Some Chinese emperors left behind rich legacies for us – the modern humans to know them and their dynasties in depth, while others left nothing but crazy, sometimes sordid stories that can surprise or repel anyone. China had over 2000 years of emperor rule, beginning with the very first Qin Dynasty that started in 221 BC and ended with the Qing Dynasty in 1912. Some of these emperors were Chinese by birth, while many others had Mongolian or Manchu lineage. Quite a few of these emperors brought about revolutionary changes to China, but today, we are not going to put forth the names of such men and their contributions, but will cover the 13 ancient Chinese emperors that drove their societies to misery and have quite an interesting collection of stories to their credit.
Taichang’s rule lasted for only about a month or more when he died mysteriously, therefore ending his short rule. Taichang belonged to the Ming Dynasty and took the throne on August 28 in 1620. However, soon after he was affected with some sort of sickness that still remains a mystery. This mysterious sickness left him very weak and his condition worsened. On the recommendation of his close officials, a man named Li Keshao was appointed to make the emperor a red pill to cure his illness. Taichang recovered a little, but soon fell to his death suddenly in the evening, the causes of which are still unknown.
2. Toghon Temur
Toghon Temur’s accession to the Yuan Dynasty throne at mere age of 13 years took ancient China by surprise. Temur had interest in Buddhism but was in no way a spiritualist like he projected himself to be. He was a sadistic emperor who roamed around wearing a monk’s clothes while his kingdom suffered and starved. Temur was a sex addict and he went around organizing sex orgies while being dressed up as a monk. He along with his chief minister also started a campaign wherein people with Wang, Li, Zhao and Zhang were planned to be executed when China came under the attack of rebels.
3. Gao Yang
Chinese emperors like Gao Yang often started their journeys on the right footing but ended with many a disappointments. He was known as the Emperor Wenxuan who ruled Northern Qi from 529 to 559. When he took over the reign, he did a lot for the betterment of the people by lessening the burden of taxes from their shoulders. It was during his rule that Northern Qi became a powerful kingdom in China, but this golden rule was short lived as a few years later, Gao Yang took to womanizing and drinking so much so that he was eventually killed because of these vices. No one knew how sadistic this emperor could actually be till he flaunted the head of a woman he was having an affair with in front of his officials at a feast. He had a thing for beheading people when drunk and this is one of the creepiest things to know about this emperor.
4. Wang Mang
Wang Mang, the socialist ruler founded the Xin Dynasty and brought many reforms for the development of the society and the people. He led a government that took measures like price control, slave trade ban, equal redistribution of wealth and therefore made many enemies in the process. When the civil war started, Wang Mang saw an uprising both from the rich merchants as well as from the farmers who rebelled against him. He became so depressed about this state of affairs that he started confining himself to his palace and spent more time with magicians. However, the rebels attacked Chang’an, his capital and invaded his palace. He met a violent death when he was beheaded and his body was dismembered.
5. Chen Shubao
The last emperor of Chen Dynasty, Chen Shubao took over the throne in 583 and ruled only for six years. His rule was considered incompetent as the emperor was only interested in women, wine and literature. He was a firm believer in living life lavishly as he got luxurious pavilions built in his palace where he along with his consort and concubines would spend the entire day feasting and enjoying. He was a crazy man who favored those that were believed to be traitors but were good poets or writers, but he exiled those that were actually loyal to his throne. In his court dealings, he would make his consort Zhang sit on his lap and read out reports as he himself was not worthy of understanding anything.
Some ancient Chinese dynasties lasted for centuries while a few of them perished because of the incompetencies of their emperors. One such dynasty that lasted till China became a republic was Qing Dynasty whose emperor Xuantong was also the country’s last emperor. Henry Puyi was his personal name and he took over the throne when he was merely 3 years old. When China became a republic in 1911, Puyi’s rule as a monarch ended, but was allowed to retain his title. Many events following the end of monarchy saw Puyi relocating to Tianjin, his accession of the throne in Manchukuo – a Japanese state, his abduction and imprisonment for 5 years by the Soviets, his return to China in 1950 followed by his imprisonment for ten long years, and his release that saw him working as a gardener in the Botanical Garden at Beijing, the release of his autobiography and his death in 1967.
