The role of the emperor in Chinese society is an ancient and tradition-bound one, but also a role that is bound up with myth, since the earliest Chinese rulers are at least half if not wholly mythical. In addition, as will be seen in the following, there are constraints by the people upon the emperor – the "divinity" of the Chinese emperor, unlike a European sovereign, for example, was not invested in the office; a Chinese emperor had to make himself worthy of that office – as well as the more customary situation, where the role of the emperor acts as a constraint upon the people.
Statue of Yellow Emperor in His Home Town, Xinzheng, Henan Province
Moreover, according to Chinese tradition, the Chinese people, being of a highly civilized culture surrounded by, by comparison, considerably more primitive cultures, saw itself as superior to the rest of the cultures on earth; if Heaven was at the top of this pyramid, with the primitive cultures at the bottom, then China, with its superior culture, saw its placement as being somewhere in between, hence the self-styled title for China: the Middle Kingdom, implying that the Chinese culture was a mediator between Heaven and Earth. This view of itself was also reinforced by both Taoist cosmology and Confucianism, as will be seen in the following.
The assumption of China as the Middle Kingdom belongs to all of Chinese tradition but never posed much of a problem for China until Westerners arrived in China in large numbers, after the Portuguese – the astute navigators, shipbuilders, sailors and merchants that they were – arrived in China by sea. The Ming (CE 1368-1644) and the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasties would make much ado about China's position as the Middle Kingdom, and this would lead to strained relations with the Europeans and eventually to violent conflict between China and the Europeans, though that story has already been told in another, soon to appear, context here at China Travel (its title, when it appears, will be the Maritime History of China).
On a more mundane level, as will be seen in the following, certain aspects of everyday life – from the color yellow to the number nine to that mythical animal, the dragon – belonged strictly to the realm of the emperor. There were other customs, such as the forms of address that were appropriate when speaking to or even of, the emperor, that singled out the emperor – as the Son of Heaven (Tianzi [天子]) – from ordinary mortals, even constraining the manner in which the emperor's own mother addressed him.
In addition, there were a long list of offical rites and duties that the emperor of China had to observe in order to "legitimize" his role as the Son of Heaven, and, as will be seen in the following, thesw rites and duties were part and parcel of an orderly social structure that carved out a role for every member of Chinese society, from the highest station to the most lowly, for if ancient Chinese society could be described by a single word, that word would have to be "structured". Not surprisingly, even present-day Chinese society is highly structured, for a people do not shrug off a way of life – their deep-rooted culture – even in the face of radical political change.
Ancient China's Supreme Rulers: Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors
The foundations of Chinese society are linked to the mythical Three Sovereigns (San Huang [三主權]) – aka the Three August Ones – and the semi-mythical Five Emperors (Wu Di [五帝]) who ruled China during the period immediately prior to the first historically recorded dynasty, the Xia (BCE ca.2000-1500) Dynasty, i.e., in the period roughly BCE ca.2852-ca.2205.
The Three Sovereigns
The Three Sovereigns are mythical demi-gods who are credited with having introduced all of the elements of culture on which ancient Chinese life was dependent, such as hunting and fishing, agriculture, herbal medicine (Chinese Traditional Medicine), the discovery of tea (and how to drink it) and even the art of writing (as in the so-called Oracle Bone script) and how writing could be used in divination, or the art and science of seeing into the future on the basis of burning animal bones (i.e., shoulder blades or tortoise shells) onto which had been written pointed questions addressed to Heaven. The Three August Ones are: Fuxi, The Heavenly Sovereign [天皇]; Nüwa, The Earthly Sovereign [地皇]; and Shennong, The Human Sovereign [泰皇].
