Chinese dynasties were not like the royal houses of England, branches of a single line. It was possible for the founder of a new dynasty to be a commoner or have come from a non-Chinese ethnic group. Their legitimacy was based on their ability to restore or maintain order and govern. Years in China were traditionally marked by the number of years a certain ruler reigned.
Imperial symbols included the colors yellow and purple. The Emperor wore yellow robes and lived under roofs made with yellow tiles. Only the Emperor was allowed to wear yellow. No buildings outside those in the Forbidden City were allowed to have yellow-tiled roofs. Purple represented the North Star, the center of the universe according to Chinese cosmology.
The dragon symbolized the Emperor while the phoenix symbolized the Empress. Cranes and turtles--traditional longevity symbols--associated with the Imperial court represented the desire for long reign. The numbers nine, associated with male energy, and five, representing harmony, were also linked with the Emperor.
There were three ruling Empresses.
Websites and Resources
Good Websites and Sources: List of Emperors and Other World Historical Leaders friesian.com/sangoku ; List of Emperors PaulNoll.com ; Emperor Portraits China Page ; Court Life During the Time of Empress Dowager Cixi etext.virginia.edu ; Book: Chronicle of the Chinese Emperor by Ann Paludan.
Forbidden City: Book:Forbidden City by Frances Wood, a British Sinologist. Web Sites Wikipedia ; Virtual Forbidden City ; China Vista ; UNESCO World Heritage Site Sites (click 1001wonders.org at the bottom): UNESCO World Heritage Site Map UNESCO World Heritage Site Web site (click the site you want) World Heritage Site ; Maps China Map Guide Links in this Website: FORBIDDEN CITY factsanddetails.com/china ; Temple of Heaven: Wikipedia Wikipedia UNESCO World Heritage Site (click 1001wonders.org at the bottom): UNESCO World Heritage Site Map Also try the UNESCO World Heritage Site Web site (click the site you want) World Heritage Site ; Map on China Map Guide China Map Guide
Links in this Website: IMPERIAL CHINA factsanddetails.com ; CHINESE ART FROM THE GREAT DYNASTIES factsanddetails.com/china ; CHINESE DYNASTIES Factsanddetails.com/China ;COURT LIFE AND EMPERORS Factsanddetails.com/China ; MANDARINS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; EUNUCHS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; SHANG DYNASTY (2200-1700 B.C.) AND XIA DYNASTY Factsanddetails.com/China ; EMPEROR QIN AND THE QIN DYNASTY (221-206 B.C.) Factsanddetails.com/China ; HAN DYNASTY (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) Factsanddetails.com/China ; TANG DYNASTY (A.D. 690-907) Factsanddetails.com/China ; SONG DYNASTY (960-1279) Factsanddetails.com/China ; YUAN (MONGOL) DYNASTY (1215-1368) MING DYNASTY (1368-1644) Factsanddetails.com/China ; QING (MANCHU) DYNASTY (1644-1911) Factsanddetails.com/China ; THEMES IN CHINESE HISTORY Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE FIRSTS--GUNPOWDER, MACHINES, FOODS AND CHAIRS Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE FIRSTS--PAPER, MONEY, ASTRONOMY, CLOCKS Factsanddetails.com/China ; GREAT WALL OF CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China
Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Ancient China Life ancientchinalife.com ; 2) Ancient China for School Kids elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; 3) Oriental Style ourorient.com ; 4) Chinese Text Project chinese.dsturgeon.net ; 5) Minnesota State University site mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory ; 6) ChinaVoc.com ChinaVoc.com ; 7) Early Medieval China Journal languages.ufl.edu/EMC ; 8) History of China history-of-china.com ; 9) U.S.C. Education usc.edu/libraries/archives Books: Cambridge History of Ancient China edited by Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy (1999, Cambridge University Press); The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties by Jessica Rawson (British Museum, 1996)
Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) Brooklyn College site academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge chinaknowledge.de ; 5) China History Forum chinahistoryforum.com ; 6) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; 7 ) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia
Mandate of Heaven
Early Chinese monarchs were both priests and kings. The Chinese people believed that their rulers were chosen to lead with a "mandate of heaven"—the Chinese belief that a dynasty was ordained to rule, based on its demonstrated ability to do so. It was a kind of political legitimacy based on the notion that the overthrow of ruler was justified if the ruler became wicked, lost the trust of the people or double-crossed the supreme being.
