Top 10 Chinese Emperors

The Grand Historian archives’ records that the ancient Chinese civilization began under the Xia dynasty (2070- 1600 BC).

Then it culminated with the Qing dynasty (1644- 1911 AD). After the Qing dynasty, China became a republic, which marked the end of the dynastic era. There were a total of 332 emperors in 2132 years of the Chinese empire. 

During the dynastic era, the monarchies enjoyed autocratic power and were also terrifyingly cruel and inhumane by modern standards. Still, some greatest emperors have left their mark. Here are the top 10 emperors of ancient China.

10. Song Taizu (927- 976 AD)

Chinese Emperor Song Taizu
Chinese Emperor Song Taizu
Source: Wikimedia Common

(Emperor Taizu) Zhao Kauangyin founded the Song dynasty and ruled between 960 and 976 AD. He became the first emperor of the Song dynasty by forcing the last Zhou ruler, Emperor Gong, to give up his throne. 

Song Taizu then seized power in his hands illegally in a coup where he was a military general in the Zhou dynasty army.

Through this action, he reunified China after its disorderly period of the Five Dynasties(Ten Kingdoms) that lasted for a hundred years. The dynasty oversaw institutional and cultural growth.[1]

During his rule, Taizu did not give military officials power but trusted the civil officials in his administration.

He was conscious of the possibility of the military officials misusing power and feared they would start a rebellion, having already staged a coup himself.

He was an exemplary emperor with respect for scholars and officials and let them advise for the country’s good. He served as a model for later dynasties, built a foundation to flourish culture in China, and made it a world center of civilization, cultural exchange, and foreign attraction.

China became more prosperous than any of the before dynasties during the Song dynasty period where its population reached 100 million.

Song Taizu made prominent achievements in economy, culture, technology and placed China at the forefront of the world. He brought the use of paper money at that time. It made internal and external trade flourish. 

He also perfected the civil service system and permitted philosophical thinking in a relatively free political environment. The emperor encouraged freedom of thought and stimulated growth in art, literature and science. He expanded his economy and territory, making the Song dynasty become a peaceful rule. 

9. Emperor Renzong of Song (1010- 1063 AD) 

Chinese Emperor Renzong of Song
Chinese Emperor Renzong of Song
Source: Wikimedia Common

(Emperor Renzong of Song)Zhao Zhen’s reign(1022- 1063 AD) is one of the most peaceful and prosperous times in Chinese history marked by his sincerity in governance.

His tolerance of policies, open-mindedness, and self-control over his imperial power differentiates him from other Chinese monarchs. 

Renzong respected the literati and officialdom and treated them as equals. Unlike most Ming and Qing dynasties’ emperors, he saw potential in them and never sentenced anyone to death.

The literati and officialdom also respected him, never turned against him, and helped him serve the country to the best of their ability. He also respected his people and allowed them to criticize him. During his reign, the civilians of the Song Empire experienced happiness and prosperity.[2]

Great poets and historical figures, Yan Shu, Sima Guang, Fan Zhongyan and Bao Zheng, got recognized in Renzong’s rule.

These figures also contributed to politics. Song Renzong also had respect for his eunuchs and maidservants. Under his rule, the Song government came the closest to reaching the Confucian ideal of a just government.

8. Shizu of Yuan (1215- 1295 AD) 

A portrait of Chinese Emperor Shizu of Yuan who is also known as Kublai Khan
A portrait of Chinese Emperor Shizu of Yuan who is also known as Kublai Khan
Source: Wikimedia Common

The emperor Shizu of Yuan (Kublai Setsen Khan) unified China with the Song Dynasty’s conquest and the maximum territory reached by the Mongols.

He made liberal policies marked by cultural and religious diversities and extreme tolerance towards minorities. He also revitalized the Silk Road and brought economic development to northern China. 

Kublai Khan ruled over provinces that stretched from China to present-day Korea during his reign ( 1260- 1294 AD).

He was also the founder and first emperor of the Yuan dynasty. He conquered the Song dynasty to become the first non-Han leader of China.[3]

The Khan was open to people of different cultures and encouraged foreign relations. He had a calmer reign than his ancestors, who were known for their cruelty. After defeating the Song dynasty, he unified China, upgraded its infrastructure, and rebuilt the Grand Canal.

7. Emperor Wen of Sui (541- 604 AD)

A portrait of Chinese Emperor Wen of Sui
A portrait of Chinese Emperor Wen of Sui
Source: Wikimedia Common

Emperor Wen(Yang Jian) reunified China and ordered a subsequent state-building. He brought economic prosperity in China, which had stopped progressing since the Han dynasty reached the pinnacle. 