These three were all siblings of the first gods who were born of the yin and the yang. Fuxi wed his sister, Nüwa, and thus the yin and the yang were again in balance (it had been perturbed because the first man, P'an Ku (alternatively, Pangu [盤古]), had died). Nüwa made male and female human figures out of yellow clay, but life was hard for them. Fuxi's and Nüwa's brother Shennong, who was also the god of agriculture, invented the plow and taught the humans whom Nüwa had made how to farm. He also taught them how to make use of medicinal herbs, one of which, one might say, was tea leaves. But 'all work and no play' makes for dull children, therefore Shennong and his brother Fuxi fashioned a musical instrument for them, the guqin, a stringed instrument that belongs, roughly, to the same family of musical instruments as does the European zither.
The Five Emperors
The Five Emperors are semi-mythical figures who were the first sages to rule over Earth after the Three Sovereigns. They were considered to be morally perfect. According to the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (BCE ca.140-86), the Five Emperors are: Huang Di ("Yellow Emperor" [黄帝]); Zhuanxu [顓頊], aka Gaoyang, the grandson of Huang Di; Emperor Ku [帝嚳], the great grandson of Huang Di; Emperor Yao [堯], the second son of Emperor Ku; and Emperor Shun [舜], born Yao Chonghua [姚重華], who was chosen by Emperor Yao to be his successor over his own son, ostensibly due to the outstanding virtures, especially filial piety, exhibited by Yao Chonghua.
The Yellow Emperor
The Yellow Emperor has a special place in Chinese folklore, for he is considered the father of all Han Chinese people[汉]. The Yellow Emperor drove all of the other non-Han tribes out of what was then central China, corresponding to present-day northwestern China. Though Shennong, the Human Sovereign, is credited with having introduced Chinese Traditional Medicine to the first people (created by his sister, Nüwa), the Yellow Emperor is credited with having taught the Han Chinese people its uses. The Yellow Emperor's wife, Luo Zu, taught the Han Chinese people how to raise silkworms and to weave the harvested silk into fabric.
Zhuanxu led the Han Chinese people, called at this time the Shi (the tribes, or clans), eastward to the coast (present-day Shandong Province). There they intermarried with the indigenous Dongyi people, absorbing many of the Dongyi into the Shi and in the process absorbing many of the Dongyi cultural particulars into the Han Chinese culture. Zhuanxu is credited with having forbidden marriage between close relatives, he transformed the Han Chinese from a matriarchial society to a patriarchial one, and he contributed to the unification of the calendar. He also helped to make advances in astrology.
Emperor Ku is something of an enigma, apart from the fact that he was the great grandson of the Yellow Emperor; little is recorded about Emperor Ku's exploits, in contrast to the other of the Five Emperors.
Emperor Yao and Shun
Emperor Yao, aka Tang Yao [唐堯], is considered as a model sage-king, along with the Yellow Emperor and Yu the Great, founder of the Xia Dynasty, the first Chinese system of rule to be recorded by later historians. Emperor Yao is best known for his having wisely bequeathed his throne not to his own son (for reasons that will soon be obvious!), but to the aforementioned brilliant and virtuous Yao Chonghua, the son of another man (despite his father and brother having sought his life, Yao Chonghua continued to love and show devotion to them, proving himself something of a Biblical Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel, who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, but who forgave them their wrongdoing... Joseph, the reader will recall, went on to become an important figure in the pharaoh's court and was eventually reunited with his parents and brothers). Yao Chonghua would become Emperor Shun, the last of the Five Emperors.
The second thing that Emperor Yao is known for is the board game, weiqi (aka "Go"; its pieces, called stones, look unmistakably like black and white versions of M&Ms, the well-known, 'melt in your mouth, not in your hands' candy-coated chocolate loved by kids everywhere). Emperor Yao came up with Go as an amusement for his dim-witted son, which also explains why the good emperor wisely chose someone else's son as his successor!
The Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties and the Warring State
During the Xia-Shang period, which was characterized by slavery, the sovereign was the supreme and only ruler, while during the Zhou (BCE 1027-221) Dynasty, which spanned the Western Zhou (1027-771) Dynasty and the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty – the latter of which, in turn, comprised the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period and the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period – there were numerous kings, princes and dukes, etc., who shared power, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not so peacefully, as the title of the second period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty suggests.
