KL Yong earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.
Any “top 10” article on the 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 be. Absolutely inhumane as well, by modern standards.
For this list, the primary criterion is the average condition of the Chinese empire during and immediately after respective reigns. Note that this criterion could also be considered flawed in many ways. Even during the most prosperous eras of ancient China, large segments of the population were impoverished. The bulk of the population was uneducated too.
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
- Qin Shihuang (秦始皇)
- Han Wudi (汉武帝)
- Han Guangwudi (汉光武帝)
- Tang Taizong (唐太宗)
- Tang Xuanzong (唐玄宗)
- Song Taizhu (宋太主)
- Ming Chengzu (明成主)
- Emperor Kangxi (康熙大帝)
- Emperor Yongzheng (雍正大帝)
- Emperor Qianlong (乾隆大帝)
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 bickering 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 flipside, Yin Zheng was also appallingly brutal during his conquest of the various states. For example, over 100,000 died during Qin’s conquest of the Wei State in 225 BC. After unification, he continued to order many atrocities too. The most notorious of these were book burnings and the live burials of scholars (焚书坑儒, fenshu kengru).
However tyrannical he was, though, one fact is indisputable. 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, all of which were crucial to the sustainable growth of the Chinese empire and Chinese culture.
Additionally, Ying Zheng’s many 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 and famous Chinese emperors did not build up their empires. Rather, they benefitted from the labors of forefathers. Wudi, the seventh emperor of the Han Dynasty, is a prime example of this.
Before Wudi's 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 never had to worry about groundwork or authority. Everything was well laid out 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 diplomatic alliances or the conquest of neighboring states like Nanyue.
Additionally, the Han Empire under him successfully repelled several Xiongnu (barbarian) invasions from the north. To give some indication of this famous emperor’s territorial accomplishments, at the peak of Wudi’s reign, Han China extended all the way from the Korean peninsula to Eurasia. Without a doubt, Han Wudi then ruled over one of the largest and strongest empires in antiquity. His empire easily rivaled that of Rome over in Europe.
Of note, though, despite these accomplishments, 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, exceptionally superstitious and paranoid. Notoriously, Wudi executed entire clans in 96 BC, including royal relatives, on suspicion of witchcraft.
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 feel 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, which is a great injustice.
While the first ruler of the Eastern Han Dynasty couldn’t lay claim to astonishing accomplishments such as uniting China or doubling its 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 revitalized the dying Han Dynasty and kept it going for another two centuries. His subsequent reforms and military successes then paved the way for another golden age in China.
In short, without Guangwudi’s accomplishments, China could have reverted to being a collection of warring states, 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. Much death and hardship for commoners would have also resulted.
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, Taizong was a key figure in the bloody uprising that overthrew the previous Sui Dynasty.
Thereafter, he also had to deal 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 such as Li Jing. He was greatly successful in consolidating the economic and military might of the Tang Dynasty. His accomplishments also established the way for the Tang Dynasty to become the most glorious dynasty in imperial Chinese history.
A rationalist by nature, Taizong additionally improved imperial examination systems, scorned superstitions, and tolerated criticism, the latter quality practically non-existent with other Chinese emperors. Famously, Taizong permitted the feisty chancellor Wei Zheng to openly rebuke or disagree with him. Though often infuriated, he also 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 wrongdoings, is the ultimate testimonial of this great ruler’s humility and rationality. Thanks to this, subsequent Chinese 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, Xuanzong survived the bloody power struggle following the demise of “Female Emperor” Wu Zetian, thereafter successfully restoring power to the Li Family and ridding the empire of the worst elements of Wu Zetian’s rule. The latter being Wu’s many secret agents.
Hardworking and astute, Xuanzong 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 also a cosmopolitan metropolis thriving on trade from the Silk Route, the heart of China’s most prosperous golden age.
Most importantly, Xuanzong’s diplomacy and military direction survived endless bickering with neighboring empires. While he wasn’t always victorious, the Middle Kingdom did not suffer any significant territorial loss. The Tang Dynasty’s growth into its golden age was unhindered.
