Top 10 Terrible Chinese Emperors
Stanford University political science professor Francis Fukuyama once highlighted the vulnerability of China to the “bad emperor” syndrome. Indeed, while China has enjoyed many golden ages in its long history, it has suffered far more under terrible emperors, these running the entire gamut from the inept to the oblivious, to the downright psychotic. Here are the ten most terrible Chinese emperors to have ruled the Middle Kingdom. In several cases, their reigns were so terrifying, their titles became synonymous with evil and decadence.
1. Xia Jie (夏桀)
Actual name 桀 (Jie). Reign: Disputed. Supposedly 1728 BC to 1675 BC.
Historians continue to debate whether Xia, the first dynasty in traditional Chinese history, truly existed. To date, there remains no conclusive archeological evidence confirming the existence of this mythical first dynasty. There were also no written records about Xia during the Shang Dynasty, the latter supposedly the one succeeding Xia.
Despite these, many Chinese still believe in the existence of Xia and how its final emperor was a nightmarish despot. Purportedly, Xia Jie was an exceptionally cruel man, greatly intolerant of criticism as well as obsessed with sex, luxury, and entertainment. His many crimes include being fond of riding his advisers like horses and constructing a wine lake filled with naked men and women for his favourite consort. According to Zhou Dynasty records dating several centuries later, Xie’s horrific rule eventually saw many of the kingdoms he held suzerainty over rallying under the Kingdom of Shang. After many battles, Tang (汤), the king of Shang, defeated Xie and established the Shang Dynasty. “Xia Jie” thereafter became a metaphor for inevitable change as a result of tyrannical rule.
2. Di Xin (帝辛)
Actual name 受德 (Shoude). Reigned 1075 BC to 1046 BC.
Napoleon Bonaparte once remarked that “history is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.” This might especially be so in the case of Di Xin, otherwise also known as Shang Zhou Wang (商纣王). Immortalised in the literary epic The Investiture of the Gods, Di Xin was described as a foul-natured tyrant hopelessly bewitched by Da Ji (妲己), the human manifestation of a nine-tailed vixen. Under her wicked influence, Di Xin indulged in a great variety of immoral activities, such as constructing the Wine Pool and Meat Forest (酒池肉林, jiu chi rou lin), a large wine lake with an island on which meat skewers suspended from trees. He also supposedly devised various torturous executions methods and was said to be aroused by them. The most notorious of these methods was the “Cannon Burning Punishment.” A hollow bronze cylinder would be heated till red hot, and the victim tied naked to it till death.
Given The Investiture of the Gods included an entire host of supernatural beings as main characters, it is only reasonable to doubt whether Di Xin was indeed such a terrible ruler. That said, it is known that his troops were soundly defeated in 1046 BC at Muye by the Kingdom of Zhou, with Di Xin thereafter committing suicide and ending the Shang Dynasty. Based on this, one could safely conclude that Di Xin was at the very least an inept ruler and military leader. For the Chinese, he goes down in history as of one of the most terrible Chinese emperors ever. His outrageous “sins” continue to be lamented regularly in television and movie adaptations of The Investiture of the Gods.
Similarities between Xie Jie and Di Xin lead some historians to believe both stories were exaggerations by Zhou Dynasty politicians. For the purpose of justifying political change.
3. Zhou You Wang (周幽王)
Actual name 宮湦 (Gongsheng). Reigned 781 BC to 771 BC.
Zhou You Wang was the twelfth ruler of the Zhou Dynasty and little is known about him, except for one story. In 779 BC, a consort named Bao Si (褒姒) entered the palace and soon, Zhou You Wang was completely obsessed with the beauty, to the extent of replacing his original queen with her. Unfortunately for the besotted king, though, Bao Si was melancholic by nature and uninclined to smile no matter what the king did. Eventually, Zhou You Wang experimented with the prank of lighting wartime warning beacons and fooling his nobles into thinking barbarians were invading the capital. At the sight of armies frantically rushing to the aid of the capital, the moody Bao Si finally broke into a hint of a smile.
Indignant as they were, the nobles most probably would have forgiven Zhou You Wang, had he not repeatedly pulled the same prank. Ultimately, in an oriental staging of The Boy Who Cried Wolf story, no one came to the king’s aid when barbarians did attack the capital. During the invasion, Zhou You Wang was slaughtered while Bao Si was captured. (She later committed suicide) After the Zhou Dynasty regained control, the capital was shifted eastward to Luoyang, thus beginning the Eastern Zhou dynastic era. The story of the foolish king who toyed with military matters for the sake of a smile then became an enduring lesson on responsibility and sensibility.
4. Han Ai Di (汉哀帝)
Actual name 刘欣 (Liu Xin). Reigned 7 BC to 1 BC.
Surprising as it would sound, homosexuality was tolerated in Ancient China. During the Western Han Dynasty, male consorts openly existed within the imperial palace, these usually being handsome and artistic young men or palace eunuchs. Their formal duties ranged from being mere attendants to important officials of the court. According to some historical accounts, practically every Han emperor had a favorite guy in his entourage.
