Emperor Wu of Han

From New World Encyclopedia
Revision as of 13:34, 31 January 2022 by Chipo Muzorewa (talk | contribs) (→‎References)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Emperor Wu dispatching Zhang Qian to Central Asia from 138 to 126 B.C.E., Mogao Caves mural, 618-712 C.E.
Han Wudi
Family name: Liu (劉)
Given name: Zhi¹ (彘), later Che² (徹)
Courtesy name (字): Tong3 (通)
Dates of reign: Mar. 9, 141 B.C.E.–Mar. 29, 87 B.C.E.
Temple name: Shizong (世宗)
Posthumous name:
Emperor Wu (武帝)4
Posthumous name:
Emperor Xiao Wu (孝武皇帝)5
General note: Dates given here are in the proleptic Julian calendar.
They are not in the proleptic Gregorian calendar
1. Allegedly, Emperor Jing, father of Emperor Wu, had a dream
in which the late Emperor Gaozu suggested this name.
Zhi means "pig," "hog".
2. Had his name changed into the more suitable Che when he was
officially made crown prince in April 150 B.C.E.
3. This courtesy name is reported by Xun Yue (荀悅) (148-209),
the author of Records of the Han Dynasty
(漢紀), but other sources
do not mention a courtesy name.
4. Literally meaning "martial".
5. Literally meaning "filial and martial".

Emperor Wu of Han (Simplified Chinese: 汉武帝; Traditional Chinese: 漢武帝; pinyin: hànwǔdì), (156 B.C.E.[1]–March 29, 87 B.C.E.), personal name Liu Che (劉徹), was the seventh emperor of the Han Dynasty in China, ruling from 141 B.C.E. to 87 B.C.E. Emperor Wu is best remembered for the vast territorial expansion that occurred under his reign, as well as the strong and centralized Confucian state he organized. He is cited in Chinese history as one of the greatest emperors[2].

During his reign, China roughly doubled her size, and most of the territories he annexed became a permanent part of China proper. At its height, the Empire's borders spanned from the modern Kyrgyzstan in the west, to the northern Korea in the northeast, and to northern Vietnam in the south, surpassing in size the contemporaneous Roman Empire. While establishing an autocratic and centralized state, Emperor Wu adopted the principles of Confucianism as the state philosophy and code of ethics for his empire and started a school to teach future administrators the Confucian classics. Confucianism remained the dominant thought in Chinese government until the overthrow of the monarchy in 1911. Emperor Wu's reign lasted 54 years, a record that was not broken until the reign of the Kangxi Emperor more than 1800 years later.

Background, Birth, and Years as Crown Prince

Emperor Wu was the tenth child of Emperor Jing, and was born to one of Emperor Jing's favorite concubines, Consort Wang Zhi in 156 B.C.E. His mother had been previously married to a commoner called Jin Wangsun (金王孫) and had a daughter from that marriage. However, her mother Zang Er (臧兒) (a granddaughter of one-time Prince of Yan, Zang Tu (臧荼), under Emperor Gao) was told by a fortuneteller that both Wang Zhi and her sister would one day become extremely honored. Zang divorced Wang Zhi from her husband offered both of her daughters to Crown Prince Liu Qi (later Emperor Jing). Emperor Wu was born shortly after Prince Qi inherited the throne from his deceased father Emperor Wen.

When Consort Wang was pregnant, she claimed that she dreamed of a sun falling into her womb. It was also said that Emperor Jing dreamed of a crimson boar descending from the cloud into the palace. The young, newly born prince was therefore named Liu Zhi (劉彘), with Zhi literally meaning "boar," but also implying the dragon, a mystical sign of nobility and fortune. In 153 B.C.E., Prince Zhi was made the Prince of Jiaodong.

As Emperor Jing's formal wife Empress Bo had no children, his oldest son Liu Rong (劉榮), born to another favorite concubine Consort Li (栗姬), was created crown prince in 153 B.C.E. Consort Li was arrogant and easily jealous, and she hoped to become empress after Empress Bo was deposed in 151 B.C.E. When Consort Li, because of a grudge against Emperor Jing's sister Princess Liu Piao (劉嫖), refused to let her son marry Princess Piao's daughter Chen Jiao, Consort Wang took advantage of the opportunity and had Chen Jiao betrothed to Prince Zhi instead. Princess Piao then began to criticize Consort Li incessantly for her jealousy, remarking that if Consort Li became empress dowager, many concubines might suffer the fate of Consort Qi, Emperor Gao's favorite concubine, who was tortured, mutilated and killed by Emperor Gao's wife Empress Dowager Lü (呂后) after Emperor Gao's death. Emperor Jing, alarmed by this suggestion, decided to avoid such a risk by deposing Li’s son, Prince Rong, from his position as heir-apparent in 150 B.C.E.. Consort Li, enraged and humiliated, died very soon afterward. Prince Rong later was charged with misconduct, and committed suicide in custody.

