Chinese sovereign is the ruler of a particular period in ancient
China. Several titles and naming schemes have been used throughout
1 Imperial titles
1.3 Son of Heaven
2 How to read the titles of a Chinese sovereign
Tang Dynasty naming conventions
4 Self-made titles
5 Foreign titles taken by Chinese rulers
6 Common naming conventions
7 See also
Main article: Emperor of China
The characters Huang (皇 huáng "august (ruler)") and Di (帝 dì
"divine ruler") had been used separately and never consecutively (see
Three August Ones and Five Emperors). The character was reserved for
mythological rulers until the first emperor of Qin (Qin Shi Huang),
who created a new title Huangdi (皇帝 in pinyin: huáng dì) for
himself in 221 BCE, which is commonly translated as Emperor in
English. This title continued in use until the fall of the Qing
dynasty in 1911.
From the Han Dynasty, the title Huangdi could also be abbreviated to
huang or di. The former nobility titles Qing (卿), Daifu (大夫) and
Shi (仕) became synonyms for court officials.
The power of the emperor varied between emperors and dynasties, with
some emperors being absolute rulers and others being figureheads with
actual power lying in the hands of court factions, eunuchs, the
bureaucracy or noble families. In principle, the title of emperor was
transmitted from father to son via primogeniture, as endorsed by
Confucianism. However, there are many exceptions to this rule. For
example, because the Emperor usually had many concubines, the first
born of the empress (i.e. the chief consort) is usually the heir
apparent. However, Emperors could elevate another more favoured child
or the child of a favourite concubine to the status of Crown Prince.
Disputes over succession occurred regularly and have led to a number
of civil wars. In the Qing dynasty, primogeniture was abandoned
altogether, with the designated heir kept secret until after the
Of the San Huang Wu Di, the three first of them were called 皇
(huang, "august (ruler)") and the five last were called 帝 (di,
"divine ruler"), which can translate as either emperor, demigod human,
or a superhuman. This title may have been used in the Shang and Xia
dynasties, though oracle bones were found from the Shang Dynasty
showing the title 王 (wáng, "king").
Shang Dynasty oracle bone (which is incomplete), a diviner
asks the Shang king if there would be misfortune over the next ten
days; the king replied that he had consulted the ancestor Xiaojia in a
worship ceremony. Notice the title for king, 王 wáng, on the bone.
The king (王, wáng) was the Chinese head of state during the Zhou
Dynasty. Its use during the Xia and Shang is uncertain but possible:
the character has been found upon oracle bones. It was abolished under
the Qin and, after that, the same term was used for (and translated
as) royal princes. The title was commonly given to members of the
Emperor's family and could be inherited. A poem from about 2,500 years
ago said "普天之下,莫非王土.率土之賓,莫非王臣" which
roughly translates as "Under the sky, nothing isn't the king's land;
the people who lead the lands, no one isn't the king's subjects."
Son of Heaven
Main article: Son of Heaven
Son of Heaven
Son of Heaven was a title of the Emperor based on the Mandate of
Son of Heaven
Son of Heaven is a universal emperor who rules tianxia
comprising "all under heaven". The title was not interpreted
literally. The monarch is a mortal chosen by Heaven, not its actual
descendant. The title comes from the Mandate of Heaven, created by
the monarchs of the
Zhou dynasty to justify deposing the Shang
dynasty. They declared that Heaven had revoked the mandate from the
Shang and given it to the Zhou in retaliation for their corruption and
misrule. Heaven bestowed the mandate to whoever was best fit to rule.
The title held the emperor responsible for the prosperity and security
of his people through the threat of losing the mandate.
Unlike the Japanese emperor for example, Chinese political theory
allowed for a change of dynasty as imperial families could be
replaced. This is based on the concept of "Mandate of Heaven". The
theory behind this was that the Chinese emperor acted as the "Son of
Heaven". As the only legitimate ruler, his authority extended to "All
under heaven" and had neighbors only in a geographical sense. He holds
a mandate to which he had a valid claim to rule over (or to lead)
everyone else in the world as long as he served the people well. If
the ruler became immoral, then rebellion is justified and heaven would
take away that mandate and give it to another. This single most
important concept legitimized the dynastic cycle or the change of
dynasties regardless of social or ethnic background. This principle
made it possible for dynasties founded by non-noble families such as
Han Dynasty and
Ming Dynasty or non-ethnic Han dynasties such as the
Yuan Dynasty and Manchu-led Qing Dynasty. It was moral
integrity and benevolent leadership that determined the holder of the
"Mandate of Heaven." Every dynasty that self-consciously adopted this
administrative practice powerfully reinforced this
throughout the history of imperial China. Historians noted that this
was one of the key reasons why imperial
China in many ways had the
most efficient system of government in ancient times.
Finally, it was generally not possible for a woman to succeed to the
throne and in the history of
China there has only been one reigning
Wu Zetian (624–705 CE) who usurped power under the Tang
How to read the titles of a Chinese sovereign
All sovereigns are denoted by a string of Chinese characters.