Jian also introduced significant political systems and constructed the Grand Canal during his rule (581- 618 AD) in the Sui dynasty.

The Grand Canal linked the Yellow River and the Yangtze River, opening up a major trading route leading to an improved economy.[4]

He centralized the political system and consolidated the government administration by establishing a two-body government which replaced the existing three-tier system.

The two-body government had three departments and six ministries for state supervision. He breached the social gap between the rich and the poor, reduced corruption, and encouraged the Chinese state’s union. Political officials became qualified based on merit rather than blood during his reign.

Wen’s efficient governance and political agenda reunified China, which had declined after the Western Jin dynasty’s fall. He created a powerful army and a prosperous economy with enough food stocks to last 50 years.

He created the land-equalization system, distributing more land for larger families equally. He let people only farm and not sell off lands. During his time, China was agriculturally productive.

6.  Wu Zetian (624- 705 AD)

A portrait of Chinese Emperor Wu Zetian
A portrait of Chinese Emperor Wu Zetian
Source: Wikimedia Common

Empress Wu Zetian reigned in the Zhou dynasty (690- 705 AD). Her strong political and military administration helped her fight wars to extend China’s boundaries further. 

Zetian’s rule brought unprecedented diversity and tolerance of minorities, which resulted in a prosperous economy and flourishing culture.

She initiated building artistic buildings and bronze figures which still exist today. She worked with efficiency and fairness and employed only officials who were talented and earned their place in court.

In her personal life, she was allegedly vicious. Wu Zetian murdered her two sons, a daughter, and other relatives who opposed her.

As a woman ruler, she challenged the traditional patriarchal dominance of power, state, monarchy, sovereignty, and political ideology. Her reign brought a reversal of her society and government’s gender roles and restrictions for her and other women.[5]

Empress Wu Zetian was a competent and great leader, and as the only empress of China, she is seen as an image of female empowerment in the ancient world.

5. Ming Chengzu (1360- 1424 AD)

A portrait of Chinese Emperor Ming Chengzu
A portrait of Chinese Emperor Ming Chengzu
Source: Wikimedia Common

The Yongle Emperor Ming Chengzu strengthened Ming’s military power and culminated in the successful northern expeditions against Mongols during his empire (1402- 1424 AD). He did not gain his throne through inheritance but forcefully appropriated it from his nephew.

Ming Chengzu (Zhu Di)  dispatched the famous Treasure Voyage and commissioned large public projects. He commissioned the making of the Forbidden City and the Porcelain Tower.[6]

He reopened the Grand Canal, which benefited trade in China. He contributed to education, military, economy, and the growth of the Ming dynasty.

He commissioned the largest paper-based encyclopedia, the Yongle Encyclopedia, which preserves China’s cherished culture.

4. Kangxi (1654- 1722 AD)

A portrait of Chinese Emperor Kangxi
A portrait of Chinese Emperor Kangxi
Source: Wikimedia Common

Emperor Kangxi’s reign (1661 to 1722 AD) led to a long peace and prosperity in China regarding the economy and culture. He rebuilt the country, defeated revolts, consolidated imperial rule over minority areas, and expanded the Chinese territory into Siberia and Central Asia. 

He then conquered Taiwan, established a treaty with Vietnam, and gained control of Russia’s Amur River region. 

Kangxi also impacted the Chinese culture by bringing in Jesuit missionaries from the west who worked as translators, introduced new technologies and ran the imperial observatory.[7]

He made a new dictionary of Chinese characters, named it the Kangxi Dictionary, and compiled Tang poetry, Quan Tangshi.  

3. Emperor Wu of Han (157- 87 BC)

A portrait of Chinese Emperor Wu of Han
A portrait of Chinese Emperor Wu of Han
Source: Wikimedia Common

Emperor Wu expanded China’s territories, made unprecedented conquests to the west and culminated in the defeat of Xiongnu during his reign. Wu of Han ruled China from 141 BC to 87 BC.[8]

He established the famous Silk Road, a trade route that links China with the west. He was also a follower of Confucianism and applied its doctrine to run the Han empire as his code of ethics. 

He was fond of art and poetry and promoted them in his ruling. China strengthened its development through his ideology and effective governance.[9]

2. Tang Taizong (598- 649 AD)

A portrait of Chinese Emperor Tang Taizong
A portrait of Chinese Emperor Tang Taizong
Source: Wikimedia Common

Emperor Taizong of Tang, the second ruler of the Tang dynasty is the wisest emperor in Chinese history.

