Emperor Wu of Han

Emperor Wu of Han (simplified Chinese: 汉武帝; traditional Chinese: 漢武帝; pinyin: Hàn Wǔdì; Wade–Giles: Han Wu-ti; 156–87 BC), personal name Liu Che (劉徹), was the seventh emperor of the han dynasty of China, ruling from 141 BC to 87 BC. Emperor Wu is best remembered for the vast territorial expansion that occurred under his reign, as well as the strong and centralized Confucian state he organized. He is cited in Chinese history as the greatest emperor of the han dynasty and one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history. Emperor Wu's effective governance made the han dynasty one of the most powerful nations in the world.

As a military campaigner, Emperor Wu led Han China through its greatest expansion—at its height, the Empire's borders spanned from modern Kyrgyzstan in the west, to Korea in the east, and to northern Vietnam in the south. Emperor Wu successfully repelled the nomadic Xiongnu from systematically raiding northern China and dispatched his envoy Zhang Qian in 139 BC to seek an alliance with the Yuezhi of modern Uzbekistan. This resulted in further missions to Central Asia. Although historical records do not describe him as a follower of Buddhism, exchanges probably occurred as a consequence of these embassies, and there are suggestions that he received Buddhist statues from central Asia, as depicted in Mogao Caves murals.

While establishing an autocratic and centralized state, Emperor Wu adopted the principles of Confucianism as the state philosophy and code of ethics for his empire and started a school to teach future administrators the Confucian classics. These reforms would have an enduring effect throughout the existence of imperial China and an enormous influence on neighboring civilizations. Emperor Wu's reign lasted 54 years — a record that would not be broken until the reign of the Kangxi Emperor more than 1800 years later.

Early years

Emperor Wu was the tenth child of Emperor Jing, and was born to one of Emperor Jing's favorite concubines, Consort Wang Zhi in 156 BC. His mother had initially been married once, to a commoner called Jin Wangsun (金王孫) and had a daughter from that marriage. However, her mother Zang Er (臧兒) (a granddaughter of one-time Prince of Yan, Zang Tu (臧荼), under Emperor Gao) was told by a soothsayer that both Wang Zhi and her sister would one day become extremely honored. Zang got the idea to offer them to Crown Prince Liu Qi (later Emperor Jing) and forcibly divorced Wang Zhi from her husband in the process. A son was born shortly after Prince Qi succeeded the throne from his deceased father Emperor Wen.

When Consort Wang was pregnant, she claimed that she dreamed of a sun falling into her womb . It was also said that Emperor Jing dreamed of a scarlet boar descending from the cloud into the palace . The young, newly born prince was therefore named Liu Zhi (劉彘), with Zhi literally meaning "boar", but also implying the dragon — a mystical sign of nobility and fortune. In 153 BC, Prince Zhi was made the Prince of Jiaodong ("年四岁立为胶东王/Became the Prince of Jiaodong at the age of four"-Book of Han, volumn 6).

As Emperor Jing's formal wife Empress Bo had no children, his oldest son Liu Rong (劉榮), born to his other favorite concubine Consort Li (栗姬), was created crown prince in 153 BC. Wu yian jie was also known as consort Li. Consort Li was arrogant and easily jealous, and she hoped to become empress after Empress Bo was deposed in 151 BC. However, her lack of tact and bad personality would give Consort Wang a break. When Consort Li, out of a grudge to Emperor Jing's sister Princess Piao (劉嫖), refused to let her son marry Princess Piao's daughter Chen Jiao, Consort Wang took the opportunity and had Chen Jiao betrothed to Prince Zhi. Princess Piao then began incessantly criticize Consort Li for her jealousy — pointing out that if Consort Li became empress dowager, many concubines might suffer the fates of Consort Qi, Emperor Gao's favorite concubine who was tortured, mutilated and killed by Emperor Gao's wife Empress Dowager Lü (呂后) after Emperor Gao's death. Emperor Jing was shocked upon the suggestion, and decided that such risk must be prevented. He deposed Prince Rong from the successor position in 150 BC. Consort Li, enraged and humiliated with the turn of event, died very soon after. Prince Rong later was charged with committing misconducts, and committed suicide in custody.

That year, Consort Wang was created empress, and Prince Zhi became the crown prince, with his name changed to Liu Che. Given his young age, there are few records of any accomplishments by him curing his time as Crown Prince. When Emperor Jing died in 141 BC, Crown Prince Che succeeded to the throne as Emperor Wu at age 15.

After Emperor Wudi ascended the throne, his grandmother Empress Dowager Dou became the Grand Empress Dowager, and his mother Empress Wang became the Empress Dowager. He made his wife (and cousin, with Empress Chen being the daughter of his aunt) Chen Jiao empress.

A turning point in state doctrine occurred in 140 BC, when Emperor Wu of Han conducted an imperial examination of over 100 young scholars. Having been recommended by officials, most of the scholars were commoners with no noble background. This event would have a major impact on Chinese history, marking the official start of the establishment of Confucianism as official imperial doctrine. This came about because a young Confucian scholar, Dong Zhongshu, was evaluated to have submitted the best essay, in which he advocated the establishment of Confucianism. It is unclear whether Emperor Wu, in his young age, actually determined this, or whether this was the result of machinations of the prime minister Wei Wan (衛綰), who was himself a Confucian. However, the fact that several other young scholars who scored highly on the examination (but interestingly enough, not Dong) later became trusted advisors for Emperor Wu would appear to suggest that Emperor Wu himself at least had some actual participation.

