Emperor Wen of Han

Emperor Wen of Han (202 BC – 157 BC) was the fifth emperor of the han dynasty in China. His given name is Heng.

Liu Heng was a son of Emperor Gao of Han and Consort Bo, later empress dowager. When Emperor Gao of Han suppressed the rebellion of Dai, he created Liu Heng Prince of Dai.

After Empress Dowager Lü's death, the officials eliminated the powerful Lü clan, and deliberately chose the Prince of Dai as the emperor, since his mother, Consort Bo, had no powerful relatives, and her family was known for its humility and thoughtfulness. His reign brought a much needed political stability that laid the groundwork for prosperity under his grandson Emperor Wu. According to historians, Emperor Wen trusted and consulted with ministers on state affairs; under the influence of his Taoist wife, Empress Dou, the emperor also sought to avoid wasteful expenditures.

Historians noted that the tax rates were at a ratio of "1 out of 30" and "1 out of 60", corresponding to 3. 33% and 1. 67%, respectively. (These rates are not for income taxes, but property taxes, as the only ancient Chinese attempt to levy an income tax would come in the time of Wang Mang. ) Warehouses were so full of grain, that some of it was left to decay.

In a move of lasting importance in 165 BC, Emperor Wen introduced recruitment to the civil service through examinations. Previously, potential officials never sat for any sort of academic examinations. Their names were sent by local officials to the central government based on reputations and abilities, which were sometimes judged subjectively.

Era names

These "era names" are not true "era names", but are retrospective, in the sense that the era-name system, as instituted by Emperor Wen's grandson Emperor Wu, had not yet come into effect. Emperor Wen, in accordance to prior imperial calendering systems, would have simply referred to the number of years in his reign. But he reset the calendar once at the persuasion of the sorcerer Xinyuan Ping (新垣平), thus historians need to refer to the eras before and after the resetting separately.

Qianyuan (前元 qían yuán) 179 BC-164 BC

Houyuan (後元 hòu yúan) 163 BC-157 BC

Early life and career as Prince of Dai

In 196 BC, after Emperor Gao defeated the Chen Xi (陳豨) rebellion in the Dai region, he created Liu Heng, his son by Consort Bo, the Prince of Dai. The capital of the principality was at Jinyang (晉陽, modern Taiyuan, Shanxi ). Dai was a region on the boundaries with Xiongnu, and Emperor Gao probably created the principality with the mind to use it as a base to defend against Xiongnu raids. For the first year of the principality's existence, Chen, whose army was defeated but who eluded capture, remained a threat, until Zhou Bo (周勃) killed him in battle in autumn 195 BC. It is not known whether at this time Prince Heng, who was then seven years old, was already in Dai, but it appeared likely, because his brother Liu Ruyi was the only prince at the time explicitly to have been recorded to be remaining at the capital Chang'an rather than being sent to his principality.

In 181 BC, after Prince Heng's brother, Prince Liu Hui of Zhao, committed suicide over his marital problems, Grand Empress Dowager Lü, who was then in effective control of the imperial government, offered the more prosperous Principality of Zhao to Prince Heng, but Prince Heng, judging correctly that she was intending on making her nephew Lü Lu prince, politely declined and indicated that he preferred remaining on the border. The grand empress dowager then created Lü Lu Prince of Zhao.

During these years, the Principality of Dai did in fact become a key position in the defense against Xiongnu, and Prince Heng became well-acquainted with Xiongnu customs and military strategies, although the extent of his own participation in military actions was unknown.

Ascension to the throne

In 180 BC, after Grand Empress Dowager Lü died and the officials made a coup d'etat against her clan and slaughtered her clan (during the Lü Clan Disturbance), after some deliberation, the officials offered the imperial throne to Prince Heng, rather than Prince Liu Xiang of Qi, the oldest grandson of Emperor Gao. The key to their decision was that Prince Xiang's maternal clan was domineering and might repeat the behaviors of the Lü clan, while the clan of Prince Heng's maternal clan, the Bos, were considered to be kind and humble. After some hesitation, Prince Heng, then 23-years-old, accepted the throne as Emperor Wen. His nephew, Emperor Houshao, viewed as a mere puppet of Grand Empress Dowager Lü and suspected of not being actually a son of Emperor Wen's older brother Emperor Hui, was deposed and executed.

Early reign

Emperor Wen quickly showed an aptitude to govern the empire with diligence, and appeared to be genuinely concerned for the people's welfare. Heavily influenced by his wife Empress Dou, who was an adherent to Taoism, Emperor Wen governed the country with the general policies of non-intereference with the people and relaxed laws. His personal life was marked by thriftiness and general willingness to forgive. He was initially very deferential to Zhou Bo, Chen Ping, and Guan Ying (灌嬰), who were instrumental in his accession, and they served as successive prime ministers.

