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A posthumous name is an honorary name given to royalty, nobles, and sometimes others, in East Asia after the person's death, and is used almost exclusively instead of one's personal name or other official titles during his life. The posthumous name is commonly used when naming royalty of China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.
Posthumous names in China and Vietnam were also given to honor lifetime accomplishments of many people who did not have hereditary titles, for example to successful courtiers.
The posthumous name consists of one or more adjectives inserted before the ruler's title. As rulers from different states might share the same posthumous name, but rulers within a state would usually not repeat an already used name, the name of the state or domain is usually also given to avoid ambiguity. In Chinese the whole construct is therefore "[state][adjective][title]", which in English is typically translated as "[title][adjective] of [state]", such as King Wen of Zhou, Duke Mu of Qin, and King Cheng of Chu. The literal meaning of the adjective is normally not translated.
While the names of living Chinese can be just about any combination of characters, the posthumous name was chosen from a rather small pool of stock characters; the literal meaning of which eroded as a result.
Early mythological rulers such as Emperor Yao are considered to have posthumous names. All rulers of Shang Dynasty are known only by their posthumous names, as their personal names were not recorded in classical texts.
Archaeological discoveries have shown that early kings of the Zhou dynasty, such as King Wen and King Wu, used "posthumous names" during their lifetime, but later they became chosen by successors after the ruler's death. As a result, final rulers of states and rulers seen as illegitimate (such as usurpers) often do not have posthumous names and are referred to by their personal names, e.g. Jian, King of Qi, Min, Marquis of Jin, and Chen Tuo.
The use of posthumous names was stopped in the Qin Dynasty, because Qin Shi Huang proclaimed that it is disrespectful for the descendants, or "later emperors" to judge their elders, or the "prior emperors" (先帝). The practice was revived in the Han Dynasty after the demise of Qin.
Decline in use
Posthumous names are the conventional way of referring to rulers from the Zhou dynasty to the Sui dynasty. In the Zhou dynasty the posthumous name was usually only one character, such as "Wen" (cultured) or "Wu" (martial). However, as time went on rulers began to add more and more characters to the posthumous names of their ancestors. By the time of the first emperor of Tang the length had grown to 7 characters, which was taxing to pronounce or write. Therefore, emperors from Tang on are commonly referred to by either their temple name (Tang through Yuan dynasties) or era name (Ming and Qing dynasties), both of which are always just two characters long and therefore easy to remember and use.
Posthumous names commonly made tracing linear genealogies simpler and kept a blood line apparent. The rule was also followed by non-Han Chinese rulers of Sixteen Kingdoms, Silla, Japan, Kingdom of Nanzhao, Liao dynasty, Vietnam, Western Xia, Jin dynasty, Yuan dynasty and Qing dynasty. King names of Hồng Bàng dynasty and Mahan also followed the rule but they are thought to be later work.
Most monarchs inherited the throne and did not give bad posthumous names to the previous monarch. Some names were lengthened or changed by later monarchs. Emperor Aizong of Jin and Chongzhen Emperor had different names from different people. Qin Hui, of the Song dynasty, had a good name, was given a bad one, and had the good name later restored. After the Song dynasty few received bad names. Bad monarchs of the Joseon dynasty did not receive posthumous names.
Emperors of China continued to receive posthumous names of increasing length as a matter of ritual long after the naming convention had been abandoned in casual speech and writing. The Guangxu Emperor, who died in 1908 and was the last emperor to receive a posthumous name, sports the impressive 21-character title of "Emperor Tongtian Chongyun Dazhong Zhizheng Jingwen Weiwu Renxiao Ruizhi Duanjian Kuanqin Jing of Qing".
Use of posthumous names ceased in China with the Guangxu Emperor (d.1908), in Vietnam with the Khải Định Emperor (d.1925) and in Korea with the Yunghui Emperor (d.1926). However, in Korea unofficial posthumous names were given to Crown Prince Euimin and Gu, Prince Imperial Hoeun.
Contemporary Japanese use
Posthumous names are in use to this day in Japan. A deceased emperor is given a posthumous name, which beginning with Emperor Meiji (d.1912) is identical to his era name and therefore always two characters long. The most recently conferred posthumous name is that of Emperor Showa (d.1989).
