Fun Facts about Chinese Culture and History

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Emperor Wudi of Han Dynasty Liu Che — An Aristocracy Challenger

Liu Che (156 BC — 87 BC), respected as Emperor Wudi of Han or Han Wu Di or Emperor Wu of Han, was the 7th emperor of the Han Dynasty in the history of China, great grandson of the Emperor Liu Bang.

Wudi was a reformer, and a challenger of the Aristocrat system. 

He married a slave born woman and made her the queen of Han, promoted many talented slave or civilian born people as Han Empire’s marshals and ministers, while implementing a series of policies to reduce the power of the feudatory states peacefully. 

Confucianism was promoted as the dominate ideology of the Han Empire under his reign, and built national Confucianism academy (Tai Xue) to teach talented people regardless of their origins, from whom officials would be selected. 

Meanwhile, the Silk Road was opened up, Han’s long term enemy the Xiongnu (or the Huns)  was defeated, and Han’s territory was largely expanded. 

Wudi’s achievements were glorious and made him sometimes comparable to the Emperor Qin Shi Huang (Ying Zheng) of the Qin Dynasty, one of the greatest monarchs in Chinese history. 

Wudi’s flaws, however, were overt as well. Hence, he was also the first emperor in Chinese history that published an Edict of Introspection.

Liu Che's Political Alliance with His First Queen

Liu Che was the tenth son of his father Liu Qi the Emperor Jing of Han (188 BC — 141 BC), and his mother Wang Zhi was only an imperial concubine. Hence, Liu Che was not supposed to have the opportunity to ascend to the throne. 

His mother, however, tried her best to persuade the most powerful princess to marry her daughter to Liu Che. When this political marriage was settled, Liu Che and his future wife were all still toddlers.

A few years later, with the help of this powerful princess, the current queen and crown prince were all abrogated. Soon, Liu Che’s mother became the queen, and he became the heir of the Han Dynasty.

After Liu Che ascended to the throne as Emperor Wudi when he was 15, he married his first queen, the daughter of that powerful and helpful princess.

Six years later, after Liu Che's grandmother, the powerful Empress Dowager, departed, he finally gained the actual power.

Jade Door Decoration (Fu Shou) Unearthed From Emperor Wudi's Mausoleum — Maoling Museum

Han Empire’s Strong Enemy Xiongnu 

Liu Che’s grandfather and father were excellent emperors in the history of China, who brought the Han Dynasty wealth and stability; especially after his father defeated the Rebellion of Seven Feudatory States and further strengthened centralized power, the kingdom was getting much stronger.

But Xiongnu (also known as the Huns) on the north was expanding and kept harassing the Han Empire.

After Han’s first emperor Liu Bang failed in defeating Xiongnu, the Han Empire kept paying money and sending princesses to them.

Even when the King of the Xiongnu insulted Han’s first Empress Dowager Lv and asked her to marry him in a letter of credence, Lv had to show her gratitude saying that she was old and not good enough for him.

Those failures, humiliation, and endless killings on borders were the foremost problem for Liu Che, the Emperor Wudi of Han.

Golden Crown of the King of Xiongnu — Inner Mongolia Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

National Recruitment of Intelligent Ministers From All Classes

When Wudi gained power, he immediately published an announcement to recruit intelligent people nationwide; many commoners were selected and promoted by himself. 

With the assistance of those intelligent ministers, Wudi implemented a series of reforms and policies that changed the Han Dynasty from an aristocracy ruled empire to a Centralized Bureaucracy Feudal Kingdom, one of the most significant transforms in the history of China.

 

  • Diminishing of Feudatory States

Zhu Fu Yan (? — 126 BC), a slum born civilian, assisted Emperor Wudi implemented a policy which further weakened remaining feudatory states and strengthened centralized power.

This policy (Tui En Ling) granted all sons of lords of feudatory states, instead of only the first son, with noble titles and right to inherit those states.

 

Therefore, lords were required to divide their states into many smaller and less powerful ones, until they vanished decades later.

Emperor Wudi also used other excuses to abolish some lords who disobeyed him. 