That year, Consort Wang was created empress, and Prince Zhi became the crown prince, with his name changed to Liu Che. When Emperor Jing died in 141 B.C.E., Crown Prince Che succeeded to the throne as Emperor Wu at the age of 15.

Early Reign: Younger years

After Emperor Wu ascended the throne, his grandmother Empress Dowager Dou became the Grand Empress Dowager, and his mother Empress Wang became the Empress Dowager. He made his wife (and cousin) Chen Jiao empress.

In 140 B.C.E., Emperor Wu conducted an imperial examination of over one hundred young scholars recommended by officials, most of them commoners with no aristocratic background. This event became an important precedent in Chinese history; it is regarded as the beginning of the establishment of Confucianism as an official imperial doctrine. A young Confucian scholar, Dong Zhongshu, was recognized for submitting the best essay, in which he advocated the establishment of Confucianism. It is not clear whether the 16-year-old Emperor Wu selected the winning essay, or whether the results of the examination were engineered by the prime minister Wei Wan (衛綰), who was himself a Confucian. Several other young scholars who scored well on the examination later became trusted advisors for Emperor Wu.[3]

The first few years of Emperor Wu's administration were dominated by three figures, his grandmother Grand Empress Dowager Dou, his mother Empress Dowager Wang, and her half-brother Tian Fen (田蚡), who was created Marquess of Wu'an and made the commander of the armed forces after Emperor Wu became emperor. Emperor Wu asserted himself at times, but was occasionally curbed by them. For example, in 139 B.C.E., when Confucian officials Zhao Wan (趙綰) and Wang Zang (王臧), who were disliked by the Grand Empress Dowager because she was an adherent of Daoism rather than Confucianism, advised the emperor to stop consulting her for advice, she had them tried for corruption, and they committed suicide in prison. Emperor Wu was forced to submit to his grandmother’s will, and for years his position on the throne was maintained only by the mediation of his aunt and mother-in-law, Princess Piao.

Emperor Wu, disappointed by the lack of foresight displayed by older, conservative generations of nobles, began gathering young, capable officials around himself as advisers, disregarding the normal court hierarchy of seniority. He maintained strict control over these advisers, punishing them severely and even executing them if they were found to have been corrupt or have hidden secrets from him. At the same time, he respected those officials who did not flatter him and would honestly rebuke him when they saw fit. The most famous of these was Ji An (汲黯); his offensive and blunt comments often made Emperor Wu feel uncomfortable, but he respected Ji's integrity. Often, the young emperor sneaked out of the capital disguised as an ordinary marquess, in order to go hunting and sightseeing.

Emperor Wu's marriage to Empress Chen was initially a happy one. He once boasted to her mother, Princess Piao, that he would build a golden house for Empress Chen, giving rise to the Chinese idiom "putting Jiao in a golden house" (金屋藏嬌, which, however, became a term for keeping a mistress rather than a wife). However, Empress Chen never bore him a son, even after she was treated by physicians. Later, while visiting his sister Princess Pingyang, Emperor Wu was entertained by a female singer and dancer, Wei Zifu, the daughter of one of the princess' lady servants. Princess Pingyang offered Wei to Emperor Wu as a consort, and she became his favorite. Empress Chen was so jealous that she attempted suicide several times; each attempt made Emperor Wu more angry at her. Princess Piao, in order to avenge her daughter, tried to have Consort Wei's brother Wei Qing kidnapped and secretly executed, but Wei Qing was saved just in time by his friends. In protest, Emperor Wu promoted both Consort Wei and Wei Qing above the Empress and her mother. Later, after discovering Wei Qing’s good qualities, he made him one of his closest attendants, and later a general.

After the Grand Empress Dowager Dou died in 135 B.C.E., Emperor Wu began to assert himself and Empress Dowager Wang and Tian Fen, though still influential, no longer exercised as much power as before.

Territorial Expansion

In 138 B.C.E., when Minyue (modern Fujian) attacked Donghai (modern Zhejiang), Donghai sought help from Han, and Emperor Wu acted quickly to try to relieve Donghai, over Tian's opposition. Upon hearing the news that Han's expedition force had been dispatched, Minyue withdrew their attack. Fearful of another Minyue attack, Luo Wang (駱望), the King of Donghai, purportedly requested that his people be allowed to move into China proper, and Emperor Wu relocated them to the region between the Yangtze and Huai Rivers. In 135 B.C.E., when Minyue attacked Nanyue, Nanyue, though they had the means to defend themselves adequately, also sought assistance from Han as a sign of submission to the emperor's authority. Emperor Wu was greatly pleased by this gesture, and he dispatched an expedition force to attack Minyue, over the objection of one of his key advisors, Liu An, a royal relative and the Prince of Huainan. The Minyue nobles, fearful of the massive Chinese force, assassinated their king Luo Ying (駱郢) and sought peace. Emperor Wu imposed a dual-monarchy system on Minyue by creating kings out of Luo Ying's brother Luo Yushan (駱餘善) and grandson Luo Chou (駱丑), thus ensuring internal discord in Minyue.