He reigned from 626 AD to 649 AD during which he had a pivotal role in the establishment of the Tang Dynasty and the subsequent state-building, cultural developments, and foreign conquests.[10]

Emperor Taizong acknowledged the peasants’ power and enacted measures to help them. He ruled over the country with his academic policies and earned the appreciation of his kingdom’s people.

He also acknowledged the mistakes of the previous dynasty Sui and made sure he did not repeat them. 

During his reign, China started trading internationally, which marked the beginning of an economically and culturally rich emerging power. The empire under Emperor Taizong of Tang was also called a golden period in the Chinese empire’s history.

1. Qin Shihuang  (259- 210 BC) 

A portrait of the first Emperor of China - Qin Shi Huang
A portrait of the First Emperor of China – Qin Shi Huang
Source: Wikimedia Common

Qin Shi Huang founded the Qin dynasty, China’s imperial era, where the history began for the Chinese emperors. The next dynasty, Han, and the following dynasties from Qin succeeded from his initiation. 

The legacy left by Qin Shi Huang unified the Chinese people and made the dynasty stronger. His reign as the First Emperor lasted from 220 BC to 210 BC under which he conquered all seven of the warring states in China and unified them into one.[11]

This emperor came to the throne when he was 13 and became the first emperor of China at 38. He helped China’s economy run efficiently by establishing a common currency and a standard unit of measurement. He ordered the building of the first Great Wall of China, which became a precursor to the later modifications. 

This wall defended the country’s boundaries from the attacks of northern invaders. During his reign, he also ordered to build the famous tomb for himself: a mausoleum containing a terracotta army of over 8,000 statues of warriors and horses. 

Qin Shi Huang formulated a complete centralized political system, which laid the theoretical foundation for the feudal rule of more than two thousand years. Although the Qin Dynasty was very short-lived, Qin Shihuang’s ruling thought, and the ruling pattern continued in the later dynasties. Such influence is difficult to compare with any dynasty and emperor.

Conclusion

China’s greatest emperors are either prioritised by the incorruptibility of their leadership, practical achievements, moral perfection, or victory over the nation’s rivals. 

The greatness’s focus on internal administration, stability and the nation’s power as well. These top ten great emperors have had military achievements, cultural contributions and historical feats during their reign. 

1.”Ten States, Five Dynasties, One Great Emperor – PDF Drive.” https://www.pdfdrive.com/ten-states-five-dynasties-one-great-emperor-how-emperor-taizu-unified-china-in-the-song-dynasty-e184634724.html. Accessed 6 Jan. 2021.

2. “Imperial Politics and Confucian Societies – Princeton University.” 16 Apr. 2007, https://www.princeton.edu/~elman/documents/Imperial_Politics_and_Confucian_Societies.pdf. Accessed 6 Jan. 2021.

3. “CHINA UNDER MONGOL RULE – China Symposium.” http://www.chinasymposium.com/articles/History/History_Chapter_Eight.pdf. Accessed 6 Jan. 2021.

4. “The Technical History of China’s Grand Canal – World Scientific.” https://www.worldscientific.com/doi/pdf/10.1142/9781945552045_0001?download=true. Accessed 6 Jan. 2021.

5. “WU Zetian – ChinaConnectU.” http://chinaconnectu.com/wp-content/pdf/WUZetian.pdf. Accessed 6 Jan. 2021.

6. “Defining Yongle – The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” http://resources.metmuseum.org/resources/metpublications/pdf/Defining_Yongle_Imperial_Art_in_Early_Fifteenth_Century_China.pdf. Accessed 6 Jan. 2021.

7.  “the kangxi emperor’s study – Core.” https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/228878007.pdf. Accessed 6 Jan. 2021.

8. “The Han Dynasty.” http://chinatxt.sitehost.iu.edu/EAsia-survey/Han.pdf. Accessed 6 Jan. 2021.

9. “Classical China: The Qin and Han Dynasties.” https://www.birdvilleschools.net/cms/lib/TX01000797/Centricity/Domain/6027/Imperial%20China%20Qin%20and%20Han.pdf. Accessed 6 Jan. 2021.

10. “Emperor Taizong on Effective Government – Asia for Educators.” http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/china/taizong_effective.pdf. Accessed 6 Jan. 2021.

11.”War and Historical China.” https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/137321/20090521128690.pdf. Accessed 6 Jan. 2021.

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Cite this article as: Nubhisha Upreti, "Top 10 Chinese Emperors," in HistoryTen, April 30, 2021, https://historyten.com/china-history/chinese-emperors/.
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