Chinese Emperors I Fabulous Facts (2023)

If you’re like most people who start reading about Chinese emperors, you’ll feel very quickly that you’ve disappeared down a gilded and extraordinarily rich rabbit hole.

There are just so many Chinese emperors and dynasties that even local Chinese people are confused by who did what and when. Let’s face it. A dedicated Chinese history expert would find it hard to wrap their head around every last imperial detail, and we both know that no tour of China is long enough for you to absorb it all. So, rather than provide a blow by blow description of all the Chinese emperors since time began, we thought, why not keep it super simple?

In this article we share fabulous facts and unlikely fiction that bring some of Chinese most fascinating emperors and their achievements (or lack of them) to life.

Let’s start with fabulous facts

China as we know it today is a relatively new concept. When considered in the context of Chinese history, emperors have reigned supreme in one way or another for a couple of thousand years.

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Overall, there were an incredible 83 dynasties and reigns throughout Chinese history, and a remarkable 559 emperors and kings!

In China, the emperor was the absolute ruler; a symbol of heavenly power on earth. It might all sound wonderful, but life for a Chinese emperor really wasn’t all lavish ceremonies and disposable servants – although there was plenty of that. You’d think with an endless supply of riches and concubines at your disposal, not to mention access to the best in science and medicine, life would be sweet, however, not so. Being an emperor was dangerous business. With the constant threat to life from those ‘nearest and dearest’ to you, emperors’ lives were often brief and met with violent endings, with untimely death all too common. Some emperors even brought about their own demise, with attempts to reach immortality backfiring unceremoniously.

Here are a few fabulous facts about Chinese emperors.

Emperor with the shortest lifespan (dying at just two years of age)Liu Long (105 AD – 106 AD)
Fifth emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty
Emperor with the longest life (died at 89 years)Qianlong Emperor (1711 AD – 1799 AD)
Fifth emperor of the Qing dynasty
Oldest (and only female) emperor to ascend the throneWu Zetian (624 AD – 705 AD)
Ruler of the late Tang dynasty and Wu Zhou
Shortest reign (just half a day!)Wanyan Chenglin (1202 AD – 1234 AD)
Last emperor of the Jin dynasty
Longest reign (61 years)Kangxi Emperor (1654 AD – 1722 AD)
Third emperor of the Qing dynasty
Number of emperors who lived past 80 years5
Title given to the emperor by subjects during the feudal periodBi Xia (Your Majesty)
Longest dynasty, ruling for more than 790 yearsZhou dynasty
Shortest dynasty, ruling for around a yearNorthern Liao dynasty
Longest average reign for an emperor (Qing dynasty)27 years
Shortest average reign for an emperor (Northern Liao)5 months
Last emperor of ChinaAisin Gioro Puyi
Final Qing dynasty emperor. Abdicated the most times (three in total)


The best and most of [Chinese emperors]

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Chinese emperors are synonymous with the expansion of China in terms of geography, science, music, and culture. Reflecting the personal interests of the emperor at the time, many advances were made in different areas, with remarkable discoveries the fruits of their labor.

Here are just some of the stand out achievements.

United China for the first time, commissioned the first Great Wall, and much more!Emperor Qin Shihuang
First trip to the Western regions commenced in 139 BCInstigated by Liu Che, seventh emperor of the Han dynasty
Most illustrious poetCao Pi, the first emperor of the state of Cao Wei in the Three Kingdoms period
Golden period in Chinese history, the reign of ZhenguanEmperor Taizong, the second emperor of the Tang dynasty, his reign was regarded as the exemplar for emperors who followed in Chinese history
The Grand Canal (2,700km)Emperor Yang of Sui, ordered the construction of the Grand Canal, a project which took six years and involved five million laborers
Commissioned the Forbidden CityEmperor Yongle, the third Ming dynasty emperor
Most enthusiastic about science (and ordered the earliest human dissections, experiments with flight, and research on artificial food)Wang Mang of the short-lived Xin dynasty
Laziest emperor (during his 48 year reign he did not hold court for 28 years!)Zhu Yijun, Wanli Emperor of Ming dynasty


4 Chinese emperors western travelers should know

So with the fab facts out of the way, let’s dive into the detail of four Chinese emperors you really should know.

