The Emperor of all China

Emperor Xuangde, eunuch, Ming dynasty
Ming Emperor Xuande with his imperial eunuchs. 1425-35. Image by unknown court artist available under a Creative Commons license

In the sections covering the long history of China, the Emperor has been frequently mentioned without describing how the Imperial system of China worked. This section looks at the system in broad terms ignoring the many minor variations that occurred over thousands of years. Although China has been a republic for one hundred years these systems still have relevance today.

Emperor huáng dì

Like so many Chinese concepts there is no direct translation to Western terms and concepts. Talk of empire immediately conjures up thoughts of the brutality of historical Empires such as the Roman Emperors. At the other end of the spectrum there are constitutional monarchies as in Britain where the monarch has no power. The Chinese conception was always different, there has been always a ritualistic and religious aspect. Perhaps thinking of the Pope as the head of the Catholic church has some merit as there was always been some paternalistic duty of care of the Emperor over his people. He should also lead an exemplary life of virtue to act as a template for his subjects to follow. Only a few emperors succumbed to the temptation of ruling as total autocrats - making decisions on their own and in their own interest. The role was always a peaceful and not a military one, the emperor at official engagements never wore military uniform or carried a weapon.


Closest to the Emperor was a large phalanx of eunuchs, at times numbered in thousands. They were his personal servants to carry out his wishes and maintain his welfare. As eunuchs were closest to the Emperor at times they delved into politics. There was a strict hierarchy of eunuchs and only very few of them became rich and powerful, most remained menial servants. For much more please read our ‘eunuch section’.

Then there were the officials who provided the Imperial administration (The 务府 Nèi wù fǔ) . Throughout most of two thousand years these have been selected on scholastic merit not on personal patronage. The highest ranked officials would be employed as tutors to the Imperial family. Although posts were not hereditary there were families that produced a good number of scholars who passed the examinations and became senior officials. For much more please read our ‘officials section

The Imperial family formed another important faction. Imperial patronage appointed them to positions at court. The princes were potential emperors in waiting and gathered their own supporters and were appointed to posts (often as provincial governors) to gather experience of rule and were judged on their success or otherwise.

Emperor Hongwu, emperor, ming dynasty
Portrait of Emperor Taizu of Ming Dynasty China by palace painter, Image available under a Creative Commons license .

Son of Heaven tiān zǐ

Crucial to the Imperial system of China is the concept of ‘Son of Heaven’. It is a tricky term to translate as the Chinese ‘heaven’ is not the same as a Christian ‘heaven’ perhaps ‘cosmos’ would be better, a more correct translation is perhaps ‘rightful emperor’. The Emperor was considered a descendent of the Shàng Dì the divine ruler. A traditional dynastic line traces all Emperors back to the Yellow Emperor huáng dì (although the family tree has to take some bizarre turns to accommodate them all).

China for thousands of years considered herself the center of the world both culturally and geographically. The Emperor was the sole conduit between the world of men and the cosmos. The concept did not admit other rulers to be at the same level as himself, he was at the top of the power pyramid, not just of China but the world - there could never be two Sons of Heaven.

He performed the ancient, traditional rites to the heavens and he obeyed their demands just as a son obeys the father in Confucian doctrine. Should the Son of Heaven disobey heaven he loses the Mandate of Heaven and rebellion is to be expected and is justified. Chief among the rites were those honoring the ancestors. As the pinnacle of the Confucian power pyramid the Emperor's veneration of his antecedents was considered paramount. As the father figure of the nation he set the agricultural year going by plowing a ritual furrow near the Temple of Heaven each Spring. As the only link with the heavens these rites were held to be of the utmost importance. He personally marked the finalist's papers in the Imperial examinations that would lead to their appointment as high officials.

Symbolically the Emperor was represented by the five clawed Imperial Dragon - a dragon is powerful but benign in Chinese mythology, not evil.

