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Emperor of China

The emperor or huangdi (皇帝 in pinyin: huang2 di4) of China was the head of government and head of state of China from the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. The pre-Qin heads of the government were called wang (roughly translated as King). Before Qin Shi Huangdi, the characters huang ("godking") and di ("sage king") were used separately and never consecutively (See Three Huang and five Di). After the Han dynasty, huangdi began to be abbreviated to huang or di -- the two characters had lost their original pre-Qin meanings.


Position and Power

Since the Qin Dynasty, the Emperor has been formally styled the Son of Heaven(天子), and as the descendant and representative of heaven on earth, legally has the absolute power over all matters, big or small, under heaven. The Emperor's words and directives are considered Sacred Edicts (聖旨). In theory, the emperor's orders are followed with immediate obedience. He is elevated above all commoners, nobility, and members of the imperial family. Address to the Emperor is always to be formal and self-deprecatory, often even with the closest of family members.

In practice, however, the power of the emperor varied between different emperors and different dynasties. Many emperors ruled as absolute monarchs with an iron fist on the country. A prominent example is Qin Shihuang, the first Emperor of China. Other emperors, however, have found the Empress Dowager, court officials, eunuchs, and nobility taking over actual power (ex. Wanli Emperor of the Ming, Guangxu Emperor of the Qing).


The title of Emperor was transmitted from father to son. By convention in most Han Chinese-ruled dynasties, the eldest son born to the Empress (嫡長子) succeeds the throne. In some cases when the Empress did not bore any children, she may adopt a son as her own and the son is subsequently made heir (although all children of the Emperor are said to also be the children of the Empress, regardless of birth mother). In some dynasties the rule of the Empress' eldest son succeeding is disputed, and because many Emperors had large progenies, often led to wars of succession between rival sons of the Emperor. In attempts to resolve disputes after death, the Emperor often designated a Crown Prince (太子) at early times. Even such a clear designation, however, caused problems within the imperial family involving jealousy and distrust, whether it is the Crown Prince plotting against the Emperor, or brothers plotting against each other, and further does not actually ensure a peaceful succession. Some Emperors, like the Kangxi Emperor, after abolishing the position of Crown Prince, placed the succession papers in a sealed box, only to be opened and announced after his death.

Unlike the Emperor of Japan, Chinese political theory allowed for a change in dynasty and an emperor could be replaced by a rebel leader. Prominent examples include the first Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (Hongwu Era), and Hong Xiuquan, leader of the Taiping Rebellion, who ruled with the title Heavenly King . As the Emperor usually has a large number of sons, it was generally not possible for a female to succeed to the throne. In the history of China there has only been one lawful reigning Empress, the Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty. Many females, however, have come to become de facto leaders, usually as the Empress Dowager. Prominent examples include the Empress Dowager Cixi, mother of the Tongzhi Emperor and adoptive mother of the Guangxu Emperor, ruling China for 40 years (1869-1909), and the Empress Dowager Lü of the Han Dynasty.

Forms of Address

As the Emperor has, by law, a high position unchallenged by no one else, his subjects are to show the utmost respect in his presence, whether it includes direct conversation or otherwise. In a conversation with the Emperor, it is considered a crime to compare oneself to the Emperor in any way. The Emperor adresses himself as Zhen (朕) in front of his subjects. Anyone speaking to the Emperor is to address him as Huang Shang (皇上, lit. Emperor Above or Emperor Highness), Wan Sui (萬歲, lit. Ten thousand years), or Sheng Shang (聖上, lit. the Divine Above or the Holy Highness). Servants often address the Emperor as Wan Sui Ye (萬歲爺, lit. Lord of Ten Thousand Years). In English all these forms of address are roughly translated as Your Imperial Majesty.


The Emperor's family, termed the Imperial Family , is made up of the Emperor as the head, the Empress (皇后) as the primary consort, leader of the harem, and Mother of the Nation (国母). In addition, the Emperor has a series of other consorts and concubines (妃嫔) divided in a system of ranks that make up the harem. Although the Emperor has the highest status by law, by tradition and precedent the mother of an Emperor, i.e. the Empress Dowager (皇太后), usually receives the greatest respect in the palace, and is the decision maker in most family affairs, and at times, especially when a young Emperor is on the throne, becomes the de facto ruler. The Emperor's children, the Princes and Princesses (皇子/公主), are often called with their order of birth, i.e. Eldest Prince, Third Princess. The Princes are often given titles of peerage once they reach adulthood. The Emperor's brothers and uncles serve in court by law with the status of any other court officials (臣子), and the Emperor is always elevated above despite chronological or generational superiority of another person in the family when in court.

See also: Chinese sovereign

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