Censer Inlaid with Gold (Cuo Jin Bo Shan Lu), Unearthed from Mausoleum of Liu Sheng (165 BC — 113 BC), who was the brother of Emperor Wudi, and the King of Feudatory State Zhongshan — Hebei Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • Reform and Development of National Economy

Sang Hong Yang (about 155 BC — 80 BC), a talented person from a business family, was one of the most exceptional chancellors of the exchequer in Chinese history, who assisted Emperor Wudi and implemented a series of economic policies and reforms to increase revenue, and develop national treasury.

He was also, in the history of China, the first minister who valued industry, commerce and trade as important as agriculture.

Sang Hong Yang's excellent work guaranteed the economy of the Han Empire run well, and made sure the Emperor Wudi never felt lack of money, even after having initiated many large scale military activities. 

Currency "Wu Zhu Qian" Issued During Emperor Wudi's Economic Reform — Shanghai Museum

  • Establishment of New Dominant Ideology

In the year 134 BC, Emperor Wudi accepted and implemented a suggestion from philosopher Dong Zhongshu that made Confucianism the only philosophy and behavioral standard officially; many Confucianism colleges were established afterwards.

This was another important policy that Emperor Wudi published, which had significant influence on both Chinese culture and philosophy. 

  • Reform of Official Selection and Supervision System 

Students of the newly established Confucianism Academies became an important source of officials of the Han Empire. 

Besides that, Emperor Wudi also commanded local officers to nominate certain numbers of talented people to the central government each year, based on morality. This system (Cha Ju Zhi) then became an important means to select officials in the next centuries.

Outside of the administrative authorities, Wudi also implemented a system to monitor local governors.

Under Emperor Wudi's reign, ability triumphed class origin.

Unearthed Eaves Tile of the Han Dynasty, With Inscriptions "Le Wei Yang" (Eternal Happiness) — Fujian Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

A Slave Singer Became Emperor Wudi’s Second Queen 

When Liu Che was 17 years old, he paid a visit to his sister’s palace, where he met a beautiful slave born singer named Wei Zifu

Liu Che liked her at the first sight and took her back to his royal palace. 

Zifu’s younger brother Wei Qing, a slave born hostler, was taken to the royal palace along with her, and then served as a guard of Emperor Wudi.

A few years later, this singer gave birth to Emperor Wudi's first child. Then she became his second queen after giving birth to the crown prince.

Liu Che’s first queen Chen, whose mother played an important role assisting him to get the throne, was abolished because of being jealousy, arrogant, greedy, and childless. 

Imperial Jade Seal of Queens of the Han Dynasty —  Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Exceptional Military Successes and Expanded Territory

When Emperor Wudi decided to fight against Han’s strongest enemy Xiongnu, he sent four troops northward to the border separately, and nominated Wei Qing as the commander of one army. 

Surprisingly, Wei Qing, the former slave with no military experiences, became the first general in the Han Dynasty who obtained large area of land from Xiongnu the Huns in battlefields.

Wei Qing soon established Han’s strong cavalry troop; then with his nephew Huo Qubing, another exceptional general, they defeated Xiongnu for several times, and largely extended Han’s territory northward and northwestward.

Unearthed Cavalry Figurines of the Western Han Dynasty — Xianyang Museum 

Afterwards, the former powerful Xiongnu never had the ability to threaten the Han Empire again.

Meanwhile, Han’s realm largely extended southward and westward, through warfare and opening up the Silk Road by Zhang Qian. Most of livable places within sight in China were under the Emperor Wudi's dominance. 

For those newly occupied large amounts of territories, Emperor Wudi migrated tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians to open up and cultivate those land for farming.

This then became an important policy of feudal kingdoms in the history of China, which proved very efficient on stabilizing new territory and increasing food supply.  

Land that was conquered by military forces, from that time on, gradually integrated and harmonized into the middle kingdom. 

Golden Seal that Emperor Wudi Awarded to the King of Dian, Who Surrendered to Han Empire in 109 BC — National Museum of China

Emperor Wudi’s Wars of Expansion and Injustice 

Many wars had been initiated under the reign of Emperor Wudi, however, not all of those military actions were successful.

After great, invincible generals Wei Qing and Huo Qubing all departed, Emperor Wudi nominated his favorite concubine’s brother as general, and started some wars against small countries on the west of Han, and the rest forces of the Xiongnu.

