Emperor of China

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Emperor of China
A painting (c. 1850) of Qin Shi Huangdi, who was the first Emperor of China, dressed in a classical regal garb
Style His Majesty (陛下)
First monarch Qin Shi Huang
Last monarch Xuantong Emperor
Formation 221 BCE
Abolition 12 February 1912
ResidenceVaries according to dynasty, most recently the Forbidden City in Beijing
Emperor of China
Chinese 皇帝

Emperor or huangdi was the imperial title of the Chinese sovereign from 221 BCE to the early 20th century. It was established by Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor, after the reunification of the lands of the Zhou dynasty. It replaced the Zhou's own title of wáng ("king"), which had been appropriated by numerous warlords during the Warring States Era. The Chinese title is not grammatically gendered, but the only empress to bear it was Wu Zetian, who briefly replaced the Tang dynasty with her own in the years 690–705 CE. Use of the title is considered to have officially ended with the abdication of Puyi in 1912 following the Xinhai Revolution and the establishment of the Republic of China, although there were two failed attempts to reestablish an imperial government in China in 1915 and 1917.

Chinese sovereign

The Chinese sovereign is the ruler of a particular period in ancient China, and later imperial China. Several titles and naming schemes have been used throughout history.

Qin Shi Huang First Emperor of Qin

Qin Shi Huang was the founder of the Qin dynasty and was the first emperor of a unified China. He was born Ying Zheng (嬴政) or Zhao Zheng (趙政), a prince of the state of Qin. He became Zheng, the King of Qin (秦王政) when he was thirteen, then China's first emperor when he was 38 after the Qin had conquered all of the other Warring States and unified all of China in 221 BC. Rather than maintain the title of "king" borne by the previous Shang and Zhou rulers, he ruled as the First Emperor (始皇帝) of the Qin dynasty from 220 to 210 BC. His self-invented title "emperor", as indicated by his use of the word "First", would continue to be borne by Chinese rulers for the next two millennia.

Qins wars of unification Military campaigns launched 3rd century BC by Qin state against the other six major states

Qin's wars of unification were a series of military campaigns launched in the late 3rd century BC by the Qin state against the other six major states — Han, Zhao, Yan, Wei, Chu and Qi — within the territories that formed modern China. By the end of the wars in 221 BC, Qin had unified most of the states and occupied some lands south of the Yangtze River. The territories conquered by Qin served as the foundation of the Qin dynasty.


The Chinese emperor was considered the Son of Heaven and the autocrat of All under Heaven. Under the Han dynasty, Confucianism replaced Legalism as the official political theory and succession theoretically followed Salic primogeniture. The Chinese emperors who shared the same family were classified into historical periods known as dynasties. The absolute authority of the emperor was notionally bound with various duties and obligations; failure to uphold these was thought to remove the dynasty's Mandate of Heaven and to justify its replacement. In practice, emperors and heirs sometimes avoided the strict rules of succession and dynasties' ostensible "failures" were detailed in official histories written by their successful replacements. The power of the emperor was also often limited by the imperial bureaucracy staffed by scholar-officials and eunuchs and by filial obligations to surviving parents and to dynastic traditions, such as those detailed in the Ming dynasty's Ancestral Instructions .

Son of Heaven honorific

Son of Heaven, or Tian Zi, was the sacred imperial title of the Chinese emperor. It originated with the ancient Zhou Dynasty and was founded on the political and spiritual doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven. The secular imperial title of the Son of Heaven was "Emperor of China".

An autocracy is a system of government in which supreme power is concentrated in the hands of one person, whose decisions are subject to neither external legal restraints nor regularized mechanisms of popular control. Absolute monarchies and dictatorships are the main modern-day forms of autocracy.

Han dynasty 3rd-century BC to 3rd-century AD Chinese dynasty

The Han dynasty was the second imperial dynasty of China, preceded by the Qin dynasty and succeeded by the Three Kingdoms period. Spanning over four centuries, the Han period is considered a golden age in Chinese history. To this day, China's majority ethnic group refers to themselves as the "Han Chinese" and the Chinese script is referred to as "Han characters". It was founded by the rebel leader Liu Bang, known posthumously as Emperor Gaozu of Han, and briefly interrupted by the Xin dynasty of the former regent Wang Mang. This interregnum separates the Han dynasty into two periods: the Western Han or Former Han and the Eastern Han or Later Han (25–220 AD).