Emperor Wu maintained heqin (marriage alliances) with the Xiongnu for some time, but was not satisfied with what he regarded as the appeasement of the Xiongnu. In 133 B.C.E., at the suggestion of Wang Hui (王恢), the minister of vassal affairs, he ordered his generals set a trap for the Xiongnu ruler Chanyu Junchen (軍臣). A powerful local leader from Mayi (馬邑, in modern Shuozhou, Shanxi), Nie Yi (聶壹), offered Mayi to the Xiongnu after killing the county magistrate there. The plan was to entice Chanyu Junchen into advancing on Mayi, while Han forces prepared to ambush him. A soldier captured by Xiongnu disclosed the entire plan to Chanyu Junchen, who withdrew quickly before the Han forces could attack him. This ended the peace between Han and Xiongnu, and for years there were continued border skirmishes, though the states remained trade partners.

A major battle took place in 129 B.C.E., when Xiongnu attacked the Commandery of Shanggu (上谷, roughly modern Zhangjiakou, Hebei). Emperor Wu dispatched four generals, Li Guang, Gongsun Ao (公孫敖), Gongsun He (公孫賀) and Wei Qing, each leading a ten-thousand-strong cavalry, against Xiongnu. Both Li Guang and Gongsun Ao suffered major losses at Xiongnu's hands, and Gongsun He failed to find and engage the enemy, but Wei Qing distinguished himself with a long-distance raid on a Xiongnu holy site and was promoted to a larger command. In 127 B.C.E., a force commanded by Wei defeated a substantial Xiongnu force and allowed Han to occupy the Shuofang (朔方) region (modern western central Inner Mongolia centering Ordos). The city of Shuofang (朔方) was built, and later became a key post from which offensives against Xiongnu were launched. When Xiongnu tried to attack Shuofang in 124 B.C.E., Wei surprised them by attacking from the rear and took about fifteen thousand captives. At this battle, his nephew Huo Qubing (霍去病) distinguished himself and was given his own command.

In 121 B.C.E., Huo won a major victory over the Xiongnu Princes of Hunxie (渾邪王) and Xiutu (休屠王). When Chanyu Yizhixie (伊稚邪) heard of the loss, he planned a harsh punishment for the two princes. The Prince of Hunxie, fearful of such punishment, killed the Prince of Xiutu and surrendered his forces, which then controlled the Gansu region, to Han, and robbed Xiongnu of a major grazing region and other natural resources. Emperor Wu established five commanderies over the region and encouraged Chinese to relocate to the Gansu region, which has permanently remained in Chinese hands. The region became an important staging ground for the subjugation of Xiyu (西域, modern Xinjiang and former Soviet central Asia).

Exploration of the West

The exploration into Xiyu was first started in 139 B.C.E., when Emperor Wu commissioned Zhang Qian to seek out the Kingdom of Yuezhi, which had been expelled by Xiongnu from the modern Gansu region, and entice it to return to its ancestral lands and form an alliance with the Han against the Xiongnu. Zhang was immediately captured by Xiongnu, but made his escape around 129 B.C.E. and eventually arrived at Yuezhi, which was by then in Samarkand and at peace with the Xiongnu. Yuezhi and several other kingdoms in the area, including Dayuan (Kokand) and Kangju, established diplomatic relationships with Han. Zhang arrived back in the capital Chang'an in 126 B.C.E., after a second and shorter captivity by Xiongnu, and delivered his report to Emperor Wu. After the Prince of Hunxie surrendered the Gansu region, the path to Xiyu became open, and regular embassies between the Han and the Xiyu kingdoms commenced. Murals in the Mogao Caves suggest that Emperor Wu received Buddhist statues from central Asia, as depicted

Emperor Wu worshipping two statues of Golden Man (or Buddha) in 120 B.C.E., Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, ca. eighth century C.E. (There is no historical record of Emperor Wu actually being aware of Buddhism. The first confirmed contact between a Chinese emperor and Buddhist doctrines did not happen until a century later, during the reign of Emperor Ming.[4])

Another campaign to the southwest was directed at the eventual conquest of Nanyue, which was viewed as an unreliable vassal. By first obtaining the submission of the southwestern tribal kingdoms, the largest of which was Yelang (modern Zunyi, Guizhou), a route for a potential flank attack on Nanyue could be created. The Han ambassador Tang Meng (唐蒙) secured the submission of these tribal kingdoms by giving their kings gifts, and Emperor Wu established the Commandery of Jianwei (犍為, headquarters in modern Yibin, Sichuan) to govern them, but it was eventually abandoned after it had difficulty coping with native revolts. When Zhang Qian returned from the western region, his report indicated that by going through the southwestern kingdoms, embassies could reach Shendu (India) and Anxi (Parthia). Encouraged by the report, in 122 B.C.E., Emperor Wu sent ambassadors to try again to persuade Yelang and Dian (滇, modern eastern Yunnan) into submission.