The first few years of Emperor Wu's reign saw the administration dominated by three figures — his grandmother Grand Empress Dowager Dou, his mother Empress Dowager Wang, and her half-brother Tian Fen (田蚡). Tian Fen had been made Marquess of Wu'an and commander of the armed forces after Emperor Wu became emperor. Despite this, Emperor Wu continued to find opportunities to assert himself, though he was not always successful. A prime example came in 139 BC, when Confucian officials Zhao Wan (趙綰) and Wang Zang (王臧) advised the emperor to no longer consult the grand empress dowager. Both Zhao Wan and Wang Zang disliked the grand empress dowager because of her adherence to Taoism. In response the grand empress dowager had them tried for corruption, and they subsequently committed suicide in prison, the emperor unable to help them. Ultimately, Emperor Wu was forced to submit to his grandmother for years, his throne sustained only by mediation through his aunt and mother-in-law, Princess Piao.

However, Emperor Wu was far from giving up. Disappointed over the lack of foresight displayed by the older and more conservative generations of nobles, he decided to create his own circle of advisors. He was constantly seeking young, capable officials around his age, whose views of state government agreed with his own. These he took into a close circle and promoted them outside of the normal seniority rotations. Unlike other emperors in history who carried out these techniques, Emperor Wu did not hesitate to remind these advisors of his position — punishing them severely or even executing them if they were found corrupt or to have hidden secrets from him. On the other hand, he respected those officials who did not flatter him and would honestly rebuke him when they saw fit. The most famous of these latter officials was Ji An (汲黯), whose offensive and brutal comments often gave Emperor Wu fears of staying in front of him. Still, he respected Ji's integrity sincerely. Emperor Wu also showed typical young male rebelliousness at times, often sneaking out of the capital disguised as an ordinary marquess, for hunting and sightseeing.

Emperor Wu's marriage to Empress Chen was initially a happy one — so much so that he once boasted to her mother, Princess Piao, that he would build a house of gold for Empress Chen. (This led to the Chinese idiom "putting Jiao in a golden house" (金屋藏嬌), which, became a term for keeping a mistress rather than a wife. ) This did not last however, at least partly because Empress Chen never bore him a son, despite being treated by physicians. Later, while visiting his sister Princess Pingyang, he was entertained by a female singer/dancer Wei Zifu, the daughter of one of the princess' lowly lady servants, and Princess Pingyang offered Wei to become one of Emperor Wu's consorts. She became his favorite. Empress Chen was so jealous that she attempted suicide several times, but each time she failed; each attempt made Emperor Wu more angry at her. Princess Piao, in order to avenge her daughter, tried to have Consort Wei's brother Wei Qing kidnapped and secretly executed, but Wei Qing was saved just in time by his friends. Emperor Wu promoted both Consort Wei and Wei Qing in front of the Empress and her mother, initially out of protest. Later he discovered qualities in Wei Qing and made him one of the emperor's closest attendants, and later a general.

In 135 BC, after Grand Empress Dowager Dou died, Emperor Wu once again moved to assert his authority. While Empress Dowager Wang and Tian Fen were still influential, they found that they lacked their former control over the emperor.

Around the same time, Emperor Wu started to show will and aptitude for territorial expansion. The first example came in 138 BC, when Minyue (modern Fujian ) attacked Donghai (modern Zhejiang ) and Donghai sought help from Han. Emperor Wu acted quickly to try to relieve Donghai, over Tian's opposition. Upon hearing news of Han's expedition force being dispatched, Minyue withdrew. Fearful of another Minyue attack, Luo Wang (駱望), the King of Donghai, purportedly requested that his people be allowed to relocate into China proper. Emperor Wu subsequently relocated them to the region between the Yangtze and Huai Rivers. In 135 BC, when Minyue attacked Nanyue, Nanyue also sought assistance from Han even though it probably had enough strength to defend itself — a sign of submission to the emperor's authority. Emperor Wu was greatly pleased by this gesture, and he dispatched an expedition force to attack Minyue, over the objection of one of his key advisors, Liu An, a royal relative and the Prince of Huainan . Minyue nobles, fearful of the massive Chinese force, assassinated their king Luo Ying (駱郢) and sought peace. In a stroke of genius, Emperor Wu imposed a dual-monarchy system on Minyue by creating kings out of Luo Ying's brother Luo Yushan (駱餘善) and grandson Luo Chou (駱丑), thus ensuring internal discord in Minyue. As to Xiongnu, he maintained heqin for sometime

Maturity in reign and territorial expansion

The peace with Xiongnu would not last permanently, however, because Emperor Wu was not satisfied with what he saw as appeasement of the Xiongnu. In 133 BC, at the suggestion of Wang Hui (王恢), the minister of vassal affairs, he had his generals set a trap for the Xiongnu Chanyu Junchen (軍臣). Under the plan, a powerful local gentleman, Nie Yi (聶壹) from Mayi (馬邑, in modern Shuozhou, Shanxi ) falsely claimed to offer Mayi to Xiongnu after killing the county magistrate to try to entice Chanyu Junchen into advancing on Mayi, while Han forces hid around Mayi to be ready to surprise the chanyu. The plan failed when a soldier captured by Xiongnu disclosed the entire plan to Chanyu Junchen, who then withdrew quickly before the Han forces could ambush him. This ended the peace between Han and Xiongnu, and for years there were continued border skirmishes even though, oddly, the states remained trade partners.

