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The Chinese emperor Han Wudi remained in power from 140 to 87 BCE. He is renowned for solidifying the central government, recruiting skilled officials, and making Confucianism the state ideology. Although years of foreign adventures, territorial expansion, and extravagant court expenditures left the empire in a state of unrest and the imperial treasury depleted, Wudi laid the foundation of a strong government for his successors.
Han Wudi, the fifth emperor of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), was one of the most influential emperors in Chinese history. He consolidated the authority of the central government and expanded the territory of the dynasty. He named Confucianism the state ideology; it has influenced Chinese government and society ever since. His principles of recruiting government officials based on Confucian learning and on virtue and merit remained in use until 1905, at the close of the last imperial dynasty (the Qing, 1644-1911/12). He forged alliances, conducted diplomatic and military activities in Central Asia, established relationships with more than thirty kingdoms or tribes, and was instrumental in establishment of a new trade route, the Silk Roads, which connected China with the West. Until the advent of overseas travel during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Silk Roads connected East and West and facilitated the diffusion of commodities, food, culture, and technology.
Han Wudi’s birth name was Liu Che. He was the fourth son of Emperor Jing, and his mother was a consort. In 150 BCE Jing named Han Wudi’s mother, Lady Wang, empress and named Han Wudi his heir. At age sixteen Han Wudi ascended to the throne, but his grandmother, Empress Dowager Dou, conducted the affairs of state. Empress Dowager Dou favored the early Han practice of Huang Lao, named after the legendary Huang Di (Yellow Emperor) and Laozi (Lao-tzu, Lao Tsu), author of the Daoist work Daodejing (Classic of the Way of Power). Huang Lao was characterized by frugality in government spending, light taxation, laissez-fair (a doctrine opposing government interference in economic affairs), and appeasement in foreign relations. After the death of Empress Dowager Dou in 135 BCE Han Wudi ruled and changed the course of government.
Han Wudi was a vigorous emperor who aspired to a strong dynasty and sought capable officials to assist him. He gave special exams on governance and personally read examinees’ essays. He recruited gifted officials, including Dong Zhongshu and Gong Sunhong. The former became the spokesman for Han Confucianism, and the latter became chief minister and persuaded Wudi to establish an imperial university of Confucian learning.
Ironically scholars often call the emperor who made Confucianism the state ideology a “legalist.” Legalism had been the ideology of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE). Legalists advocated strong rulers, a strong empire, and harsh punishment. Legalism was still viable in the early Han dynasty, and Wudi was influenced by it. He eliminated the power of China’s princedoms and was relentless in executing officials, including chief ministers who broke the law or failed in their work. He also pursued a vigorous foreign policy and employed officials who favored harsh punishment. However, the early Han intellectual world was synthetic. Han Wudi substantially followed Confucian practices. He observed Confucian ritual and music, promoted the Confucian virtue of filial piety (obedience to parents), and sent officials to assist people who were old, widowed, ill, or disabled. Moreover, despite initiating military campaigns, he did not increase taxes on the farming population. In his edicts he frequently revered Yao, the legendary Confucian sage ruler whom the Han emperors claimed as their ancestor. In addition, although Wudi was stern, he was fair. He accepted frank criticism and revered Jian, an outspoken Confucian-Daoist minister.
Wudi was strong and resolute but constrained by Confucianism and the Mandate of Heaven, which held that an emperor’s rule is based on the blessing of heaven and that if an emperor rules unwisely, heaven will retract the mandate. They were devoted to Confucian ethical norms and a government for the people. Confucianism advocated a benevolent ruler, and Confucian officials were not unconditionally loyal to an emperor. Moreover, Han Confucianism (Confucianism of the Han dynasty which also absorbed non-Confucian elements) considered natural disasters to be warnings from heaven about flaws of the emperor and used such warnings to persuade emperors to reform.
In 124 BCE Han Wudi established an imperial university of Confucian learning, with fifty students studying from five learned Confucians, each specializing on a different Confucian classic. The university was designed to train Confucian officials, but it was based on merit. Graduates were required to pass a written exam before being admitted to a pool of officials-in-waiting. By the later Han dynasty the university had 300,000 students.