Qin Shihuang (259 BC – 210 BC): China’s first emperor

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Prior to becoming unified for the first time under Qin Shihuang, China was beset by almost continuous feuding between the various tribes and states. It wasn’t called the Warring Period for nothing, right? But somehow, Shi Huang Di (yes, it means first emperor) managed to pull it all together.

Under Qin Shihuang, China enjoyed unprecedented centralization in its approach to political, economic, military, cultural, and diplomatic powers. It seems there was very little that could stop Emperor Qin who had many grandiose ideas that he happily invested funds and people to bring to life. We’ve already mentioned the Great Wall – it was Qin who kicked it off hoping to keep the Hans at bay – but his expansive vision didn’t stop there. He took it to the afterlife too. It was Qin who was responsible for the world’s largest (and probably only) underground army of some 8,000 terracotta soldiers, horses, weapons, and every conceivable comfort an earthly departed emperor could need.

Sadly, Emperor Qin came unstuck when with his attempt to achieve immortality. Legend has it that his court physicians concocted an alchemical formulation that poisoned him, however despite this rather unhappy end, he’s enjoyed an immortality of sorts with the Great Wall and Terracotta Army still standing as lasting legacies of his reign.

Genghis Khan (1162 AD – 1227 AD): The Mongol Empire

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Genghis Khan was born in the Mobei grassland in 1162. From a family of warriors, it’s hardly a surprise that he continued in the family tradition. Historical relics indicated Genghis Khan established the Great Mongol Kingdom in 1206, and may indeed have carried a dual title of emperor and Great Khan.

Under Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire expanded significantly. Under his rule, the Genghis Khan code Yassa – the world’s first written code – was developed, and the Mongolian Aristocratic republic system, based on aristocratic democracy, was established.

Wu Zetian (624 AD – 705 AD) – Holy God Emperor

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Wu Zhao was the recognized female emperor. She entered court at the age of 14 as a cairen server for Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty and wasn’t promoted for 12 years. Highly skilled at navigating the intrigue and troubles of court life, Wu finally became queen in 655, staying in that position until 683. At that time, her title was Queen of Heaven and Two Holy Gods’ with Emperor Gaozong, however Gaozong didn’t particularly enjoy politics and was prone to dizziness, so Wu did what any good Queen of Heaven would. She stepped into the fray and became the Empress Dowager of Tang Zhongzong and Tang Ruizong. Finally in 690, she became the empress regnant of the Wu Zhou.

While her life and court was filled with intrigue, power games, and murder, Wu did implement many positive measures during her time as a leader, with agricultural development, water conservation, and academic prowess through imperial examinations among her achievements.

The Last Emperor: Aisin Gioro Puyi

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The last emperor of the Qing dynasty was also the last Chinese emperor. Puyi came to power at a time in China when great change was afoot. Things only accelerated under his time as emperor, as he was himself drawn by influences from the West. In 1911, revolution broke out in China, and in 1912 Puyi abdicated, bringing an end to Qing dynasty rule. After the September 18 Incident (Mukden Incident) in 1931, Puyi was installed as a puppet emperor in Manchukuo by the Japanese until 1945, when the Japanese surrendered. Puyi was caught by the Soviet Red Army trying to escape and escorted back to China where he was imprisoned and reformed at the Fushun War Criminals Management Center. In 1959 he received an amnesty decree and later became a member of the China National Committee. He finished life as an ordinary Chinese citizen, marrying a regular Chinese woman (his fourth marriage and fifth wife), finally dying of kidney cancer in 1967 at 61 years of age. The first half of Puyi’s life is shared in his autobiography, however there have been numerous adaptations of his life by others. Perhaps the most notable of these is The Last Emperor, an Oscar winning film based on his life story.

Fascinated by the life and times of Chinese emperors? We are too!

The rich legacy left by China’s emperors infiltrates every aspect of Chinese history, and we can showcase it to you on one of our fully guided multi-day small group and private tours. Our team of travel consultants can advise on enriching activities and experiences that will make for beautiful travel memories from your China vacation. Reach out – We are here to help!


Chinese Emperors I Fabulous Facts? ›

An early achiever

Born Prince Ying Zheng, he was just 13 years old when he became King of the Qin State in 246 BC. Initially supported by his mother Queen Zhao Ji and chancellor Lü Buwei who effectively managed the government, the young king took full control of his kingdom aged 22.