Examples of Emperor Wen's policies that showed kindness and concern for the people include:

In 179 BC, he abolished the law that permitted the arrest and imprisonment of parents, wives, and siblings of criminals, with the exception for the crime of treason.

In 179 BC, he created a governmental assistance program for those in need. Loans or tax exemptions were offered to widowers, widows, orphans, and seniors without children. He also ordered that monthly stipends of rice, wine, and meat be given to seniors over 80 years in age, and that additional stipends of cloth and cotton be given to seniors over 90 years in age. In 179 BC, he made peace with Nanyue, whose king Zhao Tuo Empress Dowager Lü had offended by an economic embargo and which therefore engaged in raids against the Principality of Changsha (modern Hunan ) and the Commandery of Nan (modern Hubei ). Emperor Wen accomplished this by writing humble yet assertive letters to Zhao offering peace with dignity and by caring for Zhao's relatives remaining in his native town of Zhending (真定, in modern Shijiazhuang, Hebei ).

In 178 BC, after a solar eclipse (then viewed as a symbol of divine displeasure), he requested that officials give him honest criticism and recommend capable individuals for governmental positions. He also tried to decrease mandatory taxes and hard labor.

In 179 BC, after some hesitation (during which he, apparently influenced by the theory of chanrang (禪讓), thought that maybe it would be more proper for him to find the wisest person in the empire and offer the throne to him, or that he should consider offering the throne to his uncle Liu Jiao (劉交), the Prince of Chu; his cousin Liu Pi (劉濞), the Prince of Wu; or his younger brother Liu Chang (劉長), the Prince of Huainan ), he created his oldest son Liu Qi the Crown Prince and Prince Qi's mother, Consort Dou, Empress.

In addition to Empress Dou, Emperor Wen also favored Consort Shen (慎夫人). Despite her favored state, however, she only wore simple dresses rather than elaborate designs, as a means of savings.

Emperor Wen, during the early part of his reign, was often impressed with suggestions tendered by a young official, Jia Yi, but opposed by senior officials, he did not promote Jia to particularly high positions; rather, Jia was put into a rotation as a teacher for various princes. Jia proposed dividing the larger principalities ruled by branch lines of the imperial family, a proposal that Emperor Wen agreed with but hesitated to actually carry out, and he did not actually implement Jia's proposal, which later might have prevented the Rebellion of the Seven States.

Middle reign

An incident otherwise uncharacteristic of Emperor Wen occurred in 176 BC. Zhou Bo, who had been instrumental in Emperor Wen's becoming emperor and who had by that point retired to his March of Jiang (絳, in modern Linfen, Shanxi ), was falsely accused of treason. Instead of doing initial investigations first, Emperor Wen had Zhou arrested and incarcerated. It was only with the intercession of his mother Empress Dowager Bo and his daughter Princess Changping (昌平公主, Zhou's daughter-in-law) that Zhou was released, and the charges against him dismissed.

In 175 BC, over the objections of Jia Yi, Emperor Wen issued an edict permitting any person to mint money (then only in the form of coins) out of copper and tin. The main beneficiaries of this policy were those with access to copper, including the court official Deng Tong (鄧通) (see also below), to whom Emperor Wen had given a major copper mine in Yandao (嚴道, in modern Yaan, Sichuan ), and Liu Pi, the Prince of Wu, whose principality had a major copper mine at Yuzhang (豫章, in modern Nanchang, Jiangxi ).

In 174 BC, a major incident occurred involving Liu Chang, the Prince of chen, who was then Emperor Wen's only living brother. Emperor Wen had great affection for him and did not punish him for using styles and ceremonies that only emperors were supposed to use. Also, contrary to imperial laws, Prince lang issued edicts within his own principality and also commissioned his own prime minister. He also carried out executions and created titles for people—two powers that were also reserved to the emperor. Emperor Wen constantly excused him for his indiscretions—which included killing Shen Yiji (審食其), the Marquess of Piyang—but eventually became unhappy. He asked his uncle Bo Zhao (薄昭) to write a letter to Prince Chang to try to change his ways. Instead, Prince Chang was offended and planned a rebellion. When the conspiracy was discovered, Emperor Wen stripped Prince Chang of his title and exiled him to Yandao—with the intent to teach him a lesson and then summoning him back. However, on the way, Prince Chang died—probably by suicide. In 172 BC, Emperor Wen, missing Prince Chang dearly and still lamenting his death, created his sons Liu An, Liu Bo (劉勃), Liu Ci (劉賜), and Liu Liang (劉良) marquesses, again over Jia Yi's objection.

Also in 174 BC, when Xiongnu's new chanyu Laoshang came to power, Emperor Wen continued the heqin policy by giving him a prince's daughter in marriage.

In 170 BC, Emperor Wen's uncle Bo Zhao, who had been instrumental in his administration, killed an imperial messenger. Emperor Wen forced him to commit suicide. This incident drew criticism from later historians, who believed that he should have curbed Bo's powers in earlier and saved his life in that manner.

