Why does an emperor of ancient China have several “names”?

For people who are not very familiar with Chinese traditional culture, they might get confused by those different names of one emperor when they read something about Chinese history. For example, the very famous Emperor Qianlong (AD 1711-1799) of the Qing dynasty (AD 1644-1912), was given the name Aixinjueluo·Hongli at birth, but he is also called Gao Zong or Chun Huangdi besides Qianlong. Why does he have different names?

To answer the question, we first need to get into the naming system of ancient China briefly. In general, all the people of the Han nationality (China’s main nationality) will have a full name at birth including a family name (normally composed of one or two Chinese characters), which is placed in the front, and a first name (normally also composed of one or two Chinese characters) followed. Each first name has a specific meaning. People from the middle class or higher will have a style name (also known as courtesy name) when they grow up to be regarded as adults, namely, boys at their age of 20 and girls at 15. The style name is given by respected elders, and always has an explanation or supplementation to the meaning of the first name. The first name is only used or called by oneself to show one’s self-modesty while the style name is only used or called by others to show others’ respect to the person they address. Many people also have a pseudonym (Hao). It’s also for others to address, just like the style name, but with more respect. Another difference is that the pseudonym is named by oneself and not by the respected elders.  But in the late times, it also can be given by others. Normally, people do not change their first name or the style name, but do change the pseudonym. As for the family name, it’s quite interesting that there’re many cases showing the big changes. The main reasons for a family name changing include taboo of characters, fall of native state, shortness of long surname, avoiding disaster, surname granted by emperor, follow husband’s surname when woman gets married, or follow wife’s surname when man marries and lives with wife’s family. This naming system only works to the people of Han nationality or those minorities who already accept Chinese culture. Other minorities still use their own languages and the local naming methods. Their names recorded in the Chinese historical references are the transliteration in Chinese.

Fig. 1. Example of how the ancient Chinese use the first name and style name Left: a letter written by a very famous calligrapher WANG Xizhi (AD 321-379, style name: Yishao) of the Eastern Jin dynasty to a male acquaintance whose family name is ZHANG. In the letter, the calligrapher calls himself with the first name Xizhi (the first two big characters on the right top) (Source of photo). Right: a short appreciation text written by one of the collectors of this calligraphy (already mounted as hand scroll). The collector addresses the calligrapher with his family and style name WANG Yishao (the first three big characters on the right top). (Source of photo)

With the basic knowledge introduced above, we can now take a look at the names of emperors of ancient China. For the westerns, it seems like each emperor has several names. Are these names the family name, the first name, the style name and the pseudonym? Actually, no, they have something less but also something more.

Something less? First of all, no matter Han nationality or minority, all the emperors have full names after birth (some have the names changed when they become emperors). But since they are the emperors, any usage of any character of their full names is prohibited nationwide, and they have several specific words to call themselves instead of the first name, therefore their full names are mainly written in the historical records but not used during the reign, or even after they died. The style name, which is used for others to address, the first emperor of a new dynasty normally has, if he’s born in a middle ranked family and establishes the dynasty after turning 20 years old. But it won’t be used anymore as soon as he becomes an emperor because no one dares. Instead, “Emperor” or “Your majesty” is the main form of address people take. Thus the style name of emperors has been disappeared generation after generation. For those emperors coming from minorities, they do not have a style name from the very beginning. As for the pseudonym, mainly those emperors who deeply devote themselves into the artistic world have.

Something more? Full name of an emperor cannot be addressed, style name cannot be addressed or even does not exist, and not every emperor has a pseudonym, then what should people address to the emperor? Normally, there’re four titles of emperor can be used.

  1. Honorific title
    Starting from the Qin dynasty (221 BC-207 BC); fashioned and developed in the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907). Can only be addressed to emperor and empress. The title is always quite long; each character has different good meaning. It can be given and addressed when emperor is alive.
  1. Reign title
    Starting from the Emperor Wu (156 BC-87 BC) of the Western Han dynasty (202 BC-AD 8). After him, every new emperor must have a new Reign title when taking the throne. The title can be changed at any time when there’s a special thing happens, therefore one emperor can have many Reign titles. Up to the Ming dynasty (AD 1368-1644), this kind of frequent changes has been stopped; each emperor only has one title for his reign period (only one exception). The Reign title can be addressed when emperor is alive.
  1. Posthumous title
    Established in the Shang dynasty (approx.1600 BC-1046 BC). Stopped by the Qin dynasty. Restarted in the Han dynasty. It’s given by successor after emperor’s death using proper characters to evaluate the emperor’s whole life. Some titles are added several generations later. At first, the title is very short, always choosing one character to make a summary. Different characters imply specific meanings. The evaluation can be good, neutral, or bad. Starting from the Tang dynasty, the title is getting longer and longer. In the Song dynasty (AD 960-1279), the bad evaluation has been stopped. Not only the emperor and empress, scholars, hermits and high rank officials also can have this kind of title, the difference is that the title for emperor must have the two Chinese characters Huangdi in the end which means emperor.
  1. Temple title
    Established in the Shang dynasty. Stopped by the Zhou and Qin dynasty. Restarted in the Han dynasty. It’s always composed of two characters given by the successor after emperor’s death when put the memorial tablet of the dead in the Imperial Ancestral Temple. Some titles are given or added by several generations later. Normally, the first emperor of a new dynasty is called Tai Zu, Gao Zu or Shi Zu. The last character is always Zu which means the first founder. For the successors, the last character is always Zong which means maintain the achievements of the predecessors. Not all the emperors have this title before the Sui dynasty (AD 581-618). In the Tang dynasty, since the Posthumous title is getting very long with many nice meaning characters and losing its function of life evaluation, the Temple title tells instead by the character used before Zu and Zong.

