20080216-wudi0007 ch pg.jpg
One rendering of Emperor Wu di
Emperor Wu Di (140-87 B.C.) is regarded is one of China's greatest emperors. Known as the “martial emperor," he ruled for 54 years beginning at the age of 16, and elevated Confucianism to a cultural philosophy, royal religion and state cult and presided over a period of achievement and prosperity. He was also known for having a terrible temper. He once killed his cousin with a board game after a quarrel. On another occasion, he ordered that the historian Sima Qian be castrated after he stood up for a disgraced general.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ Emperor Wu’s reign was a defining period of the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- A.D. 8), characterized by territorial expansion, rapid growth of overland trade along the “Silk Road” to Central Asia, and the consolidation of the intellectual heritage of Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, and yin-yang theory. Dong Zhongshu played a significant role in developing and articulating a philosophical synthesis which, while taking Confucianism as its basis, incorporated Daoist and Legalist ideas and the concepts of yin and yang.”

Wu-di marked turning points in Han social, political, and intellectual cultures. During his rule China was stable and secure, harvests were good, Confucian academies were established all over China and the treasury was full. One historian wrote “every family had enough to get along on." According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Poetry, literature, and philosophy flourished...The monumental Shiji (Historical Records) written by Sima Qian (145–80 B.C.) set the standard for later government-sponsored histories. Among many other things, it recorded information about the various peoples, invariably described as "barbarian," who lived on the empire's borders. Wudi also established Confucianism as the basis for correct official and individual conduct and for the educational curriculum. The reliance of the bureaucracy on members of a highly educated class grounded in Confucian writings and other classics defined China's statecraft for many centuries. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org\^/]

Dr. Robert Eno wrote: “During the period of Wu-di’s long reign, the political and intellectual structures that formed the foundation of the long-lived entity we refer to as Imperial China were essentially completed. Although any line that we draw to separate historical periods always represents an overstatement – complex societies do not change overnight – and it is also true that some eras of later Chinese history depart from the models suggested by the Han of 100 B.C., nevertheless, if we must select a date to mark the full formation of the patterns of China’s imperial state, the closing years of Wu-di’s reign is an excellent choice...“Another reason for considering Wu-di’s reign to constitute the end of ancient Chinese history is that the greatest chronicler of that era, the historian Sima Qian, died in the closing years of Wu-di’s reign, about 90 B.C. Our vision of ancient China has been overwhelmingly shaped by the perspective of this one man.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Good Websites and Sources: Wikipedia ; Early Imperial China e-asia.uoregon.edu ; National Geographic article nationalgeographic.com ; Battle of Red Cliff Wikipedia

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; 4) Ancient China Life ancientchinalife.com ; 5) Ancient China for School Kids elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; Books: Cambridge History of China Vol. 1, The Ch’in and Han Empires (Cambridge University, 1986); The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties by Jessica Rawson (British Museum, 1996); “Early Chinese Religion” edited by John Lagerwey & Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: 2009); A fully annotated translation of the “Shiji” text appears in William Nienhauser, et al., The Grand Scribe’s Records (Bloomington), v. 1. According to Dr. Robert Eno: “The principal source for the information here is Sima Qian’s “Shiji”. Translations for all “Shiji” passages are based on the standard text edition (Zhonghua shuju) and have been made in light of the scholarly translations in William Nienhauser et al., The Grand Scribe’s Records, Vol. 1 (Indiana University, 1995), and Burton Watson’s fine literary translation, Records of the Grand Historian, Vol. 1 (Columbia University, 1961; rev. 1993). For an overview of the events of the civil war period, see Michael Loewe, “The Former Han Dynasty,” in The Cambridge History of China: The Ch’in and Han Empires (Cambridge University, 1986), pp. 110-19.

