Chinese sovereign

From Academic Kids

The king or wang (王 wang2) was the Chinese head of state from the Zhou to Qin dynasties. After that, Wang (sometimes translated "prince") became merely the head of the hierarchy of noble ranks. The title was commonly given to members of the Emperor's family and could be inherited. f The characters huang (皇 huang "godking") and di (帝 "sage king") were used separately and never consecutively (see Three Huang and five Di) and reserved for mythological rulers until the first emperor of Qin (Qin Shi Huang). The Emperor or huangdi (皇帝 in pinyin: huang2 di4) of China then became the title of head of state of China from the Qin dynasty (221) to the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

From the Han dynasty, huangdi was abbreviated to huang or di. Qing (卿);, Daifu (大夫) and Shi (仕) became synonyms for court officials.

Although formally the son of heaven, 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.

The title of emperor was transmitted from father to son. Usually the first born of the queen inherited the office, but this rule was not universal and disputes over succession were the cause of a number of civil wars. Unlike the Emperor of Japan, Chinese political theory allowed for a change in dynasty and an emperor could be replaced by a rebel leader. It was generally not possible for a female to succeed to the throne and in the history of China there has only been one reigning Empress, Wu Zetian of the Tang dynasty.


How to read the titles of a Chinese sovereign

All sovereigns are denoted by a string of Chinese characters.


  1. Hn Gāo Zǔ Li Bāng (漢 高祖 劉邦)
  2. Tng Ti Zōng Lǐ Sh Mn (唐 太宗 李世民)
  3. Wi Wǔ D Co Cāo (魏 武帝 曹操)
  4. Hu Hn Gāo Zǔ Li Zhī Yuǎn (後漢 高祖 劉知遠)
  5. Hn Guāng Wǔ D Li Xi (漢 光武帝 劉秀)

The first character(s) are the name of the dynasty or kingdom. e.g. Hn, Tng, Wi and Hu Hn.

Then come the characters of how the sovereign is commonly called, in most of the times the posthumous names or the temple names. e.g. Gāo Zǔ, Ti Zōng, Wǔ D, Guāng Wǔ D.

Then follow the characters of their family and given names. e.g. Li Bāng, Lǐ Sh Mn, Co Cāo, Li Zhī Yuǎn and Li Xi.

In contemporary historical texts, the string including the name of dynasty and temple or posthumous names is sufficient enough as a clear reference to a particular sovereign.

e.g. Hn Gāo Zǔ

Note that Wi Wǔ D Co Cāo never was a sovereign but his son was. Thus he was revered as Wǔ D. Co Cāo is good enough for reference.

Some rules of thumb and helpful tips for reading a list of sovereigns

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 contemporarily used.

e.g. The posthumous name of Tng Ti Zōng Lǐ Sh Mn was Wn D (文帝)

If sovereigns since Tang were referenced using posthumous names, they were the last ones of their sovereignties or their reigns were short and unpopular.

e.g. Tng Āi D Lǐ Zh (唐哀帝 李柷), also known as Tng Zhāo Xuān D (唐昭宣帝), was last emperor of the Tang Dynasty reigning from 904 to 907.

Hn Guāng Wǔ D is equivalent to Dōng Hn Guāng Wǔ D since he was the founder of the Eastern Han Dynasty. All dōng(east)-xī(west), nn(south)-běi(north), qian(former)-hou(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.

Some common conventions of naming Chinese sovereigns

If you are even more confused after reading the above, here is a quick guide (but not a thorough explanation).

  1. Emperors before the Tang dynasty: use dynasty name + posthumous names. e.g. Han Wu Di
  2. Emperors between Tang dynasty and Ming dynasty: use dynasty name + temple names e.g. Tang tai zong
  3. Since all legitimate rulers of China after Qin Shi Huang were titled emperor of China, they can also be referred to by "emperor of" and the name of his/her respective dynasty after the temple or posthumous name. e.g.
    Han wudi = Emperor wudi of Han Dynasty
    Tang taizong = Emperor taizong of Tang Dynasty
  4. Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties: use era names (same as reign names) because each emperor has only one distinctive era name. e.g. Kangxi (kang1 xi1) Emperor
  5. Overrides rules 1 to 3: If there is a more common convention than using posthumous, temple or era names, then use it. e.g. Cao Cao instead of Wei wu di.
  6. 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.

If you prefer better clarification and do not want to bother with all those "names", please refer to each dynasty of which the specific convention is shown on top of its sovereigns.

However a consensus has yet to be reached in Wikipedia. Here is the discussion link.

Table of Chinese monarchs

The tables: the page is very long (among the longest Wikipedia articles). If you are looking for specific monarchs of a dynasty, it is best to use the following "See also" links. The table has been chopped into smaller, digestible pieces according to the dynasties and placed under those pages.

See also


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