If I understand correctly, 王 means "king", "monarch" or "sovereign." I also see that 皇 means "emperor", "sovereign" or "ruler."

So is 皇 higher than 王?

Also, in the case of female monarchs (considering both consorts and non-consorts), can females be called 王 and also 皇? Or are there gender-specific terms for female monarchs?

  • I think it's just civil service pay grade. 皇 is a grade above 王,both under 上帝! – Pedroski Aug 14 '19 at 7:11

11 Answers 11


The generic way to refer to the highest ruler of any country/region is「君主」, corresponding to monarch.

If we talk about an English translation, specifically avoiding how these terms are used in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, then「國王」is used to translate the English equivalent of king and「皇帝」is used to translate emperor, which are strictly gender neutral. Their specifically female equivalents are「女王」and「女皇」, respectively, for regnants (non-consorts), and「王后」and「皇后」for consorts.

Equivalent titles for territories historically surrounding and interacting with China, like Khagan and Raja, have their own Chinese transcriptions (可汗, 羅闍).

In Chinese-language influenced regions, the situation is different, and whether a person holds the titles「王」or「皇」is more complicated.

  1. 「皇」as a monarchial title was invented by Qin Shihuang, "the First Emperor of China". The「君主」of the previous Zhou Dynasty (and earlier) held the title「王」. Note that the Zhou Dynasty themselves invented another term for highest ruler, called「天子」(son of heaven), which wasn't shared by the predecessing Shang Dynasty. The timeline for the "highest ruler of China" title is something like:

    • Shang Dynasty:「后」>「王」(Yes,「后」was a title originally used by Shang Kings. The meaning queen (consort) arose later.)
    • Zhou Dynasty:「王」,「天子」
    • Qin Dynasty and beyond:「皇」,「天子」
    • Occasionally for non-Han rulers of China, in addition to their Chinese titles:「可汗」
  2. The context for inventing「皇」was the Qin's wars of unification, where the de-facto rulers of the smaller Warring States all declared themselves to be「王」.「皇」was thus invented to be an overlord title. From Qin unification onwards, any "leader" of "a small state" within China, or in contact with China and admitting themselves into the Sinocentric system, would likely be called a「王」(おう, 왕, vương). In Sinocentric-style vocabulary, they are granted the title of「王」by the Chinese Emperor (封王).

  3. For China,「皇」corresponds to the Chinese Emperor; for Korea, Japan, and Vietnam,「皇」corresponds to their respective「君主」as soon as they are removed from the Sinocentric system.

    • Naruhito (德仁),「日本天皇」(Emperor of Japan)
    • Sunjong (純宗 隆熙帝),「大韓帝國皇帝」(Emperor of the Korean Empire)

    • Lê Lợi (黎利),「大越皇帝」(Emperor of Đại Việt)

    • To remain within the Sinocentric system, but simultaneously call themselves「皇」, the monarchs would style themselves「王」only when they deal with China in diplomatic missions. Korean Kings were the only ones which styled themselves「王」and dealt with China as「王」; both Japanese and Vietnamese monarchs styled themselves as「皇」in their own regions.
  • How on earth did 后 change from King to Queen? – Johan88 May 22 '20 at 13:46
  • @Johan88 via the meaning royalty or monarch. – dROOOze May 22 '20 at 13:47


The character 王 consists of three horizontal lines and one vertical line. The three horizontal lines represent heaven, land and man, the one vertical line runs through and connecting heaven, land and man represents the highest ruler, meaning the king.


droooze wrote:


droooze explained 王 was originally a pictograph of ceremonial weapons and then given the meaning of 'ruler'. As for the origin story of "Connecting heaven, land and man", it was a later interpretation from 《說文》in the Han period, therefore, not true.



The original meaning of 皇 is now written as 煌 (splendid; brilliant; sparkling)

甲骨文里的‘皇’,很明显一盏正在燃烧的灯 In the Oracle ‘皇’ was obviously a burning light

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皇 = 自 + 王;

自 = 'first; alpha'; 王 = 'highest ruler; king'

In layman's term, 王 = highest 'ruler' and 皇 = 'alpha highest ruler'

In modern language, 皇 generally refers to emperor, and 王 refers to king

  • female 王 is called 女王 (queen)

  • female 皇 is called 女皇 (queen ; Empress)

In the Spring and Autumn Period, all the rulers of nation were called 王. After 秦國 (Qin nation) united all China, the ruler of Qin changed his title from 秦王 (king of Qin) to 秦始皇帝 (The Alpha Emperor of Qin / Emperor Qin Shihuang) . Since then, the highest rulers who had control of a united China were all titled 皇帝 instead of 王. And 皇帝 had the power to appoint 王爵 (kingship) to his relatives or anyone else worthy of the title.