Origin and history

The Taizong of Tang in a regal garb of the Tang dynasty TangTaizong.jpg
The Taizong of Tang in a regal garb of the Tang dynasty

During the Zhou dynasty, Chinese feudal rulers with power over their particular fiefdoms were called gong () but, as the power of the Shang and Zhou kings (, OC: * ɢʷaŋ, [1] mod. wang) waned, the dukes began to usurp that title for themselves. In 221 BCE, after the then-king of Qin completed the conquest of the various kingdoms of the Warring States period, he adopted a new title to reflect his prestige as a ruler greater than the rulers before him. He called himself Shi Huangdi , the First Emperor. Before this, Huang () and Di () were the nominal "titles" of eight rulers of Chinese mythology or prehistory: The three Huang (, OC: * ɢʷˤaŋ, "august, sovereign") were godly rulers credited with feats like ordering the sky and forming the first humans out of clay; the five Di (, OC: * tˤeks, also often translated "emperor" but also meaning "the God of Heaven" [note 1] ) were cultural heroes credited with the invention of agriculture, clothing, astrology, music, etc. In the 3rd century BCE, the two titles had not previously been used together. Because of the god-like powers of the Huang, the cult worship of the Di, and the latter's use in the name of the God of Heaven Shangdi, however, the First Emperor's title would have been understood as implying "The Holy" or "Divine Emperor". On that account, some modern scholars translate the title as " thearch ". [2]

Zhou dynasty Chinese dynasty

The Zhou dynasty was a Chinese dynasty that followed the Shang dynasty and preceded the Qin dynasty. The Zhou dynasty lasted longer than any other dynasty in Chinese history. The military control of China by the royal house, surnamed Ji, lasted initially from 1046 until 771 BC for a period known as the Western Zhou and the political sphere of influence it created continued well into Eastern Zhou for another 500 years.

Chinese nobility

In Chinese sovereignty and peerage, the nobility of China, was an important feature of the traditional social and political organization of Imperial China.

Shang dynasty kingdom of ancient China

The Shang dynasty or Yin dynasty, according to traditional historiography, ruled in the Yellow River valley in the second millennium BC, succeeding the Xia dynasty and followed by the Zhou dynasty. Shang dynasty was the second longest ruling dynasty in China. The classic account of the Shang comes from texts such as the Book of Documents, Bamboo Annals and Records of the Grand Historian. According to the traditional chronology based on calculations made approximately 2,000 years ago by Liu Xin, the Shang ruled from 1766 to 1122 BC, but according to the chronology based upon the "current text" of Bamboo Annals, they ruled from 1556 to 1046 BC. The Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project dated them from c. 1600 to 1046 BC.

On occasion, the father of the ascended emperor was still alive. Such an emperor was titled the Tai Shang Huang (太上皇), the "Grand Imperial Sire". The practice was initiated by the First Emperor, who gave the title as a posthumous name to his own father. Liu Bang, who established the Han dynasty, was the first to become emperor while his father yet lived. It was said he granted the title during his father's life because he would not be bowed to by his own father, a commoner.[ citation needed ]

A posthumous name is an honorary name given to royalty, nobles, and sometimes others, in East Asia after the person's death, and is used almost exclusively instead of one's personal name or other official titles during their life. The posthumous name is commonly used when naming royalty of China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.

Owing to political fragmentation, over the centuries, it has not been uncommon to have numerous claimants to the title of "Emperor of All China". The Chinese political concept of the Mandate of Heaven essentially legitimized those claimants who emerged victorious. The proper list was considered those made by the official dynastic histories; the compilation of a history of the preceding dynasty was considered one of the hallmarks of legitimacy, along with symbols such as the Nine Ding or the Heirloom Seal of the Realm. As with the First Emperor, it was very common also to retroactively grant posthumous titles to the ancestors of the victors; even in Chinese historiography, however, such grants were not considered to elevate emperors prior to the successful declaration of a new dynasty.

Mandate of Heaven political and religious doctrine of the Emperor of China

The Mandate of Heaven or Tian Ming is a Chinese political and religious doctrine used since ancient times to justify the rule of the King or Emperor of China. According to this belief, heaven —which embodies the natural order and will of the universe—bestows the mandate on a just ruler of China, the "Son of Heaven" of the "Celestial Empire". If a ruler was overthrown, this was interpreted as an indication that the ruler was unworthy, and had lost the mandate. It was also a common belief among citizens that natural disasters such as famine and flood were signs of heaven's displeasure with the ruler, so there would often be revolts following major disasters as citizens saw these as signs that the Mandate of Heaven had been withdrawn.

