In the long history of China, both unified and divided, there have been over five hundred emperors. Among this crowd of great leaders, there are a select few that stand out as exceptional.
Some were the first in their dynasty (or all of China). Others stood out for their innovation or military prowess. Wu Zetian stands out as the only female to take the throne.
In this case, it is the creatives, the forward-thinkers, and the first-of-their-kind that we celebrate as the greatest emperors China has ever had. All listed here are emperors that should be household names.
1. Shi Huangdi (259-210 BC)
Considered the first emperor of a unified China, Shi Huangdi (or Qin Shi Huang) was the founder of the Qin dynasty. “Huangdi” literally means “emperor” and was the name he gave himself after conquering the many warring states of China while King of Qin.
Shi Huangdi was known as a tyrannical ruler in many ways, known for banning books and executing academics who disagreed with him.
However, the emperor was also determined to unify the country through great public works including roads, canals, and a centralized currency. Shi Huangdi worked to abolish feudalism, attempting to appoint leaders of jurisdictions based on merit instead of family.
Today, Shi Huangdi is more likely to be remembered for his terracotta army, search for the elixir of life, and obsessive fear of assassination. Modern historians are only now appreciating the far-sightedness of the emperor in planning long-term works to cement the unification of the country.
2. Gaozu of Han (256-195 BC)
The founder of the Han Dynasty, Gaozu of Han noted the chaos brought about by the death of Shu Huangdi and decided to do something about it.
Following the Battle of Gaixia, Gaozu re-united China, elevated Confucianism to a core element of Chinese leadership, and absolved the debt of all those who were bonded slaves but fought for the dynasty.
Gaozu lowered taxes, supported veterans who returned to their homes and rewarded those leaders who supported a united China with lands and money.
Unfortunately, some rebels never accepted the rule of Gaozu, and he died from wounds sustained while battling the warlord Ying Bu.
He was succeeded by his son, Han Huidi, who repealed laws that burned books and executed scholars. Ying Bu helped keep China united by setting up shrines in his father’s name and encouraging his father’s chosen leaders to continue his legacy.
3. Wu Zetian (624 – 705 AD)
While technically Empress Consort of the Tan Dynasty, Wu Zetian was known as the true leader during the reign of her husband, Emperor Gaozong. Gaozong was quite sick for most of his reign and gave his ambitious wife the ability to sign legislation and make military decisions.
After his death, Wu Zetian was officially made Empress for a short time.
Wu Zetian was considered one of the most educated leaders China ever saw, and encouraged rapid expansion into the Korean peninsula and deep into the west of the continent. A strict and violent leader, she was known for her powerful secret police and decision to execute chancellors that dared oppose any decision she made.
However, she was also heavily invested in removing nepotism from her governments and opened up the ability for commoners to sit the entrance exams required to become local officials.
Wu Zetian’s court was also quite interested in promoting the literature of China, believing that a united culture would help strengthen the country. The primary religion of her reign was Buddhism but she also promoted the works of Lao Tsu and made no efforts to decrease the teachings of Confucianism.
4. Emperor Taizong of Tang (598 – 649 AD)
The second Emperor of the Tang Dynasty was long considered the model for all later emperors, with his time in power (the “Reign of Zhenguan”) often being referred to as the golden age of Chinese history.
Before his reign, he was implemental in conquering the Eastern Turks and helping expand China. As Emperor, he was known for shunning superstition and being a supporter of farmers and other common workers.
While much of Taizong’s reign concerned maintaining the military supremacy of the country, one of his biggest political moves was to re-shuffle the government – removing those who he believed only ruled due to nobility, and promoting those leaders who improved life for the people of their area.
The fact he was even willing to demote his most loyal followers made him as loved as well as he was despised.
Future historians from all perspectives respected his willingness to put the country over power, and continue the country’s progress in literature and education.
5. Emperor Taizu of Song (927- 976 AD)
The first emperor of the Song Dynasty, Taizu was the emperor who successfully ended the “Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms” period of Chinese history, through a series of successful military endeavors, followed by disarmament and increased civilian control.
To convince generals to give up their control, Taizu offered extremely generous pensions and estates, as well as formal public recognition of their service. Every general invited to retire did so voluntarily, proving Taizu’s “power through peace” tactic worked as well as his military maneuvers before then.
