10 Greatest Emperors of China
With a history that went as far back as 2000 BCE, ancient China, its civilization and culture have constantly evoked immense curiosity from both history buffs and non-history scholars. Imperial China is also famed for being the longest-lasting empire of all time.
Having had its first emperor in the person of Qin Shi Huang in the year 221 BC, the last emperor to rule all of China was Emperor Puyi of the Qing Dynasty whose reign lasted for just three years. In its 2000-year history, China had some very remarkable and quite autocratic emperors whose influence was not just confined to China but across the region.
In the article below, we explore the greatest emperors of China, as well as their numerous accomplishments.
Qin Shi Huang (reign: 221 BC to 210 BC)
Born in 259 BC, Qin Shi Huang was the son of King Zhuangxiang of the Qin State, one of the seven warring states during the Warring States Era (475 BC-221 BC).
Qin Shi Huang earns a place on the list of greatest Chinese emperors because of the immense contributions he made to imperial China. He is remembered for being the founder of the Qin Dynasty. Having defeated all the six other warring states by 221 BC, he crowned himself the first emperor of China (Shi Huang).
After outlawing a number of philosophies in the empire, Emperor Qin made legalism the official philosophy of the state. Anyone caught reading or in possession of books that weren’t Qin state-related was either imprisoned or executed.
The most famous reform of Emperor Qin was the introduction of a meritorious-based recruitment of civil servants and governors. The Emperor also ended feudalism in order to make the country more united.
Perhaps his most famous his achievement came in the form of the Great Wall of China. Emperor Qin is famed for connecting a number of disjointed small walls into a defensive network of walls, i.e. the Great Wall of China.
Today, the thousands of terracotta warriors that he was buried with constitute one of the most famous tourist attractions in China; it, along with the Great Wall of China, attracts several millions of tourists every year.
Did you know: In the course of bringing the Wei State to yield, about 100,000 people died from the direct and indirect actions of Emperor Qin?
Read More: Emperor Qin’s Greatest Achievements
Emperor Gaozu of Han (reign: 202 BC – 195 BC)
Prior to becoming emperor of China, Emperor Gaozu of Han (born in 256 BC; died in 195 BC) was a peasant and the leader of the revolt that removed the Qin Dynasty from power. Born Liu Bang, he was a lower-ranking official in Pei County during the Qin Dynasty. However, he quickly rebelled against the Qin dynasty following the death of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.
Amidst all the political instability that plagued Emperor Qin’s successors, Liu Bang became one of the two leading rebel fighters (the other being Xiang Yu) that opposed the rule of Qin dynasty. His rebel forces invaded Guanzhong, the capital city of the Qin rulers, and then forced Ziying of Qin (known posthumously as Emperor Shang of Qin) to abdicate the throne. The leaders of the rebel forces then divided the empire amongst themselves, with Liu Bang taking an impoverished region in Bashu (modern-day Sichuan, Shaanxi and Chongqing). Thus he briefly became King of Han.
Unsatisfied with the outcome of the rebellion, he once again took to arms and fought to conquer the remaining regions (i.e. the Three Qins) in a four-year brutal civil war (the Chu-Han Contention). By 202 BC, Lui Bang had successfully brought those regions under his control, thus uniting large parts of China. He then went on to found the Han dynasty, becoming Emperor Gaozu of Han. Posthumously referred to as Emperor Gao (Goadi), his reign lasted from 202 BCE until his death in 195 BC.
Historians praise his seven-year reign for reducing the tax burden on the common people. He also lifted the ban that had been placed on Confucianism and other religious scholars by the Qin dynasty. Emperor Gaozu’s reign witnessed relative peace between the empire and the Xiongnu, the tribal alliance of nomadic peoples in the north.
Upon his death in 195 BC, power was transferred to his son Liu Ying (Emperor Hui).
Emperor Taizu of the Song Dynasty (reign: AD 960 – AD 976)
Born Zhao Kuangyin in 927, Emperor Taizu was the founding ruler of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). A brave and astute military strategist of the Later Zhou dynasty, Taizu seized the throne from Emperor Gong (during a coup called Chen Qiao Bing Bian) and went ahead to defeat the warring states that emerged after the disintegration of the Tang Dynasty. He thus brought the country together under his rule.
Having been once a general, Emperor Taizu was fully aware of the immense threat that very powerful and influential military generals could pose to his rule; he therefore, consolidated his rule by reducing the power of his generals through coercion. He preferred relying on civilian appointees and advisors.
Emperor Taizu’s reign was characterized by improved imperial education system, which in turn augered well for the unity of the country. Similarly, the academies that he created allowed for freedom of thought, making his reign one of the most liberal reigns in ancient China.
After reigning for seventeen years, Emperor Taizu passed away in 976, aged 49. His younger brother Zhao Kuangyi (Emperor Taizong) succeeded to the throne.
Empress Wu Zetian (reign: 690-705)
No list of greatest emperors of China can be complete without Wu Zetian, the first and only woman to be crowned Huangdi (Emperor). Born in AD 624 to parents of noble background, Wu was in her early teens when she was sent to be a concubine of Emperor Taizong, the father of Emperor Gaozong, who she later married in 655 AD (after Taizong’s death).