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History)

Paradox of Wu-di's Policies

Dr. Eno wrote: “Wu-di was the strongest of all Han emperors, and his power and accomplishments rank with those of the First Emperor of the Qin. Wu-di restructured the government and the economy of the Han and enormously expanded the territory of China. His resemblance to the First Emperor does not end with the magnitude of his political achievements. Like the First Emperor, he was also a superstitious and suspicious man, who, in the course of his long reign, made his own attainment of personal immortality a primary objective of state policy. At the close of his reign, the driving energy of his political and personal goals dissolved in terrible failure, as an exhausted state faced financial ruin and the imperial family lay devastated by bizarre witch hunts and murder. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

another rendering of Wu Di

“The foremost historian of the early Han, Michael Loewe, of Cambridge University in England, has characterized Wu-di’s reign as a battle between two opposing philosophies of government, which he calls Modernist and Reformist (in a rather conservative sense), but which have traditionally been referred to as Legalist and Confucian. Loewe is correct in seeking to evade the complex overtones of the traditional terminology in clarifying the nature of the political forces of Wu-di’s time and the way in which they establish the future contours of Chinese politics. But for our purposes it makes sense to retain the older terms, which locate the tensions of Wu-di’s reign in the context of the prior evolution of Chinese society. /+/

On the largest scale, we may characterize Wu-di’s reign as a period of outright contradiction. During this time, Confucianism became the state-sponsored orthodoxy of the Han and the sole form of acceptable discourse in government. Concurrently, the goals of the state returned to the ideals of Legalism, stressing economic policies designed to enlarge the state treasury, expanded centralized power and the size of the state, and exalt the person of the emperor. Wu-di himself energetically guided the development of both of these trends. He consciously selected Confucianism as the chosen ideology of his court and the blueprint for a new form of government. But he placed at the head of his government individuals who would employ this new form of government to pursue the goals of the Legalist state. Confucianism was, for him, a tool in the pursuit of Legalist ends. /+/

“Wu-di pursued his goals without restraint, and this led to the exhaustion of the country and a subsequent period of contraction, already underway at the time of his death. Nevertheless, the apparent contradiction of a Confucian government pursuing Legalist goals on behalf of an autocrat became the standard structure of imperial Chinese governments for two thousand years. /+/

“Loewe has maintained that there actually exists no evidence that Wu-di was a dynamic force at court at any period. He has noted that all significant features of the emperor's reign could be attributed to his ministers' initiative, since the historical accounts portray most policy discussion through ministerial memorials. This view would, however, be equally applicable to the First Emperor; intriguing as Loewe’s idea is, the interpretation followed here is that the apparent silence of the emperor is more likely to be a function of conventions of history writing than of his actual passivity.”

Establishment of Confucianism Under Wu Di

Dr. Eno wrote: “The rise of Confucianism to state orthodoxy under Wu-di was most likely a direct reaction against the influence of Huang-Lao adherents at court. Wu-di’s father, Jing-di, was dominated by his own mother, Empress Dou. The empress dowager was an active patron of Huang-Lao and a commanding personality. Under Jing-di, Huang-Lao and Legalist ministers enjoyed a near monopoly of power. Jing-di died young and Wu-di came to the throne when he was only about sixteen. His grandmother continued to exert great influence at court, but certain ministers who were not part of her closest group of advisors began to look towards the new emperor as a possible counter-weight to the empress. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Judging by his later career, Wu-di came to the throne with a deep appreciation of his own magnificence. It must have been difficult for a person so convinced of his own abilities to contemplate the power of his grandmother.* In the initial years of his reign, proposals came from several sources suggesting the wisdom of enlarging the role of Confucian adherents at court, and these probably led Wu-di to ponder how such policies might over time provide him with an entirely new staff of ministers and administrators, beholden to none but the emperor himself. Even before his grandmother’s death he went so far as to order the institutionalization of Confucian appointments among the court erudites (a policy we will discuss further in a subsequent section). After the Empress Dou died in 135, Wu-di acted swiftly. /+/

“The empress had only been dead a few months when Wu-di issued a proclamation that called for the large scale recruitment of new personnel for the government. The procedures developed for this recruitment drive specifically linked the requirements for candidates to virtues praised by Confucians and, more importantly, to training in Confucian classical studies. Shortly thereafter, the emperor adopted a further set of policies which banned from court service all those devoted to the teachings of Huang-Lao or Legalism, and made Confucianism the exclusive ideology of the bureaucracy. In so doing, the emperor completely freed himself from the influence of those whose true loyalties lay with his grandmother and brought to power a group of outsiders who owed their power, prestige, and wealth exclusively to Wu-di.” Thus “the establishment of Confucianism as a state ideology was at the outset most likely tied to the politics of court, rather than to any ethical convictions on the part of Wu-di, or even any belief that Confucianism was, by nature, a well designed tool for governing the state.” /+/

Expansion Under Emperor Wu Di

Under Emperor Wu Di, the boundaries of China expanded north into Mongolia, west into Turkestan, east into Korea and south into Indochina. In many cases the Han expanded to head off threats and to create a buffer zone around the Han heartland. After lands were conquered settlers were encouraged to move there to firm up China's claim on the land. Today "Han" Chinese make up 92 percent of China's 1.2 billion people.