Emperor Wu (Han Wudi) sent ambassadors to the Dian Kingdom in Yunnan. Bronze sculpture depicting Dian people, third century B.C.E.

Emperor Wu also made an aborted expansion into the Korean Peninsula by establishing the Commandery of Canghai (蒼海), which was abandoned it in 126 B.C.E.

During this time that Emperor Wu began to exhibit a fascination with immortality, and to associate with magicians who claimed to be able to, if they could find the proper ingredients, create divine pills that would confer immortality. However, he punished others' use of magic severely. In 130 B.C.E., when Empress Chen was found to have retained witches to curse Consort Wei and to try to regain Emperor Wu's affections, he had her deposed and the witches executed.

In 128 B.C.E., Consort Wei bore Emperor Wu his first son, Liu Ju. She was created empress later that year, and he was created crown prince in 122 B.C.E..

In 122 B.C.E., Liu An, the Prince of Huainan (a previously trusted advisor of Emperor Wu), and his brother Liu Ci (劉賜), the Prince of Hengshan, were accused of plotting treason. Both of them committed suicide, and their families and alleged co-conspirators were executed.

In 119 B.C.E., Emperor Wu broke the normal pattern of simply reacting to Xiongnu (cattle-raising nomadic peoples) attacks, by making a major excursion against Xiongnu headquarters. Wei and Huo's forces made a direct assault on Chanyu Yizhixie's forces, nearly capturing him and annihilating his army. Wei, as supreme commander, had ordered the famous general Li Guang, to take a flanking route through a region where there were no Xiongnu forces, but which lacked food and water. Li's forces became lost and were unable to join the main forces; Li committed suicide after being told that he would be court-martialed for his failure. Wei and his nephew Huo had both been successful, but Emperor Wu particularly praised and rewarded Huo. From this time, Huo’s forces began to receive primacy over the forces of his uncle Wei. After Xiongnu suffered these heavy losses, the Chanyu sought heqin peace with Han again, but broke off peace talks when it became clear that Han wanted Xiongnu to become a vassal state.

Emperor Wu began to appoint government officials who were known to use harsh punishments, believing that this was the best way to maintain social order. When one of those officials, Yi Zong (義縱), became the governor of the Commandery of Dingxiang (part of modern Hohhot, Inner Mongolia), he executed 200 prisoners even though they had not committed capital crimes, and then executed their friends who happened to be visiting. In 117 B.C.E., the minister of agriculture Yan Yi (顏異) was executed for "internal defamation" of the emperor. Yan had previously offended the emperor by opposing a plan to extort double tributes out of princes and marquesses by requiring them to place their tributes on white deer skin, which the central government would sell to them at an exorbitantly high price. Later, Yan was falsely accused of committing a crime. During the investigation, it became known that once, when a friend of Yan's criticized a law promulgated by the emperor, Yan, while not saying anything, moved his lips, and this constituted “internal defamation.” Intimidating incidents like this caused the officials to be fearful and willing to flatter the emperor.

Further Territorial Expansion, Old Age, and Paranoia

Around 113 B.C.E., Emperor Wu began to further abuse his power. He started incessantly touring the commanderies, initially visiting those near Chang'an, but later extending his travels much farther, worshipping the various gods along the way. He also supported a succession of magicians to whom he granted great honors, even making one a marquess and marrying a daughter to him. (That magician, Luan Da (欒大), was exposed as a fraud and executed.) Emperor Wu's expenditures on these tours and magical adventures put a great strain on the national treasury and imposed hardships on the locales that he visited. Twice the governors of commanderies committed suicide after they were unable to supply the emperor's entire train.

Annexation of Nanyue

In 112 B.C.E., a crisis in the Kingdom of Nanyue (modern Guangdong, Guangxi, and northern Vietnam) erupted. King Zhao Xing (趙興) and his mother Queen Dowager Jiu (樛太后)—a Chinese woman whom Zhao Xing's father Zhao Yingqi (趙嬰齊) had married while he served as an ambassador to Han—were both in favor of becoming incorporated into Han. This was opposed by the senior prime minister Lü Jia (呂嘉), who wanted to maintain the kingdom's independence. Queen Dowager Jiu tried to goad the Chinese ambassadors into killing Lü, but the Chinese ambassadors were hesitant. When Emperor Wu sent a two-thousand-man force, led by Han Qianqiu (韓千秋) and Queen Dowager Jiu's brother Jiu Le (樛樂), to try to assist the king and the queen dowager, Lü staged a coup d'etat and had the king and the queen dowager killed. He made another son of Zhao Yingqi, Zhao Jiande (趙建德), king, then annihilated the Han forces under Han and Jiu. Several months later, Emperor Wu commissioned a five-pronged attack against Nanyue. In 111 B.C.E., the Han forces captured the Nanyue capital Panyu (番禺, modern Guangzhou) and annexed the entire Nanyue territory into Han, establishing nine commanderies. The history of Nanyue was written in Records of the Grand Historian by Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian, between 109 to 91 B.C.E.