Han Wudi also promoted Confucian virtues in domestic affairs. Beginning in 134 BCE he ordered senior officials to recommend candidates who were known for their filial piety and integrity. The officials were responsible for their recommendations, and candidates were tested for qualification. Because Confucian learning and Confucian virtue were the avenues to officialdom, the most desirable career path in the empire, Confucian ideas took root in society. During the early Han dynasty, The Classic of Filial Piety also appeared. Filial piety remains an important cultural value in China.
Wudi’s predecessors had left him a large treasury from their frugal rule. However, Wudi’s military campaigns soon emptied the treasury, and he tried various ways to raise money, including confiscating the lands of nobles and selling offices and titles. However, under the influence of Sang Hongyang, a merchant’s son, Wudi increased state revenue by directly involving the government in business. The government monopolized the production of money (coins), iron, salt, and liquor, thus bringing in revenue. Wudi also directed the government to buy grain in regions with full harvests and to sell grain in regions with a shortage. This policy turned a profit for the state, balanced the price of grain, and relieved famine. The state also profited from a heavy tax on merchants. In addition to taxing commodities, Han Wudi taxed carts and boats.
The influence of Han Wudi’s state monopoly was far reaching; later Chinese emperors often resorted to the monopoly to meet extreme fiscal difficulties, bringing in revenue without increasing taxes. The monopoly, however, was not without opposition. In 81 BCE, shortly after the death of Wudi, a group of people criticized the state monopoly in a court debate. Wudi’s fiscal polices were in sharp contrast with those of the previous sixty years of the early Han dynasty, but in the debate the government’s views prevailed.
Han Wudi made many other innovations, such as proclaiming a new calendar. However, his economic policies were most innovative and, to some extent, were comparable with modern state enterprises (in some countries) on vital industrial resources such as electricity and petroleum.
About 200 BCE the Xiongnu, a nomadic Turkish-speaking people under the rule of Maodun, had established a large federation from the Aral Sea to the Huang (Yellow) Sea, just north of Han territory. Unable to confront Maodun, the early Han rulers had sent him gifts and married a Han Princess to him; but they had not always been able to prevent Maodun or his successor from pillaging northern China. In order to confront the Xiongnu, Han Wudi in 139 BCE sent an envoy, Zhang Qian, to Central Asia to seek an alliance with the Yuezhi people, who earlier had been expelled from their homeland by the Xiongnu. Zhang Qian was captured by the Xiongnu and lived there for ten years before finally reaching the Yuezhi. However, by then the Yuezhi were no longer interested in forming an alliance to fight the Xiongnu. Zhang Qian, however, brought back information about new regions and a possible route to India. Subsequently Wudi first sent envoys and later troops, leading to the eventual establishment of the Silk Roads.
Beginning in 133 BCE Wudi took the offensive against the Xiongnu. The wars were long and costly, but the Han army was victorious. Wudi’s generals expelled the Xiongnu from Ordos, Inner Mongolia, Kansu, and Chinese Turkestan and greatly expanded Han territory. Wudi established military colonies and instituted a system whereby native rulers were allowed to retain their autonomy but became vassals. This arrangement became common in Chinese foreign relations until the mid-nineteenth century. Wudi’s army also incorporated northern Korea and northern Vietnam. Indeed, most of his reign was marked by military campaigns. He died at age sixtynine and was buried in Maoling near modern Xi’an. After his death he was known as “Wudi, the martial emperor,” although he never led an army; he instead employed gifted generals.
Han Wudi laid the foundation of a strong empire for his Han dynasty posterity. His establishment of a Confucian bureaucracy with merit-based recruitment (a combination of recommendation and examination) began a system of responsible rulers and officials that has lasted for more than two thousand years. His promotion of Confucian virtue and learning made Confucianism a prevailing influence in China and in other East Asian states. Through his military campaigns against the Xiongnu he opened a connection between East and West, facilitating trade and cultural diffusion.
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