Zhang Qian

The Chinese empire was expanded to an area more or less the same as present-day China by establishing command districts in Korea and much of Central Asia. Expansion to the south and west helped establish land and sea trade routes to India, southeast Asia and the Middle East.

"Expansion beyond the gate," a term referring to growth of the Chinese empire beyond the western end of the Great Wall, helped the Han secure power over a caravan route through Central Asia which developed into the Silk Road. To defend their vast territories in present-day western China the Han built chains of earthen watchtowers that were used to send signals of approaching invaders. The tallest of these towers was 15 meters high. Wu Di sent his emissary Zhang Qian on a westwards journey along the Silk Road to forge diplomatic and military ties in Central Asia. Among the treasures he brought back were the famed “heavenly horses” of the Fergana Valley.

The greatest challenge to the Han dynasty came from the Xiongu, a Mongol-like nomadic people in the northwest of the Han empire. The Chinese beefed up the Great Wall to keep them out; presented them with Han princesses as gifts to appease them---but to no avail. In 133 B.C. there was a great battle between Han and Xiongu in which “the men and horses killed on the Han side amounted to over a hundred thousand."

Dr. Eno wrote: “In terms of his goals for the Han state, territorial expansion and hegemony over all of mainland East Asia seems to have been the focus of Wu-di’s reign. Wu-di was the first Han emperor to rule without significant threat from the feudal kingdoms established by the dynasty’s founder, and he was looking for new worlds to conquer – this is why his posthumous title was Wu-di, “the Martial Emperor.” In particular, the policies of appeasement by means of which the Chinese had for decades tried to buy peace with the Xiongnu did not suit Wu-di’s vision of his own sovereignty. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“In recruiting a new force of government personnel, Wu-di and his highest advisors made sure that many of those admitted to policy making posts were not overly tainted by any pacifist tendencies that Confucianism might have introduced to the process. While Confucian scholars were entrusted with the efficient administration of the empire, the men who shaped the basic policies of the state were active militarists. Their principal goal was the elimination of the Xiongnu and the stretching of China’s borders. /+/

Western Expansion of China Under Wu Di

Dr. Eno wrote: “The first step in preparing for this expansion was taken as early as 139 B.C., when Wu-di authorized a reconnaissance expedition to the far west by a courtier named Zhang Qian. Zhang journeyed for many years deep into Central Asia, increasing Chinese awareness of distant lands many fold. After Zhang’s return, by which time Wu-di had long become comfortable on the throne, it was determined that China would pursue an aggressive policy to subjugate the various kingdoms that lay along the route of Zhang’s travels. This policy naturally entailed the pacification of the Xiongnu confederacy as well. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Han Civilization

“Over the course of Wu-di’s reign, the Chinese launched a series of campaigns into Central Asia. To support these campaigns, garrisons were established in the northwestern corridor beyond the boundaries of early Han China which today constitutes western Gansu 4 Province, as far as Dunhuang. The Great Wall was extended westward and a series of watchtowers was constructed out into the desert. The Han armies marched through these regions and out into the Tarim Basin and the Tianshan Mountains. The petty kingdoms encountered by the armies were usually conquered without much difficulty, although a few were able to mount a resistance firm enough to lead the Han generals to bypass them. Ultimately, Han armies executed successful operations as far west as modern Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (go to Tajikistan and turn right). /+/

“The principal goals of the expedition were to extend the garrisoned outposts of China, to establish colonial posts of administration and reconnaissance in the far west, and to transform the peoples of Central Asia, who had previously been under the influence of the Xiongnu, into tributary states of China, ready to serve as allies in China’s struggle against the Xiongnu. /+/

“These western expeditions were coupled with direct attacks on the Xiongnu. The success of these was not uniform, and some of the greatest of Han generals found themselves unable to prevail against large armies of nomads so far from their own bases of supply. However, the wars of Wu-di’s reign seem to have begun the disintegration of the Xiongnu confederacy, which never again exerted the sort of pressure on China that it previously had. /+/