Later that year, one of the co-kings of Minyue (modern Fujian), Luo Yushan, fearful that Han would next attack his kingdom, made a preemptive attack against Han, capturing a number of towns in the former Nanyue and in the other border commanderies. In 110 B.C.E., under Han military pressure, his co-king Luo Jugu (駱居古) assassinated Luo Yushan and surrendered the kingdom to Han. However, Emperor Wu did not establish commanderies in Minyue's former territory, but moved its people to the region between Yangtze and Huai Rivers.

The same year, Emperor Wu, at great expense, carried out the ancient ceremony of fengshan (封禪) at Mount Tai—ceremonies to worship heaven and earth, and to offer a secret petition to the gods of heaven and earth, presumably seeking immortality. He decreed that he would return to Mount Tai every five years to repeat the ceremony, but only did so once, in 98 B.C.E. Many palaces were built for him and the princes to accommodate the anticipated cycles of the ceremony.

Emperor Wu’s large expenditures had exhausted the national treasury, so his agricultural minister Sang Hongyang (桑弘羊) conceived of a plan that many dynasties would follow later, the creation of national monopolies for salt and iron. The national treasury also purchased other consumer goods when the prices were low and sold them at a profit when shortages made the prices high, replenishing the treasury while ensuring that price fluctuation would not be too great.

Nearly a century before, a Chinese general Wei Man had established a kingdom, which he named Chaoxian or Joseon at Wangxian (王險, modern Pyongyang), which became a nominal Han vassal. A conflict erupted in 109 B.C.E., when Wei Man's grandson Wei Youqu (衛右渠, 위우거) refused to permit Jin's ambassadors to reach China through his territories. Emperor Wei sent an ambassador She He (涉何) to Wangxian to negotiate right of passage with King Youqu. King Youqu refused and had a general escort She back to Han territory—but when they got close to Han borders, She assassinated the general and claimed to Emperor Wu that he had defeated Joseon in battle. Emperor Wu, unaware of the deception, put She in charge of the Commandery of Liaodong (modern central Liaoning). King Youqu, offended, made a raid on Liaodong and killed She. In response, Emperor Wu commissioned a two-pronged attack, one by land and one by sea, against Joseon. Initially, Joseon offered to become a vassal, but peace negotiations broke down. Eventually Wangxian fell. Han took over the Joseon lands and established four commanderies.

Also in 109 B.C.E., Emperor Wu sent an expeditionary force to conquer the Kingdom of Dian (modern eastern Yunnan), but when the King of Dian surrendered, he was permitted to keep his traditional authority and title, and Dian was incorporated into Han territory.

In 108 B.C.E., Emperor Wu sent general Zhao Ponu (趙破奴) on a campaign to Xiyu, and he forced the Kingdoms of Loulan (on northeast border of the Taklamakan Desert and Cheshi (modern Turpan, Xinjiang) into submission. In 105 B.C.E., Emperor Wu gave a princess from a remote collateral imperial line to Kunmo (昆莫), the King of Wusun (Issyk Kol basin) in marriage, and she later married his grandson and successor Qinqu (芩娶), creating a strong and stable alliance between Han and Wusun. The various Xiyu kingdoms also strengthened their relationships with Han. In 104 B.C.E., an infamous Han war erupted against the nearby Kingdom of Dayuan (Kokand). The King of Dayuan refused to obey Emperor Wu's command to surrender the kingdom’s best horses, and executed Emperor Wu's ambassadors when they insulted him. Emperor Wu commissioned Li Guangli (李廣利), the brother of a favorite concubine Consort Li, to attack Dayuan. In 103 B.C.E., Li Guangli's forces, without adequate supplies, suffered a humiliating loss against Dayuan, but in 102 B.C.E., Li was placed a devastating siege on its capital by cutting off water supplies to the city, forcing Dayuan to surrender its prized horses. This Han victory further intimidated the Xiyu kingdoms into submission.

Emperor Wu also attempted to intimidate Xiongnu into submission, but Xiongnu never became a Han vassal during Emperor Wu's reign. Following Han's victory over Dayuan in 102 B.C.E., Xiongnu became concerned that Han would then concentrate against it, and made peace overtures. Peace negotiations ended when the Han deputy ambassador Zhang Sheng (張勝; Su Wu) was discovered to have conspired to assassinate Chanyu Qiedihou (且鞮侯), and detained for two decades. In 99 B.C.E., Emperor Wu commissioned another expedition force to crushing Xiongnu, but both prongs of the expedition force failed; Li Guangli's forces became trapped but were able to free themselves and withdraw, while Li Ling (李陵), Li Guang's grandson, surrendered after being surrounded and inflicting large losses on Xiongnu forces. One year later, receiving an inaccurate report that Li Ling was training Xiongnu soldiers, Emperor Wu had Li's clan executed and castrated his friend, the famed historian Sima Qian, who tried to defend Li's actions.

In 106 B.C.E., in order to better organize his newly expanded territory, Emperor Wu divided the empire into 13 prefectures (zhou, 州). He assigned a supervisor to each prefecture, who would visit the commanderies and principalities in the prefecture to investigate corruption and disobedience of the imperial edicts.