Another major battle was pitched in 129 BC when Xiongnu attacked the Commandery of Shanggu (上谷, roughly modern Zhangjiakou, Hebei ), Emperor Wu dispatched four generals, Li Guang, Gongsun Ao (公孫敖), Gongsun He (公孫賀) and Wei Qing, each leading a 10,000-strong cavalry against Xiongnu. Both Li Guang and Gongsun Ao suffered major losses at Xiongnu's hands, and Gongsun He failed to find and engage the enemy, but Wei Qing distinguished himself with a long-distance raid on a Xiongnu holy site and was promoted to a larger command. In 127 BC, a force commanded by Wei defeated a substantial Xiongnu force and allowed Han to occupy the Shuofang (朔方) region (modern western central Inner Mongolia centering Ordos), the region was immediately settled with 100,000 Chinese colonists. The city of Shuofang (朔方) was built, and would later become a key post from which offensives against Xiongnu would be launched. When Xiongnu tried to attack Shuofang in 124 BC, Wei surprised them by attacking them from the rear and took about 15,000 captives — and at this battle, his nephew Huo Qubing (霍去病) distinguished himself in battle and was given his own command. In 121 BC, Huo had a major victory over the Xiongnu Princes of Hunxie (渾邪王) and Xiutu (休屠王) — which had unforeseen good results for Han. When Chanyu Yizhixie (伊稚邪) heard of the loss, he wanted to punish those princes mercilessly. The Prince of Hunxie, fearful of such punishment, after being unable to persuade the Prince of Xiutu, killed the Prince of Xiutu surrendered his forces, which then controlled the Gansu region, to Han, and this turned out to be a major blow to Xiongnu, robbing Xiongnu of a major grazing region and other natural resources. Emperor Wu established five commanderies over the region and encouraged Chinese to relocate to the Gansu region, which has remained in Chinese hands ever since. The region would also become important staging grounds for the subjugation of Xiyu (西域, modern Xinjiang and former Soviet central Asia).

The exploration into Xiyu was first started in 139 BC, that Emperor Wu commissioned Zhang Qian to seek out the Kingdom of Yuezhi, which had been expelled by Xiongnu from the modern Gansu region, to entice it to return to its ancestral lands with promises of Han military assistance, in order to fight against Xiongnu together. Zhang was immediately captured by Xiongnu once he ventured into the desert, but was able to escape around 129 BC and eventually made it to Yuezhi, which by then had relocated to Samarkand. While Yuezhi refused to return, it and several other kingdoms in the area, including Dayuan (Kokand) and Kangju, established diplomatic relationships with Han. Zhang was able to deliver his report to Emperor Wu when he arrived back in the capital Chang'an in 126 BC after a second and shorter captivity by Xiongnu. After the Prince of Hunxie surrendered the Gansu region, the path to Xiyu became clear, and regular embassies between Han and the Xiyu kingdoms commenced.

Another expansion plan, this one aimed at the southwest, was soon initiated as well. The impetus for this expansion was aimed at eventual conquest of Nanyue, which was viewed as an unreliable vassal, by first obtaining the submission the southwestern tribal kingdoms — the largest of which was Yelang (modern Zunyi, Guiyang) — so that a route for a potential back-stabbing attack on Nanyue could be made. The Han ambassador Tang Meng (唐蒙) was able to secure the submission of these tribal kingdoms by giving their kings gifts, and Emperor Wu established the Commandery of Jianwei (犍為, headquarters in modern Yibin, Sichuan ) to govern over the tribes, but eventually abandoned it after being unable to cope with native revolts. Later, after Zhang Qian returned from the western region, part of his report indicated that by going through the southwestern kingdoms, embassies could reach Shendu (India) and Anxi (Parthia) easier. Encouraged by the report, in 122 BC, Emperor Wu sent ambassadors to try to again persuade Yelang and Dian (滇, modern eastern Yunnan ) into submission.

Emperor Wu also made an aborted expansion into the Korean Peninsula by establishing the Commandery of Canghai (蒼海), but abandoned it in 126 BC.

It was also during this time that Emperor Wu began to show a fascination with immortality, and he began to associate with magicians who claimed to be able to, if they could find the proper ingredients, create divine pills that would confer immortality. However, he himself punished others' use of magic severely. In 130 BC, for example, when Empress Chen was found to have retained witches to curse Consort Wei and to try to regain Emperor Wu's affections, he had her deposed and the witches executed.

In 128 BC, Consort Wei bore Emperor Wu his first-born son, Liu Ju. She was created empress later that year, and he was created crown prince in 122 BC.

In 122 BC, Liu An, the Prince of Huainan (a previously trusted advisor of Emperor Wu), and his brother Liu Ci (劉賜), the Prince of Hengshan, were accused of plotting treason. Both of them committed suicide, and their families and alleged coconspirators were executed.