The Heirloom Seal of the Realm, also known in English as the Imperial Seal of China, is a Chinese jade seal carved out of the He Shi Bi, a historically famous piece of jade.

The Yuan and Qing dynasties were founded by successful invaders; as part of their rule over China, however, they also went through the rituals of formally declaring a new dynasty and taking on the Chinese title of Huangdi, in addition to the titles of their respective people. Thus, Kublai Khan was simultaneously Khagan of the Mongols and Emperor of China.

Yuan dynasty former Mongolian-ruled empire in Eastern and Northeastern Asia

The Yuan dynasty, officially the Great Yuan, was the empire or ruling dynasty of China established by Kublai Khan, leader of the Mongolian Borjigin clan. It followed the Song dynasty and preceded the Ming dynasty. Although the Mongols had ruled territories including modern-day North China for decades, it was not until 1271 that Kublai Khan officially proclaimed the dynasty in the traditional Chinese style, and the conquest was not complete until 1279. His realm was, by this point, isolated from the other khanates and controlled most of modern-day China and its surrounding areas, including modern Mongolia. It was the first foreign dynasty to rule all of China and lasted until 1368, after which the rebuked Genghisid rulers retreated to their Mongolian homeland and continued to rule the Northern Yuan dynasty. Some of the Mongolian Emperors of the Yuan mastered the Chinese language, while others only used their native language and the 'Phags-pa script.

Qing dynasty former empire in Eastern Asia, last imperial regime of China

The Qing dynasty, officially the Great Qing, was the last imperial dynasty of China. It was established in 1636, and ruled China proper from 1644 to 1912. It was preceded by the Ming dynasty and succeeded by the Republic of China. The Qing multi-cultural empire lasted for almost three centuries and formed the territorial base for modern China. It was the fifth largest empire in world history.

China State in East Asia

China, officially the People's Republic of China (PRC), is a country in East Asia and the world's most populous country, with a population of around 1.404 billion. Covering approximately 9,600,000 square kilometers (3,700,000 sq mi), it is the third- or fourth-largest country by total area. Governed by the Communist Party of China, the state exercises jurisdiction over 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, four direct-controlled municipalities, and the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.

Number of Emperors

Portrait of young Kublai Khan by Anige, a Nepali artist in Kublai's court Qubilai Setsen Khaan.JPG
Portrait of young Kublai Khan by Anige, a Nepali artist in Kublai's court

On one count, from the Qin dynasty to the Qing dynasty, there were 557 emperors including the rulers of minor states. [3] Some, such as Li Zicheng, Huang Chao, and Yuan Shu, declared themselves the Emperors, Son of Heaven and founded their own empires as a rival government to challenge the legitimacy of and overthrow the existing Emperor. Among the most famous emperors were Qin Shi Huang of the Qin dynasty, the Emperors Gaozu and Wu of the Han dynasty, Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty, Kublai Khan of the Yuan dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor of the Ming dynasty, and the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing dynasty. [4]

The Emperor's words were considered sacred edicts ( t 聖旨/ s 圣旨) and his written proclamations "directives from above" (上諭/上谕). In theory, the Emperor's orders were to be obeyed immediately. He was elevated above all commoners, nobility and members of the Imperial family. Addresses to the Emperor were always to be formal and self-deprecatory, even by the closest of family members.

In practice, however, the power of the emperor varied between different emperors and different dynasties. Generally, in the Chinese dynastic cycle, emperors founding a dynasty usually consolidated the empire through absolute rule: examples include Qin Shi Huang of the Qin, Emperor Taizong of the Tang, Kublai Khan of the Yuan, and the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing. These emperors ruled as absolute monarchs throughout their reign, maintaining a centralized grip on the country. During the Song dynasty, the emperor's power was significantly overshadowed by the power of the chancellor.

The emperor's position, unless deposed in a rebellion, was always hereditary, usually by agnatic primogeniture. As a result, many emperors ascended the throne while still children. During these minorities, the Empress Dowager (i.e., the emperor's mother) would possess significant power. In fact, the vast majority of female rulers throughout Chinese Imperial history came to power by ruling as regents on behalf of their sons; prominent examples include the Empress Lü of the Han dynasty, as well as Empress Dowager Cixi and Empress Dowager Ci'an of the Qing dynasty, who for a time ruled jointly as co-regents. Where Empresses Dowager were too weak to assume power, court officials often seized control. Court eunuchs had a significant role in the power structure, as emperors often relied on a few of them as confidants, which gave them access to many court documents. In a few places, eunuchs wielded vast power; one of the most powerful eunuchs in Chinese history was Wei Zhongxian during the Ming dynasty. Occasionally, other nobles seized power as regents. The actual area ruled by the Emperor of China varied from dynasty to dynasty. In some cases, such as during the Southern Song dynasty, political power in East Asia was effectively split among several governments; nonetheless, the political fiction that there was but one ruler was maintained.

