How Powerful Were the Emperors in Ancient China?

In ancient China, one of the most prominent features of the political system was the centralization of power. Localities were subject to the central government, while the central government was at the discretion of the emperor. The centralized system of autocracy was the fundamental political system in ancient unified China. The emperor was the core of the centralized political system in ancient China and was the supreme political head of the country with the highest power and status, based on which a systematic and perfect imperial system was built. This system was the manifestation of his sanctity and authority. The imperial system was created in the Qin Dynasty and was inherited and developed by successive dynasties until it was abolished entirely after the Qing Dynasty. This system lasted in ancient China for more than two thousand years.

The Power of Emperors in Ancient China

Before the First Emperor of Qin, the supreme ruler of the state was generally called the “king,” who was the center of the political activities of the state. In 221 BC, the state of Qin unified China. Ying Zheng, the King of Qin, thought that the title of “king” could not demonstrate his outstanding achievements and status, so he called his ministers to discuss the title of the supreme ruler. The ministers believed that there were Three Sovereigns of Five Emperors in ancient times, so they suggested he take the title of “emperor (Huang di).” However, Ying Zheng thought that he surpassed all of them in terms of talent and merit, so he named himself “the First Emperor” with his successors passing on in order thereafter. Since then, the “emperor” replaced the “king” as the exclusive title of the supreme ruler of successive dynasties in ancient China.

The emperor and all his political and daily activities had their corresponding titles, which spawned the title system of ancient Chinese emperors. After the title of the emperor was established, his relatives also gradually got their honorific titles, such as the emperor’s father and mother were called the supreme emperor (Tai shang huang) and the empress dowager (Huang tai hou), the emperor’s wife, the empress (Huang hou), and the emperor’s son and daughter, the prince and princess.

The title system also includes the reign name (Nian hao) set up during the emperor’s lifetime, as well as the posthumous title (Shi hao), the temple name (Miao hao), and the mausoleum name (ling qin hao) after his death. The reign name refers to the chronological title of the year that is usually given by the emperor. The Chinese emperors had no reign name from the pre-Qin period to the early Han Dynasty until the reign of Emperor Wu (156-87 BC) of the Han Dynasty. Since then, the reign name was institutionalized. The reign name of an emperor ranged from one to more than a dozen. For example, Emperor Gaozong of Tang (628-683) had 14reign names, while in the Ming and Qing dynasties, the emperors generally had one each, and later generations then called these emperors by their reign names, such as Emperor Hongwu, Emperor Jiajing (1507-1567), Emperor Kangxi, Emperor Qianlong, and others. The posthumous name was given by the imperial court after the death of an emperor to reflect his achievements and faults in his life. The posthumous system had been commonly practiced among the nobles as early as the Western Zhou Dynasty and was abolished during the Qin Dynasty. During the Western Han Dynasty, the imperial court restored the system and then continued to follow it until the late Qing Dynasty. The temple name was the title given to the emperor after his death to be enshrined in the temple, which originated from the Shang Dynasty when there was a tradition of giving titles to kings with outstanding merits for sacrifice and worship.

During the Zhou Dynasty, the temple name system of the Shang Dynasty was forsaken, and kings had only posthumous titles. In the Qin Dynasty, Qin Shi Huang abolished the temple name together with the posthumous name. It was not until the Han Dynasty that the temple name system was gradually restored. The first emperor of a dynasty is generally called Zu (the founder of the dynasty), and the emperor whose successor has the ability to rule the country is named “Zong,” such as Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Western Han Dynasty, whose temple name was “Tai zu.”Moreover, Li Shimin of the Tang Dynasty, who created the Prosperous Era of Zhenguan Reign (Zhen guan zhi zhi), got the title of “Tai zong.” Emperor Guangxu (1871-1908) of the late Qing Dynasty was called “De zong” after his death, which was the temple name of the last emperor of the Chinese imperial era. Mausoleums are places where emperors were buried after death and were usually named according to the achievements and lineage of the deceased emperors during their lifetime.

The “divine right of kings” was a doctrine established by ancient emperors to strengthen their governance. As early as the Xia Dynasty, the ruling class began to rule through the mysterious power of religion. In order to hold the supreme power, the ancient rulers usually relied on the mandate of Heaven to establish their authority and conduct their ruling. The supreme ruler called himself the “Son of Heaven,” meaning that he embodied the God of Heaven and exercised the supreme power to rule on Earth on his behalf. During the reign of Emperor Wu in the Western Han Dynasty, Tung Chung-shu enriched and improved the theory of the “divine right of kings” to meet the emperor’s needs for lasting political stability. He claimed that Heaven and Man were connected (tian ren xiang ying). As the supreme ruling power on earth, Heaven was a personal god with its will, and Man could sense the will and was required to act according to it. Otherwise, he would be punished accordingly, and natural disasters were seen as warnings and signs of punishment by the God of Heaven. The doctrine of the “divine right of kings” further strengthened emperors through divine right.