  • 「王」是個斧鉞刀片的象形字,後來作爲古代君主的象徵。「三者,天、地、人也」說法自從漢代《說文》,不可信 – dROOOze Aug 13 '19 at 9:08
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    @droooze Noted. In any case, the fact that 王 eventually obtained the meaning of 'king' has not changed – Tang Ho Aug 13 '19 at 9:12
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    Theoretically, in the Spring and Autumn Period, the highest ruler over the whole China is (周)天子, thought he had little control over the nations. – fefe Aug 13 '19 at 10:42

in the case of female monarchs

well, there was only one "female" emperor in china history: Empress Wu

when she was in throne, she got many regnal names, most ended with "皇帝" e.g.:

"則天大聖皇帝", "聖母神皇", "聖神皇帝", "金輪聖神皇帝", "天冊金輪聖神皇帝", "越古金輪聖神皇帝" & "慈氏越古金輪聖神皇帝"

only when she was dead, her formal posthumous name is "則天順聖皇后"

so, the character "皇" is gender neutral.

So is 皇 higher than 王

yes. there's only one 皇, with numerous 王, under the sun.


中国帝制中,皇是只有一个的,王则可以有多个,王是由皇帝指定的。 按照地域管理范围,整个国家都是属于皇帝的,王的属地是由皇帝分配的,在属地内王有最大的管理权。


皇 is the person sitting on the Iron Throne, 王 is like King in the North.

  • I don't quite get what you mean. Could you elaborate? – Flux Aug 13 '19 at 16:39
  • @Flux It is a "Game of Thrones" reference. Game of Thrones is a popular novel series and also a T.V. series. In the fictional word of "Game of Thrones". The King sits on the Iron Throne, rules over all the lords of the land. Those lords in term rule over their own states. It is the same relationship as between an emperor and the kings he rules over – Tang Ho Aug 14 '19 at 3:14
  • In the story, the highest title is "King" . The lord in Winterfall proclaimed himself "King of the North" is an open rebel against the King in Kingslanding – Tang Ho Aug 14 '19 at 3:21

I think they are basically the same. I'm a native Chinese speaker and I can't differentiate them. Although they have a similar meaning, they are used in different places. I suggest you get familiar with the common words that include 王 or 皇 and there is no need to differentiate them. The words that spring to my mind are:



You have known that "王" translates to "king" in English.

The first Chinese dictionary 《说文解字》which was compiled about 1900 years ago explains the word "皇" as


The sentence translates into English as

(as an adjective it means) great. (as a noun it often) bears the meaning that a king being the first/most prestigious one of its kind, like in "始皇" (the first emperor) 三皇 (the three emperors, that is, three legendary kings in ancient times). They are all great kings.

The word "皇", when it is used to refer to a king, or an emperor, it simply meaning "king the great" or "emperor the great".


王 is the king. 皇 is the emperor.

Generally, 皇 is greater than 王.


I don't think you can compare 皇 to 王 directly unless there is more context. Based on the words, 皇 is a broader term that describes royalty in general, whereas 王refers to a specific title/position.

But if you add more descriptors around the word then you can start to make some comparisons, some of which are actually equivalent, for example 女王 (queen) and 女皇 (empress) are equivalent the same way that king and emperor can mean the same thing.

In other cases, if you talk about 皇家 (royal family) and 國王 (king/head of state or country) then you are comparing different things that are modified by the words 皇 and 王 respectively.


Let me talk about the difference between 皇,帝,王

The original meaning of "皇" is big, bright and beautiful. Also used to refer to the heavens, as well as the visualized days - things like "God".

The source of the "帝" (according to the test) is "Flower", which has the meaning of reproduction and creation of life, and is used to refer to the "creator" - that is, 帝. This is similar to "皇".

If these two words are hard to say high ground, **"皇" should be a little higher than the "帝".**Although the 皇 was placed in front of the 帝 in the saying of the "Three 皇 and Five 帝", the 帝 should be borrowed first. Probably because 皇 is better than 帝, but also keeps the sky.

王 is intended to be an axe weapon - in Oracle, 王 is a double-sided axe. It refers to a weapon that also refers to the military power represented by the weapon, and is further extended to be a military leader. Later - everyone knows - after the wizard fell, the military leader became the national leader.

皇 is highest, 帝 is second, 王 is last.


Here is a simple explanation.

Imagine you go back to the Zhou Dynasty, and became the leader, you found it is hard to manage the big territory without cars and planes, so you enfeoff your territory to many relatives and friends, they manage it for you.

You are 天子, your relatives are 王, and your friends are 公, and then 伯 and other lower titles. Besides the title, they are all the leaders in their own country, yes they are countries, but the leaders obey to you since you are 天子.

Now you go to Qin Dynasty or any following dynasties, you don't want to enfeoff any more, cuz they all want to steal your 天子 title. Now you have to manage your whole land by yourself, then you think, I am the greatest ever, I am 皇帝.

But sometimes, you like some friends very much, you may give him the rank of nobility 王, but there are many differences between this honor 王 and the enfeoffment 王.

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