Heredity and succession

An 18th century depiction of Wu Zetian, the only empress of China A Tang Dynasty Empress Wu Zetian.JPG
An 18th century depiction of Wu Zetian, the only empress of China

The title of emperor was hereditary, traditionally passed on from father to son in each dynasty. There are also instances where the throne is assumed by a younger brother, should the deceased Emperor have no male offspring. By convention in most dynasties, the eldest son born to the Empress (嫡長子/嫡长子) succeeded to the throne. In some cases when the empress did not bear any children, the emperor would have a child with another of his many wives (all children of the emperor were said also to be the children of the empress, regardless of birth mother). In some dynasties the succession of the empress' eldest son was disputed, and because many emperors had large numbers of progeny, there were wars of succession between rival sons. In an attempt to resolve after-death disputes, the emperor, while still living, often designated a Crown Prince (太子). Even such a clear designation, however, was often thwarted by jealousy and distrust, whether it was the crown prince plotting against the emperor, or brothers plotting against each other. Some emperors, like the Yongzheng Emperor, after abolishing the position of Crown Prince, placed the succession papers in a sealed box, only to be opened and announced after his death.

Unlike, for example, the Japanese monarchy, Chinese political theory allowed for a change in the ruling house. This was based on the concept of the "Mandate of Heaven". The theory behind this was that the Chinese emperor acted as the "Son of Heaven" and held a mandate to rule over everyone else in the world; but only as long as he served the people well. If the quality of rule became questionable because of repeated natural disasters such as flood or famine, or for other reasons, then rebellion was justified. This important concept legitimized the dynastic cycle or the change of dynasties.

This principle made it possible even for peasants to found new dynasties, as happened with the Han and Ming dynasties, and for the establishment of conquest dynasties such as the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty and Manchu-led Qing dynasty. It was moral integrity and benevolent leadership that determined the holder of the "Mandate of Heaven".

There has been only one lawful female reigning Emperor in China, Empress Zetian, who briefly replaced the Tang dynasty with her own Zhou dynasty. Many women, however, did become de facto leaders, usually as Empress Dowager. Prominent examples include Empress Dowager Lü of the Han dynasty and Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing dynasty.

Styles, names and forms of address

To see naming conventions in detail, please refer to Chinese sovereign
The Kangxi Emperor, in the garb of the Qing dynasty Portrait of the Kangxi Emperor in Court Dress.jpg
The Kangxi Emperor, in the garb of the Qing dynasty

As the emperor had, by law, an absolute position not to be challenged by anyone else, his or her subjects were to show the utmost respect in his or her presence, whether in direct conversation or otherwise. When approaching the Imperial throne, one was expected to kowtow before the Emperor. In a conversation with the emperor, it was considered a crime to compare oneself to the emperor in any way. It was taboo to refer to the emperor by his or her given name, even for the emperor's own mother, who instead was to use Huángdì (皇帝), or simply Ér (兒/儿, "son", for male emperor). The emperor was never to be addressed as "you". Anyone who spoke to the emperor was to address him or her as Bìxià (陛下, lit. the "Bottom of the Steps"), corresponding to "Your Imperial Majesty"; Huáng Shàng (皇上, lit. Radiant Highness); Shèng Shàng (聖上/圣上, lit.Holy Highness); or Tiānzǐ (天子, lit. "Son of Heaven"). The emperor could also be alluded to indirectly through reference to the imperial dragon symbology. Servants often addressed the emperor as Wàn Suì Yé (萬歲爺/万岁爷, lit. Lord of Ten Thousand Years ). The emperor referred to himself or herself as Zhèn (朕), the original Chinese first-person singular arrogated by the First Emperor, functioning as an equivalent to the "Royal We", or Guǎrén (寡人, the "Morally-Deficient One") in front of his or her subjects.

In contrast to the Western convention of referring to a sovereign using a regnal name (e.g. George V) or by a personal name (e.g. Queen Victoria), a governing emperor was to be referred to simply as Huángdì Bìxià (皇帝陛下, Majesty|His/Her Majesty the Emperor) or Dāngjīn Huángshàng (當今皇上/当今皇上, The Present Emperor Above) when spoken about in the third person. Under the Qing, the emperor was usually styled His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of the Great Qing Dynasty, Son of Heaven, Lord of Ten Thousand Years although this varied considerably.