A non-royal deceased person may be given a posthumous Buddhist name known as kaimyo, but is in practice still referred to by the living name.
Posthumous names can be praises (褒字) or deprecations (貶字). There are more praises than deprecations, so posthumous names are also commonly called respectful names (尊號 zūn hào) in Chinese. Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian outlines extensively the rules behind choosing the names. Some of those guidelines:
- Those having a persistent and reasonable governance (剛強直理) are called "Martial" (武 wǔ). (This is one of the most honourable names.)
- Those who sympathize with the people and recognize their needs (憫民會椅) are called "Civil" (文 wén). (This is one of the most honourable names.)
- Those who respect the talented and value righteousness (尊賢貴義) are called "Reverent" (恭 gòng).
- Those who are kind and benevolent in nature (溫柔賢善) are called "Benign" (懿 yì).
- Those who aid the people out of righteousness (由義而濟) are called "Admirable" (景 jǐng).
- Those who treat the people compassionately with a gentle quality (柔質慈民) are called "Compassionate" (惠 huì).
- Those who eliminate destructions and purge cruelty (除殘去虐) are called "Tang" (湯 tāng). Possibly named after the revered ruler Cheng Tang (成湯), the founder of the Shang Dynasty.
- Those who make the people feel satisfied with their policies (安民立政) are called "Constructive" (成 chéng). Again, possibly named after Cheng Tang.
- Those who are considerate and far-sighted (果慮果遠) are called "Brilliant" (明 míng).
- Those who preach their virtue and righteousness to the people (布德執義) are called "Majestic" (穆 mù).
- Those who are aggressive to expand their realm (辟土服遠) are called "Exploratory" (桓 huán).
- "Highly (respected)" (高 gāo) is particularly reserved for the founders of dynasties.
- Those who lived short lives without much accomplishment (短折不成) are called "Passed Away Prematurely" (殤 shāng).
- Those who have a constant twinge of depression (often due to political plights) during their governance (在國遭憂) are called "Pitiful" (愍 mǐn).
- Those who lose their spouses and pass away at their early age (蚤孤短折) are called "Lamentable" (哀 āi).
- Those who are obliged to make sacrifices to their ancestors (肆行勞祀) are called "Mournful" (悼 dào).
However, most of these qualifications are subjective, repetitive, and highly stereotypical; hence the names are chosen somewhat arbitrarily. Such names are usually given by court historians, according to their good deeds or the bad ones.
When combining an emperor's temple name and posthumous name, the temple name is placed first. For example, the Shunzhi Emperor whose full posthumous name would be "Shi Zu - Zhang Huang Di" (世祖章皇帝), combining the last 2 characters of his temple name and the last 3 of his posthumous name, which is the form most commonly seen in old documents. A fuller description of this naming convention for royalty appears in the Chinese sovereign entry. The posthumous names of some monarchs and royal members were long, for example Hongwu Emperor, Nurhaci, Crown Prince Hyomyeong, Sunjo of Joseon and Empress Dowager Cixi.
Some monarchs did not follow these guidelines. Some monarchs of Ju, Chu, and Qi used place names. Some monarchs of Yue (state) had Chinese transliterated posthumous names. Some monarchs of Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje had different style posthumous names. Some early Japan monarchs also had Japanese-style posthumous names (和風諡号).
Emperors and empresses
All Chinese posthumous names for rulers end in one or two of the characters for "emperor", Huángdì (皇帝, i.e. emperor), which can be shortened to Dì; except about a dozen or so less recognized ones who have had only Dì and no Huáng.
Starting with Emperor Xiaowen of Han (more commonly "Emperor Wen"), every single Han emperor, except the first one of the Eastern Han Dynasty, has the character of "filial" (孝 xiào) at the beginning of his posthumous names. "Filial" is also used in the full posthumous names of virtually all emperors and empresses of the Tang, Song, Ming and Qing Dynasties. For Qing emperors, 孝 xiào is placed in various position in the string of characters, while those Qing empresses who were given posthumous names, 孝 xiào is always initial.
