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. An absolute monarch, although in practice dependent on an inner circle of advisors, the mystique of the emperor was enhanced by his invisibility to ordinary people, secluded as he often was in the imperial palace. To gain a personal audience with the emperor, even if he still remained hidden behind a screen while he sat on his golden dragon throne, was the highest of honours. Perhaps no other ancient ruler was ever as remote or as revered as the Emperor of China.
The rulers of the Western Zhou dynasty were the first to take the traditional Chinese worship of ancestors a step further and carry the title ‘Son of Heaven’ (Tianzi). King Wen of the Zhou, c. 1050 BCE, claimed he, and, as it conveniently tuned out, all of his successors too, had been given the right to rule by the gods (either Heaven or Sky). This was nothing less than a Mandate of Heaven or Tianming, that is, an unchallengeable right to govern. Not actually divine but, rather, ruling on behalf of the gods on earth, the role also carried the great responsibility to take decisions for the good of the people. If he did not rule well, then China would suffer terrible disasters such as floods and droughts and he would lose the right to govern. This was also a useful explanation as to why ruling dynasties changed over the centuries: they had lost the blessing of heaven through misrule. As one popular saying goes, recorded by Hsun Tzu:
The prince is the boat, the common people are the water. The water can support the boat or the water can capsize the boat. (Ebrey, 8)
The ruler must, therefore, at all times be guided by the principle of benevolence or jen. He is both the mother and father of the people. For this reason, the magistrates who governed the regions in his name were popularly called ‘mother-father officials’. Rulers may have blatantly ignored the moral side of things but, nevertheless, the Mandate of Heaven idea continued to be used as a useful legitimising argument for rule by emperors and even foreign conquerors of emperors right up to the 19th century CE. Few emperors could afford to ignore completely the collective moral and historical expectation of his people.
Thus, in ancient China, the ruler was considered the head of the royal family, the nobility, the state, the judiciary, and religious hierarchy. Naturally, when he died he went to heaven and served the gods there. Such exalted attachments ensured that all rulers of China were treated with great reverence and awe by any person fortunate enough to ever come in physical contact with them. Even for the highest-ranking government officials, getting through to the Inner Court and actually meeting the emperor - and few ever did - the experience was as close as they would get to divinity during their time on earth.
The First Emperor
The first ruler to take the title of emperor proper was Shi Huangdi (259-210 BCE), founder of the Qin dynasty. Indeed, his very name was an honorary title meaning ‘First Emperor’. In an extravagant and ultimately pretty successful attempt at some sort of immortality, the emperor ordered a huge tomb be built for him which was guarded by the Terracotta Army, an 8,000-strong army of life-like warriors complete with chariots and horses as well as many boxed live animals and a number of human victims for good measure.
Thereafter, all rulers took on the title of emperor and the institution, surviving several changes of dynasties, only ended in the 1911 CE revolution which established the Chinese Republic. The last emperor was Aisin Gioro Puyi of the Qing dynasty who reigned while still a child for a mere three years.
Emperors usually inherited their position unless they were the founder of a dynasty of their own and had seized power through force. Typically, the eldest male son inherited his father’s title, but there were cases when an emperor selected another of his children if he deemed him more suitable for rule. This situation led to ill-feeling and rivalry between siblings, and there were often deaths and disappearances as a result. If an emperor died before his chosen heir was an adult, then the young emperor was advised by high-ranking officials, particularly amongst the eunuchs who dominated life at court for centuries. Sometimes even new adult emperors had to contend with powerful officials or relatives who knew better the intricacies of court politics and sought to further their own ambitions rather than those of the state. Deaths, suicides, and forced abdications were not unknown amongst the long line of China’s emperors. These cases were, fortunately, the exceptions and there remained throughout the centuries a strong reverence for any person who was selected by birth or circumstance to be emperor, as the historian R. Dawson here explains:
Once a new sovereign had emerged, the aura of the supernatural which surrounded him and the sense of divine endorsement of the office confirmed the emperor’s position…Seated on a dragon throne, the Son of Heaven was too sacred an object to be gazed on by mortal eyes, so a screen must intervene. (10-11)
Powers of the Emperor
Chinese emperors had no constitution that set out their powers and those of their government. The emperor was the supreme executive, the highest legislative authority and last source of appeal, and the supreme commander of the military. The emperor could direct government policy, introduce new law codes and taxes, make appointments, give favours, privileges, and titles, dish out punishments, and award pardons. He could also overrule any official or existing law, even if a consideration of precedence was required. Some emperors involved themselves more than others in the day-to-day rule of the state but there was a general tendency to leave practical matters to professional politicians carefully selected for the purpose. The emperor was widely seen as a paternal figure and moral pilot to the ship of state, as this extract from a Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) text illustrates:
He who is the ruler of men takes non-action as his Way and makes impartiality his treasure. He sits upon the throne of non-action and rides upon the perfection of his officials. His feet do not move but his ministers lead him forward; his mouth utters no word but his chamberlains give him words of support; his mind does not concern itself with problems but his ministers put into effect the appropriate action. Thus nobody sees him act and yet he achieves his success. This is how the ruler imitates the ways of Heaven. (in Dawson, 7)
The emperor was expected to support the principles of Confucianism on which many areas of government were based, but he himself could take his pick from any of the current religions such as Buddhism and Taoism for his own personal beliefs. Officially, he performed the most important religious rituals in the calendar which included sacrifices at sacred mountain and river sites. The emperor was also responsible for the regular sacrifices which honoured his imperial ancestors and for the ceremonial first ploughing each agricultural year. The most important ritual, which was performed until the 20th century CE, was the offering of an unblemished bullock at the winter solstice, killed in honour of Heaven.
Another expectation on the emperor was to act as a patron of education. Consequently, many emperors visited the state universities and established new schools during their reign. The emperor had himself benefitted from a rigorous education in the Confucian Classics and history, and his role as father of the people necessitated he encourage literacy and learning across China.
Despite his absolute power, the emperor still could not do all that he wished. Such was the size of the state and its bureaucracy that he was reliant on advisors to keep him abreast of affairs and loyal supporters to carry out his policies within the framework of traditional government. He, therefore, was advised and assisted by senior politicians who might carry titles such as Chancellor, Chief Minister, Grand Commandant, Grand Councillor or Imperial Secretary, depending on the period. As the historian R. Dawson here summarises,
Even the most autocratic emperor was inevitably restricted by traditions, conventions, and precedents, and by the pressures of relatives as well as by the need to rely on well-informed ministers. Although on occasion emperors could behave with sudden harshness, their right to act in an arbitrary manner served as a threat which was rarely put into practice. (15)
For this reason, the emperors organised regular court conferences to debate budget, legal and military policy where senior officials were invited to air their opinions and decisions could be taken based on the views of the majority. Government, therefore, largely proceeded along the principle of consensus; indeed, the ancient Chinese word for ‘govern’ (t’ing) also means ‘to listen’. As the apparatus of government grew larger and more sophisticated, the appointment of senior officials was still made by the emperor but done so from a shortlist recommended by his advisors. Communications were also heavily filtered through various departments before they made their way to the emperor’s eyes. Consequently, the power of the senior politicians to sway decision-making in their own favour or towards their own interests grew over time. Further, the emperor’s policies were also circumscribed by those of his predecessors, especially the founder of the dynasty who was viewed as being particularly favoured by Heaven. This was a catch to being the instrument of the divine. If all rulers were thus mandated, then their policies had to be considered and respected.
Uniqueness & Mystique
The mystique of the emperor which came from his Mandate from Heaven and the difficulty in ever getting a glimpse of him was only raised by such conventions as bowing to his portrait. Even officials given a promotion in the provinces gratefully kotowed in the direction of the far distant palace at the capital. To guarantee the emperor’s seclusion, anyone who was incautious enough to enter the palace without permission was given the death sentence for their troubles.
The emperor’s birthday was celebrated like no other religious festival, and his imperial robes carried designs of the dragon, the most prestigious creature in Chinese mythology. He was further distinguished from everyone else by wearing particular shaped hats and clothes that only he had the right to wear. Clothing, drapery, vessels, and furniture of brilliant yellow and specific patterns came to be associated with the imperial person. Naturally, he travelled in his own custom-built carriages which flew his own special banners and travelled on roads kept for his own exclusive use. His path was meticulously cleared of onlookers prior to his passing, too. Even language indicated the emperor’s singularity, as he was referred to by his own unique first-person pronoun and it was forbidden to write or speak his personal name. In death, the massive tombs of the deceased rulers with their accompanying buildings and treasures was another strong and lasting reminder of the power and prestige of China’s emperors.