In 119 BC, Emperor Wu broke the normal pattern of reacting against Xiongnu attacks, by making a major excursion against Xiongnu's headquarters. Wei and Huo's forces were able to make a direct assault on Chanyu Yizhixie's forces, nearly capturing him and annihilating his army. It was at this battle, however, that the famous general Li Guang, whose fortunes had been effectively sabotaged by Wei's strategic plan (who, as the supreme commander, had ordered Li to take a flanking route through a region without Xiongnu forces but which lacked food and water, resulting in Li's forces becoming lost and unable to join the main forces), committed suicide after being told that he would be court-martialed for his failures. Even though both Wei and Huo were successful, Emperor Wu particularly praised Huo and rewarded him with many others; it was from this point on that Huo began to receive primacy over the forces over his uncle Wei. After Xiongnu suffered these heavy losses, the Chanyu sought heqin peace with Han again, but broke off peace talks after Han made it clear that it wanted Xiongnu to become a vassal instead.

Around the same time, perhaps as a sign of what would be to come, Emperor Wu began to trust governing officials who were harsh in their punishments. For example, one of those officials, Yi Zong (義縱), when he became the governor of the Commandery of Dingxiang (part of modern Hohhot, Inner Mongolia ), executed 200 prisoners even though they had not committed capital crimes — and then executed their friends who happened to be visiting as well. Emperor Wu came to believe that this would be the most effective method to maintain social order and so put these officials in power. A famous wrongful execution happened in 117 BC, the victim of which was the minister of agriculture Yan Yi (顏異). Yan had previously offended the emperor by opposing a plan to effectively extort double tributes out of princes and marquesses — by requiring them to place their tributes on white deer skin, which the central government would sell them at an exorbitantly high price. Later, Yan was falsely accused of committing a crime, and during the investigation, it became known that once, when a friend of Yan's criticized a law promulgated by the emperor, Yan, while not saying anything, moved his lips. Yan was executed for "internal defamation" of the emperor, and this caused the officials to be fearful and willing to flatter the emperor.

Further territorial expansion, old age, and paranoia

Starting about 113 BC, Emperor Wu appeared to begin to display further signs of abusing his power. He began to incessantly tour the commanderies, initially nearby Chang'an, but later extending to much farther places, worshipping the various gods on the way, perhaps again in the search of immortality. He also had a succession of magicians whom he honored with great things, even, in one case, making one a marquess and marrying a daughter to him. (That magician, Luan Da (欒大), after he was exposed to be a fraud, however, was executed. ) Emperor Wu's expenditures on these tours and magical adventures put a great strain on the national treasury and caused difficulties on the locales that he visited, twice causing the governors of commanderies to commit suicide after they were unable to supply the emperor's entire train.

In 112 BC, a crisis in the Kingdom of Nanyue (modern Guangdong , Guangxi , and northern Vietnam) would erupt that would lead to military intervention by Emperor Wu. At that time, the King Zhao Xing (趙興) and his mother Queen Dowager Jiu (樛太后) — a Chinese woman whom Zhao Xing's father Zhao Yingqi (趙嬰齊) had married while he served as an ambassador to Han — were both in favor of becoming incorporated into Han. This was opposed by the senior prime minister Lü Jia (呂嘉), who wanted to maintain the kingdom's independence. Queen Dowager Jiu tried to goad the Chinese ambassadors into killing Lü, but the Chinese ambassadors were hesitant to do so. When Emperor Wu sent a 2,000-men force, led by Han Qianqiu (韓千秋) and Queen Dowager Jiu's brother Jiu Le (樛樂), to try to assist the king and the queen dowager, Lü staged a coup d'etat and had the king and the queen dowager killed. He made another son of Zhao Yingqi, Zhao Jiande (趙建德), king. He then annihilated the Han forces under Han and Jiu. Several months later, Emperor Wu commissioned a five-pronged attack against Nanyue. In 111 BC, the Han forces captured the Nanyue capital Panyu (番禺, modern Guangzhou) and annexed the entire Nanyue territory into Han, establishing ten commanderies.

Later that year, one of the co-kings of Minyue (modern Fujian ), Luo Yushan, fearful that Han would next attack his kingdom, made a preemptive attack against Han, capturing a number of towns in the former Nanyue and in the other border commanderies. In 110 BC, under Han military pressure, his co-king Luo Jugu (駱居古) assassinated Luo Yushan and surrendered the kingdom to Han. However, Emperor Wu did not establish commanderies in Minyue's former territory, but moved its people to the region between Yangtze and Huai Rivers.

Later that year, Emperor Wu, at great expense, carried out the ancient ceremony of fengshan (封禪) at Mount Tai — ceremonies to worship heaven and earth, and to offer a secret petition to the gods of heaven and earth, presumably seeking immortality. (He decreed that he would return to Mount Tai every five years to repeat the ceremony, but only did once, in 98 BC; still, many palaces were built for him and the princes to accommodate the anticipated cycles of the ceremony. )

It was around this time that, in reaction to the large expenditures by Emperor Wu that had exhausted the national treasury, his agricultural minister Sang Hongyang (桑弘羊) conceived of a plan that many dynasties would repeat later, by creating national monopolies for salt and iron. The national treasury would further purchase other consumer goods when the prices were low and sell them when the prices were high at profit, thus replenishing the treasury while at the same time making sure the price fluctuation would not be too great.

