Taoist Emperors in Chinese History


(from A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy Chapter 15 by You-Sheng Li)

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You-Sheng Li (rewritten, April 30, 2010)


Apart from political tricksters and manipulators, or elixir-seekers who said they were Taoist followers but they were not, there were occasionally emperors in Chinese history who sincerely believed in Taoism and used Taoist principles to guide this huge empire. Although Lao Tzu listed some principles running a country, he, from a Taoist view, only asked the government not to interfere with life at the primary society level. Neither Lao Tzu nor Chuang Tzu was a politician or a political philosopher. They were even farther removed from Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who gave a detailed blue print for totalitarian governments in the hands of charismatic leaders to carry out the general will of the people. The Taoist view is more like an anarchist who, instead of removing the government, asks the government to stop functioning. For example, Lao Tzu advocated celebrating military victories with funerals because of the deaths of soldiers on both sides. Even now six decades after the Second World War, people still celebrate their memory days in memory of the deaths of their own side only. Chinese scholars often quote the early years of the Han dynasty as the political realization of Taoist philosophy. They indicate specifically two consecutive emperors, Literate and Scenery (Wen and Jing), and a total of some forty golden years under their rule (179-156-140 BC). Their success was due to the application of Taoism but also owing to the special circumstances. It remains a rarity in Chinese history.

The founder of the Han dynasty was by no means a Taoist believer. He fought one battle after another until he was injured by a stray arrow and died. He and his wife used various excuses and tricks to kill those who had fought with them to create the empire but became some local powers themselves. After more than two hundred years of political turmoil and wars, all Chinese people also wanted peace.

Han was the first dynasty of a huge bureaucratic empire run by thousands of officials drawn from ordinary peasants by their merits and abilities. Neither Confucianism nor aggressive legalism reached those commoners whose belief was by nature close to Taoism. In the early years of the Han dynasty the major intellectual beliefs were in favour of Taoism.

When the throne was in the hands of the founder’s grandson, Literate, he was a sincere Taoist believer, and put it into practice. Taoism became the guiding philosophy of this ancient Chinese empire. Historians like to compare Chinese Han dynasty with the Roman Empire, since they were contemporaries but the cultures were totally different.

Lao Tzu’s three treasures, frugality, kindness, and no competition were adapted as ethic principles during these golden years. In ancient time the tax rate was about ten per cent. During these years, the tax rate was reduced to three per cent, and tax collection was stopped altogether for many years. To follow the Taoist natural way, there was nothing to be busy about in the country for several decades. People became rich and the government had a big surplus. In the central government, the money was left over for years so that all the strings along which the coins were chained rotted. There was no way to count how much money was there. Grains were piled up year after year as they all rotted away. It was no surprise that the government stopped tax collection.

For example, Literate was on the throne for twenty three years but did not add any new garden, palace or new service. Every year he led his court officials farming on a piece of land and producing grains for ritual usage in the palace. His wife led palace maids raising silk worms and so on. The emperor set up strict dress rule for the royal family members and court officials. The emperor wore a black cotton robe, and no embroidery was allowed in his wife’s bedroom.

He apparently endured inconvenience in the benefit of his people. Royal officials once planned to build a dew plateau. The cost was 100 pieces of gold. Emperor Literate stopped it saying, “100 pieces of gold equal the annual income of ten farmer families. I inherited the palace from my father, and I often feel I am unworthy of it. How can I expand it?” One official took a bribe. Emperor Literate heard about it and sent some of his own money to this official. In his last will, Literate wrote shortly before his death:


I have learnt that myriad things on earth which have births will die, and there is no exception. Death is the nature of heaven and earth, a natural happening. Why do we grieve much? Now people like life and hate death, and have elaborate funerals to burden the living ones. I dislike such a trend. Furthermore I had no virtue to help my people, and now that I am dying, and it would make me feel even guiltier to have my people to grieve over my death. … I am not a clever person, and often feared of error or misconduct that would embarrass my father’s legacy. Thus in those years I was often afraid that death might not come soon. Today I am lucky enough to have my end. Praise it, there is no need for grief and sorrow. Here is my order, that after three days of the funeral, all people will take off their funeral clothes. There will be no ban on weddings, drinking of wine, or eating of meat. Let the people enjoy their lives without interruption…