Taizu oversaw an increase in the creation of academies that studied the sciences, economics, and literature. In some Chinese traditions, Taizu created a fighting style called “Long Fist”, while some Taoist temples use his likeness as a “door god”.
6. Kublai Khan (1215 – 1294 AD)
One of the more modern emperors on our list, Kublai was the founder of the Yuan Dynasty, which came to rule over the lands that cover Modern-day China, Korea, Mongolia, and Siberia. His power also extended partly into the Middle East and Europe.
Kublai Khan was the grandson of the great Genghis Khan. He and his father conquered the Song Dynasty through decades of war, eventually controlling most of Asia by 1279. As Emperor, however, he considered the previous government important. Kublai relied on previous advisors from the Song Dynasty and created his capital in Modern-day Beijing.
Kublai Khan rebuilt the Grand Canal and upgraded the main roads that traversed the country, and created the first unified paper currency. He also believed in Religious freedoms and encouraged the continuation of traditional Chinese arts and literature.
Islamic scientists introduced the country to new advancements in science and medicine and created the first astronomical observatory in China.
While considered a foreign invader, Kublai Khan’s role as Emperor came with many benefits, offering China many advancements that allowed them to keep in line with the technology and knowledge known by the rest of the world.
7. Emperor Wu of Han (156 – 87 BC)
The Seventh Emperor of the Han dynasty, Wu’s long reign was punctuated by the creation of the Imperial Music Bureau and Imperial University, the establishment of Confuscianism as the official doctrine, and the launching of the ambitious Jianyuan Reforms.
Emperor Wu’s reforms helped solidify a centralized government for China. His expansion into what is now Korea and Vietnam (and doubling the geographical size of the empire) may have been widely supported.
However, his legal and local government reforms were not welcomed by the nobility. Many attempts to remove him, including by assassination, were made, and eventually, Wu succumb to paranoia.
With accusations of witchcraft and the implementation of heavy sentences for those who challenged him, Wu’s later reign was known for its thousands of executions.
At the end of his life, Emperor Wu publicly apologized for the decisions he had made, in what would come to be known as the Repenting Edict of Luntai.
8. Emperor Wen of Sui (541 – 604 AD)
The founder of the Sui Dynasty, Emperor Wen took over the regency of China by being a trusted general and minister at the time when the cruel and wasteful Emperor Xuan passed away.
Having the favor of most of the rest of the court, Wen quickly got to work repealing much of Xuan’s policies and setting up a new system of governance that helped provide stability for future Emperors.
Emperor Wen famously ordered the first major construction of the Grand Canal, and it is said that by the end of his reign he had left the people of China enough food stores to feed them for fifty years.
9. Yongle Emperor (1360 – 1424 AD)
The Yongle Emperor rose to power through multiple assassinations, coups, and bribes. Despite this method of obtaining his place as Emperor, he should be remembered for his religious tolerance, long-term strategy for increasing production, and diplomatic missions to the rest of the world.
Famously, the Yongle Emperor was the architect of The Forbidden City and the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing. He also spent many resources on renovating the Grand Canal, sending trade envoys as far as Northern Africa, and expanding power into Vietnam.
While known for his viciousness against those who challenged him, he explicitly ordered that those Vietnamese who did not fight should be spared from any violence.
10. Hongwu Emperor (1328-1398 AD)
While not entirely “ancient”, Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty is worth mentioning for his ability to conquer China from the Yuan dynasty and for helping bring an end to the famine and revolts that were plaguing the country.
Zhu Yuanzhang was from a family of poor farmers and studied to be a monk at Huangjue Temple. After it ran out of funds, he left the monastery and joined rebel forces. As a strong leader, he would eventually lead these forces to take the city of Nanjing and grew his empire from this base of operations.
Once he had solidified his power, the emperor lowered taxes, banned slavery, and enacted laws to protect the property of the lower classes. The Honwu emperor emphasized agricultural growth over trade, and he reintroduced paper money. Most of his policies focused on closing the wealth gap and bringing the country out of famine.
All wasn’t pleasant in the reign of the Hongwue emperor, however. Those who challenged or attempted to rebel against his new laws would suffer a “death of a thousand cuts”. By the end of his reign, there were over a thousand different crimes that could be punished by brutal forms of execution, including “being an idle man” (not working).
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