In ancient China, the emperors were the heads of the country and therefore held the most important administrative, military, judicial, and financial powers. Moreover, they had absolute power over the appointment and dismissal of officials and the people’s life and death. However, to realize their will, they needed to firmly grasp and control the state apparatus and establish an orderly and hierarchical succession system, of which the official system was an important part. The ancient Chinese official system formed a pyramidal structure in which imperial power was supreme. In state governance, the emperor was the highest decision-maker, and all officials were subject to his will. To prevent the reduction of the emperors, the emperor would appoint different officials to keep the balance. Once the power of the officials posed a threat to the emperor, the emperor would limit their power by all means and even change the official system to ensure the stability of the emperors.

How Emperors Exercised Their Power?

The emperor controlled the state apparatus by mastering the national economic, social, livelihood, and military information in the form of presentation (Zou shi), discussion (Chao yi), and inspection (Ci cha) of the officials, and made command and decision on this basis. The presentation was divided in the face to face presentations and written presentations. In the Kangxi and Yongzheng (1678-1735) periods of the Qing Dynasty, the secret presentation (Mi zou) system was implemented with more stringent regulations, reflecting, to a certain extent, the further enhancement of emperors in the late imperial society. The emperor issued orders in oral and written forms, including oracles, decrees, edicts, and other forms, and each form corresponded to a specific political affair, reflecting the absolute power of emperors. There were generally two forms of discussion for officials, including the court discussion and the collective discussion, both of which served for the decision-making of the emperor. The court discussion was that the officials gave advice to the emperor in the court, and the emperor listened to their arguments and suggestions. On the other hand, the matters that were not raised in the court would be first discussed by summoning specific officials, and then the collective opinions about the matters were reported to the emperor after the discussion, which was called collective discussion. The emperor used the official supervision system to supervise the officials, and sometimes it was also used as a channel to grasp the public opinion of the society to strengthen the rule.

The combination of rituals and law was an effective means of maintaining emperors. The rulers attached great importance to the use of the ritual system to establish hierarchical structures, determine social norms, and achieve a flexible ruling through ritual and music education. On the other hand, successive emperors safeguarded the sanctity of emperors through laws, and any violation thereof would be punished and sanctioned, which reflected a rigid ruling.

In the imperial system, the issue of succession to the throne is of paramount importance and has been highly valued by successive dynasties as it is related to the consolidation of the ruling position of the ruling class and the continuity of emperors. Qin Shi Huang established the imperial system, but he did not establish a succession system. The eunuch Zhao Gao (?-207 BC) forged an imperial edict to make Hu Hai(230-207 BC) the emperor, resulting in the collapse of the Qin Dynasty after only one generation. Learning from the lessons of the Qin government, the crown prince system (Huang chu zhi du) was established in the second year during the reign of Emperor Gaozu (256-195 BC) of Han. The primogeniture system of royal succession was generally followed when appointing a crown prince (Tai zi). For example, the eldest son born to the empress was identified as the crown prince first, and if the crown prince died young, his eldest son would succeed him. If the prince had no son, the second son born to the empress would be appointed as the crown prince. If the empress had no son, a son not born to the empress would be considered as the successor to the throne. If the emperor had no son, he would choose the successor to the throne within the imperial family in order of affinity.

The succession system was set up to avoid disputes over the throne within the imperial family and make imperial power’s generational succession safe and smooth. However, supreme power was highly tempting to the royal nobles, and they formed different political cliques with the officials to fight for the throne. During the early Qing Dynasty, the crown prince system was abolished in favor of “determining the crown prince secretly,”and the successor to the throne was announced only after the emperor’s death. This system allowed the emperor to choose his successor mainly based on the competence of the candidates instead of giving priority to the primogeniture, thus expanding the range of candidates for the throne.

The supremacy of the emperors, the hereditary monarchy, the status of officials inferior to the emperor, and the “three cardinal guides and the five constant virtues (san gang wu chang)” are the general features and trends of the development of the autocratic centralized political system in ancient China. In terms of the positive historical effects of this political system, it facilitated the establishment, consolidation, and development of a multi-ethnic and unified country and effectively mobilized and organized manpower, material, and financial resources to engage in large-scale production and construction, resist invasion by foreign enemies, and promote economic and cultural exchanges and prosperity in various regions. In terms of its adverse effects, it stifled democracy, led to tyranny, bred corruption, and ultimately impeded social and historical progress. After the Southern Song Dynasty, autocratic centralization increasingly hindered the development of emerging capitalism and the progress of science and technology, resulting in the failure of the modern transformation of ancient China independently.

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