Top 10 Greatest Chinese Emperors
Any “top 10” article on greatest Chinese emperors is bound to be contentious. These ancient rulers not only enjoyed autocratic power, a good number of them were also terrifyingly cruel when they felt they needed to. For this list, my primary criterion was the average condition of the empire during and immediately after respective reigns. Note that this criterion could also be considered as flawed in many ways. Even during the most prosperous eras 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.
Top 10 Greatest Emperors of China
1. Qin Shihuang (秦始皇)
Actual name 嬴政 (Ying Zheng). Reigned 247 BC to 220 BC.
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 Chinese history. He also built the Great Wall and commissioned the Terracotta Army, thereby gifting China with billions of tourist revenue millennia later. On the other hand, Yin Zheng was also appallingly brutal during his conquest of the various states. After unification, he continued to order many atrocities. The most notorious of these were book burnings and live burials of scholars (焚书坑儒, fenshu kengru).
However tyrannical he was, though, 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 standardized language, numerical units and monetary measures too, all of which were crucial to the sustainable growth of the empire. Lastly, his various military campaigns expanded the Chinese sphere of domination, including to the “barbarian” areas of Guangdong and Hunan. Without the deeds of Qin Shihuang, China as we know it today might not even exist. Quite likely, it would have stayed the messy collection of bickering states it was prior to Qin Shihuang’s rule. Over time, these states could 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 because of forefathers, Wudi, the seventh emperor of the Han Dynasty, being a prime example of this. Prior to his reign, the Han Dynasty grew strong and stable under the capable leadership of Emperors Wen and Jing. When Wudi ascended the throne at age 15, power was also firmly centered on the imperial throne. To put it in another way, Wudi did not have to worry about groundwork. Everything was laid out well for him. He only had to manage his vast empire well.
As an able administrator, Wudi then contributed much to the development of a strong and centralized China. He promoted literature and music, and established diplomatic relations with Western Eurasia. He also doubled the size of the Chinese empire, either through warfare or diplomatic alliances, and successfully repelled several Xiongnu (barbarian) invasions from the north. To give a hint of Wudi’s accomplishments, at the peak of his reign, Han China extended all the way from the Korean peninsula to Eurasia. Without a doubt, Han Wudi ruled over one of the largest and strongest empires in antiquity. His empire easily rivalled that of the Rome over in Europe.
Despite these achievements, though, Wudi is seldom regarded by Chinese historians as an exceptional or enlightened ruler. While his successes 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. The Emperor did, however, somewhat redeemed himself with the famous Repenting Edict of Luntai (輪台悔詔). This took place after Wudi’s 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 also be 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 couldn’t lay claim to astonishing accomplishments such as starting a dynasty or doubling his territory, Han Guangwudi was renowned for being consultative and merciful, qualities truly rare among Chinese emperors. At the same time, Guangwudi was also a brilliant military tactician, who spearheaded the reinstatement of the Han Dynasty after it was usurped for 14 years by Wang Mang, a relative of the previous empress. So it was said, during the uprising, Guangwudi never needed a strategist. He himself was unmatched in this aspect.
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. In short, without Guangwudi’s accomplishments, China could have reverted to being a collection of battling states again, never recovering from the wounds inflicted by Wang Mang’s coup. Needless to say, this would have badly crippled the development of the Middle Kingdom as a major civilization. During which, inevitably resulting, in much death and hardship for commoners.
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 a key figure in the bloody uprising that overthrew the previous Sui Dynasty. Thereafter, he also had to content with his elder brother the Crown Prince, who regarded him as a deadly contender for the throne. Taizong only secured his succession after the notorious Xuanwu Gate ambush incident of AD 626. During this, he personally killed his elder and third brother.
As emperor, Tang Taizong benefitted from the support of several legendary statesmen and generals. He was greatly successful in consolidating the economic and military might of the Tang Dynasty. In great contrast to practically all other Chinese emperors, he was also receptive to criticism, the most famous example of this being his tolerance of Chancellor Wei Zheng. The feisty chancellor would often rebuke or disagree with Taizong, and while this occasionally infuriated the emperor, he continued to respect and honor Wei Zheng till beyond the latter’s passing. That Taizong once described Wei Zheng as “a mirror,” one in which he could use to check his own wrongdoings, is the ultimate testimonial of this great ruler’s humility and rationality. Because of this, subsequent dynasties and emperors all regarded Taizong’s reign as an age of enlightenment. Historical study of him was even made compulsory education for young princes.
5. Tang Xuanzong (唐玄宗)
Actual name 李隆基 (Li Longji). Reigned AD 712 to AD 756.
Also referred to as Emperor Ming, the seventh emperor of the Tang Dynasty is on this list for several reasons. In his youth, he survived the bloody power struggle following the demise of “Female Emperor” Wu Zetian, thereafter successfully restoring power to the Li Family. Hardworking and astute, he then grew Tang Dynasty China to its largest extent yet. At its peak, Chang’an, Xuanzong’s capital, was the greatest city in the world. The capital was a cosmopolitan metropolis thriving on trade from the Silk Route.
Tragically, Xianzong’s latter year obsession with legendary beauty Consort Yang (杨贵妃, Yang Guifei) resulted in the Anshi Rebellion, which in turn kick-started the decline of the Tang Dynasty. Key reasons for the rebellion include Xuanzong’s increasing negligence towards imperial management and how he permitted Yang’s relatives to dominate the imperial court. Nonetheless, Xuanzong’s contribution to China becoming an enduring Asian superpower is, on the whole, undeniable. No list of greatest Chinese emperors is thus fair, or complete, without Tang Xuanzong’s name on it.
Note: Many mass media portrayals of Xuanzong focus on his disastrous love for Consort Yang, particularly how he turned a blind eye to nepotism. 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 the emperor during his final years. Many other Chinese emperors would have refused, and instead, executed the guards.