Owing to Gaozong’s lack of nerves in ruling the country, Wu Zetian, who was Gaozong’s huanghou (chief consort or empress consort), in effect was the real power behind the throne, as she made all the big decisions.
Praised for being an astute politician with a very strong character, she was swift in wrestling immense power for herself following the death of her husband Emperor Gaozong in 683 AD, at which point she became Empress Dowager of the Tang dynasty. Less than a decade later, Empress Wu had successfully seized power from her children, the rightful heirs to the throne. Thus she became the first empress regnant in the history of China.
Her reign (690-705) witnessed the expansion of the empire all the way into some parts of Central Asia. She also reinforced existing meritorious-based recruitment and promotion policy, allowing her to benefit from wise counsel of good military generals and political appointees. Additionally, her social and economic reforms were well-received by the peasant folks. Empress Wu’s reign created conducive environment for philosophies such as Taoism and Buddhism to thrive.
Read More: Empress Wu Zetian’s Greatest Achievements
Taizong of the Tang Dynasty (reign: 626 AD – 649 AD)
The son of Emperor Gaozu (born Li Yuan), the founder of the Tang dynasty of China, Emperor Tang played a significant role in consolidating the gains his father made. Together with his father, Taizong fought bravely to oust the Sui Dynasty. He then worked very hard to lay the pillars for a successful Tang Dynasty, making many to claim that he was the co-founder of the Tang dynasty.
However, standing in between him and the throne was his older brother the Crown Prince. In what would later be called the Xuanwu Gate ambush, Taizong killed the Crown Prince and his younger brother.
Taizong reign saw the introduction of many reforms in the economy and the government, thereby ushering in a golden age of prosperity and stability for China. His reign was so critically acclaimed that many historians consider him one of the best emperors in Chinese history.
With the support of influential statesmen and generals, including Li Jing, Emperor Taizong’s reign saw massive military and economic gains, which in turn made the Tang dynasty one of the most successful dynasties of imperial China.
The Emperor introduced better imperial examination systems for applicants into the civil service. He was known for allowing some amount of criticisms against him. A truly rational ruler and considered by many as one of the most enlightened rulers of China, Taizong halted the spread of superstitious beliefs that he reasoned caused the empire to retrogress.
Did you know: Because many emperors took a page from Emperor Tang’s policies, it was not uncommon for sinologists and historians to tag the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty as the greatest Chinese emperor of all time?
Emperor Kangxi (reign: 1661 AD – 1722 AD)
Known to many as the longest-reigning emperor of China, Kangxi Emperor (born in 1654; died in 1722) was the third ruler of the Qing Dynasty of China (1636-1912).
Born Aisin Gioro Xuanye, he was around the age of seven when he inherited throne from his father Shunzhi Emperor. By virtue of the fact that he was in Jingren Palace in the Forbidden City, he was the first Manchu ruler to be born on Chinese soil. Right from his childhood years, he was a diligent individual who learnt quite a lot from his regents (Sonin, Ebilun, Suksaha, and Oboi) and his grandmother, the Grand Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang.
The Kangxi Emperor’s reign is considered one of the most stable periods of China, having squashed a major revolt in the south and west of the Empire. The Emperor was also successful at keeping Imperial Russia at bay, preventing Tsarist Russia from seizing parts of Manchuria and Northwest China.
His fiscal discipline and treasury management were top-notch as he increased the treasury by about three times. All of that came in spite of his very expensive military campaigns defending and expanding the empire. For example, he brought the Kingdom of Tungning in Taiwan and some Mongolian territories under his rule. Another famous feat of his came in the form of the Kangxi Dictionary, a 47,000-character standard Chinese dictionary that was the official reference for Chinese writing for over two hundred years.
Having ruled distinguished himself as very effective Manchurian ruler, the Kangxi Emperor was often honored by subsequent rulers as the epitome of sound military and economic leadership and vision. Following his death in 1722, he was succeeded to the throne by his fourth son Prince Yinzhen (the Yongzheng Emperor).
Did you know: Emperor Kangxi 61-year reign makes him one of the longest-reigning monarchs of all time?
Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (reign: 141 BC – 87 BC)
Emperor Wu of Han (born in July 30, 157 BC; died in March 87 BC) was the seventh emperor of the Han Dynasty who was famed for promoting strong central government and expansive policies. His 54-year reign places him as the longest-ruling ethnic Chinese emperor of all time.
Under Wu of Han’s reign, China amassed huge geopolitical influence in the region. Unlike his predecessors, who either swayed in favor of Legalist or Confucian doctrines, Emperor Wu carefully embraced those two doctrines. As result, he was able to reap the benefits both had on music and literature. Such was the Emperor’s love for poetry and music that he established a music bureau.
Although some historians have stated that Wu of Han was the beneficiary of all the hard work done by his predecessors, it is worth noting that the Emperor still had to be a very good leader to maintain those gains he inherited.