The end of the Warring States Period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty was the culmination of a long process of the consolidation of numerous warring states, with gradually fewer and fewer but larger states emerging, as lesser (not necessarily smaller, just less powerful) states were absorbed by more powerful states, until, in the end, the 'last state standing' was the Qin State. It is therefore not surprising that the victor of this game of hegemony would wish to give himself a more supreme title than that of a mere king.
The First Emperor of Qin
China's first verifiable emperor, who only served a short stint as emperor, though he had served as the sovereign, or king (wang [王]) of the Qin State (BCE 9th Century-221) for several years prior to that (from BCE 247-21), was King Zheng of Qin cum Emperor Qin of the Qin Dynasty (BCE 221-207). This was the first instance of a Chinese sovereign, in the post-Shang (BCE ) Dynasty era, who gave himself a title which signified that the sovereign was the ruler over all of China.
At the same time, King Zheng, whose clan name was Zhao and whose ancestral name was Ying (in ancient China, one's "family" name was composed of clan and ancestral elements, while one's given name generally corresponded to the name of the Lunar month in which one was born, though one might be given a more colorful, descriptive name, figuratively speaking – think of the highly descriptive names of, for example, American Indian warrior chiefs such as Sitting Bull, Little Raven, Standing Bear, etc. – depending on the circumstances), wished to give himself a title that would place him in the ranks of China's ancient mythical and semi-mythical sovereigns.
Therefore King Zheng harked back to the much revered Yellow Emperor, whose title, when he lived, was not Huang Di (alternatively, Huangdi), but simply Huang ("Sovereign" [皇]), which is in fact the same word as "yellow", since the color yellow was reserved, in the pre-Zhou era, strictly for the emperor (and even in the post-Zhou era, even if mortals were allowed to wear yellow, the color would forever be associated with the Emperor, and I am quite certain that no one was ever given an audience with a Chinese emperor while dressed in yellow!).
The "Di" [帝] add-on comes to us thanks precisely to King Zheng, who, harking back to the era of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, wished to choose a title that signified more than simply "emperor"/ "yellow", therefore King Zheng added on a suffix that signified "god-king", or Di [帝], yielding the following new title for Zheng, King of Qin State cum sovereign of all of China: Qin Shi Huang Di [秦始皇帝], where Shi [始] means "Originator" (or "First"). All emperors subsequent to Emperor Qin would have Huangdi [皇帝] added to their title, even if, much later, this was shortened simply to "Di" (think of the renowned and long-lived (and with a correspondingly long rule) Emperor Wu Di of the Western Han (BCE 206 – CE 009) Dynasty). Of course today, most references to the emperors of the post-Qin period make do with the shortened "Di" suffix, even though in older texts, one sees the longer "Huangdi" suffix.
Emperor Qin, in an effort to elevate himself in relation to the many kings, princes and dukes who had come before him, did not stop with merely adorning himself with a fancy title, he also had an entire army of soldiers, some in chariots pulled by steeds, accompany him in death, namely the famous Terracotta Army that was unearthed in the ancient capital city of Chang'an, or the present-day city of Xi'an in Shaanxi Province.
Imperial Symbols: The Color Yellow, The Number 9 and The Dragon
As indicated, the color yellow was reserved exclusively for the emperor in ancient times, though in later, less autocratic times, mere mortals could also use the color yellow, though, as indicated, not likely in the presence of the emperor! There were other symbols associated with the emperor such as that of the dragon and the number 9. The use of the image of a dragon on one's clothing, for example, was initially reserved exclusively for the emperor, but, like the color yellow and the number 9, this dictate would eventually be weakened, though, again, with the caveat that their use not be too much in the face of the emperor (moreover, there was a specific number (9!) of dragon images and a specific placement of these figures on an emperor's robe, and no mere mortal was foolish enough to mimic the emperor in this – if, indeed, one could find a haberdasher suicidal enough to sew it!).