The “mandate of heaven” was first adopted during the Zhou Dynasty (1100-221 B.C.) and was described as a divine right to rule. The philosopher Mencius (372-289 B.C.) wrote about it at length and framed it in both moral and cosmic terms, stating that if a ruler was just and carried out the prescribed rituals to the ancestors then his rule and the cosmic, natural and human order would be maintained.
Later the mandate idea was incorporated into the Taoist concept that the collapse of a dynasty was preceded by "Disapprovals of heaven," natural disasters such as great earthquakes, floods or fires and these were often preceded by certain cosmic signs. According to these beliefs on September 8, 2040 five planets will gather within the space of fewer than degrees "signaling the conferral of heaven's mandate."
The legendary emperors did not need to govern at all because the moral certitude that emanated from them was enough to bring about peace and prosperity. One ruler is said to have done nothing but reverently face the south.
Basis of the Mandate of Heaven
The mandate of heaven was something earned through "virtue and moral rectitude" by a ruler that had a divine, magical and natural affect on the natural and social order. If the sacred social contract between the people and the ruler was violated, according to Sinologist Orville Schell, "the all-knowing forces of 'heaven' from which an emperor drew his 'mandate' to rule...would be withheld and his dynasty would collapse” and “the mandate then would be passed on to a new leader or dynasty.”
Unlike Japan, whose emperor came from a family that descended from gods and therefore could not lose his power to rule, China was ruled by a dynasty whose mandate to rule could be taken away if the emperor violated his special relationship with the Chinese people. European monarchs traditionally had trouble claiming any kind of divine mandate.
Behind the mandate of heaven was the belief that royal ancestors became divinities after they died. If they and heaven itself approved the current rulers their approval would make sure the world was in order; ying and yang were in balance, the seasons appeared when they were supposed to, harvests were plentiful and there were no calamitous events. If the royal ancestors and heaven didn’t approve then bad things would happen.
Chinese history has traditionally been interpreted as a cyclical, astrologically-connected growth and decay of dynasties. The fuzzy, ambiguous aspect of the mandate known as the "right of rebellion" which allowed new dynasties to rise up and replace corrupt ones, has been instrumental in maintaining China's status as a state.
Dynastic Rule in China
Until the 1911 Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen, Chinese history had consisted of 24 dynasties. Broadly speaking, the founding emperor of a dynasty seized power by force and eventually passed the reign to his son. The dynasty would continue until faced with serious problems such as famine, war or revolution. Ultimately, the old dynasty would be overthrown by a new regime, which in many cases was headed by the leader of usurping revolutionaries. [Source: Sun Wukong, Asia Times, July 31, 2008]
Sun Wukong wrote in the Asia Times, “Two points can be taken from this. First, Chinese have historically accepted that ‘whoever has fought on horseback to seize all under Heaven’ is entitled to rule, but such acceptance is not automatically extended to the offspring or relatives of the ruler. Second, because the legitimacy of successive rulers is questioned, Chinese are inclined to replace leaders who fail to run the nation well. As another saying puts it: ‘People take turns becoming the emperor, and this year it may be my turn.’” [Ibid]
“It was through violence that Sun Yat-sen founded the Republic of China, and the same is true for Mao Zedong and the People's Republic of China. Neither man, however, passed their power to their sons. Mao and Deng had fought ‘on horseback’ to seize power and thereby gained the legitimacy to rule. But leaders after them have had to justify their right to rule through performance. President Hu Jintao and his predecessor Jiang Zemin were handpicked by Deng.” [Ibid]
Chinese Emperors and Religion
Hall of Abstinence State religion dates back at least to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220) and may date back to the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100 to 771 B.C.). It involved worship of heaven and the emperor. The latter was perceived as an intermediary between the gods and the people
The emperor presided over special religious ceremonies conducted over a special Altar of Heaven that only he alone was allowed to perform. During these ceremonies the emperor approached the altar barefoot, accompanied by an orchestra playing hymns, and prostrated himself before the celestial deities. It was believed that fate of the coming year as good or bad was determined by how skillfully the emperor performed the ritual. The performance of these ritual was critical to receiving the mandate of heaven.
Before the ceremony the Emperor went to The Palace of Abstinence at the Forbidden City or the Temple of Heaven to pray and fast. During the three-day fast the emperor could not eat meat or drink wine, have contact with women, make merry or take care of legal matters.