“An indirect benefit of these military policies was the creation of what later became known as the “Silk Road” in Central Asia. This commercial route roughly paralleled the path of Zhang Qian’s first expedition. Its military function gave way to a stream of merchant caravans that brought silk to the West and Western goods and peoples to China. While it was Wu-di’s armies that first opened this route, its contributions to Chinese civilization are better studied in the context of post-Han civilization, by which time Western imports, which included such unanticipated commodities as Buddhism, came to have an enormous impact on Chinese culture.” /+/

Costs of Expansion Under Wu-di

Dr. Eno wrote: “ Apart from the campaigns to the northwest, Wu-di also sent military forces to the southwest and south, northeast, and southeast, all followed by administrators and farmers sent to colonize the newly pacified regions. In the southwest, Zhang Qian again played an important role, setting forth on a second set of expeditions. The result was the colonization of lands stretching from the Sichuan Basin to the middle reaches of the Mekong River Valley, along the eastern edge of the Himalayas. In the south, Chinese forces pushed through the jungles of Vietnam well below present-day Hanoi. In the northeast, the greater portion of Korea was turned into a Han military colony, where recruits and their families were stationed as soldier-farmers to maintain a stable Chinese presence. In the southeast, the mountain fastnesses of the southeast coast were explored (with the exception of the area of modern Fujian Province) and outposts established in the river valleys. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Wu-di’s accomplishments brought military security to China, and made a vast area of the world aware for the first time of the magnificence of Chinese civilization. Wu-di had the satisfaction of receiving as ambassadors and submissive tributaries representatives from all of North, East, and Central Asia. Chinese culture was much enriched by these contacts with non-Chinese civilizations. However, Wu-di stretched China’s resources very thin, and during the latter years of his reign, the economic well being of the state was significantly weakened. The excessive scale of many of his armies’ campaigns, and the occasions upon which they suffered humiliating defeats also spawned a significant pacifist movement within the government. After all, the Confucian-trained bureaucracy was able to detect little in Wu-di’s foreign policies that reflected the values of its intellectual tradition, apart, perhaps, from the sacred principle that China was good and “barbarians” bad. /+/

“At the close of his reign, the direction of Chinese government was already turning inward towards reaction and retrenchment, and subsequent Han rulers paid a price for Wu-di’s undertakings. The burden that Wu-di’s ventures placed upon the people was captured incomparably by a much later writer, the eighth century poet Du Fu, who had reason to see the shadow of Wu-di’s influence in his own troubled times. In the following poem – included here with absolutely no historiographic justification – Du Fu gave the common people of the Han a voice which goes unheard in the historical texts. /+/

Song of the Army Carts by Du Fu

Rattling carts and
Whinnying steeds,
Marching, bows slung by their sides;
Their fathers and mothers and children and wives
run by their ranks –
The Bridge of Xianyang all lost in the dust –
And catch at their clothes and clutch at their feet,
and stand in the roadway and cry.

Their cries rise up and strike the clouds.

By the roadside, a passerby questions
the marching men,
Who can only reply, “They call us often now:
Some were called at fifteen to guard the River north,
At forty still they tilled the fortress fields,
Sent off so young the village headmen had to wrap
the cloths about the heads
That came home white, only to return again
to the garrison frontier.

At border posts the flowing blood is like the sea –
Yet the Martial Emperor does not cease
to press the borders back.

Haven’t you heard of the two hundred counties
east of the mountains in Han,
Where the thorns of the briars have overgrown
ten thousand hamlets and towns?
Even where a sturdy wife may ply the hoe and plough,
The grain lies over patchwork fields
with borders overgrown.

Worse still it is for troops from Qin,
so able in bitter war,
Driven to and fro, no different than dogs
or flocks of farmyard fowl.

You are so good as to ask us, sir,
Yet how dare we reply?
In a winter such as this
When western forces have no rest,
Desperate magistrates will demand their taxes,
And where will these come from?
Yes, we’ve learned that bearing sons is bad,
And bearing daughters good:
Your daughters can marry your neighbors,
But your sons will lie buried beneath the wild grasses.

My lord, have you never been to the ends of Qinghai,
Where none come to gather bleached bones long dead,
And the fresh spirits fret, and the old spirits weep,
And the dark rain is full of their twittering cries?”