The Color Yellow
According to Chinese cosmology (mainly Taoist and even pre-Taoist concepts, such as the yin and the yang and the concept of the Five Elements), the color yellow was associated with the earth. Each of these five "elements" – Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood – has their own color. For example, Fire has, not surprisingly, the color red; Earth has, as indicated, the color yellow; Metal has the color white; Water has the color black; and Wood has the color green. In Chinese cosmology, these elements are not fixed, but ever-changing, in dual cycles. the Cycle of Birth and the Cycle of Destruction, both of which continually repeat themselves.
The Cycle of Birth – Fire gives rise to Earth, Earth gives rise to Metal, Metal gives Rise to Water, Water produces Wood, and thus one turn of the Cycle of Birth is complete – see the image immediately below.
The Cycle of Destruction – Fire destroys Metal, Metal destroys Wood, Wood destroys Earth, Earth destroys Water, Water destroys Fire, and one turn of the Cycle of Destruction is thus complete – see the image immediately below (and note the pentagon, another important Taoist cosmological symbol, created by the 'direction of destruction'):
The importance of the color yellow for the emperor is linked to its association to Earth, for the Chinese emperor, as the ruler of the Middle Kingdom, is, in terms of God-versus-Human status, situated between Heaven and Humanity (recall the respective realms of the Three August Ones: Fuxi (The Heavenly Sovereign), Nüwa (The Earthly Sovereign) and Shennong (The Human Sovereign)). Thus Earth lies in the middle of the universe (Middle Earth) according to Chinese cosmology, which is why the Chinese emperor, as the supreme earthly sovereign, is by definition the ruler of the Middle Kingdom.
Other mythological and philosophical concepts strengthen the God-versus-Human position of the Chinese emperor. Since the Han Chinese people were consolidated by Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, who drove out the "alien" tribes of the then heartland China (i.e., the northwestern part of present-day China), creating a pure, or orthodox, Han Chinese race, the color yellow (according to later, Confucian thought), being linked to Middle Earth, to Huangdi and, via Huangdi, to an orthodox Han Chinese race (note that the term "Han" arose first with the emergence of the Han Dynasty, but the term – as a descriptor of the pure or orthodox Chinese race that descended from Huangdi – surely existed since time immemorial, or since the beginning of the Xia Dynasty at a minimum), signifies not only "imperial" (as in "Middle Kingdom") but also "rationality" and "order".
Therefore, the Chinese emperor, as the Son of Heaven, was the glue that held the world together, as it were. Additionally, the color yellow is linked to the dragon, which in turn is linked to the emperor, as will be seen in the following.
The dragon, or rather, its symbolism (dragons – at least the fire-spewing ones – are, not unlike unicorns, rarely sighted in the real world : ) ), was particularly suited to the image of the emperor, or so felt emperors, since the dragon is considered a creature that is auspicious and essentially benevolent, even though, if provoked to anger, it is the most formidable among all creatures; while everyone strived to be on the good side of the dragon, no one wished to have the dragon as a dedicated enemy! The dragon is also associated with the color yelow, for there is an old Chinese saying that goes "Long zhan yu ye, qi xue xuan huang" ("When the dragon fights, its blood turns yellow" [當龍的戰鬥, 其血液變成黃色]). The emperor's robe – yellow, of course – was adorned with 9 dragons and they all had 5 claws on each foot, whereas the decorative dragons on the clothing of ordinary mortals had only 4 claws on each foot, yet another instance of the strong link of the number 5 to the royal court.
