Top 10 Greatest Chinese Emperors
Any “top 10” article on Chinese emperors is bound to be contentious. These ancient rulers not only wielded far more power than modern sovereigns, several of them also presided over remarkably long periods. Periods that saw China in both expansion and decline. For this hub, my primary criterion was the average condition of the empire during respective reigns. Note that this criterion could also be considered as flawed. Even during the most prosperous periods of ancient China, large segments of the population remained impoverished and uneducated.
Note: This list is arranged chronologically, and numbered for easy reading. The numbers do not indicate any form of ranking.
1. Qin Shihuang (秦始皇)
Actual name 嬴政 (Ying Zheng). Reigned 247 BC to 220 BC.
So many things could be written about Qin Shihuang, the so-called first Emperor of China. He united the many states of China under one rule for the first time in history. He built the Great Wall and commissioned the Terracotta Warriors, thereby gifting China with millions of tourist revenue millennia later. At the same time, he was also appallingly brutal during his conquest of the various states. After unification, he continue to order many atrocities. The most notorious of which being book burnings and live burial of scholars (焚书坑儒, fenshu kengru).
However tyrannical he was, one fact is undisputable. Qin Shihuang laid the groundwork for China to emerge as the primary cultural and political powerhouse of East Asia. His reforms standardised language, numerical units and monetary measures, all of which are crucial to the growth of any empire. Lastly, his continued military campaigns expanded the Chinese sphere of domination to the “barbarian” areas of Guangdong and Hunan area, thus denoting the borders of modern China. Without the deeds of Qin Shihuang, China as we know it today might not even exist. Quite likely, it would stay the messy collection of bickering states it was prior to Qin Shihuang. Over time, these states would have eventually developed starkly different cultures and identities.
2. Han Wudi (汉武帝)
Actual name 刘彻 (Liu Che). Reigned 141 BC to 87 BC.
A lot of “great” Chinese emperors did not build up their empires. Rather, they benefitted from the legacies of forefathers. Wudi, the seventh emperor of the Han Dynasty, is a prime example. Prior to his reign was the prosperous era of Emperors Wen and Jing. When Wudi ascended the throne at age 15, the Han Dynasty was already stable and strong. More importantly, power was firmly in the hands of the Emperor. This, thanks to a previous enactment that limited the authorities of princes and feudal lords.
As an able administrator, Wudi contributed much to the development of a strong, centralised empire. He promoted literature and music, and established diplomatic relations with Western Eurasia. He also effectively doubled the size of the Chinese empire, be it through warfare or diplomatic alliances, and repelled Xiongnu (barbarian) invasions from the north. Such military successes soon resulted in China extending all the way from the Korean peninsula to Eurasia during Wudi’s time. Without a doubt, Han Wudi ruled over one of the largest and greatest empires in antiquity. His empire easily rivalled that of Rome’s in Europe.
Of note, Wudi is seldom regarded by historians as an exceptional or enlightened ruler. While his accomplishments are impressive, he also severely depleted the treasury with his constant war efforts. Worse, he was by nature cantankerous, and in older age, was exceptionally superstitious and paranoid. He did, however, somewhat redeem himself with the famous Repenting Edict of Luntai (輪台悔詔), which took place after his crown prince rebelled against him. Depending on which aspect of his reign you consider to be the most important, Han Wudi could either be considered as one of China’s greatest emperor, or one of the most despotic. He might be more deserving of the title, top warlord.
The Dreaded Gong Xing
Han Wudi was quite fond of punishing courtiers with castration, known as Gong Xing in Chinese. The most famous victim of this horrific punishment was the historian, Sima Qian.
3. Han Guangwudi (汉光武帝)
Actual name 刘秀 (Liu Xiu). Reigned AD 25 to AD 57.