In 109 BC, Emperor Wu would start yet another territorial expansion campaign. Nearly a century ago, a Chinese General named Wiman had taken the throne of Gojoseon and had established Wiman Joseon at Wanggeom-seong (王險), modern Pyongyang), which became a nominal Han vassal. A conflict would erupt in 109 BC, when Wei Man's grandson King Ugeo (衛右渠, 위우거) refused to permit Jin's ambassadors to reach China through his territories. When Emperor Wei sent an ambassador She He (涉何) to Wanggeom to negotiate right of passage with King Ugeo, King Ugeo refused and had a general escort She back to Han territory — but when they got close to Han borders, She assassinated the general and claimed to Emperor Wu that he had defeated Joseon in battle, and Emperor Wu, unaware of his deception, made him the military commander of the Commandery of Liaodong (modern central Liaoning ). King Ugeo, offended, made a raid on Liaodong and killed She. In response, Emperor Wu commissioned a two-pronged attack, one by land and one by sea, against Joseon. Initially, Joseon offered to become a vassal, but peace negotiations broke down by the Chinese forces' refusal to let a Joseon force escort its crown prince to Chang'an to pay tribute to Emperor Wu. Han took over the Joseon lands 108BC and established four commanderies.

Also in 109 BC, Emperor Wu sent an expeditionary force against the Kingdom of Dian (modern eastern Yunnan ), planning on conquering it, but when the King of Dian surrendered, Dian was incorporated into Han territory with the King of Dian being permitted to keep his traditional authority and title. Emperor Wu established five commanderies over Dian and the other nearby kingdoms.

In 108 BC, Emperor Wu sent general Zhao Ponu (趙破奴) on a campaign to Xiyu, and he forced the Kingdoms of Loulan (on northeast border of the Taklamakan Desert and Cheshi (modern Turpan, Xinjiang ) into submission. In 105 BC, Emperor Wu gave a princess from a remote collateral imperial line to Kunmo (昆莫), the King of Wusun (Issyk Kol Basin) in marriage, and she later married his grandson and successor Qinqu (芩娶), creating a strong and stable alliance between Han and Wusun. The various Xiyu kingdoms would also strengthen their relationships with Han, in general. An infamous Han war against the nearby Kingdom of Dayuan (Kokand) would soon erupt in 104 BC. Dayuan refused to give in to Emperor Wu's commands to surrender its best horses, Emperor Wu's ambassadors were then executed when they insulted the King of Dayuan after his refusal. Emperor Wu commissioned Li Guangli (李廣利), the brother of a favorite concubine Consort Li, as a general to direct the war against Dayuan. In 103 BC, Li Guangli's army of 26,000 men (20,000 Chinese & 6,000 steppe cavalry), without adequate supplies, suffered a humiliating loss against Dayuan, but in 102 BC, Li with a new army of 60,000 men, was able to put a devastating siege on its capital by cutting off water supplies to the city, forcing Dayuan's surrender 3,000 of its prized horses. This Han victory further intimidated the Xiyu kingdoms into submission.

Emperor Wu also made attempts to try to intimidate Xiongnu into submission, but even though peace negotiations were ongoing, Xiongnu would never actually submit to becoming a Han vassal during Emperor Wu's reign. In 103 BC, indeed, Chanyu Er would surround Zhao Ponu and capture his entire army — the first major Xiongnu victory since Wei Qing and Huo Qubing nearly captured the chanyu in 119 BC. Following Han's victory over Dayuan in 102 BC, however, Xiongnu became concerned that Han could then concentrate against it, and made peace overtures, but peace negotiations would be destroyed when the Han deputy ambassador Zhang Sheng (張勝) was discovered to have conspired to assassinate Chanyu Qiedihou (且鞮侯). The ambassador, the later-famed Su Wu would be detained for two decades. In 99 BC, Emperor Wu commissioned another expedition force aimed at crushing Xiongnu, but both prongs of the expedition force would fail — Li Guangli's forces became trapped but was able to free itself and withdraw, while Li Ling (李陵), Li Guang's grandson, surrendered at the end after being surrounded and inflicting large losses on Xiongnu forces. One year later, receiving an inaccurate report that Li Ling was training Xiongnu soldiers, Emperor Wu had Li's clan executed. Li's friend, the famed historian Sima Qian (whom Emperor Wu already bore a grudge against because Sima's Shiji was not as flattering to Emperor Wu and his father Emperor Jing as Emperor Wu wanted), who tried to defend Li's actions, was castrated.

In 106 BC, in order the further better organize the territories, including both the previously-existing empire and the newly conquered territories, Emperor Wu divided the empire into 13 Regions (zhou, 州), but without governors or prefectural governments at this time — that would come later. Rather, he assigned a supervisor to each prefecture, who would visit the commanderies and principalities in the prefecture on a rotating basis to investigate corruption and disobedience with imperial edicts.

In 104 BC, Emperor Wu built the luxurious Jianzhang Palace (建章宮) — a massive structure that was intended to make him closer to the gods. He would later reside at that palace exclusively rather than the traditional Weiyang Palace (未央宮), which Xiao He had built during the reign of Emperor Gao.

About 100 BC, due to the heavy taxation and military burdens imposed by Emperor Wu's incessant military campaigns and luxury spending, there were many peasant revolts throughout the empire. Emperor Wu issued an edict that was intended at suppressing the peasant revolts, by making officials whose commanderies saw unsuppressed peasant revolts liable with their lives — but which had the exact opposite effect, since it became impossible to suppress all of the revolts, and the officials would merely cover up the existence of the revolts. He executed many people made fake coins.

