Course:ASIA319/2022/"Imperial"/"Emperor" (帝)

From UBC Wiki


The Chinese character for di (帝)

The meanings and uses of words change over time, particularly in China with its over 3500 years of written history. Di (帝) is a term used to refer to ‘emperor’, ‘supreme ruler’, or ‘god’. In different contexts, the uses of the word can vary vastly, and thus, understanding its discrepancy in usages is of importance for us to engage in meaningful and efficient conversations. In the current digital era, the meaning of the word di (帝) has been transferred within the popular word structure of x di (X帝). It no longer just means emperor, but also refers to the people, objects, or organizations that are remarkable or extraordinary in a given area. This UBC Wiki Page serves the purpose of informing native and non-native speakers of how the uses and meanings of di (帝) have changed since its inception in written and spoken language, with a primary focus on its variegated meanings in contemporary popular culture.

Glossary of Di's (帝) Explicit Dictionary Meanings

Etymology and Dictionary Meanings

The historical evolution of di (帝) from the seal script to the regular script.

In the Chinese dictionary, di (帝) refers to ‘emperor’, ‘supreme ruler’, or ‘god’. It is also a contraction form of imperialism. It is written in the same way for both simplified and traditional Chinese.[1]

Di (帝) first emerged in oracle bone inscriptions and golden inscriptions in the Shang Dynasty.[2] Di (帝) is a pictographic word which combines li (立)  and jin (巾). Li (立) can mean ‘to stand’, ‘to set up’, ‘to lay down’, or ‘immediately’.[3] Jin (巾) can mean ‘towel’ or ‘cloth’.[4] By combining these two characters, di (帝) represents the image of setting up firewood for an imperial ancestral sacrifice.[1]

Dictionary Uses of Di (帝)

Common uses of the word include dìwáng/huángdì (帝王/皇帝), or emperor, shàngdì (上帝), or God, dìguó (帝国), or empire, and dìguózhǔyì (帝国主义), or imperialism.[5]

Huangdi (皇帝) - Emperor

A Imagined Portrait of Qin Shihuang (秦始皇)

Huangdi (皇帝), or emperor, was a title held by Chinese rulers who ruled various imperial dynasties in Chinese history. This term first appeared in 221 BC during the Qin Dynasty. Qin Shihuang (秦始皇), or the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, coined himself with this term. Monarchs in later dynasties continued to use the title of ‘emperor’ to indicate their role as the highest and most authoritative ruler.[6]

When used in English, ‘emperor’ refers specifically to the “male sovereign or supreme ruler of an empire”[7]. To refer to a female ruler, the word ‘empress’ is used instead. However, in Chinese, huangdi (皇帝) does not make this distinction. Similar to how the pronouns he (他, ta) and she (她, ta) are pronounced in the same way (ta), Chinese language generally does not have significant differences in gendered terms. Huangdi (皇帝) can refer to both male emperors and female empresses.[8]

Shangdi (上帝) - God

This term refers to both the supreme deity in Chinese theology, usually referred to as tian (天), and as the God in the Christian Bible.[9]

Diguo (帝国) - Empire

This term refers to empires. For example, the Roman Empire is called luomadiguo (罗马帝国).[10]

Diguozhuyi (帝国主义) - Imperialism

This term refers to imperialism. Imperialism in China has two meanings. One is how imperialism is commonly used in English - as “a state policy of extending rule of an empire by gaining control of foreign areas”[11]. The second meaning of imperialism in China refers to the final stage of capitalist development, often described as monopolistic, parasitic, rotten, and dying (“垄断的、寄生的、腐朽的、垂死的资本主义”)[12].

The Genesis of Di (帝)

Tony Leung Chiu Wai, an acclaimed yingdi (影帝) in China who has won multiple best actor awards - including the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor.