Practically all lists about great Chinese emperors do not include Han Guangwudi. Personally, I feel this to be a great injustice. While he didn’t have astonishing accomplishments such as starting a dynasty or doubling his territory, Han Guangwudi was consultative and merciful. Qualities truly rare among Chinese emperors. At the same time, Guangwudi was also a brilliant military tactician. He led the reinstatement of the Han Dynasty, after it was usurped for a 14 years by Wang Mang, a relative of the previous empress. So it was said, during the uprising, Guangwudi needed no strategist. He himself was unmatched in this area.
By overthrowing Wang Mang, Guangwudi also revitalised the dying Han Dynasty and kept it going for another two centuries. His subsequent reforms and military successes then paved for the way for another golden age in the dynasty. Without him, China would have very likely reverted to being a collection of battling states again, especially with the ineptitude of Wang Mang’s administration. Needless to say, this would have badly crippled the development of the Middle Kingdom as a major civilisation. In the process of which, also resulting in much death and suffering.
4. Tang Taizong (唐太宗)
Actual name 李世民 (Li Shimin). Reigned AD 626 to AD 649.
The second emperor of the Tang Dynasty did not ascend the throne easily. The second son of the founding emperor, Tang Gaozu, he was heavily involved in the uprising that overthrew the previous Sui Dynasty. Thereafter, he had to content with his elder brother the Crown Prince, who viewed him as a deadly contender for the throne. Taizong only secured his succession, after personally killing his brother in the notorious Xuanwu Gate Incident.
As an emperor, Tang Taizong enjoyed the support of several legendary statesmen and generals, and was greatly successful in consolidating the economic and military might of his dynasty. In great contrast to practically all other Chinese emperors, Taizong was also receptive to criticism, the most famous example being that of Chancellor Wei Zheng. The feisty chancellor would often rebuke or disagree with Taizong on many matters, and while this occasionally infuriated Taizong, he continued to respect and honour Wei Zheng beyond the latter’s passing. Given many other Chinese emperors, the chancellor would have been beheaded and his clan massacred. That Taizong openly praised Wei Zheng as “a mirror,” one in which he could check for his own wrongdoings, is strong testimonial of this great ruler’s humility and rationality. Because of this, subsequent dynasties and emperors regarded Taizong’s reign as an era of enlightenment. Historical study of him was considered as compulsory education.
5. Tang Xuanzong (唐玄宗)
Actual name 李隆基 (Li Longji). Reigned AD 712 to AD 756.
Also known as Emperor Ming, the seventh emperor of the Tang Dynasty is in this list for two reasons. He survived the bloody power struggle following the demise of “Female Emperor” Wu Zetian, and successfully restored power to the Li Family. Hardworking and astute, he then grew Tang Dynasty China to its greatest extent. At its peak, his capital Chang’an was the greatest city in the world, with Chinese economic and cultural might was a formidable force in Asia. So it was said, his attendants once advised him to rest more as he was increasingly haggard. Xuanzong responded by saying that his exhaustion implies the empire is benefitting. Why should his personal health take precedence over the empire?
Unfortunately, Xuanzong's reputation would eventually be forever tarnished by his romance with Consort Yang (杨贵妃, Yang Guifei) in his later years. This heart wrenching love story is immortalized in Chinese arts and literature, but it reality, it resulted in the Anshi Rebellion, which in turn kick-started the decline of the Tang Dynasty. Nonetheless, Xuanzong’s contribution to China as an Asian superpower is undeniable. No list of great Chinese emperors would have Tang Xuanzong absent from it.
Note: Many mass media portrayals of Xuanzong focus on his disastrous obsession with Consort Yang, and how he foolishly allowed Yang’s relatives to dominate the imperial court. While this was true, Xuanzong did eventually ordered the execution of Consort Yang, albeit under threat from his guards. Personally, I feel this hinted at a lingering strand of integrity and rationalism in Xuanzong in his final years. Many other Chinese emperors would have refused, and instead, execute the guards.
Names? Titles? Eras?
Chinese emperors are remembered by different names. Or rather, titles. "Han Wudi" is a posthumous name. While "Tang Xuanzong" is a temple name. For the Qing Dynasty emperors, last on this list, they tend to be remembered by their era names. Admittedly, this could be very confusing for those new to Chinese history.
