So we’ve seen that in the eternal conflict between the Chinese Emperor and his Bureaucracy, slowly the Emperor took power from the bureaucrats and into his own hands. As a result the Emperors ended up being extremely busy, having to handle all imperial business by themselves.
But the Chinese Emperors had quite extensive harems, and many of them sired dozens of children. All of which was necessary for the continuity of the dynasty of course. So what happened with all those Imperial Princes? Did the Monarch use his family to control the bureaucrats? Did he enlist their help to run the business of government? Let’s see Yuan Tengfei’s take on the issue:
Princes are Miserable
In Ancient China, the Emperor is boss. So the princes must be second in command. In today’s soap operas, it’s sorta the same way. If an actor can’t get to play an emperor, well he can get to play a prince and enjoy it. All those Imperial Princes, very cool.
But being a Prince was actually quite miserable. First I must correct an idea that most people have. Who get to be prince? In my classes I always asked my students: who gets to receive the title of Prince? And they always say: “the Emperor’s relatives”. Wrong. His uncle-in law can? His sister’s son? No. They have to be from the inner family. That is, the same surname. Brother, uncle, son, brother’s son, paternal cousin, can be princes.
So after you get the title of Prince, you get an awesome life, right? There’s an old saying in China: those unfortunate born at the imperial family. That’s not being contrarian, that’s not faking it, not the words of a rich fuck who’s bored of eating seafood ad envies the simple food of the peasant. No, the author really meant it. Why?
Everybody knows, when the First Emperor of Qin unified China, he wondered: why did the realm of the Zhou kings fall into disorder? Because he gave fiefs to all those nobles. I won’t do that, I’ll set provinces and commanderies, and I’ll be the boss. I say the orders, and they’ll go top-down I control the Chancellor, the Chancellor controls the governor, the governor controls the province chief the province chief controls village heads, everything top-down, my imperial policies will be implemented directly. Awesome idea.
As a result, the First Emperor was too too good, but his son was no good, so the empire collapsed in 15 years. Then Liu Bang grabbed power. Liu Bang had no culture at all, born a country thug. Well he grabbed power and needed a conclusion: why did the Qing fall in 15 years? Liu Bang during the Qin Dynasty was a neighborhood patrol officer, running around with a small team walking around the streets. When the Emperor came out of the palace, he’ll be ordered to keep peace, making people shout welcome and all that. That’s what he was doing. So when he has to come up with the reason the Qin Empire fell, well he couldn’t make a very fine analysis. So he got the wrong conclusion. He thought that it was precisely because the Qin Emperor had not given fiefs to his male relatives, so when the time came and people wanted to overthrew him, his brothers didn’t have armies, so they couldn’t go rescue him.
That’s why Liu Bang gave big fiefs to all his family. He made princes of all his sons and nephews, to protect him. “You’re of my own blood, you can’t go against me!” Well no, they won’t go against you. But once you’re dead, well then it’s a different story. What when your son gets the throne? Just when the Emperor Wen got the throne, all these princes started to get upity. When the Emperor Jing got the throne, Liu Piu, prince of Wu rebelled. Liu Pi saw the Emperor and just didn’t like him. Why the fuck do you get to be Emperor, huh? I’m your elder uncle. And yes, Liu Pi surely was Liu Qi (Emperor Jing)’s uncle. I didn’t get to be Emperor, why the hell would you? If you can be Emperor, so can I. So he rebelled, joined by a bunch of brothers and uncles, the Seven State Rebellion, causing great havoc to the dynasty.
After the rebellion was over, the Emperor thought: everybody wants to sit on this chair I have my ass on. But who is the biggest threat? The Emperor thought. My uncles. My brothers. My nephews. Even my sons! Why are they the biggest threat? Well as I said, because they are all Liu. My surname’s Yuan, if I took the throne, that would be usurpation. Yuan Shu wanted to grab the throne, then Cao Cao rose against him and he was fucked. But hey, if I’m Liu, family of the Emperor, if he gets the throne I can have it too. If we talk about the bloodline I’ve an even closer relative to the previous Emperor!
So from the Han Dynasty onwards, the biggest object of concern of the Emperors were all these uncles. The Emperor had to control all these paternal relatives. What to do? From the Han Dynasty onwards, they established a principle: titles without fiefs. The old Zhou Dynasty had this feudalism system, with princes and their fiefs. Starting with the Han Dynasty, the nobles had titles but no fiefs. I name you the Prince of Qi, but don’t get uppity now. You have no power over the land of Qi, at most you’re a big landlord over there, with some land and money. But you’ll have no say over the administration or the military in Qi.
