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Some Chinese Emperors

Chengde - Summer Residence of Many Chinese Emperors
An introduction to some of China’s more interesting Emperors

Chinese Emperors ranged from ineffectual wimps to tyrannical despots. They ruled China for thousands of years, and China’s history is largely the story of the ability to rule of successive Emperors. Here are some of the more interesting ones:

Emperor Qin Shihuangdi (259-210BC)

After inheriting the throne of the kingdom of Qin, he united China’s various warring states under his rule after a decade of continuous war. He was ruthless in battle and systematically slaughtered defeated armies. His tomb is a perfect tribute to his megalomania, holding an entire army of terracotta warriors. He founded the Qin dynasty and was much admired by Chairman Mao Zedong.

Emperor Gaodi (247-195BC)

The founder of the Han dynasty is popular among Chinese for having brought a gentler form of government than his Qin predecessors. He had a very great fondness for alcohol and kept four concubines.

Empress Wu (625-706)

Wu became a junior concubine at the age of twelve. When her Emperor died, she became the concubine of his successor, and later his Empress. She is held responsible for the deaths of two of her rivals – the Empress and another concubine, both of whom were killed and mutilated, and then thrown into vats of wine. She brought an element of meritocracy to the government, but Imperial chroniclers accused her of addiction to aphrodisiacs which they claimed caused her to grow extra teeth.

Kublai Khan (1215-1294)

The grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai completed the Mongol invasion of China, and was the patron of explorer Marco Polo. Marco Polo described the Emperor’s hunting parties which involved tens of thousands of people, and declared him to be more powerful than any ruler on Earth.

The Yongle Emperor (1360 – 1424)

Under Yongle’s rule, China built the Grand Canal, established a modern Navy that would sale as far afield as Africa, the Middle East and possibly even South America, and persuaded Japan to become a tributary state. He also chose Beijing as his capital.

The Zhengde Emperor (1491-1521)

Emperor Zhengde was not much interested in ruling the country, instead preferring to trade in the market as a merchant, frequent the brothels of Beijing (shunning his many concubines), and invite wrestlers and circus performers into the palace. He died after contracting an illness from Grand Canal river water during a pleasure cruise.

Jiajing Emperor (1507 – 1567)

Emperor Jiajing ascended the throne aged 14 and set about curbing the power of the eunuchs. He was so violent towards his first Empress that she had a miscarriage. Later eighteen of his concubines jointly tried to strangle him. He would have died had not one of the eighteen lost her nerve and sounded the alarm. She soon became his third Empress.

The Wanli Emperor (1563-1620)

Emperor Wanli stands out for his ambivalence towards affairs of state. He ruled for 48 years, yet in the period 1590-1620 he met with his Grand Secretaries only five times. During his rule wedding clothes for his children became a major part of China’s budget, and he is alleged to have been too lazy to attend his own mother’s funeral.

Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722)

Emperor Kangxi was one of China’s most able rulers. He established the Chinese position in Taiwan and Tibet and fended off the Russians to the North. He also did much to promote Confucianism as the official ideology. He disinherited his own son and heir, Yinreng, who he found guilty of treason and sexual debauchery involving young boys.

The Yongzheng Emperor

Yongzheng assured his own rule by killing all but one of his brothers. He was a control freak who encouraged his subordinates to submit secret reports about one another, but he also improved the condition of China’s social outcasts and increased officials’ salaries to prevent corruption.

Chairman Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976)

It’s a slightly controversial categorisation, but Mao held absolute power for decades, and the people chanted ‘may he live for 10,000 years’, a phrase previously reserved for Emperors. And although he didn’t have concubines as such, his demigod status meant that he could have his way with any idealistic young Communist he chose.

Recommended Chinese culture articles:

Traditional Chinese Architecture: Evolution and History, Chinese Siheyuan Courtyards

Chinese Religion: How To Tell Chinese Temples Apart, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism

Beijing Arts: Chinese Opera, Acrobatics, Tai Chi, Chinese Gardens

Beijing Society: Er Nai, Lucky Numbers, Chinese Etiquette, Drugs in China

Chinese History: Chairman Mao Zedong, Eunuchs, Chinese Emperors, Ancient History Timeline, Concubines, 20th Century Timeline


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