China’s Greatest Emperors

China’s longest lasting dynasties survived due to one or more great emperors.

After China was unified by Qin Shi Huangdi (221 – 207 BC), there were only five dynasties that survived for long periods — the Han, Tang, Sung, Ming, and Qing Dynasties.

Although China’s civilization survived, the country’s history is rampant with rebellions, palace coups, corruption among palace officials, and insurrections. Between the five longest dynasties, the country usually fell apart into warring states as it did after 1911.

The most successful emperors managed to stabilize the country while managing wisely as the Communist Party has done since 1976.

Emperor Han Wudi (ruled 141 – 87 B.C.) of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 219 A.D.) was fifteen when he first sat on the throne.

Wudi is considered one of the greatest emperors in China’s history. He expanded the borders, opened the early Silk Road, developed the economy, and established state monopolies on salt, liquor and rice.

After the Han Dynasty collapsed, China fell apart for almost 400 years before the Tang Dynasty was established (618 -906). The Tang Dynasty was blessed with several powerful emperors.

The first was Emperor Tang Taizong (ruled 627-649).

According to historical records, Wu Zetain, China’s only woman emperor also ruled wisely.

Emperor Tang Zuanzong , Zetain’s grandson, ruled longer than any Tang emperor and the dynasty prospered while he sat on the throne.

After the dynasty fell, there would be short period of about 60 years before the Sung Dynasty reestablished order and unified the country again.

The second emperor of the Sung Dynasty, Sung Taizong (ruled 976 – 997) unified China after defeating the Northern Han Dynasty. The third emperor, Sung Zhenzong (ruled 997-1022) also deserves credit for maintaining stability.

The Sung Dynasty then declined until a revival by Sung Ningzong (ruled 1194 – 1224) After he died, the dynasty limped along until Kublai Khan defeated the last emperor in 1279.

After conquering all of China, Kublai Khan founded the Mongol, Yuan Dynasty (1277-1367). Not long after Kublai died, the dynasty was swept away.

In 1368, a peasant rebellion defeated the Yuan Dynasty and drove the Mongols from China.

The Ming Dynasty (1271 – 1368) is known for rebuilding, strengthening and extending the Great Wall among a list of other accomplishments.

Historical records show that the rule of the third Ming Emperor, Ming Chengzu (ruled 1403 – 1424), was the most prosperous period.

After Chengzu, the dynasty would decline until 1567 when Emperor Ming Muzong reversed the decline.

His son, Emperor Ming Shenzong, also ruled wisely from 1573 to 1620.

After Shenzong’s death, the Ming Dynasty quickly declined and was replaced by the Qing Dynasty in 1644.

The Opium Wars started by England and France and the Taiping Rebellion led by a Christian convert in the 19th century would contribute to the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

The Qing Dynasty was fortunate to have three powerful, consecutive emperors: Emperor Kangxi (1661 – 1722), Yongzhen (1722-1735) and Qianlong (1735-1796). For one-hundred-and-thirty-five years, China remained strong and prosperous.

After the corrupt Qing Dynasty was swept aside in 1911 by a rebellion led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, China fell apart and warlords fought to see who would rule China.

When Sun Yat-sen died, the republic he was building in southern China fell apart when Chiang Kai-shek broke the coalition that Sun Yat-sen had formed between the Nationalist and Communist Parties. Mao’s famous Long March shows how the Communists survived.

Then Japan invaded, and China would be engulfed in war and rebellion until 1945 when World War II ended. After World War II, the rebellion between the Nationalist and Communists ended in victory for the Communists in 1949.

This victory was made possible because the Communists were supported by China’s peasants that hated, despised and distrusted the Nationalist Party, which represented China’s ruling elite.

The Communists gained the support of the peasants by treating the peasants with respect and promising reforms that would end the suffering.

Then Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution extended the peasants suffering.

However, since the early 1980s, the Communist Party has been working to fulfill the promises made during the revolution, and the lifestyles of China’s peasants are slowly improving.

There are many impatient voices in the West and a few in China that are not happy with the speed of China’s reforms or how the Party has handled them.

In fact, China has modernized and improved lifestyles in China since the early 1980s at a pace that has never been seen before in recorded history.


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

His third book is Crazy is Normal, a classroom exposé, a memoir. “Lofthouse presents us with grungy classrooms, kids who don’t want to be in school, and the consequences of growing up in a hardscrabble world. While some parents support his efforts, many sabotage them—and isolated administrators make the work of Lofthouse and his peers even more difficult.” – Bruce Reeves.


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6 Responses to China’s Greatest Emperors

  1. Ben says:

    Given China’s long history, from many of the glorious ancient past to its troubled modern era, there are numerous emperors or leaders to consider. Several key considerations include internal prosperity, external power projection/influence and most of all, lasting historical influence. It appears more appropriate to group the leaders into brackets instead of any chronological order. At the top of the bracket is actually pretty straight forward, it would certainly include Taizong of Tang dynasty, Wudi of Han dynasty and Qin Shihuang of Qin dynasty. The bracket below would include Kublai Khan of Yuan, Kang Xi of Qing, Yongle of Ming and probably Wu Zetian of Tang. Those mentioned above are pretty much clear cut above the rest of many Chinese leaders.