In 104 B.C.E., Emperor Wu built the luxurious Jianzhang Palace (建章宮)—a massive structure intended to make him closer to the gods. He later resided at that palace exclusively, instead of at the traditional Weiyang Palace (未央宮), which Xiao He had built during the reign of Emperor Gao.

Around 100 B.C.E., the heavy taxation and military burdens imposed by Emperor Wu's incessant military campaigns and extravagant personal spending, spurred many peasant revolts throughout the empire. Emperor Wu issued an edict making officials pay with their lives if their commanderies did not suppress local peasant revolts. The edict had the opposite effect; unable to control the revolts, the officials would merely cover up their existence.

Prosecution of Witchcraft

In 96 B.C.E., Emperor Wu, who had become paranoid because of a nightmare of being whipped by tiny stick-wielding puppets and a sighting of a traceless assassin (possibly a hallucination), ordered extensive witchcraft investigations with harsh punishments. Large numbers of people, many of whom were high officials, were accused of witchcraft and executed, usually with their entire clans. The first trial began with Empress Wei's elder brother-in-law Gongsun He (公孫賀, the Prime Minister) and his son Gongsun Jingsheng (公孫敬聲), quickly leading to the execution of their entire clan. Also caught in this disaster were Crown Prince Ju's two elder sisters Princess Yangshi (陽石公主, who was said to have a romantic relationship with her cousin Gongsun Jingsheng) and Princess Zhuyi (諸邑公主), as well as his cousin Wei Kang (衛伉, the eldest son of the deceased general Wei Qing), who were all accused of witchcraft and executed in 91 B.C.E. The witchcraft trials became involved with succession struggles and erupted into a major political catastrophe.

The Crown Prince Ju revolt

In 94 B.C.E., Emperor Wu's youngest son Liu Fuling was born to a favorite concubine, Consort Zhao. Emperor Wu was ecstatic at having a child at such an advanced age, and because Consort Zhao purportedly had a post-term pregnancy that lasted 14 months, like the mythical Emperor Yao, he named Consort Zhao's palace gate "Gate of Yao's mother." Rumors began to spread that Emperor Wu might make Liu Fuling the crown prince, stirring up a conspiracy against Crown Prince Ju and Empress Wei.

There had been a cordial relationship between Emperor Wu and Crown Prince Ju. Emperor Wu continued to respect Ju’s mother, Empress Wei. When Emperor Wu was outside the capital, he left important affairs in Crown Prince Ju’s hands, and did not override his decisions. However, as Emperor Wu placed his trust in more despotic officials, Prince Ju, who favored more lenient policies, often advised his father to consider changes to the way he ran the country. Emperor Wu was disappointed that his son was not as ambitious as he was. After Wei Qing's death in 106 B.C.E. and Gongsun He's execution, Prince Ju had no strong allies left in the government, and the officials who disagreed with his lenient attitudes began to publicly defame him and plot against him.

Two conspirators against Prince Ju, Jiang Chong (江充), the newly appointed head of secret intelligence, and Su Wen (蘇文), a chief eunuch in charge of caring for imperial concubines, decided to accuse him of witchcraft. Jiang obtained the Emperor’s permission to search the royal residences for evidence of witchcraft, then pretended to discover dolls and pieces of cloth with mysterious writing that he had planted in the palace of Prince Ju and Empress Wei. Ju’s teacher, Shi De (石德), advised him to start an uprising and fight the conspirators. Ju learned that Jiang’s messengers were already on their way to report their accusations to Emperor Wu at Ganquan Palace. Ju lured Jiang and Su and their collaborators into a trap and arrested them, then killed Jiang. He then enlisted civilians and prisoners to support his guards in defending Empress Wei’s palace.

Su fled to Ganquan Palace and accused Prince Ju of treason. Emperor Wu did not believe him and sent a messenger back to Chang'an to summon Prince Ju. The messenger was afraid to proceed to Chang'an, and instead returned and gave Emperor Wu the false report that Prince Ju was conducting a coup. Enraged, Emperor Wu ordered his nephew, Prime Minister Liu Qumao (劉屈犛), to put down the rebellion.

After five days of battle in the streets of Chang'an, Liu Qumao's forces prevailed and Prince Ju was forced to flee the capital, accompanied only by two of his sons and some personal guards. Except for a one-month-old grandson Liu Bingyi, who was thrown into prison, all other members of his family were left behind and killed, and his mother Empress Wei committed suicide. Their bodies were casually buried in suburban fields without proper tomb markings. Prince Ju's supporters were brutally crushed, and civilians aiding the Crown Prince were exiled. Even Tian Ren (田仁), an official City Gatekeeper who did not stop Prince Ju's escape, and Ren An (任安), an army commander who chose not to actively participate in the crackdown, were accused of being sympathizers and executed.

