In ancient China, the emperor is believed to be the “son of heaven,” and he theoretically held supreme and absolute power to rule over the entire nation. Over its five thousand years of history, China has witnessed the rise and fall of dozens of dynasties and hundreds of emperors. A number of these emperors have gained renown for being feared by their enemies and even their own people, either for their intelligence and brilliant abilities as leaders or for their ineptitude as well as the madness and terror that reigned during their rule.
1. Emperor Shi Huangdi of the Qin Dynasty
Emperor Shi Huangdi is not only the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, he also created the first unified Chinese empire in 221 BC. As the first emperor of Qin, his legacy is in the establishment of a strengthened and centralized government, which he accomplished partly by taking away the properties of his feudal lords. He was also a strong follower of Legalism – a philosophy that regards people as individuals who are inherently evil and undisciplined – and so, Qin Shi Huang was not tolerant of dissent of any kind. In fact, he had books about Daoist, Confucian philosophies and other non-Legalist books seized and set on fire in 213 B.C. and had about 460 non-Legalists buried alive a year after that.
While he is considered to be a talented politician and a military genius, Shi Huangdi held no sentimental feelings for his people and was only concerned with maintaining a strong and unified China at the time of his reign. In his campaign for the unification of China, he resorted to massacring, enslaving and exiling royal members of rival states. He was also not above executing his own high-ranking officials and generals.
During his reign, he ordered the construction of a great wall – which is considered to be a prequel to today's Great Wall of China – and a massive mausoleum which contained 6,000 life-size terra-cotta soldier statues. Many workers who built the wall died in the process, while those who built the mausoleum were killed to keep its secrets.
2. Emperor Yang Guang of the Sui Dynasty
Emperor Yang Guang was the second emperor of the Sui Dynasty and most agree he rose to power by cunningly framing his older brother Yong. So their father, Emperor Wen, appointed Yang Guang as crown prince instead. People believe Yang even killed his father to seize the throne and as the new emperor even took his father’s favorite concubines.
Yang went down in history as one of the worst most self-indulgent tyrants in ancient Chinese history. While there were some achievements during his rule, his abuse of power damaged the nation causing his people to suffer. For example, he imposed very heavy taxes to finish huge expensive construction projects like the Grand Canal, rebuilding the Great Wall, and redesigning the eastern capital of Luoyang. He also initiated a series of wars to subdue Goguryeo – one of the three old kingdoms that once ruled in the land of Korea – but each attempt ended in failure.
Emperor Yang also indulged in a very raunchy lifestyle with his concubines and embarked on extravagant tours of his empire. Eventually, people could no longer tolerate his rule or accept him as their emperor leading to one uprising after another. Then in 618, Emperor Yang hung himself in Jiangdu after the coup by his general, Yuwen Huaji.
3. Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty
Empress Wu Zetian is recognized as the one true Empress in Chinese history and for one of its most talented rulers. Starting as a 14-year-old junior concubine, Wu rose through the ranks and eventually established herself as the Empress of China. People have varying views regarding Wu Zetian’s reign. To some, she was an autocrat, who ruthlessly disposed of people standing her way to gain and keep her power. To others, she was simply doing what she had to do as an ambitious individual and as the determined leader of an empire. She acted the same as male emperors during that time. Although many of her actions were demonized, experts also note how she effectively ruled China during one of its more peaceful and thriving periods.
Of course, her achievements as an effective leader do not discount the fact that she did ruthlessly eliminate her opponents by dismissing, exiling, or executing them. And in some cases, some she brought to their knees were her own family members. One particular victim to Wu Zetian’s maneuvers was Emperor Kao Tsung's wife, Empress Wang. She accused Empress Wang of murdering her newborn daughter and Wu eventually replaced Empress Wang becoming Empress Wu Zetian.
Wu Zetian’s brutal tactics and talent for governance as a ruling empress instilled fear in China’s neighboring nations, especially since the military leaders she handpicked successfully took control over large parts of the Korean peninsula.
4. Emperor Hongwu of the Ming Dynasty
The Emperor Hongwu was the founder and first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, which ruled all of China for almost three centuries. The emperor was born to a poor farming peasant family. He eventually rose through the ranks of a rebel army and emerged as the supreme leader of the rebels that sought to overthrow the Mongol or Yuan Dynasty. In January 1368, he proclaimed himself to be the emperor of the new Ming Dynasty with the primary objective of pushing the Mongols out of Chinese territory and restoring Han Chinese leadership in China. Soon after, people in many areas began rejecting everything Mongolian.
However, Emperor Hongwu held a grudge for the gentry class since his humble origins as a peasant farmer leading to a growing distrust of his ministers and generals. He demanded everyone obey his rules and, to consolidate his control over different government departments, he killed many "unqualified" officials in infamous purges. In one instance, he gave an order for extermination that massacred intellectuals, district officials, and nobility throughout the entire country. These repeated and increased in scale, assuring his absolute power as emperor.
As time went on, Emperor Hongwu grew suspicious of rebellions and coups from people mocking his poor background. Thus, he even executed his close advisers.
5. The Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty
The Emperor Kangxi reigned for 61 years, making him the longest-reigning emperor in Chinese history and the world. He is also considered to be among China’s greatest emperors, having brought long-term stability and wealth to the nation after years of war and chaos.
While he was a benevolent and wise leader that brought economic and cultural growth to the empire and its citizens, the Kangxi Emperor’s military tactics instilled fear in the hearts of his enemies and the empire’s neighboring nations. The leadership of the emperor successfully suppressed the Revolt of the Three Feudatories and forced the Taiwan Tungning Kingdom and Northern Mongol rebels to submit to Qing Empire rule. Emperor Kangxi faced Russian threats advancing from the north, and after a series of border conflicts along the Amur River region, the Qing Empire triumphed gaining control of the area. His leadership and genius also guaranteed the success of the empire’s invasion of Tibet.
The Kangxi Emperor also set strict military rules to be faithfully obeyed. According to this traditional military system, commanders and foot soldiers who returned from battle alone were put to death. This policy was strictly observed to motivate soldiers and commanders to fight together in battle fearlessly as one body.
The examples of Chinese emperors we discussed in this video were not just puppet leaders in their entire reign. These emperors from China were feared at some point - if not the entire duration – of their reign because they held an almost unlimited power that allowed them to freely make fate-changing decisions on the lives nobles, common people, and enemies. While the manner in which they exercised their power was not always for nor always lead to the betterment of the nation, they left a resounding impact through the Chinese empire and permanent mark in our global history.