    • What about the emperor who unified China the first time and created one written language and one measurement system—Qin Shi Huang Di? If China had never been unified it might have stayed like Europe causing more wars and unrest.

      • bigbenusa says:

        No doubt about the importance of Qin Shi Huang in China’s history. As noted in the previous post, he is up there along with
        Taizong of Tang dynasty and Wudi of Han dynasty. These three leaders have the most lasting influences in China’s long history.

        As you noted, Qin Shi Huang basically formed the Chinese empire as a unified state. The standardization of written script, measurements, currencies and the moves towards central administration was the most defining inflection point in China’s history.

        Wudi of Han dynasty expanded the empire’s territory in all directions that largely served as the basic geographical footprint to the modern times. Under his reign, the Han empire became one of the most powerful empires in the world. Its accomplishments were at least equal to the Roman empire at the time in what was effectively a non-connected bipolar world order across the Euroasia landmass, with the Romans dominating the West and the Hans dominating the East. Wudi’s lasting impact would be the implementation of Confucianism as the official ideology. Some historians of Chinese history would say – Qin Shi Huang was known to have unified territory, written languages and other measurable standards, but it was Wudi who unified ideology – which would have lasting impact on China and its neighbors in East Asia. In addition, the cultural identity of the so called ethnic Hans started to emerge during this period. Even during the earlier Qin period, people still largely identified themselves according to their ancestral pre-Qin states.

        If historians of Chinese history have to do a consensus poll, it would not be a stretch to say that Taizong of Tang dynasty would top the list as the greatest Chinese emperor. Tang era was widely seen as the golden age in China’s grand history. On top of economic prosperity, high culture, scientific advancement, military achievement and geopolitical influence, Tang was also the most cosmopolitan and relatively liberal dynasty. Many of the Sinosphere states like Japan and Korea were heavily influenced by Tang dynasty. The overall reign of Taizong (known as”貞觀之治 – Zhen Guan Zhi Zhi”) became the role model or “standard” for all later emperors and subsequent dynasties. Under Taizong, there was the further implementation of meritocracy in government officials which began during the previous Sui dynasty. Most of all, the Tang imperial family was of mixed ethic origin between Hans and Xianbei (Mongols related). Tang emperors like Taizong had multiple titles, he was the “Son of Heaven” within the Confucius order as well the “Heavenly Khan” for the nomadic groups in the north. As a result, one of the biggest lasting impact of the Tang dynasty was it set the foundation for the Middle Kingdom (subsequent dynasties all the way to modern China) to try to become a multi-ethnic universal empire/state. This played a role in legitimizing non-ethnic Hans dynasties as the “rightful” successors of the Middle Kingdom. The basis of the term “Chinese” largely originated from Qing dynasty’s emperor Qianlong and his concept of “five nationalities” which was meant to include various ethnic groups. This idea was later adopted by the RoC and then under the PRC. However, the very foundation of a multi-ethnic Middle Kingdom traced its roots to the Tang dynasty under Taizong.

      • Thanks for this concise summary loaded with detail. On that note, I’ve read a few debates on-line that explores the issue of the Han and the Roman Empire fighting to see who would dominate the world. First, I don’t think this would have been possible due to the logistics of supplying armies over those long distances between the two while managing all the conquered states in between. Second, no one has managed to hold on to that much territory for long. Alexander failed and eventually even the Mongols lost their hold on the vast empire they conquered.

        Other than that, I think if the impossible happened, eventually,the Han would have prevailed or the two would have ended up in a stalemate with a heavily armed border area where the two empires met. Eventually, trade between the two would have dampened the fires of conquest—sort of what is happening today. My wife mentioned yesterday that she can’t see a war between the U.S. and China today because of the rising consumer middle class in China that’s adopting Western middle class lifestyles if not cultural elements of the west, for instance, Christianity that has pretty much failed in Asia.

  2. Terry Chen says:

    In my opinion emperor kangxi inargubly trumps them all. When he took over the qing dynasty was on the brink of collapse with oboi trying to get more power and he had to deal with numerous rebellions. The way he managed to deal with the whole multitude of problems and then propel the qing dynasty into prosperity is simply amazing.

    Apart from that he was able to completely integrate the manchu’s into Chinese culture and did much to promote harmony between the different races in China.

    Emperor qianlong and yongzheng had a much easier job than him.

    • Terry,

      What you say makes sense. However, if Qianlong and Yongzheng were not capable, they could have wrecked overnight what Kangzi built.

      The problem with inherited leadership in the case of emperors/kings, is that sooner or later, an emperor will sit on the throne that is not capable of ruling.

      It is best when leadership arises through merit.

      In fact, due to Qianlong, the West’s domination over China in the 19th century starting with the Opium Wars may have began sooner during the 18th century.

      Then again, I wonder if the American Revolution in the later part of the 18th century may have slowed up the exploitation of China that took place in the 19th century.

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