The Number Nine
The number 9, via its symbolism if nothing else, is linked to the Chinese emperor. The Chinese people, like most other peoples, tend to group things in multiples (in the West, for example, one says that bad luck comes in sets of 3, that the third try 'does the trick' (succeeds), etc., and when one cites examples or instances of this or that, one almost invariably – unless one is a very poor speaker – offers three of them, for thrice has a rhythm all its own... and note the three examples listed here!), but, unlike most other peoples, the Chinese people have an ancient tradition of grouping things into not only 3s, but 4s, 5s, 8s, etc. For example, there are the Three August Ones with their three realms, or kingdoms; when one offers incense at the temple, one bows three times; and of course "three times" (and "nine times") figures prominently in kowtowing, as will be seen in the section on Imperial Rites and Duties below (note again the three examples – it comes naturally to a Westerner!). There are the Four Great Beauties, the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains (and correspondingly, in Taoism, the Five Sacred Taoist Mountains), the Five Elements, the Eight Immortals, etc.
The symbolism of the number 9 vis-à-vis the Chinese emperor hardly needs explaining, since it is the highest single-digit number (think: 0 to 9, though in ancient times, one did not have a concept of zero, therefore the single-digit numbers were 1-9). In ancient Chiona, there existed something near a mania in the use of the number 9, including all of its multiples, in connection with all things imperial. According to the Legend of the Nine Tripod Cauldrons (Jiuding [傳說九鼎]), Yu the Great, founder of the Xia Dynasty, used the tribute metal (tin and copper) delivered to him from the Nine Provinces to smelt a tripod cauldron for each province. By the time of the subsequent dynasty, the Shang Dynasty (CE 1700-1027), the Nine Tripod Cauldrons of the Nine Provinces had become a symbol of the sovereign's power and authority.
Everyone – or maybe almost everyone – used the tripod cauldron in food preparation, but there were limitations on how many tripod cauldrons each household might own, depending on one's rank, of course. Only the emperor's household could have 9 tripod cauldrons, the rulers of vassal states could have 7, high-ranking government ministers (of which there were 9!) could have 5, members of the gentry-scholarly class (since this was prior to the time of Confucius, no one could be a scholar on intellectual merits alone) could have either 3 or 1, depending on one's station in the gentry-scholarly hierarchy. Odinary folk used more simple arrangements – perhaps pails with handles that were suspended over fires, or perhaps pots without handles that were placed directly on embers.
There were 9 different ranks among the staff at the imperial palace, which has 9 gates; Tiananmen Rostrum (Tiananmen Dias), located at one end of Tiananmen Square, has 9 rooms; the gates and doors of the Forbidden City, the Imperial Gardens and the various summer palaces, are all made/ adorned with 9-inch nails, in rows of 9 and columns of 9; tributes paid to the emperor always came in multiples of 9 (8 x 9, 9 x 9, 12 x 9, etc.); gold Buddha figures in Chinese temples come in weights in multiples of 9 (72 grams, 81 grams, 108 grams, etc.); during the Qing Dynasty, 99 different kinds of fruits, candied fruits and other snacks were served at the Imperial Palace on festival days; and, as well, there would be 81 (or 9 x 9) performances of acrobatic and lantern shows on festival days, prompting the expression, "Nine and Nine Celebratory Banquet"; and finally, the throne on which the emperor sat on official occasions was called Jiu Wu, or "Nine Five", since the number 9 was of course "imperial" as was the number 5, the latter of which requires some explaining, though we have already encountered an instance of "imperial 5", namely, in connection with the number of claws on dragons.
Just as the color yellow signifies Earth, which, in turn, is the Middle Kingdom, with Heaven above the Middle Kingdom and Humanity below it, meaning that Earth – and, by extension, the emperor – is at the center of everything, the number 5 also signifies the middle, or center position, of the ancient Chinese single-digit numbering system upon which all other numbers were believed to be built (as indicated, the world had not yet discovered the existence of the number 0): 1 - - - 5 - - - 9. Thus, the number 5, like the color yellow, inherently "belongs" to the ruler of the Middle Kingdom.