Fast forward to the Ming and Qing dynasties, they got this new idea. Giving country names to Princes makes it easy for them to get vain. If I name a Prince of Qi then he gest this idea the land of Qi is his. What if he rebels? So starting in the late Ming era, all through the Qing, prince titles stopped using country or dynasty names. They started using fancy names. The Prince of Happiness, Prince of Reverence, Prince of Courtesy, etc. So princes now stopped using country names, lest they got the wrong idea.
So yeah you’re a Prince, but you have no real power. If you have a title of Prince, but no real job in the court, well you’re just some big landlord. And your life isn’t as nice and leisurely as that of a normal landlord. Why? Because this Emperor relative of yours is constantly watching you. In Beijing there’s several tombs of the Han era. They found them recently, and TV went on to broadcast the whole thing, but they had to stop at the middle. No way to show that on TV. Why? There was nothing inside it, not even the gravestone, all stolen. People suspect that in one of these tombs there’s the body of Liu Dan, Prince of Yan.
How did he die? The Annals of History say that during the celebrations of Spring, he showed the appearance of an Emperor. That’s all. The guy was in Beijing, far away from the Emperor in Xi’An. So he thought hey the mountains are high, the emperor is far away, I’ll just show off a bit, he’ll never know. Just that. Ok. The princedom Chancellor, who was there sent by the Emperor to watch on the Prince, sent a text to the Emperor, “this Liu Dan kid is getting uppity, see this pic as proof”, and sent an MMS to the Emperor. Immediately a courier rode from Chang An with a small bottle of poison, commanding Liu Dan to kill himself. And he just had this moment of vanity, he hadn’t rebelled. So Liu Dan had to kill himself, but his son got to inherit his title. But had he rebelled? Oh that’s fucked. His whole family would be wiped out from the face of the earth.
During the Ming Dynasty, all Princes were forbidden from staying in Beijing. Once they got named Princes, they had to beat it, quick, can’t stay in Beijing. And once you reached your destination, it wasn’t that different from being in prison. Can’t move 20km from your palace. Wanna go hunting? OK, can’t move further than 20 km from the city. Bureaucrats will protect you. Well they say they will protect you, you know what they’re actually doing. Every day they come visit to drink tea with ya. Any new kids in the family? How are your household goods? Anything missing? Something new? A new blade perhaps? Got a spear hiding somewhere? Some gunpowder?
You’re an Imperial Prince, but your mother didn’t come with you. Your mother is an imperial concubine. So the Imperial concubine dies in Beijing, your mother died. You wanna go to Beijing and attend the funeral. No fucking way, don’t even think about it. Asking your Emperor brother or uncle is like asking to be killed. Unless, there’s one chance, the Emperor is your full brother. Same mother. Or if your relation with the Emperor is really good. Then he might allow you to go to the capital and pay your respects. But during the Ming Dynasty, the rule was that to pay your respects in Beijing you could only get up to Lugou Bridge (the outter limit of the city). It’s not like you can enter Beijing, get into the Forbidden City and attend the funeral. No way. Wanna get around the body? Nope. All you can do is go to Lugou bridge, cry looking at the capital, and get the fuck out. Yeah yeah your voice is big enough, your mother heard you, now out.
The Qing Dynasty was the exact opposite of the Ming. The Ming forced the princes out of the capital, the Qing Dynasty forced them to stay in Beijing. If you see today in Beijing there’s lots of prince palaces, and that’s because they couldn’t leave the city. The Qing Dynasty had much fewer princes than the Ming, so they kept them in the capital. Unless you had a job in the administration, a simple Prince in the Qing dynasty could not go out of the second ring road. Can’t get out, if you leave your cousin the Emperor will miss you so much. So stay in your small city please. So these people cried, those unfortunate born at the imperial family.
So no Aristocracy in China. The Imperial Princes of China are quite lucky compared to those of the Turkish House of Osman, who were subject to a ritual game of Battle Royale and killed each other until only one was left. Monarchy is a high-stakes game, and high-stakes games get nasty very fast. Especially when the institution of the Harem more or less guarantees Elite Overproduction of the worst sort.
European royalty didn’t suffer of same problem because enforced monogamy barely produced enough heirs to maintain the dynasty. Which produced a different, perhaps even worse result: international wars of succession, a distinctly European phenomenon.
In Chinese history, the aim of strengthening the power of the Emperor was focused mostly on dismantling the nobility, which was achieved by developing a permanent bureaucracy in its place.