Economic Policies of Wu-di

Dr. Eno wrote: “Wu-di’s ambitious foreign ventures, along with extensive ritual expenditures that we will discuss below, required a well provided imperial treasury. Wu-di was fortunate that his father and grandfather had been thrifty rulers of an expanding state economy. Their efforts furnished Wu-di with ample funds to initiate his various schemes. As his reign progressed, however, this cushion was soon depleted and the government had to take new measures to raise funds, some of which were controversial. All of these initiatives were designed to increase the control of the state over the economic life of China. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“The History of the Former Han assesses the economic trends of Wu-di’s reign in the following terms: “Up to the beginning of the reign of Wu-di, the nation had passed seventy years without upheaval; excepting occasions of flood or drought, the needs of individuals and families were well supplied. The state granaries for major cities and outlying districts alike were filled to the brim, and government treasuries and warehouses overflowed with goods. In the capital, the stores of cash had accumulated by the hundreds of millions, and lain so long unused that the strings threading them had rotted away and the coins lay in piles beyond calculation. The grain of the Grand Granary rose new layer upon old, until it overflowed and spilled into the open, where it spoiled, no longer fit to eat. [Source: “Han shu”14A.1135-37 <=>]

“The common people, whether living in broad streets or narrow lanes, owned horses then, and they would ride out in trains along the paths between the fields, scorning any so base as to ride a mare with foal. Gatekeepers in the villages and town neighborhoods ate grain fed meat. Lowly clerks could count on retaining positions as their sons and grandsons grew to manhood, and officials were so secure that their families took their offices as surnames. People everywhere behaved with self-respect and treated lawbreaking as a weighty offense. To act with righteousness was their priority, and those who committed shameful deeds were cast out. But later, the nets of the law were slackened and some who profited by this became rich. Their control of wealth led them to arrogance and excess, to the point where thugs in the service of local magnates who had bought up lands and property would rule like tyrants in rural villages. Landowners among the imperial clan and nobles of the realm from high ministers on down competed in excess and extravagance, their mansions, carriages, and robes no longer bound by the stipulated limits of status. <=>

“What flourishes must decline – how inevitable is the law of change! As time passed, with expenditures to maintain peace with foreign tribes beyond the borders and contention for wealth and acclaim within them, the rising pressures on conscripted labor and tax expenditures mounted in tandem until the people were drawn away from their fundamental task of agriculture.” <=>

When the levees of the Yellow River were breached in 132 B.C., floods occurred in 16 districts and a new channel was opened in the middle of the plain. Ten of millions of peasants were affected. The break remained for 23 years until Emperor Wu-di visited the scene and supervised its repair.

Banliang coins

New Taxes and Coinage and State Monopolies Under Wudi

Dr. Eno wrote: “Wen-di had abolished the tax on production, retaining only poll, property, and labor taxes. Under Jing-di, the tax on production had been restored, but at the low rate of three percent. In order to finance his military expeditions, Wu-di raised the rate of the poll tax and instituted a series of new taxes, including a sales tax, a tax on vehicles, and new areas of property tax. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Prior to the reign of Wu-di, coinage was the product of a combination of government and private minting. Naturally, coinage was a potentially profitable way of financing government projects. By debasing coinage (through changing the alloys used or slightly reducing the size) the government could create more cash for itself. Wu-di ordered that all coinage henceforward be a government monopoly, thereby ensuring that there would be no competing mints that gave better value in their coins, or shared the profits of debasement. /+/

Apart from the monopoly on coinage, the Han government also imposed state monopolies on two lucrative and growing industries that had previously been largely under private control: salt and iron. Both salt and iron were extracted from mines and emperor Wu-di ordered that all such mines pass into the hands of the government. /+/

“From the late Warring States period on, salt and iron had become the most profitable manufacturing industries in China. By placing them under government monopoly, Wu-di was insuring for his court enormous revenues and influence on the economic life of China. The monopoly policy, however, became a flashpoint of political controversy, as it violated several features of the Confucian view of proper government. /+/

“Confucians were consistent in their belief that the only truly healthy forms of economic activity were the cultivation of crops and the manufacture of silk. While Warring States thinkers such as Xunzi had reconciled these ideas with much more complex views of economic life, there was during the early Han a substantial group of Confucian scholar-officials whose economic views were rooted in the Neolithic. They viewed Wu-di’s endorsement of “legalistic” policies such as the monopolies as a form of apostasy. /+/

