The Chinese Emperor List

When I wrote my world history textbook, I included an appendix that listed the rulers of the empires covered in Chapters 5-9:  the monarchs of Assyria, Babylon, Media, Lydia, Persia, Macedonia, the Hellenistic kingdoms, Rome and Byzantium.  You can see a copy of that appendix here.  Later I created my own Old Testament chronology list, so readers can see when I believe characters like Abraham, Moses and King David lived.  Then when I wrote a complete history of Africa, I created a list of the pharaohs of Egypt and the kings of ancient Nubia, because in my narrative I deliberately avoided using dates any more than I had to.

Now, to go along with my Chinese history series, I have created a list of most of the Chinese emperors, from mythical times to the one who became the subject of a movie in the late 1980s.  I did it because it is hard to find a good, pronounceable list of Chinese emperors anywhere; even Wikipedia gives each emperor so many names and titles that I found their lists more confusing than helpful.  Part of the problem is that the most thorough lists still use the out-of-date Wade-Giles system, for spelling Chinese words in Western languages.  Since the late 1970s, most people, with the encouragement of the Chinese government, have switched from Wade-Giles to the more phonetic Pinyin system; that is why the name of the founder of the People’s Republic was spelled Mao Tse-tung when he was alive, and Mao Zedong more recently.  However, for some reason I have yet to see any list of emperors that used Pinyin names and covered more than one dynasty; the Wade-Giles names still turn up surprisingly often, on websites like Friesian.com.

Another problem that I have is with the way other historians treat Chinese history before 770 B.C.  Because the only written records we have going that far back are the famous “oracle bones,” the first two and a half dynasties (the Xia, Shang and Western Zhou) are treated with more than a little skepticism.  Granted, each of the early patriarchs has probably been given credit for the deeds of several forgotten individuals, and even I will admit the early legends are far-fetched, but when I was young we did not have any evidence that the story ran differently from what the Chinese told us, so history books used the traditional dates and told the stories, all the while throwing in a disclaimer that what we were reading might not be true, like the stories about King Arthur and the Trojan War.  Nowadays, however, the absence of evidence is seen as evidence of absence.  Most historians question whether the Xia dynasty really existed, and while they allow the Shang and Zhou dynasties to stand, they replace the traditional dates with alternate ones that vary from one book and website to the next.

Myself, I do not see the recent archaeological discoveries as incompatible with the Chinese history told through the ages; e.g., the Sanxingdui and Jinsha cultures are in the right times and places to be the ancient states of Shu and Ba, to give one example.  Therefore it is astonishing how the traditional history has been thrown out completely, by so many books and websites.  For me the traditional dates will do, until compelling evidence turns up that another chronology is correct.

Anyway, to research this list, I had first to find the traditional dates for the early eras (they ended up coming from old books I had), and then I had to find the correct Pinyin names for the rulers.  Click on the link below to see the results; I hope you find it useful for learning Asian history.  This is another case where I couldn’t find what I wanted, in books or online, so I was better off writing it myself!

The Emperors of China

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