Mandate of Heaven tiān mìng

The Emperor rules only so long as he has the support of 'heaven'. The end of the mandate of heaven may be signaled by famines, floods, earthquakes, eclipses and other natural events. He can also lose it by ruling despotically without concern for the people he both rules and serves. For more on this please see Mandate of Heaven section.

Beijing, Forbidden City, Dragon throne
Dragon throne at the Imperial Palace, GuGong (Forbidden City, Zijincheng), Beijing

Imperial Titles

The normal greeting to the Emperor was Huáng shang roughly ‘Imperial majesty’. In his absence the Emperor was often referred to as Wàn suì yé ‘Lord for countless years’ particularly by the eunuchs. His official title was Tiān zǐ ‘son of heaven’ . On the other-hand the Emperor would refer to himself as Zhèn or when addressing an audience as Guǎ rén ‘morally lacking person’ in a gesture of humility.

Imperial Name

An Emperor can be referred to by a variety of names. He, like other Chinese people could change their name during the lifetime and also have a 'nickname'. On death the emperor would be bestowed an honorific title. Even more confusingly, periods of his reign were given a specific name that is often incorrectly used in place of the name of the Emperor. For more on this complex subject please see our detailed section on Imperial Names.

Empress and concubines

Contrary to popular belief there was only one Empress, but the Emperor would also have many concubines, often hundreds if not thousands. This system ensured there were plenty of sons for the Emperor to choose from as his successor. If the Empress bore him sons they were the most likely candidates, but in the early times of disease and misadventure the continuation of the dynasty required many alternatives to be available just in case. A son born to a concubine received the same status as the Empress's sons.

The Confucian doctrine of due deference to the family hierarchy requires that a person is always junior to his parents and must obey them in all things. This made the Dowager Empress (the mother of the Emperor even if a concubine) immensely powerful, particularly for Emperors in their youth who must obey their every wish. For more on the position of Imperial women see our long section.

Ming dynasty, Forbidden City, furniture, Beijing
Hall of Central Harmony (Zhong hedian) at the Forbidden City, Beijing

Imperial succession

An Emperor could not be succeeded by an uncle, this rule helped save China from turmoil as the Emperor usually had many brothers. He would not usually be succeeded by a brother, but there have been notable exceptions. The rule was that a son, or failing that a nephew should succeed him - he must come from the next generation. When a nephew was chosen the Emperor's father was effectively sidelined and was subject to his son's rule. This created great difficulties particularly at the end of the Qing dynasty when a series of emperors died young.

Benign dictatorship

It was Plato who wrote that Socrates believed the ideal form of government is not democracy but benign dictatorship under a Philosopher King . The leader rules absolutely but only in the best interests of the people. The ruler surrounds himself with wise advisers and chooses the best policy. He can make strategic decisions for the long-term without worrying about short-term unpopularity. This was the system that the Jesuits believed that they had found when they arrived in China in the early 17th century. Great European thinkers such as Leibniz heard these reports and embraced the Chinese system of government as the most enlightened in the world.

The weakness of such a system is that should an emperor not act benignly he is much less easy to remove from office than in a democracy, it usually took a long, bloody rebellion to end a dynasty.

Ming dynasty, Forbidden City, view, Beijing
View of the Forbidden City, Beijing from the peak of Jingshan Hill

Centralized rule

A key feature of the Chinese model of Empire is for a heavily centralized state with very limited local autonomy. The Imperial center made all the appointments even to a very local level and administered the finances. Administrative posts were held for short fixed terms and performance monitored. Imperial edicts written in vermillion ink by the Emperor's own hand received utmost priority. To support the system, fast communication to all points in the Empire was needed. Horses were held in readiness at relay stations so that an Imperial edict could travel over 100 miles [161 kms] each day. Strict rules applied to the maintenance of roads to maintain rapid communication. Elsewhere in the world mail delivery was measured in weeks and months not days. The government could then react quickly to events in remote regions of China. The turmoil and conflict that was prevalent when provinces broke away has led to a strong correlation in the Chinese mind between central control and prosperity. This legacy of dynastic times is important to understand when viewing China today which still has a rigid central system of control.