Among these four titles, the Temple title and the Posthumous title are the respectful addresses to the former emperors and regarded as the written forms in the way of putting Temple title in the front while Posthumous title in the back.

Fig. 2. Book with emperor’s full title: name of dynasty +Temple title + Posthumous title (Courtesy of the official website of the Palace Museum, ( source of photo)

Nowadays, in accordance with the changes in the different historical periods, we usually call the emperors in this way: emperors before the Tang dynasty, use their Posthumous titles; after the Tang dynasty, use their Temple titles; of the Ming and Qing dynasty, use their Reign titles.

So, those several “names” of an emperor of ancient China are not the real names, they are just different titles!

Here’re some examples for a better understanding:

1 – Address with the Posthumous title (before the Tang dynasty)

  1. Emperor Jing (188 BC-141 BC) of the Western Han dynasty
    -Name at birth: LIU Qi.
    -Honorific title: No.
    -Reign title: No (the system hasn’t started yet)
    -Posthumous title: Jing Huangdi. Jing means to be successful, to think careful and to spread kindness. It matches the emperor’s main work for the country: taking the throne, choosing a good successor and keeping the low tax and corvee policy to the common people.
    -Temple title: No. The Western Han dynasty is very strict on the naming of Temple and Posthumous titles to the emperors. Only the ones who have extremely outstanding contributions can get the Temple title. There are only four emperors get this honor in this dynasty among eleven. For the Emperor Jing, no Temple title means his successors don’t think he’s qualified to be memorized in the Imperial Ancestral Temple. The main reason is the seven kingdoms rebellion happened during his reign and his wrong killing on CHAO Cuo, a very important loyal high rank civil official.

    This emperor has no Honorific title, no Reign title, no Temple title, and name at birth is prohibited to touch, then only the Posthumous title is available. Usually, people take the last character Jing before Huangdi to address him.

  2. Emperor Wu of the Western Han dynasty
    -Name at birth: LIU Che.
    -Honorific title: No.
    -Reign title: more than ten (founder of this system).
    -Posthumous title: Wu Huangdi. Wu means tough, strong, brave, conquer, which matches his battle life with Huns.
    -Temple title: Shi Zong. Due to his great efforts on fighting against Huns and the big enhancement of the country, he becomes one of the four emperors of the Western Han dynasty to get a Temple title given by his son. According to the naming rules, as a successor maintaining the country after his ancestors, his Temple title ends with Zong.He has Reign titles but too many; he has a Temple title, while other emperors don’t, up to the Tang dynasty. So people still use his Posthumous title (taking the last character Wu before Huangdi) to be the form of address, so as to keep him on the same page with others.
  3. Emperor Wen (AD 541-604) of the Sui dynasty
    -Name at birth: YANG Jian.
    -Honorific title: No.
    -Reign title: Kaihuang; Renshou.
    -Posthumous title: Wen Huangdi. Usually take the last character Wen before Huangdi to address. Wen means profound, kindness, making rules, doing corrections, which matches his life of keeping reforms of the policies.
    -Temple title: Gao Zu. As the founder of the Sui dynasty, his Temple title is ended with Zu.

    The reason why people choose his Posthumous title as the form of address is almost the same as the Emperor Wu of the Western Han dynasty exampled above.

2 – Address with the Temple or Honorific title (from the Tang dynasty)

  1. Emperor Tai Zong (AD 598-649) of the Tang dynasty
    -Name at birth: LI Shimin.
    -Honorific title: Wen Wu Sheng Huangdi (changed later).
    -Reign title: Zhenguan.
    -Posthumous title: Wen Huangdi.
    -Temple title: Tai Zong. As the second emperor of the Tang dynasty, his Temple title ends with Zong.

    Starting from the Tang dynasty, the number of characters of Honorific and Posthumous titles has been added more and more, which makes it very difficult to use them as a form of address. This emperor only has one Reign title, while his successors had many during their reign periods. Then the best choice is to address this emperor with the Temple title which is short and everyone has it from this dynasty through the last dynasty of China, Qing.

