Emperor of China

Emperor of China
"Emperor" is the normal translation of 皇帝 (huangdi), a Chinese term that is not to be confused with the homophonic 黄帝, which refers to the Yellow Emperor.
Emperor of China
Former Monarchy
Arms of the Qing Dynasty.svg
The Imperial Coat of arms of the Empire during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912)
The last emperor of China, Puyi, as the Emperor of Manchukuo
First monarch Qin Shi Huang
Last monarch Puyi
Style Varies according to Dynasty
Official residence Varies according to Dynasty, most recently the Forbidden City in Beijing
Monarchy started 221 BC
Monarchy ended 12 February 1912
Current pretender Hengzhen
(Qing Dynasty)

The Emperor of China (Chinese: 皇帝; pinyin: Huángdì, pronounced [xu̯ɑ̌ŋ tɨ̂]) refers to any sovereign of Imperial China reigning between the founding of Qin Dynasty of China, united by the King of Qin in 221 BCE, and the fall of Yuan Shikai's Empire of China in 1916. When referred to as the Son of Heaven (Chinese: 天子; pinyin: tiānzǐ, pronounced [ti̯ɛ́n tsɨ̀]), a title that predates the Qin unification, the Emperor was recognized as the ruler of "All under heaven" (i.e., the world). In practice not every Emperor held supreme power, though this was most often the case.

Emperors from the same family are generally classified in historical periods known as Dynasties. Most of China's imperial rulers have commonly been considered members of the Han ethnicity, although recent scholarship tends to be wary of applying current ethnic categories to historical situations. During the Yuan and Qing dynasties China proper was ruled by ethnic Mongols and Manchus respectively as part of the empires. The orthodox historical view over the years sees these as non-native dynasties that were sinicized over time, though some recent scholars argue that the interaction between politics and ethnicity was far more complex.[1]


Origin and history

Chinese feudal rulers with power over their particular fiefdoms were called Wang (王), roughly translated as King, but in fact somewhat amorphous and also readily maps to "duke" in English. In 221 BCE, after the then King of Qin completed the conquest of the various kingdoms/duchies of the Warring States Period, he adopted a new title to reflect his prestige as a ruler greater than the rulers before him. He created the new title Huangdi or "Emperor", and styled himself Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor. Before this, Huang (皇) and Di (帝) were given as titles of a number of rulers from the era known as the "sage kings" period, supposedly predating written history, but probably coinciding with or following the invention and early stages of evolution for the Chinese writing system. Huang (皇) was the title generally used for divine entities and legendary/deified rulers, and Di (帝) was used for feudal rulers of vassals who were themselves rulers of their own principalities. Though these words came to be used synonymously and interchangeably, at the time of Ying Zheng's rule, they were not used together, and would have carried the connotation of "The Holy Emperor" because Huang (皇) was previously associated with divine or deified entities. Furthermore, it is generally agreed upon that the founding of the dominant Chinese race, the Han 漢 race, was the result of the "Yellow Emperor" Huangdi 黃帝, who unified a federation of tribes to drive the other tribes out of central China as it was known then (today's northwestern China), and several imperial dynasties existed since the time of Huang Di and before the time of Ying Zheng, the last of which integral dynasties, the Zhou 周 dynasty, disintegrated and formed the "Warring Nations" which were principalities of various sizes roughly based on the feudal kingdoms and duchies as ascribed under the Zhou dynasty political system. Ying Zheng, therefore, should really be called the re-unifier of the Chinese empire after the fall of the Zhou Dynasty, and his title should more correctly be rendered as "The First Holy Emperor" as opposed to the much less nuanced (and in fact much less accurate) "First Emperor." This is further evidenced by the fact that Chinese emperors since Ying Zheng also typically took on the title 帝 rather than 皇帝, e.g. Han Wu Di 漢武帝 "Emperor Wu of Han [Dynasty]", and it was not until much later that the term Huang Di 皇帝 came to be used interchangeably with the shorter Di 帝.

There is one minor exception to this interpretation in that, where the father of he who has ascended to the throne as emperor of China is still alive, this progenitor of the present emperor would be given the title Tai shang huang 太上皇, literally the "The Grand/Over-Emperor" or the "Grand Imperial Sire" or in the context of "Holy Emperor", the "Holy Imperial Sire." It is said that this practice was initiated by Liu Bang 劉邦, the founder of the Han Dynasty, in emulation of Ying Zheng (who granted his own father the title posthumously once he took on the new title of Huangdi 皇帝 for himself), because Liu Bang would not be bowed to by his own father, who was still technically a commoner.