In 96 BC, a series of witchcraft persecutions would begin. Emperor Wu, who was paranoid over a nightmare of being whipped by tiny stick-wielding puppets and a sighting of a traceless assassin (possibly a hallucination), ordered extensive investigations with harsh punishments. Large numbers of people, many of whom were high officials, were accused of witchcraft and executed, usually with their entire clans. The first trial began with Empress Wei's elder brother-in-law Gongsun He (公孫賀, the Prime Minister at the time) and his son Gongsun Jingsheng (公孫敬聲, also an imperial official, but under corruption charges), quickly leading to the execution of their entire clan. Also caught in this disaster were Crown Prince Ju's two elder sisters Princess Yangshi (陽石公主, who was said to have a romantic relationship with her cousin Gongsun Jingsheng) and Princess Zhuyi (諸邑公主), as well as his cousin Wei Kang (衛伉, the eldest son of the deceased general Wei Qing), who were all accused of witchcraft and executed in 91 BC. Soon, these witchcraft persecutions would become intertwined in the succession struggles and erupt into a major catastrophe.

The Crown Prince Ju revolt

In 94 BC, Emperor Wu's youngest son Liu Fuling was born to a favorite concubine of his, Consort Zhao. Emperor Wu was ecstatic in having a child at such an advanced age (62 years old), and because Consort Zhao purportedly had a post-term pregnancy that lasted 14 months long — same as the mythical Emperor Yao — he named Consort Zhao's palace gate "Gate of Yao's mother". This led to speculations that the Emperor, due to his favor for Consort Zhao and Prince Fuling, wanted to make Liu Fuling the crown prince instead. While there was no evidence that he actually intended to do anything as such, over the next few years, there began to be conspirators against Crown Prince Ju and Empress Wei under the inspiration of such rumors.

Up to this point, there had been a cordial but somehow fragile relationship between Emperor Wu and his crown prince. Even though Emperor Wu, as he grew older, had less and less attraction to Empress Wei, he continued to respect her. Whenever Emperor Wu was outside the capital, he would leave important affairs for Crown Prince Ju to handle, and when he got back to the capital, Emperor Wu usually had no disagreements with Prince Ju's decisions and would not overrule them. However, as Emperor Wu grew older and became more trusting of harsh (sometimes corrupt) officials, Prince Ju, who favored more lenient policies, often advised his father to consider changes to the way he ran the country. This created some annoyance for Emperor Wu as he was disappointed that his son were not as ambitious as he was. Further, after Wei Qing's death in 106 BC and Gongsun He's execution, Prince Ju had no strong allies left in the government, and the officials who disagreed with his lenient attitudes began to publicly defame him and plot against him. Also around this time, Emperor Wu was becoming more and more isolated, spending time mostly with young concubines, away from his sons and Empress Wei, who were often unable to reach him.

One of the conspirators against Prince Ju would be Jiang Chong (江充), the newly appointed head of secret intelligence, who once had a run-in with Prince Ju after arresting one of Prince Ju's assistants for improper use of an imperial right of way. It appears likely that Jiang was behind many of the witchcraft accusations and persecutions against important persons in the Han court. One other conspirator was Su Wen (蘇文), a chief eunuch in charge of caring for imperial concubines. He had previously made false accusations against Prince Ju, that he joyed over the Emperor Wu's illness and committed adultery with the Emperor's junior concubines.

Jiang and Su decided on using witchcraft as the excuse to move against Prince Ju. Jiang, with approval from Emperor Wu, who was then at his summer palace in Ganquan (甘泉, in modern Xianyang, Shaanxi ), searched through various palaces, ostensibly for witchcraft items, eventually reaching Prince Ju's and Empress Wei's palace. While completely trashing up the palaces with intensive digging, he secretly planted witchery dolls and pieces of cloth with mysterious writings, and then announced that he found them there during the search. Prince Ju was shocked, knowing that he was framed. He considered his options, and his teacher Shi De (石德), invoking the story of Ying Fusu and raising the possibility that Emperor Wu might already be deceased, suggested that Prince Ju start an uprising to fight the conspirators. Prince Ju initially hesitated, and wanted to speedily proceed to Ganquan Palace so he could defend himself in front of his father. When he found out that Jiang's messengers were already ahead on their way, he decided to accept Shi's suggestion.

Prince Ju then sent an individual to impersonate a messenger from Emperor Wu to lure and arrest Jiang and his coconspirators — except for Su, who escaped. After they were arrested, Prince Ju accused Jiang of sabotaging the relationship between him and his father, and killed Jiang personally. He then went to Empress Wei's palaces, and with the support of his mother, led his guards and enlisted civilians and prisoners in preparation to defend himself.

Su fled to Ganquan Palace and accused Prince Ju of treason. Emperor Wu, not believing it to be true and correctly (at this point) believing that Prince Ju had merely been angry at Jiang, sent a messenger back to Chang'an to summon Prince Ju. The messenger did not dare to proceed to Chang'an, but instead returned and gave Emperor Wu the false report that Prince Ju was conducting a coup. By now enraged, Emperor Wu ordered his nephew, Prime Minister Liu Qumao (劉屈犛), to put down the rebellion.