Tragically, however, 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 contributions to China in becoming an enduring Asian superpower is, on the whole, undeniable. No list of greatest Chinese emperors is thus fair, or complete, without his 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.
In a way, this hints 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 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 originally 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 then culminated with Taizhu reuniting China and establishing the Song Dynasty.
On this “coup,” known in Chinese as Chen Qiao Bing Bian (陈桥兵变), some modern historians have questioned whether it was actually masterminded by Song Taizhu himself. Many write-ups also credit the subsequent Song emperor i.e. Song Taizong as the actual one who laid the foundation for the prosperity of the dynasty.
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 the Yongle Emperor (永乐), Ming Chengzu is the contentious one on this list of greatest Chinese emperors.
To begin with, Chengzu 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 teachers and friends. Chengzu also officiated the truly inhuman practice of killing concubines upon an emperor’s death. For several generations after Chengzu’s rule, the passing of an emperor always results in mass horror within the Forbidden City.
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 from Nanjing 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. These achievements, in all, establishes Chengzu as the greatest Ming Dynasty Emperor.
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 Manchu ruler 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 in Southern and Western China. 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.
Additionally, the famous 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 neither his military campaigns nor his fiscal management, it was how he cemented the Manchurian rule of China.
Through a combination of strategies that 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 utterly failed to do during the earlier Yuan Dynasty. He managed to do what no other conqueror of China, in history, managed to do.
Kangxi’s efforts would eventually also gift China with over a century of affluence. His accomplishments secured the peaceful rule of his son Yongzheng. His grandson, Qianlong, also greatly benefitted.
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. Modern visitors to the Forbidden City 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 (Kangxi) for the throne, then massacred most of his brothers to secure his rule. He subsequently also ordered the assassination of many Ming Dynasty loyalists.
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 too. Yongzheng is also known for weeding out corruption and enhancing fiscal policies.
Another achievement of Yongzheng is his streamlining of the bureaucratic structure laid by 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, short-tempered, 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. Many 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. Qianlong himself could be considered the last great emperor of China too.
As a ruler, Qianlong was additionally a great patron of the arts and religion. 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).
These 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, they ultimately bequeathed China with a trove of relics and sites. Today, these bring in millions of tourism dollars yearly for the Chinese people.
Most significantly, 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 then commenced the decline of the Qing Dynasty, and less than half a century after Qianlong’s passing, China suffered one of its worst humiliations ever in the form of the First Opium War.
Through this decline, 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 famous emperors featured.
© 2016 Yong Kuan Leong
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on June 07, 2019:
Glad to be of help!
jayden on June 06, 2019:
this helped me so much im doing an assesmant on qin
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on January 10, 2019:
That's an interesting question! I have no idea and I doubt anyone would ever. Historical portraits all tend to depict the emperors as rather stately. (Although I think most still look mundane) Old photographs of the final ones show them to be rather ... hmm. But maybe it's just bad photography.
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on October 25, 2018:
Hey, thanks for the kind comments. I will try to come out with more Asian articles.
As for Sui Wendi, he was indeed one of the best Chinese emperors. A diligent and wise ruler. For that reason, I gave a lot of thought to why I didn't think of him when preparing this list, after reading your comment. Ultimately, I can't explain beyond saying, Wendi's deeds were great but were "not" as significant as the rest mentioned here. I acknowledge this is very much my personal opinion, and that I am affected by how short the Sui dynasty is. I wouldn't blame anyone for considering me bias.
Afiqh RS on October 22, 2018:
You forgot Sui Wendi! Anyway giid post and imagery! Try write another asian article!
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on August 07, 2018:
Hi Jerry, thanks for commenting. And nope, I don't find your comment at all offensive. Personally, I've long concluded the CCP is but another dynasty albeit one using different titles. We Chinese will never move away from the dynastic mindset.