Chinese political theory does not totally discourage or prevent the rule of non-royals or foreigners holding the title of "Emperor of China". Historically, China has been divided, numerous times, into smaller kingdoms under separate rulers or warlords. The Emperor in most cases was the ruler of a united China, or must at least have claimed legitimate rule over all of China if he did not have de facto control. There have been a number of instances where there has been more than one "Emperor of All China" simultaneously in Chinese history. For example, various Ming Dynasty princes continued to claim the title after the founding of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), and Wu Sangui claimed the title during the Kangxi Emperor's reign. In dynasties founded by foreign conquering tribes that eventually became immersed in Chinese culture, politics, and society, the rulers would adopt the title of Emperor of China in addition to whatever titles they may have had from their original homeland. Thus, Kublai Khan was simultaneously Khagan of the Mongols and Emperor of China.

Number of Emperors

From the Qin Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, there were [2] 557 Emperors (including rules of minor states). Some, such as Li Zicheng and Yuan Shu, declared themselves emperors and founded their own empires as a rival government to challenge the legitimacy of the existing emperor. Among the most famous Emperors are Qin Shi Huang of the Qin Dynasty, 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.[3]

The emperor's words were considered sacred edicts (聖旨), and his written proclamations "directives from above" (上諭). 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 including Shi Huang of the Qin Dynasty, Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, Kublai Khan of the Yuan Dynasty, and Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty. 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

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) 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 Kangxi 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 reigning Empress in China, Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty or the Wu-Zhou (Wu-Chou) dynasty founded by her. Many females, however, did become de facto leaders, usually as Empress Dowager. Prominent examples include Empress Dowager Cixi, mother of the Tongzhi Emperor (1861–1874), and aunt and adoptive mother of the Guangxu Emperor (1874–1908), who ruled China for 47 years (1861–1908), and the Empress Dowager Lü of the Han Dynasty.

Styles, names and forms of address

To see naming conventions in detail, please refer to Chinese sovereign

As the emperor had, by law, an absolute position not to be challenged by anyone else, his subjects were to show the utmost respect in his presence, whether in direct conversation or otherwise. 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 given name, even if it came from his own mother, who instead was to use Huangdi (Emperor), or simply Er ("son"). The emperor was never to be addressed as you. Anyone who spoke to the emperor was to address him as Bixia (陛下), corresponding to "Your Imperial Majesty", Huang Shang (皇上, lit. Emperor Above or Emperor Highness), tian zi (天子, lit. the Son of Heaven ), or Sheng Shang (聖上, lit. the Divine Above or the Holy Highness). Servants often addressed the emperor as Wan Sui Ye (萬歲爺, lit. Lord of Ten thousand years). The emperor referred to himself as Zhen (朕), translated into the royal "We", in front of his subjects, a practice reserved solely for the emperor.

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 Huangdi Bixia (皇帝陛下, His Majesty the Emperor) or Dangjin Huangshang (當今皇上, The Imperial Highness of the Present Time) when spoken about in the third person. He was usually styled His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of the Great [X] Dynasty, Son of Heaven, Lord of Ten Thousand Years. Forms of address varied considerably during the Yuan and Qing Dynasties.

An emperor also ruled with an era name (年號). Since the adoption of era name by Emperor Wu of Han and up until the Ming Dynasty, the sovereign conventionally changed the era name on a semi-regular basis during his 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) given after their death. All emperors were also given a posthumous name (謚號), which was sometimes combined with the temple name (e.g. Emperor Shengzuren 聖祖仁皇帝 for Kangxi). The passing of an emperor was referred to as jiabeng (駕崩, lit. "collapse of the [imperial] chariot") and an emperor that had just died was referred to as Daxing Huangdi (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). In addition, the emperor would typically have several other consorts and concubines (妃嬪), 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.

See also


  1. ^ Sinicization vs. Manchuness: The Success of Manchu Rule
  2. ^ Barmé, Geremie (2008). The Forbidden City. Harvard University Press. p. 594. ISBN 978-0674027794. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=lnwBCaSrXA8C&pg=PA94&dq=Qin+Dynasty+to+the+Qing+Dynasty,+there+have+been+nearly+++Emperors.#v=onepage&q&f=false. 
  3. ^ "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.

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