If the emperor was like this, the officials followed his example, and the people followed the officials’ example. Everybody was self-contained and content. In such a huge country there must be someone who was a trouble maker. Several local lords once united in a rebellion. The general who came to put the rebellion down used the Taoist principle to win the war without much fighting. He avoided any direct battle with the enemy but cut off the enemy’s supplies, and waited for the enemy’s starvation. When the enemy ran away, he put a heavy reward on the head of the rebellion leader. In three months the rebellion was over.

These golden years came to an end when the next emperor happened to be ambitious. He easily increased the government expenditure ten times over. Confucianism was adapted as the official philosophy for the next two thousand years. It is one of the dark ironies of Chinese history: Good emperors saved for the bad ones to spend it all, supporting their ambitions which often damaged the country and the people.

The next also the third Taoist emperor to emerge in Chinese history was in the middle Tang dynasty. Buddhism had entered China and Taoism developed into a major religion. Chuang Tzu had been ignored for a few hundred years but was now regarded as one of the Taoist classics. The emperors of the early Han dynasty were frugal, in line with Lao Tzu’s teachings. With Chuang Tzu promoted as the co-founder of Taoism, his godless spirit and careless free style became prominent in the Taoist culture. This is one of the reasons that led to quite different results for the next three Taoist emperors.

Emperor Bright (712-756, reigning years, same below) ordered that four Taoist classics should be taken as textbooks to appraise official candidates. He started a doctorate degree programme for mystic studies, and promoted Taoist arts including music. He had at least a hundred Taoists in his palace to help him make the immortal elixir to prolong his life, and provide other religious services. Emperor Bright wrote a book on Taoism and raised some interesting points. His book was regarded as one of the hundreds of classic Taoist texts. According to the famous Chinese scholar, Lin Yutang, Taoism adds colour and joy to Chinese intellectual life while Confucianism dulls it. Emperor Bright was one of the few in Chinese history who had not only lived an interesting life himself but also attracted a lot of interesting people around him. Because of Taoist aspiration, literature and arts flourished under his rule.

Li Po, the best poet in Chinese history, spent three years in his palace, and left some famous poems to mark the occasion when the Emperor and his favourite concubine, Lady Yang, had a party in his royal garden.

The white clouds and blue sky are like her clothes,

The delicate peonies are like her face.

Spring breeze stroking the fence for view,

The flowers are fully blooming with dew.

If it is not the fairy Mountain of Jades,

It must be the Jasper Platform in skies

Where god lovers meet under the moonlights.

* * *

Fragrance comes from a branch of red brightness

The fairy lover leaves the king in distress.

Who could be the match in the Han palace

The lovely Flying Swallow in a new dress.

Li Po was also a Taoist believer who lacked the skill to butter his way in the circle of high ranking officials. The palace manager looked down on Li Po when he first saw him. He murmured, “Such a man is only suited to take off my shoes.” When the Emperor asked Li Po to write poems, he took the opportunity to ask the palace manager to take off his shoes as revenge. Though powerful the manager was still a service man. The Emperor okayed Li Po’s request. What a humiliation to the manager who had to kneel down to take off the smelly shoes.

The manager said to Lady Yang that Li Po had hidden sly jokes in the above poem that mocked Lady Yang. In the last line, Li Po mentioned the famous emperor’s concubine Flying Swallow of the Han dynasty to praise Lady Yang. This was interpreted as a malicious reminder, saying, in effect, “No matter how close a relationship you have with the emperor, you are still a concubine from a minor family.” Li Po had to leave the capital, and resuming his travelling life in the Chinese mountains.

