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Getting to know Chinese Emperors

chinese historyChinese Emperors are known by different names. To begin with they have a family name and personal name like every Chinese.

Upon ascending the throne, the emperor acquires a reign name, 年号. During earlier dynasties, an Emperor can have several reign names but by the Ming dynasty, each Emperor has only one reign name. The emperor’s reign becomes a marker of time as events are recorded with reference to the year of an emperor’s reign. For example, on many temple steles and clan association records, they mention events as occurring on the x year in the reign of a particular Emperor. See reign names of different dynasties.

On the stele of Kheng Hock Keong, 庆福宫 in Yangon Burma, it is stated that the Mazu temple was founded in  11th year of the reign of Qing Emperor Xianfeng (大清咸丰十一年). That is 1861 of the Georgian calendar.

Meanwhile, the characters in the new emperor’s personal name are avoided as a sign of respect. A famous example is Li Shi Min, 李世民, second emperor of the Tang Dynasty whose middle name Shi, 世, is the same character as Guan Shi Yin , 观世音, the Bodhisattva of compassion.

After Li Shi Min ascended the throne, Guan Shi yin became known as Guan Yin 观音 to avoid the character shi, 世. This name, Guan Yin, continues to be used long after the Tang Emperor passed away.

When an emperor passed away, he is given a temple name, 庙号, and a posthumous name, 谥号. Both titles can be said to be the emperor’s report card. The temple names are given by the imperial family and tend to be a positive evaluation of the deceased emperor. The exception to this rule is the last emperors of a dynasty whose temple name is usually given by the new dynasty and tends to be less flattering or they may not even be given a temple name.

Founding emperors usually have Taizu 太祖(grand ancestor) as their temple name. Sometimes, the actual founding emperors give this title posthumously to his ancestors especially if they initiated the conquest.

To distinguish founding emperors of different dynasties, they are referred to by their dynastic names. Therefore, Zhu yuan Zhang 朱元璋 who drive the Mongols out of China and established the Ming Dynasty is known as Ming Tai Zhu, 明太祖.

Posthumous names are usually given by the court or later historians and reflect the nature of the emperor and his achievement. The posthumous names can praise an emperor or in some cases even condemn the emperor.

During the early dynastic periods, not all emperors have temple names or posthumous names but by the Song period onwards, the system is more or less established.

Earlier emperors who did not have posthumous names were also given one by later historians and reflect later generation’s evaluation of the respective emperors.

So does knowing the differences between reign, temple and posthumous help us to know Chinese emperors better? Yes and No.

No because there is no fix way of referring to emperors. It depends on the purpose of discussion and also some emperors are popularly known by various names. The Tang emperor whom Lady Yang Gui Fei,杨贵妃, served is popularly known by his name Tang Ming Huang, 唐明皇 while the last emperor of China is often referred to by his personal name Puyi, 溥仪.

Yes because it helps to identifies emperors and the contexts in which they are mentioned. Even if you cannot identify the particular emperor when his name is recalled, you can at least know which names it is and which period he is from.

In any case, we have a choice of names to refer to the emperors. In earlier days, the use of wrong names may cost you your head.


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