6. Song Taizhu (宋太主)
Actual name 赵匡胤 (Zhao Kuangyin). Reigned AD 960 to AD 976.
As the founding emperor of the Song Dynasty, Taizhu is credited with reuniting China after it was split into several warring states following the disintegration of the Tang Dynasty. A hardened military commander, purportedly also the creator of a branch of Chinese martial arts, Taizhu served as a general under the short-lived Later Zhou Dynasty. During an expedition, his troops rallied and insisted that he take over the throne. Further military successes eventually saw Taizhu reuniting China and establishing the Song Dynasty.
Some historians now debate whether this “coup” was actually masterminded by Song Taizhu himself. Many write-ups also credit the subsequent emperor as the actual one who laid the foundation for the prosperity of the Song Dynasty. These aside, Taizhu did bring an end to one of the most tumultuous eras in Chinese history. He also expanded the imperial education system, improved agricultural practices, and championed academies that encouraged freedom of thought. (This leads to some historians hailing the Song Dynasty as an era of liberalism) Most importantly, Taizhu wisely curtailed the authorities of military commanders after his ascension. Not through bloodshed and murder, but by coercion. In the immediate years that followed his reign, this freed China from the threat of internal feuding. In turn, this ensured the rise of the Song Dynasty, and the arrival of its golden era.
7. Ming Chengzu (明成主)
Actual name 朱棣 (Zhu Di). Reigned AD 1402 to AD 1424.
Also known as the Yongle Emperor (永乐), Ming Chengzu is the contentious emperor in this list. To begin with, he didn’t inherit his throne. He wrenched it from his nephew. He was also an exceptionally cruel and ruthless man. Chinese emperors have long practiced the execution of families of political opponents. Under Chengzu, this expanded to included even buddies and teachers. It was also Chengzu who officiated the horrible practice of killing concubines upon an emperor’s death.
His personality flaws aside, Chengzu did contribute significantly to an era of prosperity and growth in China. The empire benefitted greatly from his economic, educational and military reforms. The Chinese navy, under the auspice of Chengzu, also sailed throughout Asia, establishing many diplomatic relationships and reaching as far as Africa. The magnitude of his accomplishments could perhaps be gauged by the visibility of his legacy. Chengzu was responsible for permanently shifting the capital to Beijing, building the Forbidden City, and fortifying the Great Wall. The Yongle Encyclopaedia (永乐大典, Yongle Dadian), commissioned by him, continues to be one of the most important compendiums of Chinese knowledge and culture. To date, this remains the largest paper-based encyclopaedia in history. It is, of course, also an important cornerstone in the preservation of Chinese culture.
8. Emperor Kangxi (康熙大帝)
Actual name 愛新覺羅玄燁 (Aixin Jueluo Yuanye). Reigned AD 1661 to AD 1722.
The longest reigning Chinese emperor with an astonishing 61 years of rule, Kangxi was the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty and the first to be born on Chinese soil. Ascending the throne at the age of seven, the intrepid and diligent Kangxi soon wrestled power from his regents and suppressed a major revolt. He also contained the expansion of Imperial Russia, thereby bringing forth an era of peace and prosperity after centuries of despondency in China.
To give a hint of his able administration, consider how his treasury near tripled from 14 million taels at the start of his reign, to 50 million at its peak. Even after expensive military excursions during his final years, there was 32 million left. In addition, he also commissioned the Kangxi Dictionary. For the next two centuries, this became the official reference for Chinese writing.
Kangxi’s greatest success, however, was his cementing of Manchurian rule of China. In other words, he accomplished what the Mongolians failed to do during the Yuan Dynasty. Through a combination of many strategies, which included recruiting Chinese Confucian scholars, honouring and not debasing the history of the previous dynasty, and championing Chinese arts, Kangxi absorbed the best of China and shrewdly wielded it to legitimise Manchurian rule. His efforts would eventually gift China with over a century of prosperity. In turn, this secured the peaceful rule of his son Yongzheng, followed by his grandson, Qianlong.