  2. Emperor WU Zetian (AD 624-705) of the Zhou dynasty (AD 690-705) (included in the Tang dynasty by historians): the only female emperor in the Chinese history.
    -Name at birth: Only the family name WU is confirmed. No historical records about the first name. It might include the character Hua (华), according to the name changing records of some counties at different times. In some places the character Hua was changed into another character, in the first year of her reign. Later, in the year of her abdication, the character Hua was added back to the name (The throne was given back to her son, who took the country back to the Tang dynasty).
    -Name granted by Emperor Tai Zong: WU Mei.
    -Name given by herself: WU Zhao (the character Zhao is created by herself; means the sun and the moon hanging in the sky).
    -Honorific title: Zetian Dasheng Huangdi. Zetian means to rule the country according to the willing of the heaven. Dasheng means the greatest person.
    -Reign title: more than twenty.
    -Posthumous title: Zetian Dasheng Huanghou (changed later). Huanghou means empress. The reason why her Posthumous title ends with Huanghou (empress) but not Huangdi (emperor) is because she requests her son to change her title from emperor into empress after her death. She wanted to be buried together with the former emperor who died much earlier than her as husband and wife. In front of the mausoleum, she had people set up a high stone stele without any text, which is different from other emperors’ stele curved with long texts describing the contributions (the characters seen now are curved in the later times).
    -Temple title: No. Because she’s back to be empress after her death.

    The reign titles in her ruling period are changed frequently, not suitable to be chosen as a form of address. A Temple title is not available. Honorific and Postthmous titles are almost the same, except one ends with emperor while another ends with empress. Usually people use the first two characters of the Honorific title Zetian to address her.

Fig. 3. Stone stele of Wu Zetian (Source of photo)

3 – Address with the Reign title (starting from the Ming dynasty)

  1. Emperor Yongle (AD 1360-1424) of the Ming dynasty
    -Name at birth: ZHU Di.
    -Honorific title: No.
    -Reign title: Yongle.
    -Posthumous title: very long, more than fifteen characters. No matter how many characters in total, the one before Huangdi (emperor) is the most important character and usually used by people to address. Here the character is Wen, same as the Emperor Wen of the Sui dynasty.
    -Temple title: first Tai Zong, later changed into Cheng Zu by the later generation, Emperor Jiajing (AD 1507-1567). As the third emperor of the Ming dynasty, the Temple title shouldn’t be ended with Zu. The main reason of the change is because of his big success on enlarging the territory and enhancing the rule of the country after he overthrows the reign of his nephew, the Emperor Jianwen (AD 1377-1402?). These contributions are regarded as great as the founder of the dynasty.

    Starting from the Ming dynasty, each emperor always has one reign title except the Emperor Zhengtong (see below). Therefore, people usually use the Reign title to address the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasty.

  2. Emperor Zhengtong (AD 1427-1464) of the Ming dynasty
    -Name at birth: ZHU Qizhen.
    -Honorific title: No.
    -Reign title: Zhengtong; Tianshun.
    -Posthumous title: very long, more than fifteen characters. The most important character is Rui which means wise, full with knowledge and wisdom.
    -Temple title: Ying Zong.

    He is that exception and has two Reign titles. He has been captured by minority troop (Wala) for years and then back to overthrow the reign of his younger step-brother. The Reign title Zhengtong is used before his capture while Tianshun is used after he gets the throne back. Since the first one is used longer than the second, people usually take the first to address him.

  3. Emperor Kangxi (AD 1654-1722) of the Qing dynasty (AD 1644-1912)
    -Name at birth: Aixinjueluo·Xuanye (Manchu minority, not Han nationality).
    -Honorific title: No.
    -Reign title: Kangxi. This is the longest reign title used in the Chinese history, 61 years in total.
    -Posthumous title: very long, more than twenty characters. The most important character is Ren which means great humanity, full with kindheartedness.
    -Temple title: Sheng Zu. He’s not the founder of the Qing dynasty, but due to his great military contributions on capturing and governing Taiwan from the remained power of the former Ming dynasty, defeating rebellions and conquering Junggar troops, which is equal to the achievement of a dynasty’s founder, he gets his Temple title ended with Zu.
  4. Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty
    -Name at birth: Aixinjueluo•Hongli (Manchu minority, not Han nationality).
    -Honorific title: No.
    -Reign title: Qianlong.
    -Posthumous title: very long, more than twenty characters. The most important character is Chun which means pureness.
    -Temple title: Gao Zong. As a successor, his title ends with Zong.

    This is a very standard case although the emperor is not a Han nationality. Manchu (original named Jianzhou Nüzhen) has its own language but also accepts Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan. The texts of this dynasty are often written bilingual or trilingual. Therefore, the tablet of emperors memorized in the Imperial Ancestral Temple written with the Temple title is also provided in several languages which is different from the emperors of the Han nationality.

Fig. 4. Tablet of Emperor Qianlong with his Temple title written in Manchu language (Source of photo)

P.S. Taboo on using the personal names of emperors is a very serious issue in the ancient China. People are not allowed to use the same characters of emperors’ personal names. In case there’s any character in one’s name that are the same as the emperors’, people should change it. For the written texts, usually use some other characters to replace it; in case there’s no other choice, then one should add or reduce one stroke of the original character, to show the difference.

Fig. 5. Example of taboo Left: original shape of character Min (the last character of the name of the Emperor Tai Zong of the Tang dynasty) Right: new shape of character Min after taboo (last stroke is missing on purpose) (Source of photo)