In the case of Han Ai Di, the emperor became infatuated with the handsome Dong Xian (董贤) at first sight, to the extent he immediately bestowed an emissary position in addition to allowing the younger man to sit on his lap. In the years to follow, Dong Xian was showered with even more riches and promotions, resulting in him becoming the most powerful official by the age of 22. So love-struck was the emperor that once at a banquet, he even joked about abdicating in favor of Dong Xian. By all counts, Dong Xian would have completely monopolized power in the palace, had Han Ai Di not mysteriously died in 1 BC. In the political coup that followed, Dong Xian was forced by his rivals to commit suicide.
Modern historians agree that Han Ai Di and Dong Xian likely had an active homosexual relationship, despite both being married and Dong Xian having children. The famous story goes that one afternoon, the emperor woke up to discover Dong Xian still fast asleep on his sleeve, and so as not to wake his lover, the emperor proceeded to cut off his sleeve. This gave rise to the Chinese idiom, the passion of the cut sleeve (断袖之癖), a veiled way of referring to male homosexuality. Of note, compared to other terrible Chinese emperors on this list, Han Ai Di wasn’t particularly cruel or wicked. He was simply a foolish young man head over heels in love. Regrettably, this hastened the demise of his already embattled dynasty.
5. Han Ling Di (汉灵帝)
Actual name 刘宏 (Liu Hong). Reigned AD 168 to AD 189.
Han Ling Di was the twelfth emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty. Dissolute by nature, he neglected state affairs and instead chose to indulge in women. Worse, the court came to be dominated by eunuchs during his reign, the worst of these being the hated Zhang Rang. To fund the emperor’s lavish lifestyle and to line their own pockets, corrupted court officers levied increasingly unbearable taxes on the peasants. Han Ling Di himself also approved the practice of selling political offices for money. This irredeemably damaged the integrity of the already teetering Eastern Han Dynasty.
Without surprise, Han Ling Di’s actions were major catalysts for the demise of the Eastern Han Dynasty 31 years later. His appalling policies infuriated and empowered various warlords and politician factions, with open conflict breaking out between these shortly after Han Ling Di’s death. As a result of this power grabbing, China was fragmented into three, giving rise to the famous Three Kingdoms Era. No thanks to this horrible ruler, hundreds and thousands of Chinese died in decades of continuous civil war. The Middle Kingdom would also not be reunited until 60 years later.
6. Jin Hui Di (晋惠帝)
Actual name 司马衷 (Sima Zhong). Reigned AD 290 to AD 307.
In AD 280, after 60 years of civil war between Cao Wei, Shu Han and Sun Wu, China was once again reunited as one under the Jin Dynasty. However, peace was short-lived as barely after ten years, the devastating War of The Eight Princes broke out in AD 291. Intermittent conflict continued till AD 306, severely and permanently weakening the empire. This, in turn, laid the groundwork for invasion by the “Five Barbarian Tribes.” The invasion ended with Jin losing its northern and western territories forever.
On the surface, this swift disintegration of Jin could be blamed on Jin Hui Di, the second emperor of the dynasty. Hopelessly aloof and unintelligent, he spent his reign manipulated by his empress, regents and royal relatives, before mysteriously dying in early AD 307. As an example of his stupidity, he once notoriously asked his court in AD 303, if peasants are starving from lack of rice, why don’t they just switch to eating meat porridge? Modern historians, however, are generally sympathetic to Jin Hui Di, concluding that he was very likely intellectually disabled. In that sense, of all the terrible Chinese emperors on this list, Jin Hui Di is the only one not despotic, dissolute or wicked by nature. One could also consider his father Jin Wu Di to be the real culprit behind Jin’s rapid downfall. He was said to be aware of his son’s condition but chose to ignore it for fear of his brothers replacing his lineage.
7. Bei Qi Wen Xuan Di (北齐文宣帝)
Actual name 高洋 (Gao Yang). Reigned AD 550 to AD 559.
Many Chinese emperors achieve greatest in their earlier reigns, only to slip into debauchery and disregard in later years. Among the many examples, Wen Xuan Di of Northern Qi during the Northern and Southern Dynasties period stands as the most appalling. Respected in his youth for his military prowess as well as efforts to reduce corruption, Wen Xuan Di eventually succumbed to alcoholism, and by all accounts, was very possibly psychotic during his later reign. Horrifically, he once beheaded a consort he suspected of infidelity, then tossed her head onto a banquet platter while fondling the corpse’s leg. During Wen Xuan Di’s final years, the entire court including his son lived in constant fear of him. Not only was the emperor homicidal when drunk, he was also an insatiable womanizer. Few females in the palace were spared.
Ironically, despite Wen Xuan Di’s savagery at home, Northern Qi was at its strongest under him. His brutality during wars saw the conquest or repulsion of many barbarians tribes. Law and order within the imperial court were also strengthened through fear of him. It remains anyone’s guess as to what Northern Qi would have become had Wen Xuan Di not abruptly died at age 33, likely from alcoholism-related reasons. Would it have strengthened to the extent it could defeat its southern rivals and reunite China? One could only speculate.