Di (帝) has been used historically- and continuing to today - as a word that means God of heaven, the emperor, and imperialism. However, there’s an added layer of meaning to di (帝) in the context of Chinese popular culture. In the 1980s, following the founding of the Hong Kong Film Awards, the phrase yingdi (影帝) - roughly translated as emperor of the cinemas, emerged in popular culture to describe the actors that won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor.[13] The actors that have won this award represented the highest level of cinematic acting in China at the time, hence they were honoured with the word di (帝) to demonstrate the scale of their achievement. By using di (帝) alongside with ying (影), this phrase popularized the phrase structure of x di (X帝), and started the transferring of di’s (帝) traditional meaning in popular culture. Di (帝) no longer just meant the emperor - when used in the structure of x di (X帝), di (帝) also means the person, object, or organization that was able to achieve the highest honour in a given field, a leading figure with outstanding features or expertise in a certain field, and an object with a distinguishing feature.[14] Because of the simple word structure of x di (X帝), a countless number of new words that are based on this structure emerged online and were used in everyday life. Some examples are: yuyandi (预言帝), or prediction emperor, refers to someone who makes really accurate prediction[15]; zhenxiangdi (真相帝), or the truth emperor, refers to the people active in online discussion forums that knows very obscure things and facts[16]; and xijudi (喜剧帝), or the comedy emperor, referring to someone who has achieved high praise in the area of comedy acting[14].

Di (帝) in Chinese Popular Culture: Multiple Meanings and Usages

Usage of Di (帝) in Online Discussion Forums, Media, and the Popular Press

Aside from di’s (帝) explicit dictionary usages of emperor, god, and imperialism, this term has been used most commonly in Chinese popular culture within the structure of x di (X帝). Within x di (X帝), di’s (帝) meaning transfers from simply just the emperor or someone who is of the highest status - to the people, object, or organization that is remarkable or extraordinary in a given area.

There are a myriad number of new phrases based on x di (X帝) that have been used commonly online. The adoption of di’s (帝) new context and implicit meaning is commonly seen and used in daily conversations, online discussion forums and short online news articles with eye catching titles. An example is offer di (offer 帝) - emperor of offers - or someone who has gotten a lot of job offers. This term was used in various online news articles and discussion forums online. Such as this short news article titled “How to become offer di"[17] and a discussion forum post titled “from “offer di” to an interviewer, some suggestions from a tencent interviewer for recent graduates”[18].

In addition, there are many implicit and explicit meanings related to x di (X帝) when used in popular culture - they are not only used in a complimentary way. X di (X帝) could also be used in a pejorative sense, and in a sarcastic way - to mock or joke about the subject involved. Furthermore, some x di (X帝) phrases could have two meanings depending on the context.

Paul the Octopus was hailed as yuyandi (预言帝) on the Chinese internet when it was able to make accurate predictions in the 2010 World Cup.

Some example of x di (X帝) phrases that are used in a complimentary way are the phrases mentioned above - yuyandi (预言帝) / predictions emperor, zhenxiangdi (真相帝) / truth emperor, and offer di (offer 帝) (add in reference). These are coined with di (帝) to demonstrate a respect for their abilities.

A examples of x di (X帝) phrases that are used in a pejorative sense is daodedi (道德帝), or moral emperor. This term refers to those that consider themselves to be morally superior, and attack the people they consider to be morally fallible. They will neither emphasize with others, nor be strict with themselves, getting satisfaction from criticizing others[16]. This term is commonly used in discussion forums to mock those that criticizes other people’s morals.

Next, x di (X帝) could also be used in a mocking way. For example, chaozuodi (炒作帝), or publicity stunt emperor. This term refers to the author Zhang Yiyi (张一一), who often uses publicity stunts to promote himself - and coined himself as the most successful publicity stuntist in China of all time. Discussion forums in China decided to give him a title - chaozuodi (炒作帝)[19]. This is not to affirm and praise him as someone who is really good at publicity stunts, but one used to mock Zhang Yiyi’s self acclaimed status.

Lastly, x di (X帝) could have two meanings depending on the context. For example, taijidi (太极帝), or tai chi emperor, refers to two types of people. The first is those people that are really good at tai chi, such as the tai chi coach Lin Xingyun (林行云)[16]. In this context, di (帝) is used to show awe and praise for their abilities in taichi. The second meaning refers to those people that are very polite and are all smiles when being talked to with an issue, but are very good at avoiding responsibility and kicking the ball around[16]. In this context, di (帝) is used in a pejorative sense to give these people with the title of being the best at evading responsibilities.