But to say Xi Jinping is a great/terrible emperor, IMO, is way too early. He enjoys powers equivalent to that of a typical Chinese emperor, but whether that would benefit or harm China in the long run remains to be seen. For all emperors listed above, their true legacies were only apparently decades and centuries down the road. I'm sure one would be spit on if he claims Qin Shihuang is a great emperor during those times. Yet, centuries later, China continues to benefit from his decisions.
Jerry on August 07, 2018:
Dont mean offensive, or do not want sound like troll, or initiate flamewar, but what about Xi Jinping? After last constitutional changes, someone calling him new chinese emperor and he is rebuilding superpower position of China which dimnished since collapse of corrupted and weak Qing dynasty.
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on November 21, 2017:
Er ... Cleo? Erm ...............
This is amazing! on November 21, 2017:
Way to go what about cleopatra Though? It was amazing!
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on November 06, 2017:
Yang: Oh gosh, there's like, more than half a dynasty between the two.
Yang Hano on November 02, 2017:
My teacher thought Han Wudi and Han Guangwudi where the same people
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on October 26, 2017:
Hey Namen, Yvan, thanks for commenting. Glad you like this writeup.
Namen on October 25, 2017:
love this if theres any more top ten like this id like to read them thanks
Yvan on October 24, 2017:
Thank you this helped me a lot because I’m studying Chinese emperors at school and this helped me a lot
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on October 18, 2017:
Thanks Kyle. You're welcome. :)
Kyle on October 18, 2017:
Thanks perfect for projects if you're comparing Chinese emperors! :)
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on September 07, 2017:
Wu Zetian was a capable administrator, absolutely brilliant compared to many other Chinese emperors. However, she did also surfed on the accomplishments of Li Shimin. She also established a particularly brutal espionage system, and in her older days, openly endorsed nepotism such as the notorious Zhang Brothers.
And while she did contribute to the subsequent golden age of the Tang Dynasty, it's a little farfetched to say she ensured the next 250 years of it. To begin with, her rule was the Zhou Dynasty. She also massacred a good number of the Lis and usurped the throne. Had the Lis not successfully removed her and restore Tang rule, the Tang Dynasty could have ended there and then.
Personally, I feel Wu Zetian is one of those historical characters that would forever draw opposing opinions. Precisely because of this, her gender should not be a major factor in any discussion of her. She a formidable woman and a shrewd strategist, who triumphed in a paternalistic society. I would keep it as that and not ponder how she would fare as a man. Her entire story would be different, to begin with.
Where's Empress Wu on September 07, 2017:
I was very surprised she did not make this list. Her achievements are greater than some of the listed rulers here. Is it just sexism or does she not deserve her place in history?
I am looking for objective analysis if she were a man. I'm interested in her but it seems her story is clouded by millennia of deep rooted sexism.
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on October 30, 2016:
Hey Garnet! Thanks for commenting. I did visit and commented a while ago. Juicy, isn't it? (UN)fortunately, or not, a lot of us Chinese take that to be the concrete truth. LOL. Lots of scandalous TV dramas about it too.
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on October 30, 2016:
Hey, Cheeky, there was. Check out my hub on Chinese myths. This is kinda confusing; I was baffled by it for years. Before Qin Shihuang, China had the Zhou, Shang, and supposedly Xia dynasties. And some emperors before that! From what I could deduce though, their system back then was more of vassal states honouring a leading one. Something like the Holy Roman Empire, I think. Generally, historians consider leaders the to be kings, not emperors. (The use of the Chinese word wang, instead of di, or huangdi).
Something like that!
Cheeky Kid from Milky Way on October 29, 2016:
All this time, I thought the first ever emperor was an emperor named "Yu"--Emperor Yu.
Gloria Siess from Wrightwood, California on October 28, 2016:
Excellent hub! Have you read my hub, an ancient Chinese sex scandal? It is referring to qin's mother who plotted to overtake the dynasty with her lover. Fascinating artwork, I enjoyed this.