During the late Han dynasty in ancient China, ruler Wu-ti (156 B.C.-87 A.D.) commanded an empire that stretched eastward to Korea and westward through Central Asia reaching present-day Uzbekistan. He instituted the study of Confucius as a state mandate and created a wealthy and culturally advanced empire.
Through periodic alliances with harsher enemies in the west and subjugation of docile southern farming regions in Vietnam, the empire under Wu-ti consisted of most of the world that was known to him. In the lost city at Chang'an, the Han capitol, Wu-ti presided over his land with a firm hand, relentlessly persecuting his enemies while providing allies with gifts intended to enhance their loyalty. In addition to his military achievements, he was able to maintain authority over Chinese institutions provided for a long period of rule, and he is largely responsible for making Confucianism the state-sanctioned dogma employed by many successive dynasties. The empire's expanse under Wu-ti provided ample opportunities for trade, bringing wealth along with advances in the arts and sciences.
Directed Vast Expansion of Chinese Empire
Born Liu Ch'e in 156 B.C., Wu-ti was reportedly the eleventh son of Han emperor Ching-ti and not in line to ascend the throne. When relatives placed heavy political pressure on the emperor lobbying for Liu Ch'e's nomination as crown prince, Wu-ti managed to overtake his ten brothers and won the throne in 140 B.C. The 14 year-old monarch found his autonomy curtailed by a cabinet composed of relatives and various ministers. Though his power was less than absolute, Wu-ti managed to observe the policies pressed upon him by his political tutors and was not moved by their effectiveness. Chinese territory and influence had recently decreased due in part to raids by nomadic tribes in the northwest, and the government capitulated with defensive, conciliatory policies toward its aggressors. The Hsiung-nu and the Yueh-chih, the two offending tribes, were content to make pacts with the Chinese only to break them at will and raid encampments for provisions and weapons.
Under these circumstances, the explorer Chang Ch'ien set out on the journey that would make him the first Chinese to venture into the Middle East, ranking his discoveries on par with explorers such as Magellan and Marco Polo. Wu-ti wanted to convince Yueh-chih tribesmen to side with him and put an end to the Hsiung-nu raids. He ordered Chang Ch'ien to set out in search of the Yueh-chih and deliver his proposition. The epic mission included a 12-year term as a prisoner of the Hsiung-nu, and when he finally found the Yueh-chih in northwest India, they had found a rich land to tend and presided over their imperial vision upon parts of Central Asia.
The travels of Chang Ch'ien served a purpose more important than historical to Wu-ti. He ordered large armies to follow in Chang Ch'ien's wake, conquering and looting their way across Asia. These armies also opened a valuable trade route connecting east and west, which allowed raw goods and exotic luxury items to pass between the many cultures along the way. While Chang Ch'ien was away, Wuti outgrew his handlers and became a strong leader in his own right. He withdrew offers of concessions and instead charged thousands of mounted troops with implementing his will. In 133 B.C., Wu-ti launched an attack against the Hsiung-nu that provided the first of many victories to come. Thirty years later, his forces overran Fergana, an ancient empire in Uzbekistan, marking his domination over all but the most distant civilizations. At his greatest, Emperor Wu-ti commanded troops from southern Vietnam to northern Korea and westward into the far reaches of Asia, recapturing the glory of the empire's grandest days and setting territorial and cultural precedents that would not be met again for several centuries when the Tang dynasty rebuilt a stagnant nation.
Empire Witnessed Cultural Advance
Wu-ti's military exploits set the stage for tremendous growth in Chinese culture. By appropriating much of Confucianism into an encompassing state religion, Wu-ti's government became the first to officially acknowledge Confucius' philosophy, even if it was politically filtered, to further establish the moral authority of the emperor. "What the state religion actually had in common with Confucian ideas was respect for the good old days and for the ancient values said to have been endorsed by the founding fathers of Chinese civilization. But the antiquity of many of these beliefs was counterfeit," wrote Chinese historian Edward Schafer.