When Lady Yang married the Emperor, she was 26 while the emperor was 61. Lady Yang’s family all became rich nobles overnight, and her brother became the prime minister. This was said to have changed all parents’ minds. They no longer favoured boys but preferred to have girls.

With the advanced age of the Emperor, there was no hope for a son of her own. Lady Yang adopted a general as her son with the emperor’s permission. A general could not be younger than Lady Yang and this caused rumours of a possible affair. This general led a rebellion which lasted more than 7 years, and sacked the capital and occupied half of China. He quoted Lady Yang and her brother, the prime minister, as the reason for his rebellion. It took years for him to prepare for the rebellion on such a scale. There were many reports sent to the Emperor saying this general was preparing for a rebellion. Emperor Bright followed Emperor Literate’s example of sending money to a corrupted official, and he sent those reports to the rebel-to-be and let him execute those who wrote the reports. The message was: I know you are preparing for a rebellion but I, the Emperor, still trust you to such a degree that I send those reports to you. Do you still have the heart to rebel against me?

The rebellion became the turning point for the dynasty which was on its way to a full blown collapse. Lady Yang was ordered to commit suicide, and her brother, the prime minister, was executed. Emperor Bright was a poet himself but only a few of his poems have survived to today.

The fourth Taoist emperor was Emperor Emblem (Song Huizong, 1101-1126) of the Song dynasty. He was an intelligent man and very good at music, calligraphy, painting, and poetry. His painting and calligraphy had his own style and reached a high professional level though not the best in Chinese history. Since he was a famous emperor who died a prisoner in the enemy’s camp, his paintings and calligraphy works are treasured by collectors and museums. He had a large number of painters who formed an academy of art and he often painted with them. He was believed to be the best emperor artist in Chinese history, and the second emperor artist who also died a prisoner was only good at poetry.

Emperor Emblem took a Taoist title himself and claimed himself as the Taoist emperor for the whole country. He issued orders to ask Chinese people to become Taoists and also ordered Buddhists to become Taoists.

One of the five ancient Chinese novels regarded as classics was titled The Water Edge. It was based on some true stories that occurred under Emperor Emblem’s reign. The novel described some rebellious heroes who gathered on a mountain surrounded by water. There were one hundred and eight of them and each had a story to tell about how they came to the point of rebellion. Like most ancient Chinese literature, this novel also has some Taoist characters and advocates Taoist belief. According to some historians, the novel is much a fiction with little truth except for the historical setting. It may reflect the liberal view and loose control of Emperor Emblem. His liberal view of life encouraged the flourishing of art and literature as well as the rebellious spirit of ordinary people. At the end of the novel the Emperor sent officials to offer amnesty and enlist their service. In Chinese history, peasant uprisings often looked to Taoism for intellectual guidance.

It was also during Emblem’s reign that the northern barbarians defeated the Chinese army and entered the capital. They took the Emperor and the royal family and high ranking officials as prisoners. More than a thousand were driven to the north, which was a humiliating historical scene to sadden Chinese hearts. Western historians would say, those barbarians used a few hundred thousand cavalrymen forming a column to advance. It was like dropping an atom bomb on an agricultural country. But why did this occur when the best emperor artist was in charge? Taoist belief may be not good at guiding an emperor after all.

Compared to the four previous Taoist emperors, the fifth and the final one was one of the most superstitious emperors in Chinese history. Emperor Century of the Ming dynasty (Mingshizong, 1522-1566) was so devoted a Taoist believer that he was a fanatic. He had three life-long indulgences: immortal pills (elixir), esoteric exorcizing recipes, and incantations that call for wind and rain. He named Taoism the national official religion and named himself the Pontiff of this religious empire. He indulged in all sorts of Taoist activities but paid little attention to the national affairs. Trying to dissuade him from deviated behaviours, many high ranking officials were dismissed, imprisoned, and executed.