Temple of Heaven altar An Altar of Heaven constructed during the Sui Dynasty (A.D. 581-618) was unearthed in Xian in the late 1990s. Constructed of rammed earth and composed of four platforms that rose 26 feet high, the altar was covered by a layer of yellow clay topped by a layer of gray paste, strengthened with seed husks and straw. The platforms were five feet to 7˝ feet high and measured from 177 feet in diameter at the bottom to 65 feet in diameter at the top. The altar had 12 staircases and is the oldest known Altar of Heaven. Ming and Qing era altars, like the one at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, were more ornate. See Temple of Heaven in Beijing
There was also a lot of superstition associated with Chinese emperors. Emperors sometimes made decisions based on omens reported to them such as dogs giving birth to snakes, roosters laying eggs, turtles giving birth to adult offspring, frogs eating humans and even strangely-shaped clouds. Students and the their parents still thank the emperors today if the students do well on their university entrance exams.
Secluded Lives of the Chinese Emperors
The Chinese emperors kept themselves secluded from their subjects and were largely confined to their palaces. Some emperors rarely left their palaces except to go hunting or visit their ancestors graves. The Ming dynasty ruler, Emperor Wam-li, virtually imprisoned himself within the Forbidden City with his wives and concubines. Even his ministers of state were not allowed to address him directly and whenever he traveled the roads were cleared so no one could see him.
The emperor often ate alone, attended only by his eunuchs. Meal times was often fixed at 8:00am for breakfast and 1:00pm for supper. With the exception of drinks and a snack in the evening, the emperor often consumed nothing else.
The royal physician was forbidden from touching the emperor directly. To check the emperor's pulse at a respectful distance, a member of the court attached a thread to emperor's wrist and the physician grasped the thread.
In the 16th century Matteo Ricci wrote: "The kings... abandoned the custom of going out in public...When they did leave the royal enclosure, they would never dare to do so without a thousand preliminary precautions. On such occasions the whole court was placed under military guard. Secret servicemen were placed along the route over which the King was to travel and on all roads leading into it. He was not only hidden from view, but the public never knew in which of the palanquins of the cortege he was actually riding. One would think he was making a journey through enemy country rather than among multitudes of his own subjects."
Emperors weren't the only ones who received this kind of treatment. Commoners had to kowtow (lay down forward on all fours and touch one's head to the ground) in the presence of high officials.
Some Emperors and high officials sometimes disguised themselves as ordinary people so the could learn what the masses were thinking.
Chinese Emperor's Sex Life
The Emperors had many women to keep them occupied. One emperor in the 11th century had 121 women (the nearest round number of one third of 365, the number of days in a year) at his immediate disposal, including one empress, three consorts, nine spouses, twenty-seven concubines, and eighty-one assistant concubines. See Sui Dynasty.
Some emperors believed they could gain immortality form having sex with as many women as possible but never ejaculating. See Yellow Emperor.
Emperors also had male consorts. According to legend the Han Dynasty Emperor Ai said he would rather cut off the sleeve of his robe than disturb his male lover who had fallen asleep on it. Some Chinese still refer to homosexuality as “the passion of the sleeve.”
Imperial women also indulged themselves. Empress Wu Ze Tian was a 7th century ruler who was previously a nun and then a concubine and briefly changed the Tang dynasty’s name to Zhou. She had her own harem of men.
Imperial Chinese Concubines
Imperial concubinage wasn’t all it was made out to be. One character in the 18th century novel Dream of a Red Mansion said, “how much happier are those whose home is a hut in field, who eat salt and pickles and wear clothes of cotton, than she is who is endowed with wealth and rank, but separated from her flesh and blood.”
More than 200 Imperial concubines reportedly died on the orders of the 16th century emperor Shizon, Hoping to escape their fate, 16 members of Shizon’s harem snuck into his chamber to strangle him with a silken scarf and stab him with a hairpin. In the struggle the Emperor lost an eye but survived with the help of his Empress. The concubines were punished nu having their limbs pulled off thier bodies and their heads were displayed on poles.
There were eight levels of concubines. Concubines and eunuch often formed close friendships.
Emperors also had male consorts. According to legend the Han Dynasty Emperor Ai said he would rather cut off the sleeve of his robe than disturb his male lover who had fallen asleep on it. Some Chinese still refer to homosexuality as “the passion of the sleeve.”
Chinese Emperor's Sexual Rotation Schedule
Palace concert It was believed that organizing the Emperor's sex life into a regimented order was essential to maintaining the well-being of the entire Chinese empire. The great Chinese calendar clocks of the 10th century were not used to keep track of time but rather to decide the schedule, rotation and time for the women who slept with the Emperor. Secretaries kept record of the Emperor's sex life with brushes dipped in imperial vermillion.
