21 April 2018

Some Thoughts About Empires and Emperors

Empire (noun): Government-rank requiring at least 1000 development
What does an empire and pornography have in common? They're both hard to define, yet we all think we know one when we see one. Games such as EU4 and CK2 offer extremely simplified definitions that an empire must be ruled by an emperor, and it must be at least thiiiis big, which draw from a conventional idea that an empire should mean "a sovereign government ruling over multiple political societies." But then you have the academics come and scoff at the imprecision of such a definition. For instance, where do we draw the line at distinguishing significant "political societies?" Does a single city that has its own political identity and community count? And what does "ruling over" mean? Does it refer to only 100% control or is it compatible with large local autonomy? If state A exercises economic but not political control over state B, is B a part of A's empire? If state A gives freedom to state B on running domestic affairs, but partially limits its decision-making in foreign affairs, is B a part of A's empire?

Meanwhile, in more sophisticated academic definitions of empire, the empire is defined simply to aid in categorization for modern-day scholars rather than taking into account how peoples in the past have historically understood the term. So I thought it would be fun to point out ways in which both "empires" and "emperors" have been understood historically in Europe and East Asia that might run counter to common definitions today. It's not a topic that gets a lot of attention in popular history, so hopefully I'll cover stuff you hadn't considered before.

Empire or Republic?
A curious case of an empire that asks for a more flexible definition is one of its most famous representatives: the Roman Empire. One reason for this is due to the mix between republican and imperial natures of government. We commonly say that the Rome changed from a republic into an empire in 27BC, but if you go by the definition for empire given at the start of this post, then it's undeniable that the republic was already an empire long before 27BC. It already ruled over multiple nations and former kingdoms, city-states, chiefdoms, and whatnot. Similarly, even though both nominally and ideally, the Delian League shouldn't be an empire, historians commonly refer to it as the Athenian Empire due to its de facto nature. Another reason is the continuing facade that the Roman Empire wasn't an empire in the period known as the Principate (27BC-284AD). In contrast to our modern notions of "emperor," the early Roman emperors prided themselves as being princeps senatus and princeps civitatis, which made it seem like they were only an honoured first among equals of the Roman senate and citizenry rather than an autocrat. This is also reflected by the fact that the Princeps dated their reign years as tribune rather than an autocratic title (ex. 12th year of his tribunicial powers). Meanwhile, the term imperator, which would later evolve into the modern word "emperor," was strictly tied to the military post of commander of the legions rather than the wider meaning we associate today with "emperor." 

But an even more interesting example of terms not being used as we today think they should be is imperium. As many of you already know, empire derives from the Latin word imperium, and the Roman Empire's Latin name is imperium Romanum. So what, then, is imperium? Rather than meaning empire, imperium initially had the wider meaning of "power to command" and consequently in the early/mid-republic, the most common usage of this term was in reference to a magistrate's imperium. But by the late republican period, we see in the writings of Cicero and Caesar that imperium was becoming frequently applied not to a specific post like magistrate, but to a people, particularly the Romans (imperium populi Romani). Even Sallust, the first writer to use the expression imperium Romanum, used this not in the modern understanding of a territorial empire, but the imperium of the Roman people. Now even though textbooks may say that the Roman Empire was founded in 27BC, it wasn't as if the Romans suddenly decided to change what they meant by imperium. If they did, they certainly should've informed such obscure writers as Livy or Virgil and saved them the embarrassment, since they both continued to use the term as people did back in good ol' republican years. It's only quite late in Augustus' reign when imperium in the sense of a territorial entity is used for the first time, and by the late 1st century AD, Imperium Romanum finally becomes understood less as "Roman Imperium" but more as the territories in which Rome exercised its imperium and were ruled by an imperator. And thus the "empire" was born. 

