If you are a fan of Chinese historical dramas, then you may have heard this phrase being used when people address the Chinese Emperor: “吾皇萬歲萬歲萬萬歲 (trad.)/ 吾皇万岁万岁万万岁 (simp.): wu huang wan sui, wan sui, wan wan sui”.
This phrase means in English: “may our Emperor live ten thousand years, ten thousand years, ten thousand of ten thousand years” or loosely translates to “may our Emperor live forever”. The phrase is more commonly used as wansui 萬歲/ 万岁, which means ten thousand years.
This phrase, used in TV dramas, is fictionised to an extent, but it got me wondering, why is wansui equated to living forever? What is this concept of wansui, or ten thousand years?
Wansui, or manseoi in Cantonese, mansae in Korean, banzai in Japanese and van tue in Vietnamese, is an East Asian reference used historically to wish the monarch long life and used in modern times in celebratory contexts or used to convey feelings of triumph or excitement. It’s similar to the English phrase of “long live”, or the Spanish word “viva!”
But how did the phrase wansui originate?
In China, the phrase wansui was originally not exclusively used to address the emperor.
Prior to the Qin Dynasty (221 BCE – 206 BCE) in China, the term wansui was used amongst commoners as a way of expressing their joy over something.
It was during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (r. 141 BCE – 87 BCE) that the term wansui was used to refer to the emperor. It was said that in the year 110 BCE, Emperor Wu led an entourage of government officials to Mount Song to perform a ritual to the heavens.
The government officials, wanting to please the emperor and wish him long life, started yelling out “wansui!” to the emperor.
When Emperor Wu heard the chant, he asked the officials: “who is chanting wansui at me?”
The officials looked at each other and said: “It ain’t us Your Majesty.”
They played dumb and said that it wasn’t them that were chanting wansui, but that it was the mountain that was chanting wansui.
Emperor Wu took this as a sign that it was the heaven’s wishes for him to be called wansui, and hence the term wansui became a term to refer to the Emperor of China. However, at this stage, it was still acceptable for commoners to use the word wansui amongst themselves.
During the Song Dynasty (960 CE -1279 CE) however, the phrase wansui became a term used exclusively for the emperor. There’s an interesting origin story about this one too.
As the story goes, there was a powerful government official named Cao Liyong and he had a nephew named Cao Rui. Cao Liyong was an intelligent man and a capable official, but Cao Rui was the opposite and was a bit messed up in the head.
One day, Cao Rui got blind drunk and decided to put on a yellow robe (which only the emperor could wear) and got a bunch of people to chant wansui to him. When the Emperor Renzong got wind of this, he executed Cao Rui and demoted his uncle Cao Liyong.
The message was clear. Only the emperor could wear a yellow robe, and only the emperor was allowed to be called “wansui”.
Even powerful figures who controlled weak emperors after the Song Dynasty could not be referred to as wansui. For example, during the Ming Dynasty, there was a powerful eunuch called Wei Zongxian (1568 CE – 1627 CE) who was the de facto leader of China during this time and controlled the Tianqi Emperor as a puppet.
But even Wei Zongxian could not be referred to as “wansui”. Instead, he was referred to as “jiu qian sui”, which means nine thousand years in English. This was to show that Wei Zongxian was still below the Emperor (albeit nominally) because he could only be referred to as “nine thousand years” and not “ten thousand years”.
So why did they use ten thousand years though for the phrase?
Why not something larger like: a million years?
It’s because ten thousand in years, or “wan” was the largest numerical unit in Chinese for a long time in its history (until the recent creation of the Chinese word “yi 亿” or “100 million” in English).
Hence, in ancient China, ten thousand was a big number, and any references to “wan” in the context of time meant a really long time, hence “wan” became ubiquitous with everlasting life, leading to the term wansui.
The use of phrase wansui spread into Japan and used as early as the 8th century to refer to the Japanese Emperor, where it is known in Japanese as banzai. Banzai became consistently used as a term for the emperor from the Meiji period onwards around 1890, and perhaps the most conspicuous use of the word banzai is in World War 2 films, where Japanese soldiers scream “Tennōheika Banzai!” whilst charging at the American soldiers.
The term “banzai charge”, coined to refer to this human wave and swarming tactics by the Japanese soldiers, was because of the soldiers’ use of the word banzai whilst charging towards the American lines.
“Tennōheika Banzai” (天皇陛下万歳) means in English “may his majesty the Emperor live to ten thousand years old”.
Ok, time to go now, long live the Bamboo History Podcast, wansui!