Taishang Huang

See also: Retired Emperor
Taishang Huang
Chinese 太上皇

In Chinese history, a Taishang Huang or Taishang Huangdi, is a retired emperor who had, at least in name, abdicated in favour of someone else. Although technically no longer the reigning sovereign, there are instances where the retired emperor continued to exert considerable power, if not more than the reigning emperor.


Styling himself the "Lord Father" (Chinese: 主父), King Wuling of Zhao was one of the first known Chinese sovereigns to retire and abdicate in favour of his son and successor. However, the title "Taishang Huang" was not used until much later.

The title was first used when the First Emperor (Qin Shi Huang) of the Qin dynasty bestowed it upon his deceased father, King Zhuangxiang.[1]

Emperor Gao (Liu Bang) of the Han dynasty had also bestowed this title on his living father, Liu Taigong.[2] He bestowed it onto his father to express filial piety and to preserve the social hierarchy between father and son.[2]

In 301, during the War of the Eight Princes in the Jin dynasty, Sima Lun became the emperor by forcing his puppet Emperor Hui to become the Taishang Huang.[2] The title had always been an honorific before the 301 coup, but it had now become a tool of political infighting between opposing factions.[2]

Emperor Xianwen (454–76) was an emperor of the Xianbei dynasty Northern Wei. After retiring in favour of his son, Emperor Xiaowen, to become Taishang Huang in 471, he continued to hold on to power until his death in 476.

Gao Wei of Northern Qi also abdicated in favour of his son, Gao Heng, to become Taishang Huang in 577.

In 617, Li Yuan (later Emperor Gaozu of the Tang dynasty) bestowed the title Taishang Huang upon Emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty.[2]

In 626 during the Xuanwu Gate Incident, Li Shimin (the Prince of Qin) (later Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty) led his followers on a coup against his brothers Li Jiancheng (the Crown Prince) and Li Yuanji (the Prince of Qi),[2][3] and succeeded in assassinating them.[3] Within three days, Emperor Gaozu instated Li Shimin as the new Crown Prince.[3] On the ninth day of the eight month, Emperor Gaozu abdicated in favour of Li Shimin.[3] Emperor Gaozu remained as Taishang Huang until his death in 635.[2][3]

In 712, at the instigation of his sister Princess Taiping, Emperor Ruizong of the Tang dynasty abdicated in favour of his third son, who became Emperor Xuanzong. He adopted the title "Taishang Huang" and died four years later.

Like his father before him, Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty also ended up as a Taishang Huang. In 756, during the An Lushan Rebellion, Emperor Xuanzong went into retirement while he was in Shu (present-day Sichuan).[4] The emperor had earlier been driven out of the capital Chang'an to Shu by the rebels. His son ascended the throne as Emperor Suzong and successfully suppressed the rebellion. Emperor Xuanzong is notable for having started his reign with his predecessor as a Taishang Huang and ending his reign as a Taishang Huang himself.

The last Taishang Huang in Chinese history was the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty, who abdicated in 1796 in favour of his son, the Jiaqing Emperor, in order to maintain a reign period not longer than that of his more illustrious grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor. However, unlike most previous Taishang Huangs, the Qianlong Emperor was still the de facto ruler until his death three years later.

There were two notable instances in the Qing dynasty where the father of the reigning emperor did not become a Taishang Huang even though he was still alive during his son's reign. The first was Yixuan (Prince Chun), the Guangxu Emperor's father, who maintained a prominent role in politics during the reign of his son, who was selected by Empress Dowager Cixi to inherit the throne in 1871. Yixuan's fifth son, Zaifeng (Prince Chun), was put into a similar position as his father. Upon the death of the Guangxu Emperor in 1908, Zaifeng's three-year-old son, Puyi, was chosen to be the new emperor, only to become China's final Emperor upon his abdication three years later.

Modern usage

In modern Chinese history after 1949, Deng Xiaoping has been called Taishang Huang in a pejorative context because he wielded much of his power without assuming the titles normally taken on by China's paramount leader, and because he belonged to Mao Zedong's generation of leaders but wielded influence over leaders who were a generation below him.[5] The term has also been applied to other Communist Party senior officials without formal titles who were seen as meddling in the affairs of their successors, such as Chen Yun[6] and Jiang Zemin.[7]

List of Taishang Huangs

Instances of Chinese rulers who were granted the title Taishang Huang:

Early eras
Northern and Southern dynasties
Sui and Tang dynasty rulers
Yan ruler
Min ruler
Song dynasty rulers
Northern barbarian rulers
Later rulers

See also


  1. Eisenberg, Andrew (2008). Kingship in Early Medieval China. Leiden: Brill. pp. 24–25. ISBN 9789004163812.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Eisenberg, Andrew (2008). Kingship in Early Medieval China. Leiden: Brill. p. 25. ISBN 9789004163812.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Wenchsler, Howard J. (1979). "The founding of the T'ang dynasty: Kao-tsu (reign 618–26)". The Cambridge history of China, Volume 3: Sui and T'ang China, 589–906, Part 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 186. ISBN 0-521-21446-7.
  4. Eisenberg, Andrew (2008). Kingship in Early Medieval China. Leiden: Brill. p. 26. ISBN 9789004163812.
  5. "叶剑英与邓小平的恩怨". Duowei History.
  6. "另一"太上皇"陈云赞军队六四镇压". Canyu.
  7. "太上皇纷纷亮相,足见中共内斗惨烈 (林保华)". Radio Free Asia. October 11, 2012.
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