Names? Titles? Eras?
Chinese emperors are referred to in many ways. "Han Wudi" is a posthumous name, while "Tang Xuanzong" is a temple name. For Qing Dynasty emperors, the last ones on this list, they tend to be remembered by their era titles. 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, Song Taizhu is credited with reuniting China after it 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 originally served as a general under the short-lived Later Zhou Dynasty. During an expedition, his troops rallied and insisted he take over the throne. Further military successes culminated with 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 second Song emperor as the actual one who laid the foundation for the prosperity of the dynasty, and not Song Taizhu. Regardless of the veracity of these theories, Song Taizhu did bring an end to one of China’s most tumultuous eras. He also expanded the imperial education system, on top of championing academies that encouraged freedom of thought. This led to some write-ups hailing the Song Dynasty as an era of liberalism.
Most importantly, Song Taizhu wisely curtailed the authorities of military commanders after his ascension, not through bloodshed or murder, but by coercion. In the immediate years that followed his reign, this move was invaluable in freeing China from the age old threat of internal feuding. It also 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 Yongle Emperor (永乐), Ming Chengzu is the contentious one on this list of greatest Chinese emperors. To begin with, he didn’t inherit his throne. He wrenched it from his nephew. Secondly, he was an exceptionally cruel and ruthless man, notorious for his harsh treatment of defeated enemies. While Chinese emperors have long endorsed the execution of families of political opponents, it was Chengzu who expanded this punishment to include even buddies and teachers. Chengzu also officiated the truly inhuman practice of killing concubines upon an emperor’s death.
On the other hand, Chengzu’s contributions toward the prosperity and growth of the Ming Dynasty China are irrefutable. The empire greatly benefitted from his economic, educational and military reforms. The Chinese navy, under the auspice of Chengzu, also sailed throughout Asia, establishing numerous diplomatic relationships and reaching as far as Africa. For modern day tourists to China, Chengzu’s accomplishments are easily experienced through the country’s most famous attractions. The Yongle emperor was the one who shifted the capital to Beijing, thereafter also building the Forbidden City and fortifying the Great Wall. Finally, the Yongle Encyclopedia (永乐大典, Yongle Dadian), commissioned by Chengzu, continues to be one of the most important compendiums of Chinese knowledge and culture. To date, this remains the largest paper-based encyclopedia 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 Xuanye). 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. Later, he also contained the expansionistic campaigns of Imperial Russia. These early successes quickly established his reputation as one of the greatest Chinese rulers ever.
To give some indications of his able administration, Kangxi’s treasury near tripled from 14 million taels at the start of his reign, to 50 million at its peak. Even after several expensive military excursions during his final years, there were still 32 million left. In addition, the emperor also commissioned the extensive Kangxi Dictionary, which upon completion contained over 47,000 characters. This dictionary would go on to become the official reference for all Chinese writing for the next two hundred years.
Kangxi’s greatest success, however, was not his military campaigns or fiscal policies, it was how he cemented Manchurian rule of China. Through a combination of different strategies which included recruiting Chinese Confucian scholars, honoring and not debasing the histories of the previous dynasty, and championing Chinese arts, Kangxi absorbed the best of China and shrewdly wielded it to legitimize Manchurian rule. To put it in another way, he accomplished what the Mongolians totally failed to do during the earlier Yuan Dynasty. His efforts would eventually gift China with over a century of affluence. In turn, this secured the peaceful rule of his son Yongzheng. Followed by that of his grandson, Qianlong.
The Last Dynasty of China
The Qing Dynasty was established in 1644 after the Manchurians, descendants of the Jurchens, overthrew the Ming Dynasty. In other words, the Qing royal family was not Chinese at all. Visitors to the Forbidden City today would be constantly reminded of this by the curly script that 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 reputation in Chinese urban myths, no thanks to modern pulp fiction works such as Wuxia stories. In these, Yongzheng is often portrayed as a power hungry monster who first murdered his father for the throne, then massacred most of his brothers to secure his rule. How true these accusations are might never be verified, but there is plenty of proof that Yongzheng was a hardworking emperor like his father. Despotic as his reign might be, he was largely successful in improving the efficiency of the bureaucracy. Yongzheng also weeded out corruption and enhanced fiscal policies.
Another achievement of Yongzheng is his streamlining of the bureaucratic structure laid by Emperor Kangxi, which then paved the way for the Qing Dynasty to rise to its pinnacle. Upon his death, Yongzheng’s son inherited a vast, functioning, and peaceful realm that would forever leave its mark in history as one of the greatest ever. Murderous, foul, barbaric as Yongzheng might personally be, it is undeniable that Yongzheng contributed to over a century of prosperity in China. The same could not remotely be said for most of the emperors in the preceding Ming Dynasty. One Ming emperor 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.
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, fueled by a thriving economy and doubling in size. Most historians nowadays acknowledge Qianlong’s reign as one of the most glorious periods in imperial Chinese history. China then dominated even Central Eurasia and Tibet.
As a ruler, Qianlong was also a great patron of the arts. He championed Tibetan Buddhism and Confucianism, albeit with political control in mind. Like his grandfather, he also commissioned a great literary project. The Siku Quanshu (四库全书) was an encyclopedia 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 back then. However, like the Terracotta Army and the Forbidden Palace, these ultimately bequeathed 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 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 within the imperial court. This commenced the decline of the Qing Dynasty, and less than half a century after Qianlong’s passing, China would suffer one of its worst humiliations after the First Opium War. The Chinese saying, Shengji Bishuai (盛极必衰), thus proves itself. Decline always follows 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
Portraits in this article 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.
Questions & Answers
© 2016 Kuan Leong Yong