7. Sun Hao
Sun Hao was known for his vindictive nature and was infamous for his incompetency as well. The grandson of Sun Quan who founded the Eastern Wu during 220 to 280, also known as the Three Kingdoms period, Sun Hao initially began as an able ruler who took measures for controlling taxes and also set many concubines free, but soon turned towards vices like drinking and womanizing, much like other of his contemporaries. With many killings and murders to his credit, Sun Hao had a fetish for inflicting pain on others. He loved to punish people by peeling off their facial skin and gouging their eyes. The officials who refused to drink at feasts were beheaded at Sun Hao’s orders.
8. Yang Guang
The Emperor Yang Guang of Sui was one of the worst among ancient Chinese emperors to have ruled. He was a tyrant that loved to misuse the state’s treasury and caused a lot of harm to his people by imposing heavy taxes on them. Though, Yang Guang undertook a few big projects like the reconstruction of the Great Wall, and the building of the Grand Canal, yet his rule wasn’t admired by many. The emperor was infamous for his vices like womanizing and drinking. He spent half of his time with his concubines and wasted away a large sum of money on his luxurious journeys to Jiangdu. It was in 618 that the emperor hung himself to death following a coup.
Hongwu was the title taken by the rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang who started the Ming Dynasty but he was not a royal born. Instead, Hongwu was everything but a noble man. He was an orphan and led a very difficult life and later went on to become a Buddhist monk. Hongwu’s quest took him along the way to become the leader of a rebel army when he captured Daidu, the capital city of the Mongols. Daidu is now known as Beijing. Looking at the pitiful condition of people under the Mongoloid rule, he decided to eliminate them and restore Chinese culture. Hongwu, according to some historians was a remarkable man who put an end to the Mongol rule and brought about many a reforms. But some historians have a mixed view and have reported that he was a paranoid emperor who couldn’t tolerate if anyone dared to criticize him in public. He punished people by flogging and sentencing them to death.
10. Zhao Ji
Like most Chinese emperors, Emperor Huizong or Zhao Ji was also inclined towards pleasure and fine things in life that included having relations with hundreds of concubines and pursuing literature and art. A painter, Zhao Ji was known for numerous affairs of which his affair with one famous prostitute called Li Shishi was the talk of the town back then. His foolishness led him to become the reason for the fall of the Northern Song and the capture of the capital city Kaifeng by Jin army.
Not all Chinese dynasties had the ill fate of being branded with incompetent and foolish rulers, some of them like the Tang Dynasty had an able emperor named Xuanzong who ruled for 43 years and brought about many reforms. While, he took measures for safe guarding the frontiers of his empire, he also took measures to control bureaucracy and incompetence related to it. The emperor in his later years began a relationship with his former daughter in law cum concubine called Yang Guifei who had quite an influence on him. Its because of her and her politics that the emperor had to escape the city along with her. After her death at the hands of an official, Xuanzong ultimately renounced his throne in grief.
The most notorious emperor title can definitely be given to Zhengde who was infamous for his insatiable craving for women. The emperor in-fact could have set a world record at the most number of rapes committed in ancient China. He shocked everyone when he along with his army marauded the city of Yangzhou, kidnapping and raping countless women, both young as well as widows. He was feared by people so much so that the parents of single women would grab on to single men for getting them married. He kidnapped so many women that he had to keep all of them at a palace called Leopard Quarter as they could not fit inside the Imperial Palace.
13. Wu Zetian
Ancient China was ruled by emperors for almost 2000 years, but with one and only exception of Wu Zetian, an empress who became the official emperor of China, rising from the ranks of a concubine, to becoming the first and only female emperor. Wu was a conspiring woman who killed her own baby and put the blame on Empress Wang, the wife of Emperor Gaozong, leading to her dethronement in 655. Wu Zetian soon took the place of Wang and became the empress. A murderer, she went on to execute Wang and one of her rivals named Xiao and remorselessly got their feet and hands chopped off. She stuffed their bodies inside wine jars until they drowned. A violent ruler, Wu Zetian in some ways also contributed towards the society by making many changes like bringing reforms in the civil services examination.
Ancient China was ruled by numerous emperors out of which some were branded as incapable, foolish, violent and sadistic, while a few of them were actually believed to have brought many reforms for the upliftment of the people. The stories that we have covered today will let you know exactly why we mentioned these 13 Chinese emperors out of the many others.