Under Wu-ti's Han dynasty significant intellectual and scholarly work was done. The Han emperors employed countless scribes whose work was to codify the ancient myths, legends, and rituals. Among the works completed in the era was the I Ching, or Book of Changes, a collection of ancient proverbs and the first extensive treatment of the dual concepts of yin and yang. These ideas, central to much of Chinese philosophy, governed the two fundamental forces of the universe. The yin (translated as "shaded") regulated all that was dark, cold, female, and submissive. The winter season was thought to be the annual zenith of yin while the summer was the dominant season for yang. All that was warm, bright, and male was under the control of yang (translated as "sunlit"). Under the Han dynasty, an elaborate system of categorization was worked out classifying nearly every creature, territory, and substance as either a force of yin or yang. The practice of alchemy also emerged when Li Shao-Chun first claimed to have turned cinnabar into gold around 100 B.C., nearly a thousand years before medieval Europeans were lured by its promise of wealth and eternal life.
In classic Chinese mythology, the earth was divided into "Nine Mansions," each represented in a diagram handed down from Heaven. The diagram showed a square divided into nine equal regions, each containing a single number, one through nine. When the numbers from any three squares in a row were added, the sum was 15. This unity of form was thought to encapsulate one of nature's most divine secrets and the mystical plan was used by later emperors, including the Han, in constructing the capitol city at Chang'an. The Nine Mansions, as the ultimate map of the world, pointed in the eight cardinal directions on the compass, with the ninth reserved for the location of the "Son of Heaven," or emperor. In Wu-ti's case, this Mansion was Chang'an. He built a magnificent palace in the city decorated with jewels and paintings of the Chinese pantheon. The city itself featured wide avenues lined by fruit trees and was guarded by earthen walls 17-feet thick. Chang'an also boasted opulent gardens that served as royal hunting preserves as well as numerous temples and monasteries inhabited by Taoists, Buddhists, and Persian worshippers of Zoroaster. Its residents also enjoyed bath houses, libraries, and two thriving market places.
Managed Economic Reform With Customary Harsh Measures
Wu-ti's expansive conquest, together with his civil building projects, weakened the royal treasuries. Consequently, he was forced to raise taxes, a historically unpopular practice. Wu-ti took firm measures in domestic affairs to stabilize the empire's economy by issuing a standard currency, setting up state monopolies for the production of many commodities, and forcing nobles to purchase their rank for vast sums of money. While many of his economic reforms were successful, foreign policy was less receptive to his dictums. On the northwestern front, the Hsiung-nu were becoming more difficult to keep at bay, and their mounted archers grew increasingly more aggressive as they sensed imperial weakness. Wu-ti had long been known as a harsh ruler, and when one provincial general was forced to surrender to Hsiung-nu, he ordered the man castrated, effectively terminating his family's future nobility by making it impossible to bear a son. The threat from barbaric tribes at the empire's edges was a significant one for Wu-ti because the Chinese enjoyed a substantial trade surplus with their Western neighbors. Cultures as far away as Rome coveted Chinese silk, making its export a prominent contributor to the imperial treasury.
With a state struggling for stability, Wu-ti entered the last years of his life facing an additional problem—who to name as his successor. Court intrigue left his first-born son convicted of witchcraft against the state, and was therefore ineligible for the throne. Wu-ti decided upon his eight-year-old son as the heir apparent. To reduce the threat of undue influence on the next emperor from relatives of his empress (a former slave elevated to the status of courtesan and finally claimed by Wu-ti as his wife for her docility and subservience), Wu-ti ruthlessly ordered the slaying of her relatives, assuring his son a government unfettered by personal rivalry. Nearing the end of his life, Wu-ti developed a strong interest in the mystics that paraded before the court. He offered lavish rewards to any of them that could put him in touch with spirits capable of granting him eternal life. He became very interested in alchemist's claims of offering a measure of immortality through the manipulation of divine substances. When he died in 87 A.D., he left behind a vast empire and an authoritarian tradition duplicated by many later dynasties, but Wu-ti's place in history is secured largely by his military victories.
Further Reading on Wu-ti
Schafer, Edward H., Ancient China, Time Life Books, 1967. Fairbank, John K., China: A New History, Harvard University Press, 1992.
Reischauer, Edwin O., and John K. Fairbank, East Asia: The Great Tradition, Houghton Mifflin, 1958.