What are some facts about the first Chinese emperor? ›

An early achiever

Born Prince Ying Zheng, he was just 13 years old when he became King of the Qin State in 246 BC. Initially supported by his mother Queen Zhao Ji and chancellor Lü Buwei who effectively managed the government, the young king took full control of his kingdom aged 22.

What were Chinese emperors known for? ›

The emperors of ancient China had tremendous power and responsibility. Called the 'Son of Heaven', he (and once she) was given a divine right to rule over all people but was expected to promote their best interest and not his own.

Why is the first emperor of China famous? ›

Qin Shi Huangdi, the first Qin Emperor, was a brutal ruler who unified ancient China and laid the foundation for the Great Wall. China already had a long history by the time its states were unified under its first emperor. Settlements in the Yellow and Yangtze River Valleys had grown into an agricultural civilization.

Who was the most loved Chinese emperor? ›

Táng Tàizōng 唐太宗 Often regarded as China's greatest emperor; technically the second emperor of Tang but really the power behind the throne even during his father's reign. He inaugurated a long period of cosmopolitan splendor and military dominance.

What did Chinese emperors do all day? ›

What did an emperor do all day? The emperor's daily routine was highly regimented and ritualized. He would begin his day with morning audiences, where he would receive reports from his ministers and make important decisions. He would then attend to his personal affairs, such as reading, writing, and painting.

What power did Chinese emperors have? ›

These emperors ruled as absolute monarchs throughout their reign, maintaining a centralized grip on the country. During the Song dynasty, the emperor's power was significantly overshadowed by the power of the chancellor.

Who was the wisest Chinese emperor? ›

Tang Taizong

He is regarded as the wisest of Chinese Emperors for his full consideration of his people, especially the peasants.

What are 3 interesting facts in China? ›

In China over 30 million people live in caves. One in every five people in the world is Chinese. China is the most populous nation on Earth with around 1.3 billion people. In Chinese mythology, a monster called “Nian” (“year”) comes out to eat people on New Year's Eve.

What is the most interesting fact? ›

Interesting Unknown facts that you need to know
  • Hot water will turn into ice faster than cold water. ...
  • The Mona Lisa has no eyebrows. ...
  • The strongest muscle in the body is the tongue. ...
  • Ants take rest for around 8 Minutes in 12-hour period. ...
  • "I Am" is the shortest complete sentence in the English language.

Which emperor drank mercury? ›

The cause of Qin Shi Huang's death remains unknown, though he had been worn down by his many years of rule. One hypothesis holds that he was poisoned by an elixir containing mercury, given to him by his court alchemists and physicians in his quest for immortality.

Why did China have emperors? ›

The Chinese believed that an emperor's right to rule was bestowed by heaven. If the emperor failed to govern responsibly or mistreated the people, his right to rule—the "Mandate of Heaven"—could be withdrawn.

Why did China lose emperor? ›

With the military position of the Qing weakening and provisions made for the maintenance of the royal family at court, the emperor and the royal family abdicated the throne in February of 1912. The 1911 revolution was only the first steps in a process that would require the 1949 revolution to complete.

What happened to the first emperor of China? ›

The cause of Qin Shi Huang's death remains unknown, though he had been worn down by his many years of rule. One hypothesis holds that he was poisoned by an elixir containing mercury, given to him by his court alchemists and physicians in his quest for immortality.

How long did the first emperor rule China? ›

Qin Shi Huang (around 259 BCE–September 10, 210 BCE) was the First Emperor of a unified China and founder of the Qin dynasty, who ruled from 246 BCE to 210 BCE. In his 35-year reign, he caused both rapid cultural and intellectual advancement and much destruction and oppression within China.

How did the first emperor create China? ›

Before China became unified under one emperor, it was made up of several different kingdoms that were constantly at war with one another. Then, in 221 BCE, the Qin kingdom defeated the other states. The Qin ruler took the title Qin Shi Huangdi and became the First Emperor of China.

Who was China's first real emperor? ›

The First Emperor, Qin Shihuang. Qin Shi Huang was the first emperor of China. He reunified China by conquering the other 6 warring states in 10 years and then establishing the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC).

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