Han Wudi — An Aristocracy Challenger

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

He was a reformer and a challenger of the Aristocrat system, and an ambitious monarch of territorial expansion.

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

Confucianism was promoted as the dominant ideology of the Han Empire under his reign, and the national Confucianism academy (Tai Xue) was built 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. 

Han Wudi’s achievements were glorious and made him sometimes comparable to Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC) of the Qin Dynasty, one of the greatest monarchs in Chinese history. 

His flaws, however, were over as well. Hence, he was also the first emperor in Chinese history that ever published an Edict of Introspection.

Emperor Wudi Liu Che of Han Dynasty

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, he 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 him. 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, his mother became the queen, and he became the heir of the Han Dynasty.

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

Six years later, after his grandmother, the powerful Empress Dowager, departed, he finally gained actual power.

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

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

Han Empire’s Strong Enemy Xiongnu 

Han Wudi'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 the Seven Feudatory States and further strengthened centralized power, the kingdom was getting much stronger.

But Xiongnu (also known as the Huns) in 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 the Emperor Wu of Han.

Golden Crown of the King of Xiongnu

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

National Recruitment of Intelligent Ministers From All Classes

When Han 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, he implemented a series of reforms and policies that changed the Han Dynasty from an aristocracy-ruled empire to the Centralized Bureaucracy Feudal Kingdom, one of the most significant transforms in history of China.

Diminishing of Feudatory States

Zhu Fu Yan (? — 126 BC), a slum-born civilian, assisted the emperor implemented a policy that 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, noble titles and the 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.

Han 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

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 Han 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 the emperor 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 never felt a lack of money, even after having initiated many large-scale military activities. 

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

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

Establishment of New Dominant Ideology

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

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

Debris (Xi Ping Shi Jing) of Official Confucianism Classics Carved on Stone (175 — 183)

Debris (Xi Ping Shi Jing) of Official Confucianism Classics Carved on Stone (175 — 183) — National Museum of China (Photo by Ayelie)

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, he 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, he also implemented a system to monitor local governors.

Under Han Wudi's reign, ability triumphed over class origin.

Unearthed Eaves Tile of the Han Dynasty, With Inscriptions "Le Wei Yang" (Eternal Happiness)

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

A Slave Singer Became the 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

He liked her at 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 an imperial guard of the emperor.

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

His first queen Chen, whose mother played an important role in assisting him to get the throne, was abolished because of being jealous, arrogant, greedy, and childless. 

Imperial Jade Seal of Queens of the Han Dynasty

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

Exceptional Military Successes and Expanded Territory

When he 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 experience, became the first general in the Han Dynasty who obtained large areas of land from Xiongnu (the Huns) on battlefields.

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

Unearthed Cavalry Figurines of the Western Han Dynasty — Xianyang Museum

Unearthed Cavalry Figurines of the Western Han Dynasty — Xianyang Museum 

Afterward, the former powerful Xiongnu never could threaten the Han Empire again. 

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

For those newly occupied large amounts of territories, he 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 in 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

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

Wars of Expansion and Injustice

Many military campaigns had been initiated under the emperor's reign, however, not all of those military actions were successful.

After great, invincible generals Wei Qing and Huo Qubing all departed, the emperor 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 the Xiongnu.

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

Besides, some of those wars that Han 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 he sent an army and invaded this country twice.

 

Soon, aristocrats of this country assassinated this king and surrendered to the 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 military campaigns for treasure brought him many criticisms. 

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

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

Losing of Crown Prince and Queen

When Han Wudi was old, he started to pursue immortality; 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 the emperor and Queen Wei Zifu. 

After a series of conspiracies, they tricked the emperor 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 him 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, Queen Wei Zifu, all committed suicide. Tens of thousands of people that supported them all died in battles or got executed by Han Wudi. 

A few years later, he 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 setup and built a palace to memorize Liu Ju. 

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

Inlaying Gold and Silver Bronze Crossbow (Nu Ji) of the Han Dynasty

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, Han 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 completely admitted his faults to his people and sincerely apologized for everything.

Then he righted his wrongs and tried hard to amend the 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, Han Wudi met a beautiful woman on his tour, who then gave birth to a baby boy.

One year before he 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 experience.

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

Han Wudi 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

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

Legacy of Liu Che the Emperor Wu of Han

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

He made almost every nearby regime surrender or defeat, while most of those regimes later melted into Han culture.

Emperor Wu of Han was quite a challenger, 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, he was also a talented poet with many eminent works. 

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

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

Next Story: From A Beautiful Slave Singer to A Respectable Queen — Wei Zifu

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