Plate Decorated with Dragon Patterns, Produced During Hongzhi Emperor's Reign Period — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

How were Chinese emperors chosen?

 

In ancient China, there were five ways to become an emperor: inheritance, court competition, usurp the throne, abdication, and war. 

 

Inheritance

 

To inherit 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 would be the oldest son of the emperor.  

 

If the emperor had no sons, the throne might go to his oldest younger brother. If the emperor had no brothers, then usually would choose a close relative from the royal clan (like his cousin) to ascend to the throne.  

 

The crown prince system ended since Yongzhen 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 successive 4 emperors after him. 

Imperial Court Competition

 

Having been chosen as the crown prince, however, didn't mean that it's a guarantee to be the emperor. 

 

Throughout the history of ancient China, a few crown princes were abolished, usually under the name of rebellion. Some of them were framed by conspiracies from political enemies (such as Liu Che's crown prince Liu Ju), some did rebel but failed (like Li Shimin's crown prince Li Chengqian).  

 

One of the most important reasons that a crown prince would rebel was the threaten and competition from their talented younger brothers, or their younger brothers' ambitious mothers and their clans. 

 

Those competitors would try everything to compete, and some of them were successfully chosen as the legit heir, and later ascended to the throne (such as Liu Che, Yang Guang, Li Shimin, Yin Zhen).

13-Block Golden Jade Belt (Die Xie Jin Yu Dai) Unearthed From Mausoleum of Yang Guang, the Highest Format of Jade Belt for Emperor

13-Block Golden Jade Belt (Die Xie Jin Yu Dai) of Yang Guang, the Highest Format of Jade Belt for Chinese Emperors — Yangzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Usurp 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.

 

Therefore, the usurper could be a royal member (Zhu Di), a powerful regent from the current empress' clan (Wang Mang), or a strong general (Zhao Kuangyin). 

Abdication

 

Abdication was not a very common way to pass the throne in ancient China, since it's not easy to give up the paramount power after having tasted it. 

 

However, abdicating the throne had been implemented by some emperors of China. Some of them were forced (Emperor Xian of Han), some shifted the blame in dangerous situations (Emperor Huizong of Song), some resigned because of old age (Qianlong Emperor). 

 

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 difficult and challenging way to become a sovereign, and the most successful ones are Liu Bang the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), and Zhu Yuanzhang 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)

Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang's Self Description, Wrote on the Painting "Lin Weiyan Fang Mu Tu" of Artist Li Gongling (1049 — 1106) — Palace Museum

 

Why some emperors of China were overthrown in history?

 

Since Xia (2070 BC — 1600 BC), Shang (1600 BC — 1046 BC), and Zhou (1046 BC — 256 BC) Dynasties, the idea of Divine Right of Kings had been accepted. Later in Qin (221 BC — 207 BC) and Han (202 BC — 220 AD) Dynasties, the emperors of China were believed the Son of the Heaven (in Chinese Tian Zi), whose legit reign were granted by divines. 

 

In ancient China, the legitimacy, however, was not permanent and could be transferred from one clan to another. 

Therefore, after a Chinese 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 Qin Dynasty), and Yang Guang (second emperor of Sui Dynasty);

 

  • An emperor was enthroned to a falling kingdom and didn't have a chance or ability to make a big 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 just 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

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 overthrown the emperors' reigns, from royal members, powerful officials, to rebel peasants, some brought society a better monarch or empire (such as Yang Jian), 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 of them ended up being murdered or suicide. 

 

Therefore, being an emperor of China meant paramount power and wealth, but also required wisdom and responsibility, and a lifelong sense of crisis. 

 

How to standardize and restrain Chinese emperors' power?

As the Son of the Heaven, the emperors of China had supreme centralized power and were respected as models of their civilians. 

 

To standardize emperors' behaviors and restrain their power, Imperial Censors were set in most dynasties of ancient China, to criticize emperors and officials on all levels (from personal behaviors to policies).  

 

Not every Chinese emperor would listen to all imperial censors' suggestions, and it was not the only means to restrain their paramount 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. 

 

What is Chinese emperors' Qijuzhu?

 

Qijuzhu, 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, later by historians.  

 

Places the emperors went to, decisions they made, words they said, officials that they talked to, women they had been with, all would be documented in the Qijuzhu.  

 

These documentations were basic materials to write official national history; in order to maintain objectivity, emperors were not allowed to read their own Qijuzhu records. 

 

Meanwhile, as materials regarding emperors' private lives, most Chinese emperors' Qijuzhu were confidential. Today, only Qijuzhu notes of Wanli Emperor (1563 — 1620) and Emperors of Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) are preserved.

Gilding Belt Decoration (Tao Huan) of Wanli Emperor Decorated with Gems

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 his family 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, Shaanxi Province, and Shangyang Palace in Luoyang, Henan Province. 

Restoration Map of Palace of the Tang Dynasty

Restoration Picture of the Daming Palace

  • Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368): Imperial Palace of Yuan Dadu in Beijing. 

Panoramic View of the Forbidden City

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. 

Click to Read More about Imperial Palaces in China

Meanwhile, not all emperors of China would live in the imperial palace forever, some of them would construct other palace complexes, such as Summer Palace and Chengde Mountain Resort.

 

What did Chinese emperors wear?

 

A common concept regarding the outfits of Chinese emperors was that they mostly wore yellow dragon robes. But the truth is, they varied in different dynasties and occasions.