Generally, emperors also ruled with an era name (年號/年号). Since the adoption of era name by Emperor Wu of Han and up until the Ming dynasty, the sovereign conventionally changed the era name semi-regularly during his or her reign. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, emperors simply chose one era name for their entire reign, and people often referred to past emperors with that title. In earlier dynasties, the emperors were known with a temple name (廟號/庙号) given after their death. Most emperors were also given a posthumous name (謚號/谥号, Shìhào), which was sometimes combined with the temple name (e.g. Emperor Shèngzǔrén 聖祖仁皇帝/圣祖仁皇帝 for the Kangxi Emperor). The passing of an emperor was referred to as Jiàbēng (駕崩/驾崩, lit. "collapse of the [imperial] chariot") and an emperor that had just died was referred to as Dàxíng Huángdì (大行皇帝), literally "the Emperor of the Great Journey."


The Imperial family was made up of the Emperor and the Empress (皇后) as the primary consort and Mother of the Nation (國母/国母). In addition, the Emperor would typically have several other consorts and concubines (嬪妃/嫔妃), ranked by importance into a harem, in which the Empress was supreme. Every dynasty had its set of rules regarding the numerical composition of the harem. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), for example, imperial convention dictated that at any given time there should be one Empress, one Huang Guifei, two Guifei, four fei and six pin, plus an unlimited number of other consorts and concubines. Although the Emperor had the highest status by law, by tradition and precedent the mother of the Emperor, i.e., the Empress Dowager (皇太后), usually received the greatest respect in the palace and was the decision maker in most family affairs. At times, especially when a young emperor was on the throne, she was the de facto ruler. The Emperor's children, the princes (皇子) and princesses (公主), were often referred to by their order of birth, e.g., Eldest Prince, Third Princess, etc. The princes were often given titles of peerage once they reached adulthood. The Emperor's brothers and uncles served in court by law, and held equal status with other court officials (子). The Emperor was always elevated above all others despite any chronological or generational superiority.


Most Chinese emperors are considered to have been members of the Han ethnicity, although recent scholarship is wary of applying present-day ethnic categories to historical situations. Nomads from the Eurasian steppe repeatedly conquered northern China and claimed the title of emperor. The most successful of these were the Khitans (Liao dynasty), Jurchens (Jin dynasty), Mongols (Yuan dynasty), and Manchus (Qing dynasty). The orthodox historical view sees these as non-native dynasties that became sinicized, with the foreigners adopting Chinese culture, claiming the Mandate of Heaven, and performing the traditional imperial obligations such as annual sacrifices to Heaven (as Tian or Shangdi) for rain and prosperity. Some recent scholarship (such as that done by the New Qing History school) argue that the interaction between politics and ethnicity was far more complex and that elements of these dynasties differed from and even altered native Chinese traditions concerning imperial rule. [5]

See also


  1. The name in fact originally referred to the deïfied ancestors of the Shang kings. Its application to the chief god of Heaven arose from their claim to be the "Son of Heaven". [2]

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The Wǔfāng Shàngdì, or simply Wǔdì or Wǔshén are, in Chinese canonical texts and common Chinese religion, the fivefold manifestation of the supreme God of Heaven. This theology harkens back at least to the Shang dynasty. Described as the "five changeable faces of Heaven", they represent Heaven's cosmic activity which shapes worlds as tán 壇, "altars", imitating its order which is visible in the starry vault, the north celestial pole and its spinning constellations. The Five Deities themselves represent these constellations. In accordance with the Three Powers they have a celestial, a terrestrial and a chthonic form. The Han Chinese identify themselves as the descendants of the Red and Yellow Deities.


  1. Baxter, William & al. BaxterSagart Old Chinese Reconstruction Archived September 27, 2013, at the Wayback Machine . 2011. Accessed 22 Dec 2013.
  2. 1 2 Nadeau, Randall L. The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Chinese Religions, pp. 54 ff. John Wiley & Sons (Chichester), 2012. Accessed 22 December 2013.
  3. Barmé, Geremie (2008). The Forbidden City. Harvard University Press. p. 594. ISBN   978-0-674-02779-4.
  4. "看版圖學中國歷史", p.5, Publisher: Chung Hwa Book Company, Year: 2006, Author: 陸運高, ISBN   962-8885-12-X.
  5. Sinicization vs. Manchuness: The Success of Manchu Rule

Further reading