Emperor Wu ordered that Prince Ju be tracked down, but after a junior official Linghu Mao (令狐茂) risked his life and spoke on Prince Ju's behalf, Emperor Wu's anger began to subside. Prince Ju fled to Hu County (湖縣, in modern Sanmenxia, Henan) and took refuge in the home of a poor peasant family. Knowing that their good-hearted hosts could never afford the daily expenditure of so many people, the Prince decided to seek help from an old friend who lived nearby. This exposed his whereabouts, and he was soon tracked down by local officials eager for rewards. Surrounded by troops and seeing no chance of escape, the Prince committed suicide by hanging. His two sons and the family housing them died with him after the government soldiers eventually broke into the yard and killed everyone. The two local officials who led the raid, Zhang Fuchang (張富昌) and Li Shou (李寿), wasted no time in taking the Prince's body to Chang'an and claiming rewards from Emperor Wu. Emperor Wu, although greatly saddened by the death of his son, had to keep his promise.

Late Reign and Death

In 89 B.C.E., when Tian Qianqiu (田千秋), then the superintendent of Emperor Gao's temple, wrote a report claiming that Emperor Gao had told him in a dream that Prince Ju should have only been whipped, not killed, Emperor Wu had a revelation about what happened, and he had Su burned and Jiang's family executed. He also made Tian prime minister. He built a palace and an altar for his deceased son as a sign of grief and regret, but left Prince Ju's only surviving progeny, the child Liu Bingyi, languishing in prison.

Emperor Wu publicly apologized to the whole nation for his past mistakes, a gesture known in history as the Repenting Edict of Luntai (輪台悔詔). The new Prime Minister Tian favored the promotion of agriculture and the suspension of war, and under his recommendation, several agricultural experts were made important members of the administration. Wars and territorial expansion generally ceased.

By 88 B.C.E., Emperor Wu was terminally ill, but there was no clear successor. Liu Dan, the Prince of Yan, was Emperor Wu's oldest surviving son, but Emperor Wu considered both him and his younger brother Liu Xu, the Prince of Guangling, to be unsuitable, since neither respected laws. He decided that the only one suitable was his youngest son, Liu Fuling, who was only six years old. He appointed Huo Guang, whom he considered to be capable and faithful, regent, and ordered the execution of Prince Fuling's mother Consort Zhao, fearing that she would become an uncontrollable empress dowager like the previous Empress Lü. At Huo's suggestion, he also made ethnic Xiongnu official Jin Midi and general Shangguang Jie co-regents. He died in 87 B.C.E., shortly after creating Prince Fuling crown prince. Crown Prince Fuling then succeeded to the throne as Emperor Zhao and ruled for the next 13 years.

Because Emperor Wu did not create anyone empress after Empress Wei committed suicide, and left no instruction on who should be enshrined in his temple with him, Huo, after Emperor Wu's death, considering what his wishes would have been, chose to enshrine Consort Li with Emperor Wu. They lie buried in the Maoling mound, the most famous of the so-called Chinese pyramids.


Historians have treated Emperor Wu with ambivalence. He is recognized for neutralizing the threat of the Xiongnu and expanding Chinese territory. During his reign, China roughly doubled her size, and most of the territories he annexed became a permanent part of China proper. The empire that Emperor Wu created surpassed in size the contemporaneous Roman Empire, and was the greatest in the world, both militarily and economically. His other, perhaps greater, legacy was the promotion of Confucianism. For the first time in history, Confucianism became the dominant thought in Chinese government, and it remained so until the overthrow of the monarchy in 1911.

Many historians criticize Emperor Wu for his extravagance, superstition, and the burdens placed on the population by his policies. He is often compared to First Emperor Qin Shihuang (259 - 210 B.C.E.).[5] Like Qin Shihuang he used a legalist system of rewards and punishments to govern his empire. The punishment for perceived failures and disloyalty was often exceedingly harsh. Out of the 12 prime ministers appointed by Emperor Wu, three were executed and two committed suicide while holding the post; another was executed in retirement. Castration was applied relatively frequently as a punishment during Emperor Wu's reign.

Emperor Wu's political reforms strengthened the Emperor's power at expense of the prime minister's authority. The responsibilities of the Shangshu (Court Secretary) were elevated from merely managing documents to being the Emperor's close advisor, and remained that way until the end of monarchy in China.


Although Emperor Wu wasn't known as a poet to many historians, he wrote many wonderful pieces. The following work is on the death of Li Fu-ren, one of his favorite concubines.