None of this is meant to suggest that the Roman Empire didn't exist until the late 1st century AD, or the late 3rd century AD when the Principate ended. I'm simply pointing out that while the imperial nature of Rome seems obvious to us today, many Roman citizens during the late republican and principate periods would not have characterized their empire and emperors the same way.
I say it should still be considered cultural appropriation because
Wanda was never voiced by a Chinese voice-actor.
An empire before... empire?
The above-noted case of an empire emerging before the terms such as "emperor" or "empire" isn't only applicable to the West, but the Far East as well. In this region of the world, the word "empire" all share a common etymological root. Dì guó (Mandarin), teikoku (Japanese), Cheguk (Korean), đế quốc (Vietnamese) all derive from the compound word written with the Chinese characters "帝國" (帝 meaning emperor and 國 meaning country). Now contrary to popular belief that all words written with Chinese characters originate from China, this word, like a few others as "自動車" (automobile), is actually Japanese because it was Japanese scholars at the start of the modern era who used Chinese characters to create new compound-words equivalent in meaning to Western terms. Now at this point you might think, as I once did myself, "You're fucking shitting me! How the hell did the word 'empire' not exist in East Asia prior to the modern era!? Uhhh hello? Imperial China? That thing that kinda lasted for over two fucking millenia?"
As a side note, there's an extremely fascinating story regarding the disputed authorship and
even the very existence of Wang Tong, but I'll maybe save that for another time. 
If you're interested, though, check out this book.
But if you look at the historical sources, pre-modern Chinese historians never went around writing 大明帝國 when speaking of the "Great Ming Empire" as you would see in a Chinese history book published today.  Instead, you typically see 明 (Ming), 大明 (Great Ming), or 明朝 (Ming dynasty). Now I would be dishonest if I said "帝國" never, ever occurs in written sources prior to the modern era. There are a few isolated instances. For instance, Wang Tong (aka Master Wenzhong) writes in the 7th century work, Discourses on the Mean (中説; Zhongshuo): 強國戰兵,霸國戰智,王國戰義,帝國戰德,皇國戰無為. Although my knowledge of classical Chinese is still rudimentary, I'm told by more competent people that it means something along, "A strong state fights with soldiers, a hegemon's state fights with wisdom, a king's state fights with righteousness, a Di's state fights with virtue, and a Huang's state need not fight at all." I'll explain what the hell is meant by "Di" and "Huang" later, but the key point here is that the unusual construction "帝國" is only used because Wang Tong is hierarchically listing rulers and contrasting their ways of governance (Huang > Di > King > Hegemon > Powerful ruler). So here, "帝國" should be understood not as "empire" but as a Di's state. Similarly, in the 8th century chronicle Nihon Shoki, we have an instance of "帝國" being used but not to mean empire in Chapter 19 about Emperor Kinmei's reign. The old 1896 English translation by William George Aston translates the line as ". . .transmit it [Buddhist sutras] to the Imperial Country (帝國)," but the passage is about the King of Paekje sending a diplomat carrying these sutras to the Tennou, so in more recent Japanese translations, 帝國 is rendered not as empire in the territorial sense, but as mikado to mean the Tennou's residences.
So once again as with the case of imperium, I'm not trying to say that there were no empires at all in East Asia before the modern era. What I'm saying is that we need to be a little more flexible regarding how these people in the past would have thought were qualifying aspects of an empire. My guess is that in pre-modern East Asia, an empire was understood not to have as prerequisites a certain territorial size or subordinate kingdoms and nations, but to simply be ruled by an emperor. The empire-part would be implicit if your polity was ruled by an emperor. But then that begs the question, just what is an emperor then? My theory is that unlike in the West, where the term for emperor/imperator was originally concerned with who had the ultimate military power, in East Asia, the most important qualifying aspect of being an emperor in East Asia was religious. That is to say, an emperor was one who enjoyed a privileged relationship with some supreme being.
Map of China around the start of the Spring and Autumn Period (8th century BC)
Divine Nature of Emperors:
So let me explain my reasoning by looking at China, Japan, and Korea. In China, the word for "emperor" was coined when the First Emperor of Qin (Qin Shi Huang aka. Shi Huangdi) unified all the Chinese states for the first time. Since he felt he his deeds eclipsed that of any kings of the Shang and Zhou dynasties, he wanted to elevate himself above a mere wang 王 (king), so he abandoned that title in favour of the new title, Huangdi 皇帝. Now  huang and di were titles used by the mythical sage-rulers of ancient China, but Di was also the name for the supreme sky god by the Shang people during the Shang dynasty (1600-1046BC). To get a little sidetracked, the supreme sky god of the Zhou people was Tian 天, and while Di and Tian eventually came to refer to the same supreme god during the Western Zhou period (1046-771BC), there are differing theories on whether Di and Ti were originally entirely separate gods or not. One interesting theory is that the Di referred to the supreme ancestral spirit of the Shang people as embodied specifically by the Pole Star, while Tian was always a collective cosmological term that could refer to all the celestial bodies. 