The throne of China was inherited from father to son. When there was no suitable son available, a close male member of the royal clan would be chosen for the throne. Emperor Century was such a special case, and his father was not an emperor. Century ordered not only an imperial temple built to honour his father as an emperor but also a fictional account of how his father was acting as an emperor created and put into the imperial records as part of Chinese history. Such bizarre ideas met popular resistance and outspoken criticism. As a result, more than 180 officials were flogged by sticks as a punishment, and 17 of them died during or after flogging.

As one can imagine, Century was surrounded by sycophants. His ears were filled up with falsified reports. But he never let others to run the country. He made all the major decisions and sometimes tried to look into details. The country soon fell into chaos with uprisings of peasants and violent confrontations at the borders.

Century named the best writer of Taoist prayers as his prime minister, and this man once offered the Emperor a golden turtle as a gift. The turtle was said to be more than 500 years old. To make this turtle mysterious and unusual in appearance, its body was painted with various colours. Century let the palace maids to take care of this turtle. Unfortunately those paints were poisonous after being dissolved into water, and the turtle soon died. Those maids thought that they would certainly be executed if the emperor learned of the turtle’s death, since more than 200 maids had already been executed by his order. Four maids decided to strangle the Emperor to death with a rope. In terrible hurried confusion, they twisted the rope into a dead tie, which left a chance for Century to escape. This unusual event became a popular tale on everyone’s lips along with the heroic assassin who attempted the life of the First Emperor of Qin dynasty. I was told of this tale when I visited the Forbidden City in the 1960s.

In the spring of 1566, one of the most outspoken court officials in Chinese history, Sea Auspice (hairui) handed in a written memo to the throne, criticizing Century’s superstition of immortal pursuits and his inhumane behaviours. He wrote, “To refuse to see his sons is deemed an inhumane way for a father to treat his sons. To humiliate and execute his court officials because of suspicion and mistrust is deemed an inhumane way for an emperor to treat his courtiers. To enjoy oneself in the Western Gardens and not return to the palace is deemed an inhumane way for a husband to treat his wife.” Century was so outraged that he threw the memo to the floor, shouting, “Do take care not to let this guy run away!” The eunuch who attended beside him said, “Your majesty, you do not need to anger yourself so much. This man will not run away. He bought himself a coffin before wrote this. He has already bidden farewell to his family. His servicemen all left him.”

Century gave a long sigh, and slowly he picked up the memo and read it one more time. Still unable to suppress his emotions, he ordered the arrest of Sea Auspice. The Ministry of Punishments discussed the case and decided to hang Sea Auspice for cursing his fatherly superior, the Emperor. Due to deterioration brought on by his illness, Century did not have the time or energy to write an official reply to okay the decision made by the Ministry of Punishments. Century’s own death soon followed, caused by the poisonous side effects of the immortal pills he had swallowed. Therefore immortality and death came closer and eventually met each other in his Taoist quest.

The two emperors of the early Han dynasty followed Lao Tzu’s teachings of frugality, pristine simplicity, and non-action to achieve one of the few best periods in Chinese history. Chinese history underwent a long process of more than a thousand years, from Han to Song dynasty (206 BC-1279), reducing local power and hand it over to the emperor. In the early Han dynasty there were still many vassal states inside the empire, and the emperor’s power was not as absolute as in the later period of Chinese history. The general who succeeded in putting down the rebellion denied the Emperor’s order to rescue the emperor’s brother who was surrounded by the rebellious army. The emperor even executed his prime minister to give in to the demands of the rebellion. Such prudent style was absent in the last three Taoist emperors who had much more power than the first two Taoist emperors.

I chose those five as Taoist emperors based on two books of Taoist history. The first two emperors adapted Taoism as the official guiding philosophy of their government and the years of their reigns remain one of the few periods of peace and prosperity in Chinese history. The first book places the first two emperors in an outstanding position as leaders. In the second book, the last three emperors each represents one of the three peaks of Taoist religion during the Tang, the Song, and the Ming dynasty respectively. Since the second book only talks about the organized religion of Taoism, so it discards the Han dynasty, which the first two emperors belong to.