Associated Words

Xiaohuangdi (小皇帝)

Xiaohuangdi (小皇帝), or Little Emperor, refers to the generation of only child born in Chinese families during China’s implementation of the one-child policy.[20] This generation of only children were often depicted in Chinese media as spoiled and pampered, and lacked any sort of independence and adaptability. This was justified through the explanation that because they were the only child, and they were excessively doted upon by their parents and grandparents.[21] Hence, they were referred to as Xiaohuangdi (小皇帝). Xiao (小), or little, were used here to indicate children, while huangdi (皇帝), or emperor, were used to indicate the children’s emperor like status in their homes.

Meidi (美帝)

Meidi (美帝) has two meanings depending on the context. Firstly, it is a contraction form of meidiguozhuyi (美帝国主义), or American imperialism. Mei (美) refers to America, and di (帝) refers to imperialism. American imperialism is used to describe the United States’ policies on expanding influence in political, economic, cultural sectors worldwide.[22] Secondly, meidi (美帝) is used as a nickname for the United States on the Chinese internet. This nickname is a pejorative one, as it is mocking the US’ imperialistic and hegemonic policies.[23]

A popular boy idol group in China called TF Boys, also refereed to as diguosanzi (帝国三子)

帝 in Fandom Culture

The meaning and usages of di (帝) have evolved over time on the internet. People online, particularly those in the fandom culture, have created new words that are used in Chinese popular culture surrounding the character di (帝).

Diguosanzi (帝国三子)

This term refers to the popular Chinese idol group - TFBoys. When translated literally, the term means three sons of the empire. Initially, diguofen (帝国粉, meaning fans of the empire) was used to mock fans of TFBoys. However, these fans eventually embraced the title to demonstrate the group’s massive popularity and influence, similar to that of an empire. In order to show their love and support for the group, fans of the TFBoys have also begun calling themselves diguojiejie (帝国姐姐), which literally translates to older sisters of the empire.[24]

Meidi CP (美帝CP)

Meidi (美帝) is usually used as a nickname for The United States. In Chinese popular culture, ‘CP’ means ‘coupling’, which typically involves shipping two characters together. People would label a pair of characters a ‘CP’ when they think that these characters are compatible with each other in a romantic relationship. CPs do not necessarily have to be true or official.[25] When used together, meidi cp (美帝cp) refers to the most popular CP in a particular work or fandom. In this context, meidi (美帝) refers to how the CP is of the highest or most popular rank. This is in reference to the United States’ dominant power in the world today. In the early days of its creation, meidi cp (美帝cp) referred to the CP of Wang Junkai (王俊凯) and Wang Yuan (王源) from TFBoys. Recently, this term has been used to describe the more popular CP of Wang Yibo (王一博) and Xiao Zhan (肖战).[26] Wang Yibo and Xiao Zhan play the main leads in the popular Chinese BL drama series, Chen Qing Ling (陈情令), or The Untamed.[27]

Di (帝) in Popular Games

Imperial Harem Building Games (帝国后宫)

Harem-building games offer players the opportunity to form romantic connections with in-game characters. These games are not limited to those set in the context of Chinese empires. For instance, Golden Empire - Legend Harem Strategy Game is based on the Roman Empire[28]; Game of Sultans is based on the Ottoman Empire.[29] Some notable Chinese harem games include Legend of the Phoenix[30], Emperor and Beauties[31], and Be The King: Judge Destiny[32].

Despite their popularity, the Chinese government does not approve of such games featuring imperial concubines. China’s state media disapproved of the “pleasure-seeking lifestyles” and ideas of corrupted Chinese leaders promoted by these games. As part of the Party’s anti-corruption drive, games like Be The King are banned.[33] Additionally, Be The King involves sexist elements as its main gameplay encourages the player to “summon” their wife into their chamber and have a baby together. [34]

Empire Building Games

Zhongli, a character from the hugely successful Chinese video game Genshin Impact.