The two sides battled in the streets of Chang'an for five days, but Liu Qumao's forces prevailed after it became clear that Prince Ju did not have his father's authorization. Prince Ju was forced to flee the capital following the defeat, accompanied only by two of his sons and some personal guards. Apart from a grandson Liu Bingyi, who was barely a month old and thrown into prison, all other members of his family were left behind and killed, and his mother Empress Wei committed suicide when Emperor Wu sent officials to depose her. Their bodies were carelessly buried in suburban fields without proper tomb markings. Prince Ju's supporters were brutally cracked down, and civilians aiding the Crown Prince were exiled. Even Tian Ren (田仁), an official City Gatekeeper who did not stop Prince Ju's escape, and Ren An (任安), an army commander who chose not to actively participate in the crackdown, were accused of being sympathizers and executed.

Emperor Wu continued to be enraged and ordered that Prince Ju be tracked down, but after a junior official Linghu Mao (令狐茂) risked his life and spoke on Prince Ju's behalf, Emperor Wu's anger began to subside, but he had not yet issued a pardon for Prince Ju. This would later be proven to cost the Crown Prince's life.

Prince Ju fled to Hu County (湖縣, in modern Sanmenxia, Henan ) and took refuge in the home of a poor peasant family. Knowing that their good-hearted hosts could never afford the daily expenditure of so many people, the Prince decided to seek help from an old friend who lived nearby. However, this move exposed their whereabouts, and was soon tracked down by local officials eager for rewards. Surrounded by troops and see no chance of escape, the Prince committed suicide by hanging. His two sons and the family housing them died with him after the government soldiers eventually broke into the yard and killed everyone. The two local officials who led the raid, Zhang Fuchang (張富昌) and Li Shou (李寿), wasted no time to take the Prince's body to Chang'an and claim rewards from Emperor Wu. Emperor Wu, although greatly saddened to hear the death of his son, had to keep his promise and rewarded the officials contributed in the crackdown.

Late reign and death

Even after Jiang Chong and Prince Ju both died, however, the witchcraft affairs would continue. One final prominent victim was the general Li Guangli, who was Consort Li's brother and had prior victories over Dayuan and Xiongnu despite causing unnecessary losses with his military incompetence. In 90 BC, while Li was assigned to a campaign against Xiongnu, a eunuch named Guo Rang (郭穰) exposed that Li and his political ally, Prime Minister Liu Qumao, conspired to use witchcraft on Emperor Wu. Liu and his family were immediately arrested and later executed, and Li's family was also under custody. Li, after knowing the news, realised that going home is no longer an option, so he used risky tactics to attempt a major victory against Xiongnu in order to build up a future standoff against Emperor Wu, but failed when some of his senior officers mutinied. On his retreat, he was ambushed by Xiongnu forces, and he defected to Xiongnu. His clan was executed by Emperor Wu not long after. Li himself later fell victim to the infighting with older Han traitors in Xiongnu, especially one named Wei Lü (衛律), who was extremely jealous of the amount of Chanyu's favor Li gained as a new, high-profile defector.

By this time, however, Emperor Wu had begun to realize that the witchcraft accusations were often false accusations, especially in relation to the Crown Prince rebellion. In 92 BC, when Tian Qianqiu (田千秋), then the superintendent of Emperor Gao's temple, wrote a report claiming that Emperor Gao told him in a dream that Prince Ju should have only been whipped at most, not killed, Emperor Wu had a revelation about what happened, and he had Su burned and Jiang's family executed. He also made Tian prime minister. However, although he claimed to miss Prince Ju greatly (he even built a palace and an altar for his deceased son as a sign of grief and regret), he did not at this time rectify the situation where Prince Ju's only surviving progeny, Liu Bingyi, languished in prison as a child.

The political scene now greatly changed. Emperor Wu publicly self-criticized and apologized to the whole nation about his past policy mistakes, a gesture known to history as the Repenting Edict of Luntai (輪台悔詔). The Prime Minister Tian he appointed was in favor of resting the troops and the people and promoting agriculture, and under his recommendation, several agricultural experts were made important members of the administration. Wars and territorial expansion generally ceased. These policies and ideals were those supported by Crown Prince Ju, and was finally realised years after he was dead.

By 88 BC, Emperor Wu was terminally ill, but with Prince Ju dead, there was no clear successor. Liu Dan, the Prince of Yan, was Emperor Wu's oldest surviving son, but Emperor Wu considered both him and his younger brother Liu Xu, the Prince of Guangling, to be unsuitable, since neither respected laws. He decided that the only one suitable was his youngest son, Liu Fuling, who was only six at that time. He therefore also chose a potential regent in Huo Guang, whom he considered to be capable and faithful, and entrusted Huo with the regency of Fuling. He also ordered the execution of Prince Fuling's mother Consort Zhao, in fear that being at her prime age she would become an uncontrollable empress dowager like the previous Empress Lü. At Huo's suggestion, he also made ethnic Xiongnu official Jin Midi and general Shangguang Jie co-regents. He died in 87 BC, shortly after creating Prince Fuling crown prince. Crown Prince Fuling then succeeded to the throne as Emperor Zhao for the next 13 years.

Because Emperor Wu did not create anyone empress after Empress Wei committed suicide, and left no instruction on who should be enshrined in his temple with him, Huo, after Emperor Wu's death, considered what his wishes would have been, chose to enshrine Consort Li with Emperor Wu. They lie buried in the Maoling mound, the most famous of the so-called Chinese pyramids.