Then there are the famous Five Elements and the Five Lineages (the latter being: Youchao-shi [有巢氏], or the You-chao clan of tree-dwellers; Suiren-shi [燧人氏], or the Sui-ren clan of fire-makers*; Shennong; Nüwa; and Fuxi (the latter three being of course the Three August Ones)), whose mention stems from the Book of Rites – alternately known as the Classic of Rites, the Record of Rites and the Book of Customs – one of the Five Classics of the Confucian canon, written originally by Confucius himself, and which describes the various ceremonial rites of the Zhou Dynasty.
* Note that the Pao-xi clan of hunters superceded the You-chao clan of tree-dwellers who superceded the Sui-ren clan of fire-makers (I know, I know, this last sounds a bit inverse, but... anyway, think of the Evolution of Mankind (toward Homo sapiens) catwalk depicted below, modified to suit our purposes).
The above evolution of Homo sapiens should not be confused with the Evolution of Homersapiens below [ : )]:
I guess I forgot to mention that Tiananmen Gate, or the main entrance to the no longer so Forbidden City, has 5 arches? (No, they were not intended for the 5 Homer clans!)
Imperial Succession, Forms of Address and Official Imperial Rites and Duties
The Mandate of Heaven
As the Son of Heaven, the emperor was imbued with the Mandate of Heaven (Tianming [天命]). But this was a condition that was not automatic; that is, unlike in the royal houses of Europe, where the king was automatically the Son of Heaven with its complementary Mandate of Heaven, as it were, the Chinese emperor had to make himself worthy of being the Son of Heaven. Expressed slightly differently – and this was a matter of state that was not dependent on the charm or eloquence of the emperor, but on certain other verifiable conditions that "proved" that the emperor was a worthy steward of the heavenly mandate – the Chinese emperor was not personally divine, but divinely appointed, meaning that by negligence, the emperor could forfeit his divine mandate.
The Chinese dynasties were not called dynasties for nothing, they were, like the later royal houses of Europe, familial, or hereditary, dynasties. The son generally followed the father on the throne, though this was not etched in stone; if there was no male child to succeed the emperor, a younger brother became the new emperor. In addition to his official consort, the empress, the emperor generally had a very large harem of concubines with whom he might father many children, yet all of the emperor's offspring were considered children of the empress. This of course meant that an emperor stood a reasonably good chance of producing a successor, without having to behead the empress (viz., the problems that English King Henry VIII had in this regard, and still did not manage to produce a son, though his daughter, Elisabeth, born to his second wife, Anne Boleyn, eventually became queen regnant following her older sister, Mary I's, short term as queen regnant... Elisabeth I would go on to be a better English sovereign than most English male sovereigns!).
The Chinese people also knew of the phenomenon of female regents, though there was only one lawful regent, Empress Wu of the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty (Empress Wu's reign represents a brief interlude in the Tang Dynasty in the sense that she simply created her own dynasty, the Wu-Zhou (CE 690-705) Dynasty... after her death, the Wu-Zhou Dynasty disappeared – the crack in the Tang Dynasty was papered over (Empress Wu's son, Zhongzong, was crowned emperor following Empress Wu, and he promptly repudiated his mother's dynasty) and the previous Tang Dynasty resumed as if nothing untoward had happened!
Forms of Address
The emperor, as the Son of Heaven, was shown a level of respect that accorded with his station. Not even the mother of the emperor could call him familiar names. At best she could call him Er ("Son"), never "you", though generally she would call her son Huangdi ("Emperor"), as did others. The more formal terms of direct address by a head of state to an emperor were Bixia ("Your Imperial Majesty" (equivalent to "Your Royal Highness" in Europe) [陛下]); Tian Zi (Son of Heaven" [天子]); Huang Shang ("Emperor Above", or "Emperor Highness" [皇上]); and Sheng Shang ("Divine Above or the Holy Highness" [聖上]). House servants would typically address the emperor as Wan Sui Ye (Lord of Ten Thousand Years [萬歲爺]).