“These issues did not fully emerge into view until six years after Wu-di’s reign, at which time a grand court debate was convened that pitted these Confucian conservatives against their technocratic enemies (all of whom were, by then, graduates of the Confucian academy!). These “Salt and Iron Debates” were recorded in summary transcripts that we possess today. They are excellent sources concerning the gradual dismantlement of many of Wu-di’s policies, but since they fall beyond the close of this course, we will not consider them further. It is sufficient to note that the monopolies and associated economic policies were largely responsible for growing Confucian disaffection with Wu-di during the course of his long reign.” /+/

Sima Qian on Wu-di's Superstitions

Dr. Eno wrote: “Sima Qian did not write an annals of the reign of Wu-di, during whose time he flourished and died. There is such a section preserved in the “Shiji”, but after a few sentences it breaks off. There is plenty of information about Wu-di scattered throughout the book, however, and we can reconstruct a good picture of the emperor’s achievements and of his personal qualities. The most complete portrait appears in the chapter entitled “Monograph on the fengshan Sacrifices,” in which matters of religious practice are discussed. It is an odd place for Sima Qian to have lodged the greater portion of his own sovereign’s portrait, but not as odd as the portrait itself. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“The “Shiji” makes it plain that Wu-di was a superstitious fool. This is not a conclusion the reader reaches through subtle interpretation. It is plainly stated. Of course, as we will see later, towards the tortured end of his life, Sima Qian had good reason to wish to leave to posterity the ugliest possible picture of Wu-di. If that was his goal, he did not fail. Sima Qian closes his annals of the reign of Wu-di’s grandfather Wen-di by noting that despite Wen-di’s many good works, he was too “modest” to take it upon himself to mount the fengshan sacrifices, about which the First Emperor had made so great a fuss. This was a sign, Sima Qian remarks, that Wen-di was ren. /+/

“By contrast, the “Shiji” tells us that when Wu-di came to the throne, the very first thing he did was to appoint men to prepare to mount these most sacred sacrifices, which involved a massive procession to the east coast. But Wu-di’s grandmother, Empress Dou, was still alive, and she summoned these men to court and charged them with various crimes. The men chose to commit suicide rather than undergo the dishonor they foresaw, and that was the end of Wu-di’s attempts at religious control during the lifetime of his grandmother. After her death, when Wu-di became master of his own actions, we see him engage in a series of bizarre religious escapades.” /+/

Wu di’s Court Charlatans

20111125-aisa obscura taoist  gods atdongyue-temple-15.jpg
Demon in a Taoist Temple
Dr. Eno wrote: “Li Shaojun was an immortalist who appeared at court early in Wu-di’s reign. He preached a religious message centered on the god of the kitchen and associated dietary regimens. These, he said, could yield immortality. Claiming that he himself was an old man, despite his apparent youth, he charmed many members of the elite and was brought before the emperor for an audience. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“The emperor quickly became convinced of Li’s spiritual abilities. Li told him, “If you sacrifice to the kitchen god you can summon the spirits and transform cinnabar into gold. If you 1fashion eating vessels of this gold, you will prolong your life. Then you can visit the immortals who live on the island of Penglai in the middle of the sea. If you visit them and perform the fengshan sacrifices, you will never die. The emperor did as Li said and dispatched fangshi practitioners to search out the immortals in Penglai. Li Shaojun soon died, but the emperor believed that he was only transformed, and continued to have faith in his teachings, though none of the men he sent off to sea managed to get to Penglai. The success of Li Shaojun led many fangshi to the Han court in search of imperial patronage, and the emperor became an easy mark. /+/

“In 121 B.C., a fangshi from Qi named Shaoweng (The Young Geezer) used shamanistic arts to gain the confidence of the emperor. He was able to summon the spirit of one of Wu-di’s favorite consorts, recently deceased, as well as the kitchen god. The emperor, who was separated from them only by a curtain, was deeply moved. He made Shaoweng an honorary general and a very rich man. /+/

“Shaoweng convinced the emperor to construct large and expensive palace buildings dedicated to religious ceremonies. After a time, however, Shaoweng went too far. He fed to an ox a piece of silk on which he had written certain predictions, and then, in a trance, divined that the spirits had sent a message to the emperor by means of the ox’s intestines. When these were explored, the writing was found. The emperor, however, recognized the handwriting. Because of the embarrassment of the entire affair, the emperor ordered that Shaoweng’s execution be kept secret.” /+/