Very rarely did the Emperor emerge from the Imperial Palace, when he did the roads were cleared of all spectators as it was not considered proper for his subjects to so much as glance at the Emperor.

Emperor Qianlong, Qing dynasty
Emperor Qianlong's Pleasure during Snowy Weather. c. 1736-1738. From Chiumei Ho: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong, London 2004. Painting by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688?1766). Available under a Creative Commons license .

Censors in China

From the early years of Chinese history it was realized that without checks and balances corruption would take hold and bring ruin. One approach was to appoint the district administrators from far away and for a fixed term of office. The official could not then build up a local network of corrupt contacts and appoint his own family to posts. The second and more powerful mechanism was a branch of government to oversee administration. They would check that officials were performing their duties correctly. There 'censors' were not permanent positions, it was usual for a high official would serve for a limited term as a censor and then move on to other duties.

Just as important was the ability for an official to write to the Emperor suggesting a new policy or criticizing a current one. These are unfortunately termed in English 'memorial' 章表 zhāng biǎo while 'letter' or 'essay' would be more appropriate. These essays may result in the loss of their job if an emperor was sensitive to the criticism, but on the other hand the essay may lead to an opportunity to lead the implementation of a policy.

Tang Emperor Taizong explained the importance of the system in a note to his sons:

“The emperor, living in his palace, is blocked from direct access to information. For fear that faults might be left untold or defects unattended, he must set up various devices to elicit loyal suggestions and listen attentively to sincere advice...” (Chinese Civilization - A source book pp.113-144).

Dynastic cycle

Important throughout Chinese history has been a repeated cycle of events that has marked out many a dynasty's rise and decline

Chinese scholars such as Kang Youwei considered this cycle as that of yang (male, dominant, fierce) naturally flowing to yin (female, passive, contemplative) over the centuries.

Generalizations like this almost always fail to fit particular dynasties. In two noted cases the Qin and Sui dynasties were both short-lived 'one man dynasties' where a new family took the throne after the death of the reforming vigor had died with the founder. The succeeding dynasties, Han and Tang respectively, retained many of the reforms of their predecessors.

Emperor Puyi
Portrait of Puyi (Xuantong Emperor) (1906-1967) Image available under a Creative Commons license .

End of Empire

Puyi as the Emperor Xuantong (宣统) was the last Emperor of China. He was Emperor from the age of two in 1908 until he was forced out of the Forbidden City in 1924. From 1911 until 1924 the Republic of China allowed the Emperor to continue in title only with no power to rule the country. For all about his fascinating life read the Last Emperor section.

Imperial Legacy

When the Republic of China was founded in 1911 the long Imperial traditions were not so easily shaken off. The ‘Republican’ leader Yuan Shikai went on to attempt to form a new dynasty in the early days of the Republic in 1916. It is easy to see that Mao Zedong fits the bill as a dynastic founder - he overthrew his predecessors and brought in wide ranging reforms.

In many ways the Imperial system lives on in China, and shows no signs of going away. There is general deference to the government and to the President in particular. He is still seen as working in China's best interests and as the nation's father figure. He governs by listening to advice from experts and then autocratically imposing it. China is unified and centrally controlled with surprisingly little variation among the 1,400 million inhabitants. There is a general feeling of solidarity between all the people as one big family with the President at its head. Much has changed but the relationships remain the same.

Since Mao, the Chairmen and Presidents of China have retained a certain Imperial aura. They are not elected by the people and act in much the same way that an idealized Emperor should have ruled: benignly to further the best interests of the people. All presidents have to belong to one clan: the Communist Party and are loyal to clan members just like in a dynasty.

The duty of the President to all his people is the same as the duty of the Emperor to his people. This is why the Imperial analogy is still appropriate today and one reason why democratic elections of the President remain unlikely. Rather than being chosen by accident of birth a President is chosen by his senior colleagues just as high officials would advise the Emperor on the wisest choice of heir.

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