Unexpectedly, I noticed afterwards a gradual evolutionary process among the five Taoist emperors, Literate, Scenery, Bright, Emblem, and Century. The first was the best and last, the worst. Emperor Literate was the only perfect one, and his son, Scenery’s only blemish was when he took advice from his ministers to reduce the power of the vassal states, which led to their rebellion. In spite of his execution of the minister who offered the suggestion, the rebels refused to retreat. The final crackdown of this rebellion paved the way for ambitious emperors in later periods to eliminate vassal states and further expand their own power. Like Literate and Scenery, Bright showed a kind heart while like Century, Emblem was superstitious. The first half of Bright’s reign was named though less frequently a period of peace and prosperity. Both Bright and Emblem showed artistic talents but only Emblem was recognized as an outstanding artist. Artistic pursuits are among the logic intension and connotation of Taoism, as Taoism turns away from utilitarianism at the level of secondary societies. It is no coincident that both Bright and Emblem were famous for their romantic love affairs. Both their artistic pursuits and romantic love affairs were rare among Chinese emperors. In line with Taoist philosophy, none of those five emperors was ambitious. Taoism advocates a lifestyle of pristine simplicity. Restrained by the presence of many vassal states, both Literate and Scenery lived a simple lifestyle. It became more and more difficult for an emperor to be non-ambitious afterwards. The last three emperors had to divert their ambitious energy into artistic or religious pursuits. Here I use simplicity, enjoyment, arts, and religion to represent Literate/Scenery, Bright, Emblem, and Century. It represents a spiritual process of uplifting from reality, which served as a way for those emperors to deal with the increasing psychological distractions enforced on them by the gradual transformation of Chinese society towards a typical secondary society. Although Bright showed an interest in arts, self indulgence was more characteristic of him. For example, at the age of 61, he married a lady of twenty six who had been engaged to his son. Bright not only spent too much time with his young concubine at the expense of his duties as an emperor but he also offered her relatives some important positions in the court. It eventually led to a rebellion, which devastated the country for more than seven years. Even worse, Emblem lost half of his empire to Mongolia and died in prison. Century was the worst one in spite of the fact that his country remained intact. Century showed all sorts of bizarre behaviours which were likely the result of a most traumatizing social environment compared to the previous four emperors. It may also be the reason that he needed a fanatic religious experience to deal the pains he had in his heart. His cruelty towards his court officials, palace maids, and family members may be enough to label him as a pathetic sadist. He even kicked his pregnant wife, who later died from bleeding. He let another wife burned to death when the palace was on fire because of his hatred towards her. The striking contrast between Literate and Century illustrates the different nature of primary and secondary societies: the former is natural while the latter, made by men, eventually becomes tragic and preposterous.

Unlike ordinary people, Chinese emperors hardly saw their family members. Emperor Tao Light of Qing dynasty (1821-1851) came across his newly wed sister one day while he was strolling inside his huge palace accompanied by several eunuchs. Naturally Tao Light asked, “How is your newly wed husband?” The sister replied, “It has been more than a year since I last saw him. So I really do not know how he is now.” It shows how hard human nature had to be suppressed to keep peace inside this Imperial center of power struggle.

Some Chinese scholars made a thorough survey of all emperors, 611 in total, in Chinese history. They found that emperors were the most unlucky subpopulation. As high as 44% of them ended in unnatural deaths; their life spans average 35 years while that of the general populace was 57 years, after infant deaths were excluded. Due to lack of security and increased stress, a high proportion of emperors showed symptoms of psychological and mental disorders. Century was only one of them. One emperor even had the hobby of watching palace maids having sex with all sorts of animals, though the officials who wrote down those records might have misunderstood the details.


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