There is a wide variety of games under the genre of Chinese empire-building games. Total War: Three Kingdoms (全面战争:三国, Quánmiàn zhànzhēng: Sānguó) is particularly popular with a positive rating of 9/10 on Steam. [35] The game has also won several awards such as the Game Critics Awards for Best Strategy Game in 2018 and the MCV/Develop Awards for Audio Innovation of the Year in 2020. The objective of the game is to eliminate other factions and unify ancient China as the ultimate ruler. The story takes place in 190 AD, when the warlord Dong Zhuo manipulated the newly enthroned Emperor Xian.[36] The game includes many historical elements. For example, the costume designers for Three Kingdoms looked at “historical books, online research papers, archaeological museum exhibitions and findings” to create a more realistic look to the visual representations in the game.[37]

Chinese Video Game Character Names Using Di (帝)

Genshin Impact 原神

Zhongli (钟离) is a playable character from the widely-known open-world game, Genshin Impact. The game is produced by the Chinese gaming company miHoYo and was first released in September 2020.[38] The character was later released in the game’s 1.1 version in December 2020 as a 5-star (highest rarity) character.[39] Zhongli is also known by other names including Morax (摩拉克斯) and Rex Lapis (岩王帝君, Yán wáng dìjūn). Yán wáng dìjūn (岩王帝君) can also be literally translated as the Emperor of Rocks.[40] Dìjūn (帝君), in particular, is an honorific used to address Taoist deities.[41] Zhongli is named as such because he is one of the seven Archons who look over Teyvat, the world in which Genshin Impact takes place. Each of the seven Archons control a main element such as fire (pyro), water (hydro), ice (cryo), etc.. Rocks (geo) is one such element, of which Zhongli has control over.[42]

Taishakuten Buddhist iconography.
Onmyoji 阴阳师

Dì shì tiān (帝释天, Taishakuten) is a playable character in the popular RPG game, Onmyoji.[43] Onmyoji is a game produced by the Chinese gaming company Netease and was released in April, 2018 on Steam. It is a Japanese-style game inspired by Japanese folklore.[44] Taisahakuten was released in May 2021 as an SSR (high rarity) character.[45] The name Dì shì tiān (帝释天) comes from the Hindu god of thunder and lightning. The deity’s name in Sanskrit is Indra, Śakra, Sakradevanam Indra, or Shakra Devanam Indra. Many places in East Asia such as Tibet, China, and Japan adopted Taishakuten into Buddhist practices.[46] The deity is occasionally identified with yù huáng dà dì (玉皇大帝), the Taoist Jade Emperor.[47]

Di (帝) in Non-Chinese Cultures

United States

In the English-speaking world, the word “king” shares a similar meaning to di (帝), or emperor. ‘King’ is typically used to refer to a male monarch or ruler of a major territorial unit, who inherits the throne through hereditary structures of power succession. Additionally, ‘King’ (capitalized) can refer to God, or Christ, in the Christian religious belief system, and has been used in The Old Testament to refer to Him.[48]

In American contemporary popular culture, ‘king’ has taken on new meanings and usages over the last few decades. Of particular note is the use of the word ‘king’ by young men and boys as a term of respect and endearment when talking to a male friend. Calling someone ‘king’ typically implies a strong friendship connection and is more meaningful and endearing than a term such as ‘bro’ or ‘dude’. It can also be used sarcastically or ironically, however. The appropriation of the term ‘king’ for uses in this context of high respect and endearment originated in African American communities before the 1990s and has experienced a resurgence in its popularity in recent years, particularly among African American men. It was popularized through speeches, music, as well as rap artists’ usage of the word in their lyrics in reference to the commonly expressed (but largely historically inaccurate) idea that African Americans descend from African royalty. For instance, the American rapper and music artist Nas, in his song I Can, alludes to this idea in the following lyric: "Be, be, 'fore we came to this country/We were kings and queens, never porch monkeys".[49] Despite the historical inaccuracy at the core of the word’s usage in African American communities, journalists have noted the positive impact on self-confidence associated with use of the word among African American men.[50]


Actor Luis Gerardo Méndez in his role as Chava Iglesias from the Spanish-language Netflix series Club de Cuervos. The character of Chava Iglesias embodies the mirrey archetype.