 

Color

 

In Qin (221 BC — 207 BC) and Han (202 BC — 220 AD) Dynasties, black and red were the dominant colors of imperial robes of emperors of China. 

Portrait of Liu Xiu the Emperor Guangwu of Han, By Artist Yan Liben (601 — 673)

Portrait of Liu Xiu the Emperor Guangwu of Han (5 BC — 57 AD), By Artist Yan Liben (601 — 673) — Boston Museum of Fine Arts

In Sui (589 — 619) and Tang (618 — 907) Dynasties, ochre yellow became the royal color.

Tang Tai Zong or Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan (Tu Bo) Envoy, Painted by Politician/Artist Yan Liben (601 — 673)

Emperor Taizong of Tang (599 — 649) Receiving the Tibetan (Tu Bo) Envoy, Painted by Politician/Artist Yan Liben (601 — 673) — Palace Museum

During Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), red was the most popular color for the emperor's daily imperial robe.

Portrait of Zhao Zhen the Emperor Renzong of Song, by Court Artist of the Song Dynasty

Portrait of Emperor Renzong of Song (1010 — 1063), by Court Artist of the Song Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum

In Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368), red and light yellow were emperors' most used colors.

Painting of Emperor Shizu of Yuan (1215 — 1294) in Hunting (Yuan Shi Zu Chu Lie Tu), By Artist Liu Guandao of the Yuan Dynasty

Painting of Emperor Shizu of Yuan (1215 — 1294) in Hunting (Yuan Shi Zu Chu Lie Tu), By Artist Liu Guandao of the Yuan Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum

Since Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), yellow became exclusively used by royals; however, ochre yellow was still the most honorable one. 

Until Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), bright yellow was the main color of the emperors' robes.

Portrait of Kangxi Emperor, By Court Artist of the Qing Dynasty

Portrait of Kangxi Emperor (1654 — 1722), By Court Artist of the Qing Dynasty — Palace Museum

Meanwhile, in ancient China, an emperor also would wear other colors on less official occasions.

Pattern

 

Patterns of Chinese Dragons, in history, were not widely used in clothes of Chinese emperors as expected either. 

 

Before Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), in emperors' solemn ceremonial robes, the 12 Imperial Patterns were the official patterns. 

12 Imperial Patterns on the Robe of Portrait of Emperor Wen of Sui (541 — 604), By Artist Yan Liben

12 Imperial Patterns on the Robe of Portrait of Emperor Wen of Sui (541 — 604), By Artist Yan Liben (601 — 673) — Boston Museum of Fine Arts

In Ming (1368 — 1644) and Qing (1636 — 1912) Dynasties, emperors still used the 12 Imperial Patterns on their robes, but also promoted dragons as the main patterns. 

Portrait of Hongzhi Emperor Zhu Youcheng, By Court Artist of the Ming Dynasty

Portrait of Hongzhi Emperor (1470 — 1505), By Court Artist of the Ming Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum

In Qing Dynasty, more dragon patterns were added, which formed today's most frequently mentioned dragon robe.

Qianlong Emperor in Court Dress

Qianlong Emperor (1711 — 1799) in Court Dress, by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688 — 1766) — Palace Museum

Style

 

Besides different colors and patterns, each Chinese 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 important styles of imperial robes, for them to wear in sacrificial ceremonies, important events, meeting with officials, seeing guests, funeral or grief periods, casual daily lives. 

Some Imperial Robe Styles of Emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), By Dong Jin (Xie Fang Zhu Ren).

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, afterworld was believed as important as one's life.

 

Therefore, ancient Chinese mausoleums were usually the copy of the grave owners' daily lives before death, as fabulous as possible. 

 

  • Graves with good Fengshui are believed can bless the descendants.  

 

Therefore, the emperors' mausoleums were considered one of the most important national projects of an empire. 

  • Mausoleums of emperors from the same dynasty usually won't be far away from each other, in a place with good Fengshui near their capital city. 

 

  • Generally, an emperor would start to construct his own mausoleum as soon as he ascended the throne, and was closely involved in the selection of location and design.​

Terracotta Warriors and Horses of the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang

Terracotta Army in a Funerary Pit of the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC), Photo by Zhao Zhen.

  • 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 broke in, mountain-scale mound 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 graves of his women (some were buried in the emperor's grave) and trusted officials and generals. These candidates were mostly chosen by the emperor, which had been considered a great honor in ancient China.  

 

  • These mausoleums were exceptional representatives of the empire's culture, system,  history, architecture, art, literature, military, so on and so forth. 

Bronze Chariot Unearthed from the Terracotta Army Pit.

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 got broken in and robbed by tomb thieves.  

 

Till today, only a few known Chinese emperors' mausoleums stayed intact, for:

 

  • Exceptional Designs: such as the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang (unearthed Terracotta Army are from one of the funeral pits, not the main underground palace) and Qianling Mausoleum (grave of Emperor Gaozong of Tang and Empress Wu Zetian);

The Mausoleum of Emperor Li Zhi and Empress Wu Zetian — Qianling Mausoleum in Xianyang City, Shaanxi Province

Qianling Mausoleum in Xianyang City, Shaanxi Province

  • Clever Structures and Political Concern: 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 initiate any activities.

The Mausoleum of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and His Empress Ma — Ming Xiao Ling in Nanjing City

The Mausoleum of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and Empress Ma — Ming Xiaoling in Nanjing City