The Last Dynasty of China
The Qing Dynasty was established after the Manchurians, descendants of the Jurchens, overthrew the Ming Dynasty in 1644. In other words, the Qing royal family was not Chinese at all. Visitors to the Forbidden City today would be reminded of this by the curly script that always accompanies Chinese characters on official plaques.
9. Emperor Yongzheng (雍正大帝)
Actual name 愛新覺羅胤禛 (Aixin Jueluo Yinzhen). Reigned AD 1722 to AD 1735.
The fifth emperor of the Qing Dynasty does not enjoy a good name in Chinese urban myths. No thanks to pulp fiction works such as Wuxia stories, Yongzheng is portrayed as a power hungry monster who murdered his father for the throne, then massacred most of his brothers. How true these accusations are might never be verified. However, there is plenty of proof that Yongzheng was a hardworking emperor like his father. Despotic as his reign and personality were, he was successful in improving the efficiency of the bureaucracy. He was also active in weeding out corruption, and enhancing fiscal and tax policies.
An alternate way to look at it would be that Yongzheng streamlined the structure laid by Emperor Kangxi, and paved the way for the Qing Dynasty to rise to its pinnacle. Upon his death, his son inherited a vast, functioning, peaceful realm that would forever leave its mark in history as one of the greatest ever. Murderous, foul, barbaric as he personally might be, it is undeniable that Yongzheng contributed to over a century of prosperity in China. Sadly, the same could not remotely be said for most of the emperors in the preceding Ming Dynasty. One of them didn’t even attend court for decades, while Yongzheng was known to often work late into the night.
10. Emperor Qianlong (乾隆大帝)
Actual name 愛新覺羅弘曆 (Aixin Jueluo Hongli). Reigned AD 1735 to AD 1796.
Most visitors to China today would encounter Emperor Qianlong one way or another. The second longest reigning Chinese emperor at sixty and a half years, Qianlong was fond of touring his empire, and during these trips, left tons of calligraphy and paintings everywhere. During his peaceful reign, the Qing Dynasty was also at the height of its power, fuelled by a thriving economy and doubling in size. Most historians nowadays readily agree that Qianlong’s reign was one of the most glorious periods in imperial Chinese history. China then dominated even Central Eurasia and Tibet.
Qianlong was also a great patron of the arts. He championed Tibetan Buddhism and Confucianism, albeit with ulterior political intentions. Like his grandfather, Kangxi, he commissioned a great literary project. The Siku Quanshu (四库全书), an encyclopaedia meant to rival the Yongle Encyclopaedia (see above). His various artistic involvements and grandiose architecture projects might have been considered as wasteful by Anti-Manchu factions then. However, like the Terracotta Army and the Forbidden Palace, these left China with a wealth of relics and sites. Today, they bring in millions of tourism dollars yearly for the Chinese people.
Most importantly, Qianlong’s overall reign left a crucial political lesson for China. While he didn’t suffer a dramatic reversal of fate like Tang Xuanzong, the Qing Dynasty went into decline during his later reign. Overindulgent in his own greatness, Qianlong surrounded himself with sycophants, leading to a sharp rise in nepotism and corruption in the imperial court. This commenced the decline of the Qing Dynasty, and less than half a century later, China would suffer one of its worst humiliations in the First Opium War. The Chinese saying Shengji Bishuai (盛极必衰) thus proves itself. Decline always follows after a pinnacle. Modern rulers, Chinese or not, would be wise to learn from Emperor Qianlong. One should remain vigilant even during the best years.
About the portraits
Many images in this hub are from the collection, One Hundred Portraits of Chinese Emperors (中国一百帝王图) by Lu Yanguang. The images themselves have been reproduced on popular tourist souvenirs such playing cards. The book also contains detailed write-ups on the emperors featured.