In Mexico, the Spanish word ‘rey’, or (translated) king, has an identical literal meaning to the English meaning of ‘king’. Use of the word ‘rey’ differs in the Mexican popular cultural context, however. Mexicans combine the possessive adjective ‘mi’ (or ‘my’ in English) and the noun ‘rey’ to create ‘mi rey’, which translates literally to ‘my king’ in English. The phrase ‘mi rey’ can be used in a literal way to mean ‘my king’ (e.g., by mothers as an endearing term for their son) but it has also become popularly appropriated in Mexican Spanish slang as ‘mirrey’ or ‘mirreyes’, which today most commonly refers to a specific stereotype of entitled men or boys, characterized by ostentatious consumption, alcohol abuse, and an obliviousness to their relative privilege in Mexican society. Originally, ‘mirrey’ was used primarily as a term of endearment within wealthy Mexican communities, however, it more recently has emerged in this pejorative sense to describe an entitled man or boy possessing the aforementioned qualities. Journalists note the frequent usage of ‘mirrey’ and the associated speaking style in parody, meme, and comedic contexts in film and popular culture. A famous portrayal of the ‘mirrey’ stereotype that can be seen outside Mexico is the character Chava Iglesias as played by Mexican actor Luis Gerardo Méndez, from the Spanish-language Netflix series Club de Cuervos.[51]

Social, Cultural, and Political Implications Associated with Di (帝)

DiBa Expedition (帝吧)

The original name for DiBa Expedition (帝吧) was Li Yi Baidu Tieba Discussion Forum (李毅吧) as it originated from the public making derogatory comments aimed at the soccer player, Li Yi (李毅). It is also called DiBa (帝吧) because Li Yi (李毅) has a nickname: Li Yi Di (李毅帝). Li Yi Baidu Tieba Discussion Forum (李毅吧) is a sub discussion forum under Baidu that anyone can join and post threads, similar to Reddit. Because of the rising fame of  Li Yi (李毅) , the amount of Li Yi Baidu Sub Discussion Forum (李毅吧) member drastically increased, which started to cause some fractions between the old and new members.[52]

Some Li Yi Ba (李毅吧)/ Di Ba (帝吧)members started posting negative comments under other Ba (吧), which they refer to as attacking events. Some Ba[s] were shut down because the administrator could not contain the flood of derogatory comments. Because of its nature of making the other Baidu Sub Discussion Forum (吧) shut down, those were later referred as Bao Ba (爆吧).[53] This phenomenon was being reported by the Taiwanese Television Shows, where one of the guest speakers poked fun of. Yet, after the Wei Zexi Incident (魏澤西事件): the unusual death of a hemophilia patient who used to expose the negative side of the hospitals, the influence of Ba (吧) had drastically decreased. Internet users later went to Weibo and started the DiBa Expedition. Starting from this point, it has no connections with Li Yi (李毅).[54]

People who joined the DiBa Expedition often organized and carried out attacking events on Facebook through VPN. DiBa Expedition participants were known for fighting against anti-Chinese hatred or opposing political power. There are four well-known online attacking events: 2016 Taiwan, 2018 Sweden, 2019 Hong Kong, 2022 Taiwan.  

2016 Taiwan

Independence of Taiwan has long been a controversial topic. In 2016, when Taiwanese public re-elected the new President, Tsai, Ing-Wen, the independence party was elected, which highlighted discussion. Attackers disapprove of the independence of Taiwan, and thus, they attacked the President of Taiwan and other related politicians by leaving thousand threads of comments on their Facebook in a short amount of time.[52]

2018 Sweden

Chinese travelers to Sweden allegedly were being mistreated by hotel workers and the police gave rise to the Chinese public’s anger, demanding that the Swedish government apologize for their behaviour. DiBa Expedition participants were extremely upset and organized an event to paralyze Sweden's diplomatic Facebook page by leaving angry hate comments, which later were all deleted.[52]

2019 Hong Kong

The passing of the Anti-Expedition Law Amendment Bill Movement infuriated the Hong Kong citizens and further caused several months-long demonstrations. During the demonstrations, there were numerous conflicts between Hong Kong police forces and local Hong Kongers. To support the Hong Kong government and police, DiBa Expedition participants organized several waves of attack. However, during the first wave of attack, the head of the DiBa Expedition’s identity was revealed on the Facebook page. To ensure the safety of the people, the leader had no choice but to abruptly cancel all the plans originally planned. The Chinese Government publicly appraised the DiBa Expedition participants’ patriotic actions.[52]

