Immediately after Donald Trump tested positive for coronavirus , the question arose of who would run the country if the United States president became too ill to do so. Many nations have properly defined protocols for the transfer of political power when the incumbent heads of government are incapacitated. In the US, the line of succession is clear: the vice-president, followed by the speaker of the House of Representatives, the president pro tempore of the Senate, then the secretary of state, and so on. Imperial China, which boasted one of the most sophisticated government apparatuses in the pre-modern world, curiously did not have clearly spelled out provisions for situations when emperors became too sick to fulfil their duties. In some cases, the adult heir apparent or empress dowager (who might or might not be the emperor’s biological mother) would temporarily take over the reins of government, but more often than not it was an ad hoc process. The Song period, divided into the Northern Song (960-1127) and Southern Song (1127-1279) dynasties, had its fair share of physically and mentally infirm emperors. Governance of the country during Song rulers’ incapacity was the same as in other periods in China’s history: it was bad. Without proper contingency plans in place, what ensued was often incompetent and chaotic governance, political intrigues and national crisis. Some rulers of the Song period refused to relinquish their executive powers even when they were near death. Emperor Zhenzong (reigned 997-1022) suffered a series of strokes beginning in 1019, several of them near fatal. By the last year of his reign, he could no longer speak, and could only respond to his ministers’ reports by nodding or shaking his head. It was the same in the final years of emperors Renzong (reigned 1022-63), Yingzong (1063-67) and Shenzong (1067-85), who clung on to power despite their obvious incapacity. Why Chinese glee over Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis could backfire Emperor Guangzong (1189-94) suffered a mental illness that made him paranoid. He believed his ministers were lying to him and even suspected his father, the former Emperor Xiaozong, who had willingly abdicated and was then the emperor emeritus, was plotting to dethrone and even murder him. Another consequence of not having proper processes in place to transfer power, even temporarily, from an ailing emperor to a healthy regent was the political interference of empresses and the emperor’s consorts. Given their positions of intimacy with the throne, ambitious women often took advantage of their husbands’ ill-health to acquire political power for themselves and members of their own families, resulting in political upheavals and instability. While the earlier Han (206BC-AD220) and Tang (618-907) periods were infamous for the usurpation of imperial authority by women and affinal relatives of emperors, the Song period’s empresses Liu (wife of Zhenzong) and Li (wife of Guangzong) also seized opportunities afforded by their husbands’ illnesses, and the resulting power vacuums, to arrogate the powers reserved for the emperor, such as making policy decisions and appointing officials. What happens if Trump becomes incapacitated Despite myriad regulations governing the bureaucracy of the empire, from the central government in the capital down to village administrations in the provinces, these rules did not apply to the most important position of all, that of the emperor. When the absolute ruler at the apex of the government had a long-term illness, there was no formal and peaceful way of transferring power to another competent person. Whoever was the most politically powerful – be they empresses, consorts, senior ministers, eunuchs – could take over the government, often with dire consequences for the state and its people.