Spiritual Princesses of Wu Di

Dr. Eno wrote: “The emperor’s maternal grandmother had been a devotée of a particular cult that honored a shamaness of the capital regions. Soon after his grandmother’s death, Wu-di built this shamaness a shrine on the imperial palace grounds. Later he installed another shamaness in the new religious precincts that Shaoweng had convinced him to build. These two women were known as the Spiritual Princesses. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“In 118 B.C., the emperor fell gravely ill, and shamans were called to attend to him. He sent to the latter of the two Spiritual Princesses asking for her diagnosis. She sent to him a message that he should not be concerned about his sickness, but that when he felt up to it, he should visit her. The emperor did, in fact, improve shortly, and when he followed her request and went to see her, he was soon completely cured. /+/

“It turned out that the Spiritual Princess had excellent connections. Important deities frequently spoke to the emperor through her, and would even host him at meals, though they required the Spiritual Princess to do the actual serving. Occasionally, the Spiritual Princess summoned down these deities in their own form so that they could converse with the emperor directly, separated only by a curtain. /+/

Sima Qian concludes his account of this episode as follows. “The emperor ordered that whatever the Spiritual Princess said should be recorded word for word by a secretary and titled “Outline of the Law.” What she actually said was simply lore known to all and sundry, without anything the least bit extraordinary. But they delighted the emperor deep in his heart. The whole affair was kept secret, and people knew nothing about it.” [Source: Shiji 28.1388-89]

Wu Di and the Affair of Luan Da

Dr. Eno wrote: “In 113 B.C., a queen of one of the feudal kingdoms recommended to the emperor a magician named Luan Da. Luan had studied with the same teacher as had Shaoweng, but, because the emperor now regretted having killed Shaoweng without first learning all his arts, he greeted the arrival of Luan Da with enthusiasm. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Luan Da confessed to the emperor that the fate of Shaoweng had discouraged him and kept him from coming to the capital to offer his own humble abilities. Apart from being able to turn cinnabar to gold and commune with the immortals (who he said had specifically declined to give him their secrets until he was in the service of the emperor), he also claimed the power to repair a break in the Yellow River dikes that was at the time plaguing the regions of the northern plain. Wu-di assured Luan Da that he had been misinformed about his predecessor. “Shaoweng happened to eat some poisoned liver,” said the emperor, “that’s all.”

“Luan Da’s insistence that he had been unable to receive from the immortals their secret arts only because he had not appeared to them as a high ranking envoy of the Son of Heaven was convincing to Wu-di. Within a few months, Luan Da was wearing simultaneously the emblems of six different offices of high general. Wu-di issued a proclamation that spoke of the great flood-tamer Yu, and announced that Luan Da had been created a marquis and would soon be solving all problems of water conservancy concerning the Yellow River. At midnight ceremonies ritually designed to indicate that Luan Da was the equal rather than the subject of the emperor, he was invested with the most honored symbols of imperial trust. He was presented with a palace at the capital, a thousand servants, ten thousand catties of gold, and a daughter of the emperor to boot. In consequence, according to Sima Qian, “There was hardly a man on the eastern seacoast who did not begin waving his arms about agitatedly, proclaiming that he possessed secret arts and could command spirits and immortals.”

“Luan Da set forth on his journey to the immortals, traveling first to Shandong, where he was to embark on a voyage to the elusive isle of Penglai. After a period of time, however, Wu-di noticed that he had not got word from Luan Da, so he sent some officers of the court off to learn what had become of him. They reported that Luan was living near Mt. Tai, where he was often seen offering sacrifices to the spirits. He had not, however, been sighted in the company of any spiritual beings, and had, moreover, made no plans to set sail. Sima Qian reports, “Since it seemed that Luan Da’s magical powers were exhausted, the emperor had him executed.”

Fengshan Sacrifice of 110 B.C.