Third person references to the emperor were typically either Huangdi Bixia ("His Majesty the Emperor" [皇帝陛下]), Dangjin Huangshang ("The Imperial Highness of the Present Time" [當今皇上]), or, more commonly (and quite a lot more pompously(!): Ta de Diguo Huangdi, Bixia de Da ["X"] Wangchao, Tianzi, Zhu de yi Wan Nian ("His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor of the Great ["X"] Dynasty, Son of Heaven, Lord of Ten Thousand Years" [他的帝國皇帝,陛下的大 ["X"] 王朝，天子，主的一萬年], where ["X"] stands of course for the name of the dynasty). When referring to himself before an assembled crowd, the emperor used the equivalent of the papal "I", namely, Zhen ("We" [朕]).
An emperor ruled under an era name (nianhao [(年號)]), often several such auspicious-sounding era names as they took the emperor's fancy, though Ming and Qing emperors ruled under a single era name (some may see the practice of multiple era names as arrogance while others might see it as a form of artistic expression whereby the emperor also sought, in some measure, to identify himself with writers, poets, artists and other members of the intelligentsia, in much the same way that the famous French king, Francois I (he was France's king when a 14-year-old Catherine de Medici arrived in France to learn "French ways" as a prerequisite to marrying Francois I's second son, Henry I, who would in fact succeed Francois I, the marriage having been arranged by none other than Pope Leo X, Catherine's uncle), liked to hang out with artists and bohemians).
In ancient times, Chinese emperors were posthumously given a temple name (miaohao [廟號]) as well as a posthumous title (shihao [謚號]). The death of the emperor was referred to as jiabeng ("the demise of the emperor", literally: "the collapse of the (imperial) chariot" [駕崩], which, to a Western ear, sounds a bit comical, suggesting that Chinese emperors perhaps had a sense of self-irony, though I am confident that this is strictly a Western interpretation of jiabeng!), while during the reign of the ruling emperor, references to the deceased previous emperor were as Daxing Huangdi ("the late emperor", literally: "the emperor of the great journey" [大行皇帝]... alas, for an emperor, there was work to do even in death!).
Official Imperial Rites and Duties
It was not all glitter and glamour being the emperor – an emperor's life was circumscribed by a long range of rituals and duties for which the coming emperor was conditioned, or schooled, from an early age (viz., the 1987 film, The Last Emperor, by the Italian director and screenwriter of Last Tango in Paris fame, Bernardo Bertolucci, about the life and short reign of Puyi [溥儀], the last Qing Dynasty emperor (and therewith the last Chinese emperor) who reigned, as a child, from 1909 to 1911). The cumulative set of rituals and duties that befell an emperor was extensive, even if they were subject to review and revision by each emperor, though an emperor did not make drastic changes in these rituals and duties, for the sake of the continuity of his legitimacy. But for certain, it was seen as an indication of the emperor's personal commitment to the rituals and duties that belonged to his "office" that he made certain modifications, rather than simply follow the course of his predecessor.
Some ritual visits were unalterable for an emperor, such as the annual worship at the Temple of Heaven, aka Altar of Heaven (Tiantan [天壇]) in Tiantan Park in Beijing, situated about 3 kilometers south-southeast of the Forbidden City, and an annual visit to the sacrificial sites on Mount Tai where the emperor would pay homage to Heaven (at the summit of the mountain) and to Earth (at the foot of the mountain), called, respectively, the Feng [封] and the Shan [禪] sacrifices, or known collectively as the Fengshan Sacrifices. These rituals in particular validated the emperor as the Son of Heaven (Tianzi [天子]), and the emperor's observance of these rituals validated the rituals themselves.