Historians generally treated Emperor Wu with ambivalence. On the one hand, he is recognized for neutralizing the Xiongnu threat and expanding the Chinese territory. During his reign, China roughly doubled her size, and most of the territories he annexed became part of China proper permanently. The empire that Emperor Wu created surpassed in size the contemporaneous Roman Empire. His other, perhaps greater, legacy was the promotion of Confucianism. For the first time in history, Confucianism became the dominant thought in the Chinese government, and it remained so until the overthrow of the monarchy in 1911.

On the other hand, many historians criticize Emperor Wu for his extravagance, superstition, and the burdens his policies forced on the population. As such he is often compared to Qin Shi Huang. Just like Qin Shi Huang he used a legalist system of rewards and punishments to govern his empire. The punishment for perceived failures and disloyalty was often exceedingly harsh. His father paroled many participants of Rebellion of the Seven States from execution, might make some work in his tomb. He killed ten thousands of people and their families related to cases of Liu An (淮南之獄), Hengshan (衡山之獄), and witchcraft prosecution (巫蠱之亂or巫蠱之禍) (also in Prince Ju revolt (戾太子之亂) first killed pro Prince Ju then the anti), tens of thousands people executed in each case. He used some of his wives' relatives to fight Xiongnu, many became famous generals, many's entire families (Wei(衛), Huo(霍), Li(李)) were killed in different political cases later. He also forced his last queen to suicide. Out of the twelve prime ministers appointed by Emperor Wu, three were executed and two committed suicide while holding the post; another was executed in retirement. He set many special prisons (詔獄) and caught nearly two hundred thousand people in it.

Emperor Wu's political reform resulted in the strengthening of the Emperor's power at expense of the prime minister's authority. Also, the post of Shangshu (court secretaries) was elevated from merely managing documents to that of the Emperor's close advisor, and it stayed this way until the end of monarchy era.

Modern Chinese people sometimes call Emperor Wu Han Wu the Great (漢武大帝).


Han Wudi was a patron of literature, who has a number of poems attributed to him. As to poetry, there is general agreement that some of the pieces which have been attributed to him are beautiful and wonderful pieces, particularly those on lost love: there is less agreement on whether these pieces were actually composed by him. The following work is on the death of Li Furen, one of his favorite concubines/wives.

The sound of her silk skirt has stopped.
On the marble pavement dust grows.
Her empty room is cold and still.
Fallen leaves are piled against the doors.
How can I bring my aching heart to rest?

Era names

Jianyuan (建元 py. jiàn yuán) 140 BC – 135 BC

Yuanguang (元光 py. yuán guāng) 134 BC – 129 BC

Yuanshuo (元朔 py. yuán shuò) 128 BC – 123 BC

Yuanshou (元狩 py. yuán shòu) 122 BC – 117 BC

Yuanding (元鼎 py. yuán dĭng) 116 BC – 111 BC

Yuanfeng (元封 py. yuán fēng) 110 BC – 105 BC

Taichu (太初 py. tài chū) 104 BC – 101 BC

Tianhan (天漢 py. tiān hàn) 100 BC – 97 BC

Taishi (太始 py. tài shĭ) 96 BC – 93 BC

Zhenghe (征和 py. zhēng hé) 92 BC – 89 BC

Houyuan (後元 py. hòu yuán) 88 BC – 87 BC

Personal information


Emperor Jing of Han (10th son of)


Empress Wang Zhi


Empress Chen Jiao, deposed 130 BC for witchcraft

Empress Wei Zifu, mother of Crown Prince Li and Princesses Wei the Eldest, Yangshi and Zhuyi


Consort Li Furen, mother of Prince Bo

Consort Wang, mother of Prince Hong

Consort Li Ji, mother of Princes Dan and Xu

Consort Zhao, mother of Emperor Zhao


Princess Wei the Eldest (衛長公主)

Princess Yangshi (陽石公主, executed 91 BC)

Princess Zhuyi (諸邑公主, executed 91 BC)

Liu Ju (劉據), initially Crown Prince Li (戾太子, b. 128 BC, created 122 BC, committed suicide 91 BC after failed uprising)

Liu Bo (劉髆), Prince Ai of Changyi (created 97 BC, d. 86 BC)

Liu Hong (劉閎), Prince Huai of Qi (created 117 BC, d. 109 BC)

Liu Dan (劉旦), Prince La of Yan (created 117 BC, committed suicide 80 BC)

Liu Xu (劉胥), Prince Li of Guangling (created 117 BC, committed suicide 53 BC)

Liu Fuling (劉弗陵), later Emperor Zhao of Han (b. 94 BC, d. 74 BC)


Liu Jin (劉進) (killed 91 BC), son to Liu Ju initially Crown Prince Li and father to Liu Bingyi, later Emperor Xuan of Han

Liu He (劉賀), Prince He of Changyi (d. 59 BC), son to Liu Bo, ascension for throne 74 BC and deposed 27 days later for committing 1127 misconducts

Great Grandchildren

Liu Bingyi (劉病已), later Emperor Xuan of Han (b. 91 BC, d. 49 BC), son to Liu Jin, son of Liu Ju (劉據), initially Crown Prince Li

Last update 07-06-2012

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