Thanks to inbreeding, sheltered lives and unusual upbringings, many monarchs and other royals become known for their eccentricities. In ancient China, emperors were believed to be the sons of heaven and were entrusted with supreme power to rule their kingdom. How they performed decided the fate of the people and the country.
While some were very capable rulers, others…not so much. Over a history that spans thousands of years, the Chinese have seen many a ruler come and go, and some have become known for their cruelty, incompetence, and what could sometimes possibly be classed as insanity. Without further ado, and in no particular order, these are some of the more eccentric kings and emperors in Chinese record—bearing in mind that examples of their cruelty and excess may have been exaggerated by enemies and later historians in the retelling.
1. Fu Sheng (符生), “The One Eyed Tyrant”
Fu was an emperor of the Former Qin Kingdom (351- 394) during the Dong Jin Dynasty (317-420). He was a violent and cruel emperor, and after ruling for only 2 years he met his untimely death due to his overweening pride and stupidity. He was unable to take care of state issues and wasn’t a very farsighted ruler in more than one sense. He was blind in one eye and apparently very self conscious about it. He would have people killed if they used the words “without”, “devoid of”, “lacking” or any other words that would remind him that he lost his sight in one eye. A very heavy drinker who held lavish banquets, he would make important state decisions under the influence; and more often than not, ignore his advisers petitions altogether. It has been said that he would have animals thrown into boiling water alive or skin them alive, and would apply the latter treatment sometimes to humans, too.
2. Zhengde Emperor (正德皇帝)
Devoting himself entirely to hedonism, this emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) relied on his eunuchs for state affairs. Corruption became rampant, public offices were bought and sold and excessive taxes were levied on the people. He delighted in traveling incognito through the country rather than involving himself in state affairs, and the eunuchs kept gaining more and more power. He liked to live dangerously, and on one occasion he was nearly captured in a Mongol raid; additionally, he mastered various exotic languages. Whoever dared to criticize his eccentric behavior would be tortured, killed or demoted. Legend has it that he once burned down his palace by storing gunpowder in the courtyard during the lantern festival and that his harem was so full that some women starved to death as the palace could not provide enough food for all of them. He also built palaces for exotic animals and then released them for hunting. To feel more like an “regular person” he would make his staff decorate the inside of the palace to look like the town center and then get them to dress up like merchants in order for him to “stroll through the streets.” This childish behavior made him notorious, and many historians claim that it led the way for the downfall of the Ming dynasty . The young emperor drowned when his pleasure boat capsized, and was succeeded to the throne by his cousin.
3. Wenxuan of Northern Qi (北齐文宣帝)
This emperor founded the Northern Qi Dynasty (550 – 577). He was initially known for his attentiveness to military matters, trying to equalize the tax burden and reduction of corruption by offering officials a decent salary. However, he turned cruel and erratic eventually, and, fueled by alcoholism, plunged his dynasty into chaos. Legend has it that he suspected his concubine Consort Xue of having previously had a sexual relationship with his general (and cousin) Gao Yue, and poisoned him=. He thereafter beheaded Consort Xue and hid her head in his sleeve. At a banquet later that day he tossed her head onto a platter, to the surprise of the other attendants.
As described by politician Sima Guang in his book Zizi Tongjian, many centuries later: “Sometimes when it is warm, he would be naked to bask in the sun, but even in the coldest winter, he would strip naked as well and run around.” His attendants could not stand his behavior, but he didn’t care. Once, he asked a woman on the street, incognito, and asked, “What is the Son of Heaven like?” The woman responded, ‘He is so crazy that he really cannot be considered a Son of Heaven.’ He beheaded her.” His aggressive tendencies tended to become worse when he got drunk, so prisoners where made available to the palace guards for him to release his pent up anger.
4. Emperor Qianfei of Liu Song (前废帝)
Born Liu Ziye (刘子业), the brief reign of this emperor of the Northern and Southern Dynasties period (420 – 598) was characterized by irrational, impulsive and violent acts, including the slaughter of many high level officials and his sexually immoral behavior. Upon assuming the throne, due to apparent resentment toward his father, Emperor Xiaowu, he immediately ordered that all the laws instated by the previous emperor be rescinded. Among his advisers, Dai Faxing, a close associate of Emperor Xiaowu, was the one that wielded the most power. He curbed Liu Ziye’s impulsive actions on numerous occasions. Eventually, however, Ziye ordered him to commit suicide. Twelve days later, he personally led guards to attack and kill his prime minister, Liu Yigong, and Liu’s four sons who had been plotting against him. It was said that he gouged out Yigong’s eyes, put them in honey and called them “pickled ghost eyes”. In addition to killing numerous government officials, he also had an incestuous relationship with his aunt Liu Yingmei and eventually killed her husband, who couldn’t take the humiliation and was plotting to kill the emperor. Allegedly, he also had an overt incestuous relationship with his sister and would sometimes force concubines to have sex with animals. Whoever disobeyed was killed on the spot.
5. Emperor Yang of Sui (隋炀帝)
Yang Guang (杨广), the second emperor of the Sui Dynasty (581-618), is widely believed to have killed his father, Emperor Wen, although this was never proven. His military achievements as well as his machinations against his older brother led to him becoming crown prince in 600, and thereafter, emperor. He committed to several large building projects and is remembered as one of the worst and most self-indulgent tyrants in history. Although he had successes during his reign, his abuse of his nation’s coffers greatly impaired state power and brought untold suffering to the populace. He imposed excessive taxes in order to be able to finish his projects, which included the Grand Canal, the reconstruction of the Great Wall and redesigning the eastern capital of Luoyang. He also made three attempts to conquer the Goguryeo kingdom on the Korean Peninsula, only to wind up in failure every time. As he grew fed up with the landscape of northern China, he made several large-scale and opulent voyages to Jiangdu, each time escorted by 200,000 cavalry with more than 10,000 mobile towers to drag the ships. As uprisings became more and more common, he was eventually forced to hang himself. Emperor Yang is said to have committed nearly 8 million people to constructing roads, palaces, canals, the Great Wall and military expeditions.