Liang Wu-ti (464-549) was probably the most famous and most cultured Chinese emperor of the Southern dynasties, and his reign is generally considered their economic and cultural culmination.
Liang Wu-ti was born Hsiao Yen. He had made a name for himself as a literatus, a general, and a perfect when, in 500, his cousin, the reigning emperor Kaotsu of the Southern Ch'i dynasty, killed Hsiao Yen's elder brother, Hsiao I. In order to avenge his brother's death, and incidentally rid the country of an extremely dissolute sovereign, Hsiao Yen attacked the capital Chien-k'ang (Nanking) and dethroned and killed the Emperor. After a short inter-regnum Hsiao Yen mounted the throne himself as the first emperor of the Liang dynasty on April 30, 502, assuming the name of Liang Wu-ti, or Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty.
In the first half of his reign Emperor Wu devoted himself to his tasks with indefatigable ardor. In particular, he promulgated a series of laws attempting to bring the peasantry back under the authority of the central government and prevent them from being mulcted by the "semifeudal" great families. At the same time he greatly fostered education and traditional Confucian studies, founding a temple of Confucius in the capital in 505 and reopening the state university, appointing five professors, one for each of the five books of the canon, with 100 students for each professor. Wu-ti was attempting in this way to reeducate the idle rich, who had in the past centuries gradually become complete illiterates. In 512 he also reformed the ritual, publishing a new ritual code in 8,019 articles.
Emperor Wu's Confucianism seems to have been mainly educative, for the good of the state; he is much better known for his fervor as a Buddhist. As early as 504, he issued an edict saying that of all the ways to truth, "only the Buddha's was the right one, all the others heterodox: We eschew the heterodox ways in order to serve the Tathagata." He greatly favored the Buddhist clergy, going so far, in 517, as to order the destruction of the Taoist temples. He became a strict vegetarian and prohibited the use of animal victims for the state sacrifices.
Wu-ti's most striking illustration of his attachment to Buddhism was the curious customs he originated on April 24, 527, and that later became common practice. On that date, and two or three times later, he left the secular world by entering the T'ung-t'ai Monastery as a slave. His ministers were then required to ransom him for fantastic sums (cash equivalent of $ 1 billion in 527!) so that he could return to the throne. He came to be called the "Bodhisattva Emperor."
As can be seen by this extravagant game, Emperor Wu's Buddhism, toward the end of his reign, became an obsession and kept him more and more from state affairs. His policies proved dead letters, and his disinterest with the government allowed the ignorant and selfish nobles to quarrel among themselves. The final catastrophe came in the person of a barbarian from the North named Hou Ching, who, although he arrived in the South with only 800 men, was soon able to recruit an army of discontented peasants and slaves large enough to take the capital in 548-549. He so annoyed and tormented the 85-year old emperor that the latter allowed himself to die of hunger on June 7, 549. His appellation was "Shuta." He is sometimes given the posthumous title "Kaotsu."
There is no biography of Liang Wu-ti in English. For background on his life and influence see Kenneth K. S. Ch'en, Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey (1964). For general background consult Joseph Edkins, Chinese Buddhism (1879; 2d ed. 1893; repr. 1968); Chou Hsiang-Kuang, A History of Chinese Buddhism (1956); and Arthur F. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History (1959).