The bronze lion in the forbidden city, Beijing China. Image credit: GuoZhongHua via Shutterstock

5 of the Greatest Emperors to Ever Rule China

Identifying the greatest emperors of China is no easy task. Chinese history dates back thousands of years. Throughout that time China had hundreds of emperors, up until the republican revolution. The first recorded ruler was Qin Shi Huangdi in 221 BCE, and the last Hsian T'ung, in 1912.

Most of China's greatest achievements happened under the rule of multiple Emperors. For instance, the Great Wall of China, one of the world's most amazing engineering feats took centuries to complete. In the 7th century BCE, China's first emperor filled in a number of the gaps, and the Ming dynasty built out many new sections between 1368 and 1644 BCE in order to keep China's enemies to the north out.

The hereditary ruling families, called dynasties, commanded the dragon throne, located in the Forbidden City. There were many Emperors who accomplished amazing feats, but there are five that stand out as contributing to the long-term prosperity of what some call the Middle Kingdom.

Qin Shi Huang

Qin Shi Huang. Image credit: Creative Commons

Born in 259 BCE, Qin Shi Huang automatically becomes the greatest Emperor because he is the one who unified China for the first time. Moving from his base of the Kingdom of Qin in west-central China, Qin moved east conquering lands, crowning himself Emperor in 221 BCE at the age of 38. Prior to Qin, Chinese leaders called themselves kings. During his 11-year reign, Qin was responsible for unifying much of the Great Wall, establishing a national road system, and commissioning the building of the Terracotta Army.

Taizu of Song

Taizu of Song. Image credit: Creative Commons

Originally a military general, Zhao Kuangyin, came to power through a coup d'etat. In grabbing the Dragon Throne from his emperor, Guo Zongxun, the newly minted Emperor Taizu stopped the disintegration of China. In his sixteen years of rule from 960 CE to 976 CE, Taizu reconquered several states that had left the control of the central government.

He reduced the powers of military commanders so no one could easily mount a coup against him by giving civil administrators more power. Taizu created the practice of civil servants having to pass specialized exams for employment. This increased the effectiveness of the Chinese government.

He also created academies in which the freedom to exchange ideas without restrictions would foster scientific advances and economic growth.


Kangxi. Image credit: Creative Commons

Kangxi ascended the throne at age seven and ruled for 61 years, making him the longest-serving emperor. Born in Beijing in 1654, his contribution to China included expanding into parts of Tibet and Mongolia as well as important literary contributions such as a dictionary and a poetry anthology.

The Kangxi dictionary helped to standardize the Chinese language by documenting 47,037 characters. Compiled in 1710 CE, it was influential well into the 1800s.

The Quan Tangshi poetry anthology amassed approximately 49,000 lyric poems by 2,200 different poets. Usually written in the first person, these poems express feelings and personal emotions.

Wu of Han

Wu of Han. Image credit: Creative Commons

Born Liu Che in 156 BCE he became Emperor upon the death of his father in 141 BCE. During his 54-year reign, Wu of Han added significantly to the territory of China. Equally important he established cultural contacts with western Eurasian countries as a means of extending China's influence over the region.

In addition, Wu of Han continued the process of centralizing the government through a series of economic, legal, and administrative processes. He also melded two systems - Legalist and Confucianism into a single system of governance.

Wu Zetian

Wu Zetian. Image credit: Creative Commons

In most cultures, hereditary control passes from father to son. This was true for China's ruling families, except for Wu Zetian. That in itself makes her one of the greatest Emperors in China's history. But how she became the only Emperoress is a tale of intrigue. Born in 624, Wu Zetian became a concubine of  Emperor Taizong. Concubines were female companions to wealthy Chinese men. After his death, she ended up marrying his son, Gaozong, the heir to the Dragon Throne. As the Empress Consort, she was a powerful woman in Chinese culture and was very involved in politics.

Her husband, the emperor, had a stroke in 660 and Wu Zetian took over control of the government. Under her rule until 705 CE, China expanded its territory and experienced lasting peace within its borders.

In Conclusion

The achievements of China's greatest emperors are many, making it one of the great nations. In addition to military conquests, they paved the way for economic, political, and educational advances, and made significant contributions that have shaped the country forever.


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