2020 Taiwan

A 37-year-old Taiwanese male, who supports one China, started running a DiBa Facebook Page in Taiwan. He broadcasted false information about the COVID-19 situation in Taiwan. He claimed that his uncle worked for the Taiwanese Government and that the government was hiding the truth from the public. He was later convicted and sent to jail in 2022.[52]

Usage of Di (帝) in Branding

When foreign brands are looking to enter the Chinese-speaking market, they often introduce themselves with a Chinese name to increase the public acceptance of the brand. In Bianca Basciano’s research, “A Linguistic Overview of Branding Naming in the Chinese-speaking World,” she found that when foreign brands use di (帝) in their brand name, the companies often use the sounding of the name then match it with suitable Chinese characters.[55] Di (帝) would be a suitable character in brands, especially those that are priced at a higher price point, because it gives the Chinese-speaking public an image of greatness, grandness and luxuriousness. Aside from foreign brands, several Chinese restaurants use the word di (帝) in their business name to signal to the public that the restaurant is of high class and serves quality food. Along with the name, the decorations displayed in the restaurant are grand to provide a dining experience fit for an emperor. In short, the usage of di (帝) in brand names usually serves a purpose of signaling the public that the goods/services it provides are grand, luxurious, and high quality.

Usage of Di (帝) in Naming

Though the word di (帝) implies dominance, it is rarely used in the naming of children for the following reasons.[56] First, over a hundred years ago, when China was an imperial entity, using di (帝) in a child's name would potentially imply the ambition to seize the throne. This could lead to, if lucky, a death sentence, if not, the slaughter of one's whole clan. Second, during the Maoist Communist period of Chinese history, while China was distancing itself from its imperial past, using the word di (帝) would be criticized as counterrevolutionary and possibly treasonous.[57]

Usage of Di (帝) in Research Regarding Modern Chinese Politics and Governance

Chinese President Xi Jinping. His time as President has included a renewed embrace of imperial symbolism, rituals, and styles of governance.

In the academic literature today, the term di (帝), as well as some of its associated terms such as dìwáng de (帝王的)/dìguó de (帝国的) or imperial, and dì guó (帝国) or empire, are being used to describe the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) present-day governance practices and the governance practices observed during China’s imperial history. For instance, Vivienne Shue, in her article entitled “Regimes of Resonance: Cosmos, Empire, and Changing Technologies of CCP Rule”, demonstrates that certain symbolic, ritual, and aesthetic elements of CCP rule, such as the Party’s rituals of marking the passage of time and ordering space, as well as the practice of energetically and consistently distributing propaganda messaging in order to generate popular legitimation of CCP rule, are borrowed from authority legitimation practices based in early Chinese social thought and practices that evolved throughout the Chinese imperial age. Shue describes the “distinctive aesthetic” of Chinese imperial authority legitimation practices as putting “much emphasis on ritual; schematics of hierarchy, encompassing, and centering via systems of spatial ordering; on attentiveness to time keeping, time telling, pace and synchronicity; and on ideas about radiance and the generation of sympathetic resonance over the realm, both as a means and a marker of right rule"[58]. This “imperial aesthetic”, as Shue calls it, has been deployed and redeployed throughout the PRC’s history, most notably under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who, according to Shue, behaves like an emperor in several noteworthy respects. By becoming “chairman of everything”[58] and reorganizing the hierarchy structures of government, military, and party institutional bodies in such a way that the diverse, contested political powers of the Chinese state are united under his control, President Xi has assumed a position of “supreme centering”[58]. Furthermore, Xi’s advocacy for the strengthening of propaganda and thought work is arguably drawn directly from the Chinese emperor’s historical responsibility to “radiate” and “resonate” the “positive energy” concentrated in himself to all within his domain.[58] Xi himself has discussed among elite party cadres the importance of “popularizing positive energy” and “inform[ing] the people… what is the true, the good, and the beautiful, what is the false, the evil and the ugly…”[58], thereby revealing his emperor-like mission of generating sympathetic resonance among the Chinese people.