In China and some other Asian countries age is determined from the moment of conception not from the moment of birth. The Imperial Chinese believed that women were most likely to conceive on the nights nearest the full moon, when the Yin, or female influence, was strong enough to match the potent Yang, or male force, of the Emperor. It was believed that on these nights children with strong virtues would be produced. As a result the empress and spouses slept with Emperor around the full moon and the lower ranking women, whose main function was to nourish the Emperor's Yang with their Yin, slept with him around the time of the new moon. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
A rotation described in the Record of the Rites of the Chou dynasty (1120-256 B.C.) was as follows: "The lower-ranking [women] come first, the higher ranking come last. The assistant concubines, eighty-one in number, share the imperial couch nine nights in groups of nine. The nine spouses and the three consorts are allotted one night to each group, and the empress also alone one night. On the fifteenth day of every month the sequence is complete, after which it repeats in reverse order." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
Some emperors kept the names of their favorite wives, consorts and concubines on jade tablets kept in their bed chambers. The most active emperors had 50 or more of these tablets. When an emperor selected the woman he wanted he turned over the tablet with her name on a teak table. A eunuch then rushed to the woman's chamber, took off her clothes to make sure she wasn't concealing a weapon, wrapped her in gold cloth, carried her through the palace since she could barely walk with her bound feet and deposited her at the foot of the emperor's bed. The eunuch then recorded the date to verify later whether or not the emperor was the father of any children born to the woman.
Imperial Chinese Court Life
Emperor travelling in a palanquin In imperial times, visitors to the emperor were expected to drop to the floor and knock their foreheads on the floor nine times to show respect. Some emperors reportedly tested the loyalty of their ministers by bringing in a donkey and calling it horse and asking the minister what he thought. If the mister called it a donkey he was executed. If he called it a horse he was promoted.
Emperors liked to portray themselves as scholars and art lovers. Perhaps the best example of this was the Emperor Qianlong (1736-1796), regarded as China’s last great emperor. See Emperor Qianlong, Qing Dynasty.
Baixiyong were performers who entertained the court with acrobatics, singing, dancing, magic and feats of strength.
Often an emperor was served hundreds of dishes during meal time but ate only a few bites here and there. At banquets he ate at a table on a platform raised above the guests. A Jesuit priest who attended one of these banquets in 1727 wrote: “Every time the Emperor says a word...one must kneel down and hit one’s head on the ground. This has to be done every time someone serves him something to drink.”
Imperial Chinese Wealth
The emperors of China lived in luxury rivaled only by the Bourbons of France, the Romonavs of Russia, the Hapsburgs of Austria, and the Moguls of India.
Ming era tribute A testimony to the Emperor's wealth is the contents of the Forbidden City in Beijing and the Palace Museum in Taiwan. All of the things kept in these places belonged to the Emperor. See Beijing and Taiwan.
The Chinese emperors used four-story umbrellas that looked like pagodas, were carried to places in sedan chairs accompanied by armies of servants and put their chop on documents with vermillion ink using a seal more valuable the treasuries of most states. Members of the court were buried with gold cloth placed over their face and rings on their fingers and shrouded with white silk embroidered with dragons and phoenixes.
In Imperial China, peasant sometimes owned land, but private property was generally regarded as a gift of the state.
Imperial Chinese Clothing
The members of the court had three sets of clothing: regular, court and ceremonial. Imperial clothes were made with silk, gold, sliver, pearls, jade, rubies, sapphires, coral, lapis lazuli, turquoise, agate, various kind of fragrant woods, kingfisher feathers and thread made from peacock feathers. Beginning in the Sui dynasty (581-618 A.D.) the emperor appropriated the color yellow and prohibited other people from wearing it based on a purported precedent set by the legendary Yellow Emperor.
Imperial clothing accessories included belts, ceremonial hats, regular hats, hairpins, headdress ornaments, bracelets, thumb rings, fragrance pouches, purses, watches, rosaries, belts (regular, court and ceremonial), necklaces hat finials, hat decorations, silk purses, shoes for bound feet, hats withe jeweled knobs, headbands, silk kerchiefs, fans, rings, buttons, hooks, earnings, brooches and fingernail guards.
Robes were the most visible and decorated garments. They were usually made of silk and featured lavish colors, exquisite stitching and a variety of embroidered decorations and symbols. Most pieces that remain today date to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The Qings (Manchus) were horse people and many of their garments were designed for riding on horses. Many robes have long horseshoe-shaped cuffs because it was considered impolite to show one’s hands and fingers.
