The emperors of ancient China

This book collects the biographies of all the first Chinese emperors, as narrated by traditional sources. Starting from the cosmogonic myth, we retrace the legends of the mythological rulers and then arrive at the emperors of the first four historical dynasties: Xia, Shang, Zhou and Qin.
Often Western scholars underestimate traditional Chinese historical sources, which is therefore usually ignored in their works about history of ancient China. This book is intended to begin filling this gap.


Table of contents

Pangu, the creator of the world
Three Sovereigns (2852-2698 BC)
The five emperors (2697-2194 a.C.)
Xia dynasty (2194-1675 BC)
Shang dynasty (1675-1046 BC)
Western Zhou dynasty (1046-771 BC)
Eastern Zhou dynasty (770-221 BC)
– Spring and autumn period (770-454 BC)
– Warring states period (453-221 BC)
Qin dynasty (221-206 BC)


The author
Simone Ricci is an Italian historian and numismatist.
He was born in 1984 and, after high school, he obtained a degree in History. He has created an online catalog of French coins and has published books about French and Chinese numismatics, as well as works on Chinese and US history. He has collaborated with numismatic magazines.


Excerpts from the introduction

Continuity and homogeneity of Chinese history are still the subject of debate among historians. In China, many of them are convinced of the reliability of traditional sources and they see Chinese history as an uninterrupted chain of dynasties. Instead many Western historians criticize this idea, arguing that Chinese history is not so unitary and that Erlitou culture (linked to Xia dynasty, according to the Chinese) and the Shang dynasty were none other than two of the many peoples present on Chinese territory and, above all, they had no idea of “China”.
This may be true, but many Western scholars go even further, claiming that the Xia dynasty didn’t exist, but simply invented by Chinese historians of later times  (see page 43). They thought the same of the Shang dynasty, until archaeological discoveries proved them wrong.
Because of this disrespectful approach to the ancients, Western scholars strongly underestimate traditional historical sources, which is therefore often ignored in works about history of ancient China. By publishing this book I want to start filling this serious gap.
In 1995 the Chinese government launched the Xia-Shang-Zhou chronology project, a study of vast proportions to draw up a rigorous chronology of the first three dynasties: Xia, Shang and Zhou (but for the latter it only reaches the ninth century BC). The project involves about two hundred experts in history, archeology, astronomy and paleography. Scientists take advantage of different techniques, such the carbon 14 dating and the study of the eclipses mentioned in the ancient inscriptions.
The first results were published in 2000 and support the uniqueness and continuity of Chinese history. The proposed period for the Xia dynasty range from 2205 to 1767 BC, and the Shang would reign from 1766 to 1112 BC. These conclusions have been positively received in China, but abroad they have been criticized for being “ideologized and not based on reliable sources”.
At any rate in this book I have chosen to preserve the chronology presented by the traditional texts.


A clarification on my choice of the word “emperor” instead of “king”. Many historians define China of the first dynasties as “pre-imperial” and Qin Shi Huangdi (221-210 BC) as “first emperor”. Personally I do not agree with these two definitions: it is true that Qin Shi Huangdi gave himself a different title than the previous rulers (a title that however does not mean “emperor”) and it is true that he abolished feudalism, creating the centralist and bureaucratic structure, but it is equally true that he did not found the Chinese empire. If anything it reunited it into a single state entity, as later also did the first emperors of Sui (581-618) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, who however are not considered founders of the empire. It should also be said that in the Zhou dynasty the sovereign already had the appellation of “son of Heaven” and there was the idea of “mandate of Heaven” (the idea that Heaven blessed the authority of the just and virtuousemperor, but could withdraw his mandate from a corrupt and unjust ruler). These were fully imperial concepts.
Considering that part of traditional Chinese historiography starts the history of the empire with the creation of the world, this book begins by narrating the Chinese cosmogonic myth: the story of Pangu, which was created by Taoist monks. In reality, according to the classical Taoism elaborated by Laozi in the sixth century BC, the Tao 道 (the “way” or the “path”) it is the only force responsible for the creation of the world. It was only the Tao that created existence from nothing. Then from existence the yin and yang originated, and from these two principles all things were born. But it was difficult for Taoist monks to explain these philosophical principles to simple people, then they created the myth of Pangu by making it more understandable how the cosmos was born.