The number of characters in posthumous names was increasing. The emperors of the Tang Dynasty have names in between seven and eighteen characters. Those in the Qing Dynasty have twenty-one characters. For instance, that of the Shunzhi Emperor was "The Emperor of Order who Observes the Heavenly Rituals with a Solemn Fate, Destined to Unify, Establishes with Extreme Talented Insights, Admires the Arts, Manifests the Might, with Great Virtue and Vast Achievement, Reaches Humanity, Purely Filial" (體天隆運定統建極英睿欽文顯武大德弘功至仁純孝章皇帝, Listen to pronunciation (help·info): tǐ tiān lóng yùn dìng tǒng jiàn jí yīng ruì qīn wén xiǎn wǔ dà dé hóng gōng zhì rén chún xiào zhāng huáng dì).
The woman with the longest posthumous name is Empress Dowager Cixi, who is "The Empress who is Admirably Filial, Initiates Kindness, with Blessed Health, Manifests Much Contentment, Solemn Sincerity, with Longevity, Provides Admiration Prosperously, Reveal Adoration, Prosperous with a Merry Heaven, with a Holy Appearance" (孝欽慈禧端佑康頤昭豫莊誠壽恭欽獻崇熙配天興聖顯皇后 xiào qīn cí xǐ duān yòu kāng yí zhāo yù zhuāng chéng shòu gōng qīn xiàn chóng xī pèi tiān xīng shèng xiǎn huáng hòu), or 孝欽顯皇后 for short.
According to the noble system since the Zhou Dynasty, the immediate family members of the Emperor were given the titles of Kings (or Princes), Dukes, Earls, etc., with or without actual control over a region of land. After their death, they would be referred to by the same title, with the posthumous name (usually one character) inserted in the middle. The characters used are mostly the same ones used for emperors, with the same denotations as described above. For example, Prince Gong of the Qing Dynasty was posthumously named Zhong (忠), and thus is referred to as Prince Gongzhong (恭忠親王); Prince Chun was posthumous named Xian (賢), hence is referred Prince Chunxian (醇賢親王).
It was also common for persons with no hereditary titles, especially accomplished scholar-officials or ministers, to be given posthumous names by the imperial court. The characters used are mostly the same ones used for emperors, with the same denotations as described above. The length, however, was restricted to one or two characters. The posthumous name is sometimes rendered canonization in English, for the scholar-official to Confucianism is analogous to the saint in the Catholic Church, though the process is not nearly as long. See List of Posthumous Names for some examples.
Confucius has been given long posthumous names in almost every major dynasty. One of the most commonly used was Zhìshèngxiānshī 至聖先師.
Sometimes a person is given a posthumous name not by the court, but by his own family or disciples. Such names are private posthumous names (Sĩshì, 私諡). For example, Tao Qian was given Sishi Jìngjié 靖節.
The posthumous names of Japanese emperors are called teigō (帝号, lit. emperor names). In addition to the appellation Tennō (天皇, lit. heavenly sovereign, usually translated as Emperor) that is a part of all Japanese emperors' posthumous name, most consist of two kanji characters, although a few consist of three. Some names are given several generations later—this is the case for Emperor Jimmu and Emperor Antoku, for example. Others are given immediately after death, like that of Emperor Mommu.
Many have Chinese-style names, for example:
- Emperor Jimmu (神武天皇 Jinmu Tennō, lit. Divine Might)
- Emperor Nintoku (仁徳天皇 Nintoku Tennō, lit. Humane Virtue)
- Emperor Ōjin (応神天皇 Ōjin Tennō, lit. Answering the Gods)
Some have Japanese-style names. For example:
- those who were named after the place where the emperor was born, lived or frequented:
- those who were named after an emperor whose admirable characteristics resemble those of an earlier one by adding Go (後, lit. latter) as a prefix to the earlier emperor's name:
- those who were named by combining the characters from two previous emperors' names:
Since the death of Emperor Meiji (明治天皇 Meiji Tennō) in 1912, the posthumous name of an emperor has always been the name of his era. For example, after his death, Hirohito (by which he is usually called outside Japan) was formally renamed Emperor Shōwa (昭和天皇 Shōwa Tennō) after his era; Japanese now refer to him by only that name. Hirohito was his given name; most Japanese never refer to their emperors by their given names, as it is considered disrespectful.
- Chinese name
- Japanese name
- Emperor of Japan
- Korean name
- List of monarchs of Korea
- Vietnamese name
- Retroactive nomenclature
- Taboo against naming the dead