But this general Li Guangli (? — 89 BC) was quite ordinary and unfaithful; he wasted lots of resources and good soldiers’ lives, but barely achieved success. In the end, he even surrendered to Xiongnu, and got murdered by the King of Xiongnu.

He proved Emperor Wudi that a general should be trusted with his military achievement, not kinsfolk to any beautiful concubine. 

In addition, some of those wars that Emperor Wudi initiated in his later years were not justice. 

For instance, a king of a small country named Dayuan refused to sell Han their national treasure, the Ferghana horses (Han Xue Bao Ma); so Wudi sent an army and invaded this country twice. Soon, aristocrats of this country assassinated this king and surrendered to Han Empire, and paid many Ferghana horses as their tributes. Then Han supported a lord of this country to be the new king, who respected and surrendered to Han.

Unlike wars against Xiongnu that defended Han’s country and people, those wars for treasure brought Emperor Wudi many criticisms. 

Gilding Horse Unearthed from Mausoleum of Emperor Wudi, Modeled Using the Ferghana Horse — Maoling Museum

Wudi’s Losing of Crown Prince and Queen 

When Emperor Wudi was old, he started to pursue for immortal; thus, he was surrounded by many people who claimed themselves have magical power.

Some of those people planned to slander the current crown prince Liu Ju (128 BC — 91 BC), the first son of Emperor Wudi and Queen Wei Zifu. 

After a series of conspiracies, they tricked Emperor Wudi to live in a palace far away from the capital city, and successfully made him believe that Liu Ju was planning to rebel. Soon, they also lied to Wudi that the crown prince already started to fight, after which a big troop was sent to perish Liu Ju and his followers.

Liu Ju fought back bravely, but failed. He and his mother, the Queen Wei Zifu, all committed suicide. Tens of thousands of people that supported them all died in battles, or got executed by Emperor Wudi. 

A few years later, Wudi found out that his queen and son were framed up by someone with vicious political purposes. So he executed a large number of people who were involved in that set up, and built a palace to memorize Liu Ju. 

After having cleared the name of Wei Zifu, Wudi never nominated another queen.

Inlaying Gold and Silver Bronze Crossbow (Nu Ji) of the Han Dynasty — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Publishing of Edict of Introspection

After these tragedies, Emperor Wudi published an Edict of Introspection, an article of self-criticism, in which he admitted and apologized for all the wrong things he had done in his entire life.

It was also the first time in the history of China that a powerful emperor who completely admitted his own faults to his people and sincerely apologized for everything.

Then Emperor Wudi righted his wrongs and tried hard to amend damages that he brought to his people in his late years. 

Nominating A New Crown Prince After Murdering the Mother

When he was over 60, Emperor Wudi met a beautiful woman on his tour, who then gave birth to a baby boy.

One year before Emperor Wudi departed, he nominated this boy Liu Fuling (94 BC — 74 BC) as the new crown prince, but he found an excuse to sentence this woman to death.

He believed that a child emperor with a young, strong mother would jeopardize the empire, especially a beautiful young woman with no political experiences.

Then, Emperor Wudi nominated four of his trusted ministers as regents together, to assist his young crown prince.

Emperor Wudi of Han passed away later, and left his seven-year-old son, now the Emperor Zhao of Han, a huge kingdom with some talented and loyal regents.

As he had expected, his smart crown prince and those loyal regents did a good job; they flourished the empire, and brought stability and peaceful lives to their people.

Maoling in Xianyang City of Shaanxi Province — Mausoleum of Liu Che the Emperor Wudi of Han 

Legacy of Liu Che the Emperor Wudi of Han

Under Emperor Wudi's reign, the Han Empire stepped into a more prosperous era, and the territory was expanded unprecedentedly.

He made almost every nearby regime surrendered or defeated, while most of those regimes later melted into Han’s culture.

Emperor Wudi of Han was quite a challenger in the history of China, to aristocrat policy and theory of the bloodline. Slaves could be his queen and marshal, slum born people could be his powerful prime ministers.

Aristocrat clans were largely weakened, when one's class origin was no longer a concern in his government.

Besides being an excellent politician, Wudi was also a talented poet with many masterpieces. 

Meanwhile, he has been criticized for having initiated some unnecessary wars and killed many people because of his belief in witchcraft in his later years.

Those negative flaws, however, still could not outweigh his extraordinary achievements in the history of China.