Leonard Yiu, a collector of tribal costumes and jewelry, came into the possession of a yellow dragon robe, which was worn by a member of the royal family during the Qing Dynasty in China (1644-1911, the last imperial dynasty). He told the Star of Malaysia: “While it was not worn by the emperor, it must’ve been worn by a member of the emperor’s immediate family...The condition is bad now but you can still see that the whole robe is woven. In fact, the motifs on the robe were not embroidered onto the robe, they were woven in when the fabric was woven. This technique is very, very difficult to duplicate. [Source: Brigitte Rozario, The Star (Malaysia), September 17, 2006]
“The tribes in China don’t carve wood, so all their artistry is focused on clothing and textiles. It is through their costumes that you can admire their culture and their artistry,” says Yiu. “The colour of the robe, imperial yellow, and the dragon motif with five claws, indicate something that could have been worn only by the emperor’s immediate family. I bought this in China about 15 years ago. Even then, it was not cheap. I think it was about RM15,000 ($4,900). Now, it could probably sell for RM100,000 ($328,000)” says the collector.
Symbols on Imperial Chinese Clothing
crane symbolized longevity During the Qing dynasty the ranks of courtiers and bureaucrats were indicated by decorative designs on their costumes, the number of peacock feathers on their hats and the number of precious materials they were allowed to wear. For example, the formal over-robe worn by a first degree civil servant was embroidered with a crane while that of a second degree civil servant was embroidered with a golden pheasant. Robes of lower ranking officials were decorated with other animals. Color also indicated rank. Brilliant yellow was reserved for the Emperor. Muted yellows were worn by his underlings.
Beginning in 1759, emperors were required to wear 12 symbols of authority that included dragons, stars and symbols representing the ocean. The lower portion of a jacket often contained diagonal stripes signifying water and rolling waves, mountain peaks symbolizing the earth and mountains and dragons in the clouds representing air. At the neck was a gate to heaven. Fancy robes had nine dragons, an auspicious numbers, symbolizing power and virility.
Imperial Chinese Art Objects
Chinese art objects possessed by emperors included carved and decorative ink stones; Ju-it scepters (scepters that symbolized political and military power that were given to dignitaries and courtiers on different occasions); and miniature curio cabinets (elaborate multi-compartment boxes for storing things). Highly valued objects were made from animal horn (rhinoceros horn was particularly prized), silk, jade, ivory, lacquered softwoods, and polished hardwoods.
Among the items the emperors kept in miniature curio cabinets were small combs, tea containers, censers, incense, small knifes, nail files, forks, tweezers, brushes, pens, books, ink slabs, ink, ink cases, paper, brushes, brushwashers, brush-racks, water containers, glue boxes, seals, seal ink, and carved decorative pieces made from bamboo, wood, enamel, bronze, porcelain, ivory, gold, silver, rock-crystal and jade. The tiny compartments, shelves, drawers and boxes were often connected in elaborate, cryptic ways.
Imperial Chinese Violence
In ancient times the imperial court subjected traitors and spies to "five horses split the body," a punishment intended to destroy a person not only on earth but in the hereafter. Officials who committed and egregious offense were sometimes dismembered alive and skinned to death. Another particularly nasty imperial punishment was "death by a thousand cuts."
Emperors commonly killed their brothers, uncles, nephews and other relatives during their grab for power to eliminate rivals. Imperial daughters often died in the first two years of their life due to benign neglect. Chinese who said bad things about the emperor were sometimes punished by castration.
Families, friends and neighbors of the accused were often brutally punished along with the accused himself. See Tthe Qing Yongzheng Emperor.
Ancient Chinese soldiers often presented the head of enemy soldiers killed in battle to Emperor or his ministers or generals. Ths was done not for religious or ritualistic reasons but simply to prove the soldiers had performed their duty and thus claim their pay. Sometimes prisoners of war were sacrificed. Other times they were deported to a different part of the kingdom.
See Shang burials, Emperor Qin, Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, Yongle Emperor.
Image Sources: 1) Forbidden City, Louis Perrochon http://www.perrochon.com/photo/china/ ; 2) Hall of Abstinence, Nolls China website; 3) Altar of Heaven, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 4) Emperor and Palanqin, All Posters.com http://www.allposters.com/?lang=1 Search Chinese Art ; 5) Palace Concert, University of Washington; 6) Ming era tribute, Dr. Robert Perrins; 7) Imperial Robe, Kent State University; 8) Imperial Robe symbol, Kent State University; 9) Curio Cabinet, Palace Museum, Tapei
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated December 2012