8. Sui Yang Di (隋炀帝)
Actual name 杨广 (Yang Guang). Reigned AD 604 to AD 618.
The second emperor of the short-lived Sui Dynasty appears on any literature featuring terrible Chinese Emperors, and indeed his crimes are many. Fond of grandiose projects, hungry to invade neighboring kingdoms, and worse, decadent by nature, his decisions directly caused the death of millions of Chinese on top of bankrupting the Sui treasury. Historians generally consider Sui Yang Di as one of China’s worst tyrants.
To give some numerical indications of his horrific rule, his reconstruction of the Great Wall resulted in six million workers losing their lives. While his troops succeeded in conquering Champa in what is now Southern Vietnam, thousands of Sui soldiers also died from malaria. Most notorious of all, over a mere slight, Sui Yang Di ordered an invasion of the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo, but utterly mismanaged the war when overseeing it personally. As a result, several hundred thousand Sui soldiers died from famine or ambushes. These repeated damages to the Sui Dynasty ultimately saw revolts erupting throughout China. In AD 618, this despised emperor was finally strangled to death during a coup led by one of his top generals.
9. Song Hui Zong (宋徽宗)
Actual name 赵佶 (Zhao Ji). Reigned AD 1100 to AD 1126
Other than recognition for his artistic talents, history has no kind words for Song Hui Zong, the second last emperor of the Northern Song Dynasty. Inheriting his empire at a time when Northern Song was at its weakest, Song Hui Zong’s ineffectually rule concluded with a full-scale Jurchen invasion. In AD 1127, his capital was overrun with Song Hui Zong captured together with his son. The deposed emperor would spend the next eight years in humiliating captivity under his invaders, before dying in AD 1135 thousands of miles away from remnant Song territory.
Today, the harshest critics condemn Song Hui Zong to be an indulgent and decadent ruler. A wastrel who chose to spend his days surrounded by music and the arts instead of attending to the crisis brewing on his borders. Legend also goes that Song Hui Zong was lascivious, often leaving his palace incognito to visit courtesans, the most famous of these being the beauty Li Shishi. Given history is often an imprecise science, one that’s unkind to the downtrodden, it might be wise to treat some of the more unforgiving accusations with skepticism. One thing’s for sure, though. Of all the terrible Chinese emperors on this list, Song Hui Zong is the only one who paid the full price for his folly. He languished for seven years in constant humiliation, before dying miserably away from home.
10. Ming Shen Zong (明神宗)
Actual name 朱翊鈞 (Zhu Yijun). Reigned AD 1572 to AD 1620.
Were you to pick one defining characteristic of a terrible ruler, what would you choose?
Cruelty, debauchery, political ineptitude? Or would it be disregard? The blatant shirking of responsibility as an empire’s leader and soul?
In the case of Ming Shen Zong, more commonly remembered as the Wanli Emperor (万历皇帝), it was his astonishing disinterest in governing China that earned him permanent placement on any list of terrible Chinese emperors. The 14th ruler of the Ming Dynasty, he spent 20 of his 48 years of rule away from court. In other words, he was on strike for near half of his reign. As a direct consequence of this absence, the already brittle Ming Dynasty further declined, with power ultimately ensconced in the hands of corrupted officers and eunuchs. While his empire disintegrated, Ming Shen Zong devoted his days to supervising the construction of his underground mausoleum. So it was said he also held lavish nightly parties and orgies within the unfinished structure.
To be fair, it should be noted that Ming Shen Zong was regarded in his younger days as a diligent and capable ruler. Between AD 1582 and AD 1600, he successfully repelled various foreign invasions as well as suppressed an uprising. Modern historians are currently of the view the man’s “industrial action” was largely due to his disenchantment with court politics and how he was denied his choice of successor. Regardless, Ming Shen Zong’s abandonment of his duties laid the groundwork for China’s occupation by the Manchus in AD 1644. Some historians go as far as to state it was not the final two Ming emperors, but Ming Shen Zong, who should be responsible for the stunning defeat.
About the Portraits
Portraits used in this list are from the collection, One Hundred Portraits of Chinese Emperors (中国一百帝王图) by Lu Yanguang.
What About Qin Shihuang (秦始皇)?
The cruelty of China’s first true emperor needs no introduction. Like Xia Jie, his act of “burning books and burying scholars” became an idiom in the Chinese language for despotic rule. It is also well known that hundreds of thousands of peasant died in the construction of the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army, and that the Qin Dynasty was overthrown briefly after Qin Shihuang’s death.
However, in the Chinese belief of 功盖于过 (gong gai yu guo), he is not on this list of terrible Chinese emperors for his contributions to the China arguably exceeds his crimes. His unification of the Warring States laid the cornerstone for China’s rise as a major civilization. His standardization of language and currency, and establishment of the capital as a center of control also continued to benefit China long after his death. In recent years, Qin Shihuang was even celebrated by Maoists as a hero opposing historical chains of division. On the other hand, many historians continue to view him as one of the most brutal Chinese rulers ever. This list does not deny that living under his rule was indeed a horrible fate.
© 2018 Kuan Leong Yong