Moreover, when the emperor performed the Temple of Heaven rituals and the Fengshan Sacrifices on Mount Tai, he was worshipping Heaven and Earth as his own symbolic parents. These rituals formed part of the emperor's ancestral worship, which was a practice common to all ancient Chinese religions, from the pre-Taoist, animist religions to Taoism to Chinese Buddhism. These ancient practices were absorbed into Taoism and later Buddhism in much the same way that, for example, Christianity absorbed various pagan customs.
The humility of the emperor in this regard is also central to the Chinese tributary system that was first demonstratively invoked under the Ming Dynasty, but was pursued almost intact by the subsequent Qing Dynasty (the only reason why the tributary system – which says that the Middle Kingdom/ China is the supreme country on earth and its sovereign the supreme ruler on earth – was not invoked earlier is that traders from afar had not arrived en masse at the court of the Chinese emperor as they did during the Ming Dynasty, when Portuguese ships first appeared in the South China Sea, quickly followed by Spanish, Dutch and British ships, as well as the ships of other foreign nations – to learn more about the Maritime History of China, go here).
Indeed, the system of tribute, or subservience, involving the, to a Westerner, humiliating "three prostrations (san baidao [三拜倒]) and nine kowtows" (jiu ketou [九磕頭], where ketou means "to knock one's head against the ground") that the foreign delegations were subjected to in Beijing during the Ming-Qing period is the same system of kowtowing, as the practice was known by Westerners – i.e., three successive prostrations, each followed by three kowtows, or in all, nine kowtows – that the emperor himself was required to perform at the Temple of Heaven. The expression, "from the imperial court down to our village", captures the notion that the ritual of baidao and ketou were practiced by all Chinese people, from the emperor down to the most lowly peasant, during ancestral worship, and also at funerals. These expessions of filial piety (xiao [孝]) were also championed by Confucius.
Yongzheng Emperor (Reign: CE 1722–35) Offering Sacrifices at the Altar of the God of Agriculture
(Qing Dynasty court artist (anonymous), handscroll on silk, Palace Museum, Beijing)
As indicated, an emperor had to make himself worthy of the Mandate of Heaven, and without it, he could not be presumed to be the Son of Heaven. When an emperor was overthrown, the explanation given by his successor was that the overthrown emperor had abused his heavenly mandate, thus forfeiting his divine appointment. But the people also had a right to depose an emperor who did not fulfill his divine appointment. An emperor who fulfilled his divine appointment ruled over an empire that prospered, where Heaven smiled upon Humanity, blessing it with the earth's riches.
If, on the contrary, the empire was plagued with drought or famine, or with natural catastrophes of the likes of earthquakes (there have been a lot of earthquakes in China's history!), this could be interpreted as Heaven's dissatisfaction with the Son of Heaven, meaning that the people therefore had a legitimate right to depose the emperor. As the modern person can appreciate, it was at times quite a thankless job being the Chinese emperor, for the Chinese emperor, unlike, for example, the Inca and Aztec emperors, couldn't just toss a few virgins into the volcano and hope that the gods would therewith be appeased.
As we have seen in the above, under ideal circumstances, the role of the emperor was a very fixed part of the cosmic order between Heaven and Earth, as well as all thing in between. Each rank, including the emperor's own rank, played its role in the grand scheme of things, whose ultimate aim was to provide for prosperity and to maintain order and harmony. Therefore the emperor's words, as long as he enjoyed the Mandate of Heaven, were as commands from Heaven itself. Alas, not all – nor even the majority – of Chinese emperors lived up to this ideal, even remotely. Many of them were brilliant in a certain area but very flawed in other areas. A few of them, however, enjoyed respect and admiration, and were considered as great leaders both in their own respective times as well as by posterity. Below is a line-up of the most famous/ most respected Chinese emperors.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang of Qin
Emperor Gaozu of Han (aka Liu Bang)
Emperor Wu of Han
Emperor Taizong of Tang
Emperor Shizu of Yuan (aka Kublai Khan)
The Hongwu Emperor of Ming
The Kangxi Emperor of Qing