In 169 BC, Chao Cuo (晁錯), then a low level official, offered Emperor Wen a number of suggestions at dealing with Xiongnu. Emperor Wen was impressed, and made him a member of Crown Prince Qi's household. At Chao's suggestion, in 168 BC, Emperor Wen instituted the policy that if people contributed food for use by the northern defense force against Xiongnu, they could receive titles or have their crimes pardoned.

In 167 BC, Emperor Wen banned the corporal punishments of facial tattoo and cutting off the nose or a foot, and replaced them with whipping. These punishments would not be instituted against as a matter of formal legal sentencing for the rest of Chinese history. (However, as was later noted, this actually caused more deaths, and so the amount of whipping was further reduced in 156 BC by Emperor Jing. )

Late reign

Later in his reign, Emperor Wen became superstitious and started search for supernatural events. In 165 BC, at the instigation of the sorcerer Xinyuan Ping (新垣平), he built a temple north of Wei River dedicated to five gods. He then promoted Xinyuan and awarded him with much treasure. At Xinyuan's suggestion, Emperor Wen planned a thorough revision of the governmental system and the building of many temples. In 164 BC, Xinyuan Ping had an associate place a jade cup outside the imperial palace with mysterious writings on them, and also predicted a regression in the path of the sun. (This phenomenon has never been adequately explained, but might have been actually a partial solar eclipse. ) In response, Emperor Wen joyously proclaimed an empire-wide festival and also restarted the calendering for his reign. (Therefore, the years 163 BC and on, for the rest of his reign, was known as the later era of his reign. ) However, in winter 164 BC, Xinyuan was exposed to be a fraud, and he and his clan were executed. That ended Emperor Wen's period of supernatural fascination.

In 158 BC, when Xiongnu made a major incursion into the Commanderies of Shang (上, modern northern Shaanxi ) and Yunzhong (雲中, modern western Inner Mongolia , centering Hohhot), Emperor Wen made a visit to the camps of armies preparing to defend the capital Chang'an against a potential Xiongnu attack. It was on this occasion when he became impressed with Zhou Bo's son Zhou Yafu as a military commander—compared to the other generals, who, upon the emperor's arrival, dropped all things and did what they could to make the emperor feel welcome, Zhou remained on military alert and required the imperial guards to submit to proper military order before he would allow the imperial train to enter. Later, he would leave instructions for Crown Prince Qi that if military emergencies arose, he should make Zhou his commander of armed forces—instructions that were heeded during the Rebellion of the Seven States.

Emperor Wen died in summer 157 BC. He was succeeded by Crown Prince Qi. Emperor Wen, in his will, reduced the usual mourning period to three days, contrary to the previous lengthy periods of mourning in which weddings, sacrifices, drinking, and the consumption of meat were disallowed, thus greatly reducing the burden on the people. He also ordered that his concubines be allowed to return home. (Before and after Emperor Wen, generally, imperial concubines without children were required to guard the emperor's tomb for the rest of their lives. )

Impact on history

Emperor Wen was considered one of the most benevolent rulers in Chinese history. His reign was marked by thriftiness and attempts to reduce burdens on the people. His reign and that of his son Emperor Jing were often collectively known together as the Rule of Wen and Jing, renowned for general stability and relaxed laws.


As noted above, Emperor Wen greatly favored Deng Tong, for no particular apparent reason, and he gave Deng much honor and wealth despite Deng's apparent lack of ability. This, coupled with later references by officials trying to persuade Emperor Ai against giving his male lover Dong Xian too much authority—during which those officials analogized Dong's position to Deng's—has led to speculation that Emperor Wen had a homosexual relationship with Deng. It is quite possible, but also hardly proven based on available evidence. In 162 BC, Emperor Wen permitted the prime minister Shentu Jia (申屠嘉) to discipline Deng for his arrogance and threaten him with death, before pardoning Deng. In Emperor Wen's request to Shentu asking Shentu to be lenient with Deng, he called Deng his "jester. "

Personal information


Emperor Gaozu of Han


Consort Bo


Empress Dou, mother of Emperor Jing, Prince Wu and Princess Piao

Major Concubines

Consort Shen

Consort Ji


Liu Qi (劉啟), Crown Prince (b. 188 BC, created 179 BC, d. 141 BC), later Emperor Jing of Han

Liu Wu (劉武), Prince of Dai (created 178 BC), then of Huaiyang (created 175 BC), then of Liang (created 169 BC) (d. 144 BC), known as Prince Xiao of Liang

Liu Can (劉粲), Prince of Dai (created 178 BC) (d. 161 BC), known as Prince Xiao of Dai

Liu Yi (劉易), Prince of Liang (d. 169 BC), of a fall from a horse, known as Prince Huai of Liang

Princess Changping

Liu Piao, the Princess Guantao

Last update 07-06-2012

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