In any case, returning back on-topic, because Di had a long tradition of meaning Tian (Heaven) by the time of the Qin unification, Huangdi can be understood not simply in the secular sense of a title more kick-ass than wang, but in the religious sense of Qin Shi Huang conflating himself with the supreme god. This is more or less why some scholars translate Huangdi not as emperor, but as thearch or as divine emperor. Another sign that points to the divine nature as being the most important qualifying aspect of a Chinese emperor is in the title tianzi (Son of Heaven). While Qin Shi Huang thought the title of wang was beneath him and thus dropped it, he kept the title Son of Heaven which had been used by the Zhou kings, because the Son of Heaven title is intimately associated with the concept of tianming (Mandate of Heaven). Basically, the supreme divine entity known as Heaven confers its mandate to a human, who is then invested as the Son of Heaven, thereby qualifying him with the right to rule over tianxia (All under Heaven). And in case someone accuses me of conflating huangdi with Son of Heaven, that's not my intent. I'm only theorizing how having an exclusive, privileged relationship with a divine entity may have been considered the most important prerequisite for a supreme ruler on the mortal realm.
As a fun side note, not infrequently do Koreans offend Japanese sensibilities by referring
to the Japanese tennou not as Emperor as the rest of the world does, but as King.
Turning to Japan, there were earlier titles as oo-kimi 大君 (Great Lord) used by the Japanese before they ultimately settled on 天皇 which could be pronounced as either tennou or sumera-mikoto. In addition, the Son of Heaven title was also appropriated by the Japanese tennou, though not the accompanying Mandate of Heaven concept. If you'd allow me to go off-topic yet again, despite the tennou, as descendants of the sun-god Amaterasu, being thought of as uniquely Japanese, some scholars suspect Chinese daoist influence on the nature of tennou's kingship and authority. For example, 天皇 in Chinese astrology referred to the Pole Star, which had long been associated with the supreme rulers of China as I briefly mentioned before, and this Chinese tennou also had the mirror and sword as symbols of his sacred authority like the Japanese tennou. Returning back on-topic, I don't think I really have to explain the whole divine nature as a qualifying aspect of the Japanese emperor since I think they cover that in most middle school social studies class when you learn about world religions including Shintoism. Thus, even though Japan isn't really a country of multiple nations or has territory outside the Japanese islands, the tennou is still considered an emperor rather than a king.
King Sejong, the Korean Civ 5 leader, is actually his temple name,
which like I mention below, a mere king isn't supposed to have.
Finally, we get to Korea, which is actually a bit of a tricky case. If all you've read are introductory texts on Korean history, you'd think that Korean states only ever had kings, not emperors, because Korean rulers were willing to be invested by Chinese Emperors and absorbed in the Chinese tianxia, and Heaven would only appoint one Son of Heaven to rule tianxia. This is probably most applicable to the Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1897AD) which was fiercely Neo-Confucian and proud of its prized place in the Chinese tributary system, but even then, you can see some subtle push-back. For instance, every single Chosŏn king was formally titled not simply wang 王, but taewang 大王 (great king), to signify a higher status. Another example is how technically, only the Son of Heaven had the right to use temple names as a posthumous title, but every single Chosŏn king got one nonetheless. This would certainly not have been missed by the Chinese imperial court so Chosŏn diplomats tried their best to disguise this fact.