Known posthumously as Han Wudi, the Emperor was an well-rounded leader who knew the benefits of having cultural interaction with western Eurasia region. Aside from sound foreign policies, he did extremely well in reinforcing the good structures of the economy and military, making the empire stable and strong. This allowed him to double the size the empire either through diplomatic alliances or military conquests. His reign coincided with a time when Han China reached its peak, as the empire stretched from the Korean Peninsula to Eurasia. Thus, it was one of the largest and mightiest empires in history, comparable to the Roman Empire. However, all that expansion and wars depleted the royal coffers.
Even though he became a very irritable ruler who was always paranoid and superstitions, his reign on the whole is regarded as one of the greatest periods of Imperial China’s history.
Did you know: Emperor Wu of Han comes in second behind Kangxi Emperor on the list of longest-serving emperors of China?
Kublai Khan of the Yuan dynasty (reign: 1271 AD – 1294 AD)
The grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan (born – 1215; died – 1294) was the fifth Khagan (emperor) of the Mongol Empire from 1260 to 1294. He was only 12 when his grandfather Genghis Khan died.
Kublai Khan properly consolidated his reign as Emperor of Mongolia after engaging in a brutal four-year civil war (The Toluid Civil War – 1260-1264) with his younger brother Ariq Boke. Although the war gravely affected the unity of the Mongolian Empire, Kublai Khan still had enough left in his tank to successfully conquer China and establish the Yuan dynasty in 1271. Thus, he became the first non-Han emperor to bring all of China under one rule.
Ruling China from 1271 until his death in 1294, Kublai Khan was also known as the Emperor Shizu of Yuan. He was also one of the few rulers who treated the losing dynasty and imperial family with respect. Rather than slaughter the deposed Song Emperor Gong and Song Empress Dowager, Kublai made sure that they were properly looked after in Khanbaliq, the winter capital of the Yuan dynasty.
His reign over China was one of huge infrastructure development and tolerance of diverse cultures. He also increased the number of trade routes within and outside the empire.
Emperor Ming of Tang (Tang Xuanzong) (reign: AD 712 – AD 756)
Born Li Longji in AD 685, Emperor Ming of Tang steered the affairs of China for more than four decades (from 712 AD to 756 AD), making him the longest-serving ruler of the Tang dynasty.
Also known as the Illustrious August or Tang Xuanzong, Emperor Ming was the seventh emperor of the Tang Dynasty. His father, Emperor Ruizong, was a relatively ineffectual emperor who was in effect under the control of his grandmother, Empress Wu Zetian.
Upon his coronation in 713, he was swift in removing the very corrupt officials that served in Empress Wu Zetian’s regime, including expelling the secret police agents that had terrorized the country for more than a decade. Emperor Ming surrounded himself with very well-meaning and astute advisors, including chancellors such as Zhang Yue, Song Jing and Yao Chong.
An extremely hardworking monarch, his reign was responsible for elevating China to an Asian superpower. Culturally and economically, China fared very well during the first half of his reign, enabling the Tang dynasty to reach its peak. Chang’an, the capital of the Tang dynasty, was a bustling cosmopolitan city often referred to as the greatest city in the world at the time.
With hardly any territory lost during Emperor Xuanzong’s reign, trade and commerce along the Silk Road flourished tremendously.
Interesting Facts about Chinese Emperors
- Considering how absolute their powers were in most cases, many ancient rulers of China often descended into a very autocratic and obnoxious rule, inflicting unimaginable horrors upon millions and millions of people.
- As the first emperor of a unified China, Emperor Qin of the Qin Dynasty was the first Chinese ruler to use the word “Huangdi”, which means “Emperor”. In addition to that title, rulers from different dynasties used other titles like “Lord of Ten Thousand Years”, “Holy Highness”, and “Son of Heaven”.
- Many Chinese emperors, including Emperor Qin for example, envisaged that their dynasty would last for ten thousand years, hence the title “Lord of Ten Thousand Years”. Some even naively believed that they could be immortal and thereby rule for a thousand years.
- The reason why Chinese emperors were given title “Son of Heaven” had to do with the term Mandate of Heaven. For someone to qualify to rule all of China, that person had to have the Mandate of Heaven. According to ancient Chinese text, the mandate is given to a brave individual with an upright character. And whenever the ruler was toppled, perhaps through a rebellion, that ruler was described as an emperor who had lost the mandate of heaven. Also, in times of economic hardships and natural disasters, ancient Chinese believed that Heaven was displeased with the ruler. Such times were often a precursor for a rebellion, which in turn led to the emperor being overthrown.
- Granted the emperor lived a just and upright life, he or she was often times succeeded by his oldest son.
- It was a very common phenomenon for a Chinese emperor to have as many wives as his heart desires. He could also take innumerable number of concubines to serve him in his massive palace. At any given moment, there was always one particular wife of the emperor that was considered the chief wife, i.e. the Empress.
- An emperor with the full Mandate of Heaven was revered in an almost god-like manner. His statements were non-negotiable and seen as sacred in so many ways.
- All in all, imperial China witnessed more than five hundred emperors spread across a dozen or so dynasties, including famous ones like the Qin dynasty, the Western Han, the Eastern Han, the Sui dynasty, the Tang dynasty, the Ming dynasty, and the Qing dynasty.