Han Wu-ti

Name: Han Wu-ti
Bith Date: 157 B.C.
Death Date: 87 B.C.
Place of Birth:
Nationality: Chinese
Gender: Male
Occupations: emperor

The Chinese emperor Han Wu-ti (157-87 BC) enlarged China's frontiers, instituted new means of income for the state, and made Confucianism the state orthodoxy.

Han Wu-ti was originally named Liu Ch'e. He came to the Han throne at the age of 16 but did not take the government into his own hands until 131 B.C. He was firmly determined to wield imperial power to a greater extent than any of his predecessors in the (Former) Han dynasty had done. In his administration of justice, for example, all but one of his seven prime ministers between 121 and 88 were convicted of crimes and met violent deaths. The numerous laws were harshly applied throughout the empire, thus creating a style of government unknown among his Han predecessors but strikingly similar to that of Ch'in Shih huang-ti.

Expansion of the Empire

Wu-ti (meaning "martial emperor") was a well-deserved title. His campaigns toward the south, into present-day North Vietnam, and toward the southeast, into the coastal regions, determined in large part the southern boundaries of China. His conquests along China's northern frontiers, if less permanent, were even more impressive. After a costly series of wars he drove the nomadic Hsiung-nu north as far as the Gobi Desert (119). In the northwest, China took control, for the first time, of Chinese Turkistan, and by 104 Emperor Wu's military might had reached beyond the Pamir Mountains to Russian Turkistan. Similarly, in the northeast, Chinese control stretched beyond the Liaotung Peninsula and into northern Korea. The empire that Wu-ti created, surpassing in size the contemporary Roman Empire, was the greatest in the world.

Economic Policies

When Emperor Wu came to the throne, the Han dynasty was financially very strong. But his wars were terribly costly. So too were construction projects that he initiated. Expenses were met by a variety of means. The tight net of the law meant that the government could remit punishments for cash or goods and thus add to the state's coffers. Those without money were condemned to penal servitude as soldiers or laborers.

Although new taxes were created and old ones increased, there was still not enough money. Hence, salt, iron, and liquor were made state monopolies. These measures produced widespread discontent and some uprisings. By the end of Wu-ti's reign the finances of the empire had been badly strained, and his successors had to institute ameliorative policies.

Emperor Wu is also famous for granting exclusive recognition to Confucianism as the official state philosophy. Soon after he ascended the throne, he ordered that students of the Legalist philosophy, which had been the dominant school of thought in the Ch'in period, be banished from the government. In 135 he established the Office of Erudites for the five Confucian classics. The Erudites served as advisers to the Emperor and as teachers of future officials.

The office was not new; there had earlier been Erudites for the Confucian classics, but Wu-ti's decree meant that from then on there would only be Confucian Erudites. Eleven years later he founded the Imperial University, where the Erudites taught the better students. It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of these decisions. From this time on, for over 2,000 years, men who wanted to become officials were expected to study the Confucian classics. Although the results of these policies were not immediate, they are of the most profound significance to all later Chinese history.

Further Reading

  • There is no scholarly monograph devoted to Han Wu-ti or his reign, but there are several works that deal with various aspects of the period. Homer H. Dubs's translation of the work by the 1st-century historian Pan Ku, History of the Former Han Dynasty (3 vols., 1938-1955), is a technical translation with interpretive essays of those parts that cover Wu-ti's reign in an annalistic manner. Parts of Ssu-ma Ch'ien's history dealing with the Han dynasty have been translated into English by Burton D. Watson in Records of the Grand Historian of China, Translated from the Shih chi of Ssu-ma Ch'ien (2 vols., 1961). Wu-ti's foreign policies are expertly treated in Ying-shih YU, Trade and Expansion in Han China: A Study in the Structure of Sino-Barbarian Economic Relations (1967). On Wu-ti's economic policies see Nancy Lee Swann, ed. and trans., Food and Money in Ancient China (1950).

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