Going back further in time, there are even more indications aside from temple names that Korean rulers appropriated exclusive imperial privileges and thus implicitly labelled themselves as emperors. For instance, the Koryŏ dynasty (918-1392AD) adopted the Tang imperial administrative structure of six 部 (ministries), organizing the military into five armies, using its own reign era names, promulgated imperial edicts, and the option of wearing imperial yellow robes (contrast this to the Chosŏn practice of six 曹 rather than , three armies, Chinese reign eras, and kings who issued royal edicts and never wore the imperial yellow robes). For a time, Koryŏ rulers also explicitly called themselves as emperors, their wives as empresses, and their capitals as imperial capitals. Most of these practices were forcibly ended when the Mongol Yuan dynasty vassalized Koryŏ because it presumably highly offended imperial Yuan sensibilities. Traditionally, this whole custom of calling oneself emperor domestically but as king when dealing with imperial Chinese dynasties is known as 外王内帝 (literally meaning outside-king-inside-emperor). Japan, Korea, and Vietnamese rulers all show signs of doing this. For instance, out of diplomatic convenience, the Japanese tennou had to settle for King of Japan (日本國王) or King of Wa (倭王). 
If you're wondering where I'm getting all these stuff about a multiple tianxia-worldview,
check out this book and Korea's AncienKoguryŏ Kingdom: A Socio-Political History.
Warning: they're both dense as fuck and require you to have an overview of Korean history.
But more recent studies by scholars point to the inadequacies of this concept, because these rulers didn't always so neatly divide the imperial/royal protocols into foreign/domestic dealings. They also appear less to be aping Chinese imperial stylings to boost their egos, but more driven by actual ideological beliefs, from perhaps Koguryŏ (37BC-668AD) to the late Koryŏ period. This was the idea that Heaven didn't appoint a single Son of Heaven for a single tianxia, but that there were multiple tianxia, each of which was a sovereign realm and were each ruled by its own Son of Heaven. So again, we come back to this concept of a ruler being considered more than a mere "king" and more akin to an emperor if he enjoys some sort of privileged relationship with a divine entity. I've only addressed the Chinese cosmological background to this rulership, but keep in mind that there were also Buddhist theories to kingship mixed in all this for pre-Chosŏn Korean dynasties.

Now I was originally planning to also write about the Holy Roman Empire and the issue of imperial exclusivity in Europe, but I think I've rambled long enough for one post. If it seemed like I rambled on a little less coherently than usual, the tl;dr version is that empires and emperors didn't always share the same definitions as today, and that in East Asia, it seemed to imply a strong religious aspect.


  1. Sangokushi v53 and v60 seem to be missing from Mega folder.

    1. Yeah they got "taken down." Use my MF folder instead: http://www.mediafire.com/sangokushi

  2. Awesome post.

    Super interesting and I could easily follow along, even if I never got around to actually get into history.

  3. >emperors are like kings, except with divine approval
    >an empire, thus is the area governed by an emperor
    I kind of took that definition for granted and thought that was the standard layman way of seeing things. So your introduction confused me a little, but it seems that's generally how it was historically. I never really had any formal education about non-european history to that extend though, so it's interesting to have some insight into this. Thank you.

    1. I was mainly trying to write a corrective to the secular understanding of empire that seems to dominate today. This probably would have been clearer had I wrote the section on HRE as I planned to.

      Basically, a tl;dr version of that would have been how HRE was originally sanctioned as the sole empire in Europe due to its close relationship with the Christian Church, and in the early modern era, you have a whole bunch of kingdoms (Spain, England, France, Portugal) which are already all empires in the modern secular definition, but couldn't name themselves as empires because none of the neighbours would acknowledge it. And this remained until the rise of revolutionary France which set the Roman Republic as the ideal and saw no reason to obey by such archaic Christian concepts such as the 4 world-empires theory (a prophecy from the Book of Daniel), and thus dismantled the HRE and explicitly named themselves the French Empire. And once France broke the precedent, other colonial powers followed, with the German Empire being the last one to take the mantle of empire.

      Of course, Russia is an interesting side story in all of this, because unlike Western Europe, they actually did try to call themselves as emperor/empire much earlier first with the title of czar (derived from caesar), and then the latin title of imperator, but as I mentioned before, Western Europe refused to take this at "face value." Kingdoms like France or England eventually conceded calling Russian rulers by their new fancy titles, but even then, the ceremonial rites/honours given to the Russian Emperors by these kingdoms remained the same as that given for other European kings so in a sense, Russian rulers symbolically remained kings in the eyes of Western Europe in the early modern era.

  4. Always interesting and thought provoking. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Great article, pleasure to read.