Mt. Tai
Dr. Eno wrote: “Wu-di waited twenty-five years after his grandmother’s death before once again undertaking to perform the sacred fengshan sacrifices at Mt. Tai. Once these had been mounted successfully, the emperor repeated the effort several times during his reign (Sima Qian was among the members of his entourage on at least one occasion). In preparation for his initial enactment of them, he planned a period of several months to ensure that all arrangements had been made according to the proper li. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Like his predecessor the First Emperor, who, so far as we know, was the only man who had actually performed these rites in the past, Wu-di called together the finest Confucian scholars of the land to advise him on the rituals. These men, led by the imperial erudites, were assembled before the emperor at court. However, Wu-di’s experience with these men was remarkably like that of the First Emperor. Instead of instructing him on the actions he should take, the Confucians began to bicker among themselves. One of them strongly objected to the personnel whom the emperor had assigned to supervise the sacrificial process. “Those scholars are not as skillful as the scholars of Lu!” he said. Another man began to lobby among the scholars to form an alternative group of supervisors, which he would head. The only moment of unanimity seemed to occur when the emperor ordered that the golden vessels that he had commissioned for the rite be brought out and shown to the scholars. “These are not at all like the ones used in ancient times!” they cried. /+/

“In the end, the emperor dismissed them and elected to devise the ceremonies himself. The grand procession that marched slowly across China towards Mt. Tai that summer stopped frequently to conduct great prefatory sacrifices. When the sacred mountain was finally reached, Wu-di ascended to the top with only a single assistant. At the summit, Wu-di communed with Heaven using ceremonies of his own invention. These were kept entirely secret and were never divulged.” /+/

Witchcraft Scandal of 91-88 B.C. and Wu Di’s Death

Dr. Eno wrote: “Even if the portrait of Wu-di presented in the “Shiji” is not accurate, we are able to confirm that the emperor was, indeed, highly superstitious. We can do so on the basis of records included in the History of the Former Han which describe a series of incidents that occurred after the completion of the “Shiji”, and in part after the death of Sima Qian. These events, known as the “witchcraft scandal,” reveal the same qualities of superstition and gullibility that we see in the “Monograph.” In this case, they determined that the close of Wu-di’s reign would be marked by devastating palace warfare, and that Wu-di himself would die in isolation, with no assurance of the stability of his policies or even of the Han throne, echoing the fates of such earlier autocrats as Duke Huan of Qi and the First Emperor. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Wudi's tomb

“The witchcraft scandal was the product of a power struggle between the families of two of Wu-di’s consorts. One of these consorts was the mother of the heir apparent, and her family looked forward to great favor under the successor of the old and ailing Wu-di. Members of her family held a number of high posts at court and were closely associated with the expansionist policies that Wu-di had pursued. In 91, the enormous cost of these policies had become evident, and the wisdom of pursuing them was an issue under debate at the highest levels. Given this political climate and the frailty of the emperor, the family of the second consort determined that this would be the best time to attempt to unseat the heir and establish their own candidate in his stead. /+/

“The weapon that was used was the charge of witchcraft employed against the person of the emperor, who was at the time attempting to recuperate from a series of illnesses in a summer palace outside the precincts of Chang’an. Voodoo dolls and secret spells were planted in the compounds of high ranking families by their political enemies, who then stage-managed searches and counter-searches to unearth the planted evidence. Old, separated from events, at the mercy of ministers whose factional interests dictated the reports they submitted to him, Wu-di was led to sanction witch-hunts and executions on a massive scale, while the streets of Chang’an were turned into a battleground. Tens of thousands of people were killed in the fighting, and every possible adult male heir to the throne was slaughtered. /+/

“Early in 87 B.C., Wu-di was informed that his throne was in danger and urged by high ministers to put in place procedures to be followed after his death to ensure the continuation of the Han. He elected to designate three ministers as a triumvirate empowered to rule as joint regents after his death. Two days before he died, Wu-di designated a young boy who was one of his few remaining sons – and who was the grandson of one of the regents – to succeed him. /+/

“At the death of Wu-di, effective power lay entirely outside the hands of the imperial clan. It was only the loyal leadership of the chief regent over the next decade that preserved the dynasty. But the Former Han never again regained the strength that it had possessed at the height of Wu-di’s reign.

Colorful characters who left their mark after Wu Di's death included Wu Di's daughter who tried to take the throne with witchcraft but ended up getting hundreds executed; and Flying Swallow, a beautiful commoner who ruthlessly seized power and ushered in period of chaos that led to the ouster of the Liu family.

Image Sources: 1st Wu Di China Page website; demon: asia obsura; Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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