Htin Kyaw was last month sworn in as Myanmar’s first civilian president in more than 50 years but Aung San Suu Kyi has just about told the whole world that she’s the real person in charge. Not only is she foreign affairs minister and president’s office minister, she is also state counsellor, a position created especially for her.

Suu Kyi reminds one of the many powerful ministers in imperial China who kicked the reigning emperor upstairs and dominated the court. These ministers, who might or might not have installed the emperor, were often related to the emperor by blood or marriage, and had the habit of heaping titles on themselves. The history of the Han dynasty was in many ways the rise and fall of these powerful affinal relatives of its monarchs.

After the first few reigns of the Western Han (206BCAD8), the empire’s administration fell into the hands of the members of clans who were related to the emperors maternally. Finally, commander of the army, duke of Anhan and “regent emperor” Wang Mang formally kicked the emperor off the throne and founded the short-lived Xin dynasty (AD9-23). Despite the fatal example of the Western Han and the Xin interregnum, the restored Eastern Han dynasty (AD25-220) couldn’t break away from the deleterious tradition of puppet emperors controlled and bullied by their powerful ministers.