Usage of Di (帝) in Media and Research Regarding China’s One-Child Policy

The term di (帝) has also been used in popular parlance, media, as well as academic research surrounding China’s one-child policy. Indeed, an associated term, xiǎo huángdì (小皇帝), or ‘little emperor’, is frequently used to describe the generation of Chinese only-children born during China’s implementation of the one-child policy. Both Chinese and Western media have depicted “little emperors” (i.e., only-children born under the one-child policy) as spoiled, self-important, socially deficient, and morally underdeveloped largely due to the fact that they are only-children (appealing to the so-called ‘little emperor syndrome’). Media coverage surrounding the effect of China’s one-child policy on the social and moral development of only-children has contributed to the now-mainstream understanding that Chinese only-children suffer from moral, social, and psychological deficiencies. For example, in 2004, Fortune Magazine published an article that explored the one-child policy’s impact on a generation of young children. They incorporated anecdotal stories of exceptionally self-centered young children along with interviews of teachers and employers who lament the little emperor syndrome that allegedly afflicts Chinese children. One kindergarten teacher expressed his frustration as follows: “Kids these days are spoiled rotten. They have no social skills. They expect instant gratification. They’re attended to hand and foot by adults so protective that if the child as much as stumbles, the whole family will curse the ground”.[59] Stories published by Chinese media organizations similarly emphasize the alleged social and psychological impacts of the one-child policy, and headlines such as “China’s Second Generation of Only-Child Have More Severe Personality Problems”[60] and “One-Child Norm Breeding Brats, Warn Experts”[61] are commonly seen.

A propaganda painting in Guangdong Province promotes the idea of a nuclear family with a single child.

Despite the international prevalence of media headlines expressing the consequences of the one-child policy on Chinese children’s social and moral development (creating “little emperors”), scholarly research largely does not support this mainstream view. Indeed, in their research on the implications of the one-child policy for the children born under it, Susan Short et al. ask whether empirical evidence exists to support the idea that children in single-child families differ significantly from children in sibling families in their experiences growing up. Discussing existing research on behavioral characteristics of only-children and sibling children, Short et al. found no evidence to support the stereotype of only children as spoiled, nor did they find evidence to support significant differences between sibling children and only children in psychological indicators related to self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Instead, Short et al. argue that it is advantaged youth, whether from one-child or sibling families, who may appear to be “little emperors”, highlighting the central role of growing economic inequality and China’s persisting rural-urban divide in creating disparities in child outcomes.[62]


Di (帝), a term historically and presently used to refer to emperor, has evolved in Chinese popular culture settings. Contemporarily, when used in the popular phrase structure of x di (x帝), it now also refers to the people, objects, or organizations that are remarkable or extraordinary in a certain way. In this context, di (帝) can be used in a complimentary, pejorative, and sarcastic way. Words associated with di (帝) can also have a negative connotation. For instance,  xiao huangdì (小皇帝), or little emperor, is used to describe the generation of allegedly spoiled only children born during China’s implementation of the one-child policy. Another example is meidi (美帝), a common nickname on the Chinese internet referring to the United States. This nickname is used to mock the US’ imperialistic and hegemonic policies. Finally, di (帝) has been used in the academic literature to refer to certain styles of rule and governance currently being exercised by the CCP, which draw heavily from cosmological-based social thought and practices developed throughout China's imperial age. When used in this sense, di (帝) is not necessarily value-laden, but simply referring to a historical legacy of rule and governance practices that originated during an imperial age yet continue to inform the decisions and practices of modern Chinese leaders. An interesting observation can be made in regard to the use of di (帝) in naming and branding. The public nowadays generally avoid to be associated with the word di (帝), as they don’t want to be perceived as someone who is spoiled or arrogant. However, the public has a good perception of brands and restaurants that has the word di (帝) in their names. This seemingly contradicting phenomenon would be an interesting topic for further research.


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  24. "Who are the Di Guo Sisters? What does Di Guo Sisters mean? What are the origin of Di Guo Sisters? / 帝国姐姐是谁的粉丝 帝国姐姐什么意思 帝国姐姐来源揭秘". HXNews.
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  26. "What does "Mei Di CP" mean? / 美帝cp是什么意思 美帝cp到底是什么意思". Tian Qi +/ 天氣+.
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  57. "Why don't we see empire/ emperor/ phoenix/ dragon used in children's names nowadays?/ 为什么现在孩子取名字很少出现有"帝""皇""凤""龙"之类的字眼?". Zhi Hu/ 知乎.
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UBC Asian Centre, Bell Shrine, Winter 2013.JPG
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