The sound of her silk skirt has stopped.
On the marble pavement dust grows.
Her empty room is cold and still.
Fallen leaves are piled against the doors.
How can I bring my aching heart to rest?[6]

Personal Information

  • Father: Emperor Jing of Han (10th son of)
  • Mother: Empress Wang Zhi
  • Siblings (half-siblings not included):
    • Princess Pingyang (平陽公主), also known as Princess Xinyang the Eldest (信陽長公主) before marriage
    • Princess Nangong (南宮公主)
    • Princess Longlü (隆虑公主)
  • Wives:
    • Empress Chen Jiao (陳娇, deposed 130 B.C.E. for witchcraft)
    • Empress Wei Zifu (衛子夫, committed suicide 91 B.C.E., given posthumous name "Empress Si (衛思后)" by Emperor Xuan), mother of Liu Ju and Princesses Wei the Eldest, Yangshi and Zhuyi
  • Major concubines:
    • Consort Li (Li Ji), mother of Princes Dan and Xu
    • Consort Zhao, mother of Emperor Zhao
    • Consort Li (Li Furen), mother of Prince Bo
    • Consort Wang, mother of Prince Hong
  • Children:[7]
    • By Empress Wei
      • Princess Wei the Eldest (衛長公主)
      • Princess Yangshi (陽石公主, executed 91 B.C.E.)
      • Princess Zhuyi (諸邑公主, executed 91 B.C.E.)
      • Liu Ju (劉據), Crown Prince Li (戾太子, b. 128 B.C.E., created 122 B.C.E., committed suicide 91 B.C.E. after failed uprising)
    • By Consort Li (Li Furen)
      • Liu Bo (劉髆), Prince Ai of Changyi (created 97 B.C.E., d. 86 B.C.E.)
    • By Consort Wang
      • Liu Hong (劉閎), Prince Huai of Qi (created 117 B.C.E., d. 109 B.C.E.)
    • By Consort Li (Li Ji)
      • Liu Dan (劉旦), Prince La of Yan (created 117 B.C.E., committed suicide 80 B.C.E.)
      • Liu Xu (劉胥), Prince Li of Guangling (created 117 B.C.E., committed suicide 53 B.C.E.)
    • By Consort Zhao
      • Liu Fuling (劉弗陵), later Emperor Zhao of Han (b. 94 B.C.E., d. 74 B.C.E.)
    • By others (name unknown)
      • Princess Eyi (鄂邑公主), also known as Princess Gai the Eldest (蓋長公主)
      • Princess Yi'an (夷安公主)
  • Grandchildren
    • Liu Jin (劉進) (killed 91 B.C.E.), son to Liu Ju and father to Liu Bingyi
    • Liu He (劉賀), Prince He of Changyi (d. 59 B.C.E.), son to Liu Bo, ascension for throne 74 B.C.E. and deposed 27 days later for committing 1127 misconducts
  • Great grandchildren
    • Liu Bingyi (劉病已), later Emperor Xuan of Han (b. 91 B.C.E., d. 49 B.C.E.), renamed Liu Xun (劉詢) after succeeding throne, grandson to Liu Ju

Era names

  • Jianyuan (建元 py. jiàn yuán) 140 B.C.E.-135 B.C.E.
  • Yuanguang (元光 py. yuán guāng) 134 B.C.E.-129 B.C.E.
  • Yuanshuo (元朔 py. yuán shuò) 128 B.C.E.-123 B.C.E.
  • Yuanshou (元狩 py. yuán shòu) 122 B.C.E.-117 B.C.E.
  • Yuanding (元鼎 py. yuán dĭng) 116 B.C.E.-111 B.C.E.
  • Yuanfeng (元封 py. yuán fēng) 110 B.C.E.-105 B.C.E.
  • Taichu (太初 py. tài chū) 104 B.C.E.-101 B.C.E.
  • Tianhan (天漢 py. tiān hàn) 100 B.C.E.-97 B.C.E.
  • Taishi (太始 py. tài shĭ) 96 B.C.E.-93 B.C.E.
  • Zhenghe (征和 py. zhēng hé) 92 B.C.E.-89 B.C.E.
  • Houyuan (後元 py. hòu yuán) 88 B.C.E.-87 B.C.E.


  1. His date of birth is sometimes noted as being August 27.
  2. Bo Yang's commentary in the Modern Chinese edition of Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 7, and Zhao Yi (趙翼)'s commentary included therein.
  3. Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 17. Retrieved October 21, 2007.
  4. Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 45. Retrieved October 21, 2007.
  5. Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 22. Retrieved October 21, 2007.
  6. W. Scott Morton. China: Its History and Culture. (ISBN 0070434247), 54
  7. Han Shu, ch. 63 and ch. 97. Retrieved October 21, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Ebrey, Patricia B. Chinese civilization and society a sourcebook. New York: Free Press, 1981. ISBN 0029087503.
  • Morton, W. Scott, and Charlton M. Lewis. China: its history and culture, 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. ISBN 0071412794.
  • Peterson, William J. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 9: The Ch'ing Dynasty, Part 1: To 1800. Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0521243343.
  • Sima, Qian, and Burton Watson, translator. Records of the grand historian of China. (Records of civilization: sources and studies, no. 65) New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.
  • Si-ma, Guang, and Boyang. Zizhi tongjian. Taibei: Yuanliu Chuban Gongsi, 1983. ISBN 9573218100.
Preceded by:
Emperor Jing of Han
Emperor of the Han Dynasty
141 B.C.E.–87 B.C.E.
Succeeded by:
Emperor Zhao of Han


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.