Examples in Standard Mandarin:
Hàn Gāo Zǔ Liú Bāng (漢 高祖 劉邦)
Táng Tài Zōng Lǐ Shì Mín (唐 太宗 李世民)
Hòu Hàn Gāo Zǔ Liú Zhī Yuǎn (後漢 高祖 劉知遠)
Hàn Guāng Wǔ Dì Liú Xiù (漢 光武帝 劉秀)
The first character(s) are the name of the dynasty or kingdom. e.g.
Hàn, Táng, Wèi and Hòu Hàn.
Then come the characters of how the sovereign is commonly called, in
most cases the posthumous names or the temple names. e.g. Gāo Zǔ,
Tài Zōng, Wǔ Dì, Guāng Wǔ Dì.
Then follow the characters of their family and given names. e.g. Liú
Bāng, Lǐ Shì Mín, Cáo Cāo, Liú Zhī Yuǎn and Liú Xiù.
In contemporary historical texts, the string including the name of
dynasty and temple or posthumous names is sufficient as a clear
reference to a particular sovereign.
e.g. Hàn Gāo Zǔ
Note that Wèi Wǔ Dì Cáo Cāo was never a sovereign in his own
right but his son was. Thus his imperial style of Wǔ Dì was added
only after his son had ascended to the throne. Such cases were common
in Chinese history, i.e., the first emperor of a new dynasty often
accorded posthumous imperial titles to his father or sometimes even
further paternal ancestors.
Tang Dynasty naming conventions
All sovereigns starting from the
Tang Dynasty are contemporarily
referred to using the temple names. They also had posthumous names
that were less used, except in traditional historical texts. The
situation was reversed before Tang as posthumous names were
e.g. The posthumous name of Táng Tài Zōng Lǐ Shì Mín was Wén
If sovereigns since Tang were referenced using posthumous names, they
were the last ones of their sovereignties or their reigns were short
e.g. Táng Āi Dì Lǐ Zhù (唐哀帝 李柷), also known as Táng
Zhāo Xuān Dì (唐昭宣帝), was last emperor of the Tang Dynasty
reigning from 904 to 907.
Hàn Guāng Wǔ Dì is equivalent to Dōng Hàn Guāng Wǔ Dì since
he was the founder of the Eastern (dōng) Han Dynasty. All dōng
(east)-xī (west), nán (south)-běi (north), qián (former)-hòu
(later) conventions were invented only by past or present
historiographers for denoting a new era of a dynasty. They were never
used during that era.
Xiang Yu styled himself, Xīchǔ Bàwáng (“西楚霸王,” lit.
Hegemon-King of Western Chu).
Foreign titles taken by Chinese rulers
Emperor Taizong of Tang
Emperor Taizong of Tang was crowned
Tian Kehan 天可汗, or "heavenly
Khagan", after defeating the Gokturks, (Tujue).
Common naming conventions
Here is a quick guide of the most common style of reference (but not a
thorough explanation) in contemporary use. Using an emperor's
different titles or styles is nevertheless considered correct but not
Emperors before the Tang dynasty: use dynasty name + posthumous names.
e.g. Han Wu Di
Tang dynasty and Ming dynasty: use dynasty name +
temple names e.g. Tang Tai Zong
Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties: use era names (reign names)
because most emperors had only one distinctive era name during their
reign, e.g. the Kangxi Emperor (康熙 kāng xī) of Qing. The
exceptions are the first two emperors of the Qing Dynasty, and the
Yīngzōng Emperor (英宗) of Ming, who had two era names.
However, the use of era names makes many mistake these for the names
of the emperors themselves, and many scholars therefore encourage a
reversed wording for Ming and Qing emperors, e.g., the Kangxi Emperor,
the Qianlong Emperor, et cetera. To be more precise, and clear in
English, one could use: the Kangxi era Emperor, etc.
Overrides rules 1 to 3: If there is a more common convention than
using posthumous, temple or era names, then use it. Examples include
Wu Zetian (the only female empress regnant in the Chinese history).
Since all legitimate rulers of
Qin Shi Huang
Qin Shi Huang can be titled
Emperor of China, in English they can be referred to by "Emperor of"
and the name of his respective dynasty after the temple or posthumous
Han Wudi = Emperor Wudi of Han Dynasty
Tang Taizong =
Emperor Taizong of Tang
Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty
Some scholars prefer using the
Wade-Giles romanization instead of the
Pinyin but the above formats still hold. e.g. Han Wu Di = Wu-ti
Emperor of Han Dynasty.
China (Era names, Temple name, Posthumous name)
Table of Chinese monarchs
Chinese emperors family tree
Ancient – Early – Middle – Late
Chinese history (dynasties) (timeline)
List of recipients of tribute from China
List of tributaries of Imperial China
Posterity of Heaven
^ Ebrey 2010, p. 179.
^ a b Dull 1990, p. 59.
^ Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 249.
Yap, Joseph P. (2009). "Official Titles and Institutional Terms - Qin
and Han" pp612–620 and Chapter 1. pp 38–39 in "Wars With The
Xiongnu - A Translation From Zizhi tongjian" . AuthorHouse.
Dull, Jack (1990). "The Evolution of Government in China". Heritage of
China: Contemporary Perspectives on Chinese Civilization. University
of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-06441-6.
Ebrey, Patricia Buckley (2010) . The Cambridge Illustrated
History of China
History of China (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.