Emperor Guangwu Di

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: Liu Pang, the first Han emperor, had been a farmer, minor village official, and guerrilla fighter under the Qin dynasty. During the period of civil strife that followed the fall of the Qin, he advanced from the Huai River valley, defeated his rivals for the throne, and then established himself in Chang'an (see Xi'an) near the old Qin capital. Under Liu Pang and the succeeding Han emperors the task of unification begun by the Qin was carried further. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed]

Western (Former) Han (206 B.C. – B.C. A.D. 9) Rulers: Gaodi (Lui Bang, 206–195 B.C., Gao-di – Founding Emperor — is Liu Bang’s official posthumous title. Texts more commonly refer to him as Gaozu — Founding Ancestor); Huidi (195–188 B.C.); (Lu Hou) (Empress Lü, Regent 188–180 B.C.); Wendi (180–157 B.C.); Jingdi (157–141 B.C.); Wudi (141–87 B.C.); Zhaodi (87–74 B.C.); Xuandi (74–49 B.C.); Yuandi (49–33 B.C.); Chengdi (33–7 B.C.); Aidi (7–1 B.C.); Pingdi (1 B.C.– A.D. 6); Ruzi (A.D. 7–9); Wang Mang (A.D. 9–23). [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Eastern (Later) Han (A.D. 25–220) Rulers: ; Guang Wudi (A.D. 25–57); Mingdi (A.D. 57–75); Zhangdi (A.D. 75–88); Hedi (A.D. 88–106); Shangdi (A.D. 106); Andi (A.D. 106–125); Shundi (A.D. 125–144); Chongdi (A.D. 144–145); Zhidi (A.D. 145–146); Huandi (A.D. 146–168); Lingdi (A.D. 168–189); Xiandi (A.D. 189–220).

“Di” stands for emperor in imperial titles; Han emperors are usually referred to by a posthumous name honoring some quality associated with their reign plus the term "di". The Empress Lü, who controlled the state during the reigns of two infant emperors, is generally listed as a ruler, though she did not appropriate the title “emperor,” as did the Empress Wu, who reigned during the Tang Dynasty, about a thousand years later. /+/

The Han Dynasty featured some colorful emperors. Under the 32-year rule of strongman Guangwu Di, Luoynag grew into a city of around a half million people and the upper classes became quite wealthy and built extravagant palaces. Emperor Ai was gay. According to legend he said he would rather cut off the sleeve of his robe than disturb his male lover who had fallen asleep on it. Some Chinese still refer to homosexuality as “the passion of the sleeve." Longdi (168-189) was a ruler “fond of foreign dress, foreign hangings, foreign beds, foreign harps, foreign flutes, foreign dances." [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, February 2004]

Good Websites and Sources: Han Dynasty Wikipedia ; 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

Main Han Dynasty Rulers

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The Han dynasty was founded by Liu Pang, a commoner who became known as Emperor Kao-tsu. Taking up arms, he rose as leader and eventually ruled the land, unifying all of China. Settling in the area of Ch'ang-an, his capital was located in China's interior. A wise ruler, he rewarded those who had assisted him with rank and title, thereby retaining central authority. In the Western Han (the first half of the dynasty), the forty years of rule under emperors Wen-ti and Ching-ti were recognized for the laissez-faire attitude of Taoism that effectively guided the court. The longest reign was 54 years by Emperor Wu-ti. He both capably ruled at home and expanded the boundaries of the Han, sending generals to fight along the western borders and opening up the route to Central Asia. He also had Han rule expanded into the south and into the southwest.” [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/]

In A.D. 9, “however, Wang Mang usurped the throne and established a new dynasty called Hsin, which lasted for only 14 years. The dynastic revival of Emperor Kuang-wu-ti succeeded in restoring Han rule. To proclaim the power and prestige of the Han dynasty, Kuang-wu-ti presented in 57 AD a chop to the area of what is now Japan. Afterwards, Emperors Ming-ti and Chang-ti followed the teachings of Confucius and ruled for 30 years (58-88). During the reign of Emperor Ho-ti, Ts'ai Lun is credited with the invention of paper, which had a major impact on the development of scholarship and culture. A literary genre known as fu rose in this period and conveys the majesty and grandeur of the great Han. \=/

“When Emperor P'ing-ti ascended the throne, he changed the reign name to Yuan-shih ("The Beginning"). By coincidence, the first year of "The Beginning" happens to be the first year of the first millennium AD in the Western calendar. Since the Han dynasty spanned the 200 years before and after the start of the first millennium, Han art and culture provides an ideal opportunity to look in retrospect at this glorious epoch from two millennia ago. \=/

Emperor Gaozu (Liu Bang, 206–195 B.C.)

Emperor Gaozu (Liu Bang, Gao-di. ruled (206–195 B.C.) founded the Han dynasty and was the dynasties first emperor. He seized power with the help of military leaders who had been dog butchers and proclaimed “at last the whole world is mine” after took the throne. He was the first of 27 Lius to hold power.

Liu Bang was a rather crude man who had been a minor official in a previous dynasty. He was known for his hatred for Confucians and other members of his family. The Han historian Sima Qian wrote that he once met a Confucian and “immediately snatched the hat from the visitor's head and pissed in it." When Liu Bang's father was kidnaped with the ultimatum: ‘surrender or I'll boil your venerable alive’ Liu Bang responded: ‘send me a cup of the soup." (His dad survived and the kidnapper committed suicide with his concubine to avoid capture).

Liu Bang established his capital in Changan (present-day Xian). After Liu Bang's death, his empress, Lu Zhi, murdered several of his sons and mutilated his favorite concubine and tossed her into a privy, in her attempt to claim the dynasty for her family. After replacing key generals and officials with her relatives, her family held power for about 15 years before they were ousted by Liu's relatives with Liu Bang's son, Emperor Wen, taking the throne. After that relatives and people connected with Lu Zhi were rounded up and disposed of.

Liu Bang’s Family

Emperor Gaozu (Liu Bang)

Dr. Eno wrote: “As a young man, Liu Bang had been given in marriage a woman who was greatly above his station, and he was much indebted to her family, the Lü clan. Liu Bang’s wife had endured hardships when Liu was a humble officer. The family had been poor and she had worked in the fields. She was a woman of great mettle, and those difficult times and the adventures that had subsequently followed seem to have strengthened her character. Just as Liu Bang was the first man to achieve the highest position in China from a commoner position, Empress Lü was unique in having reached her position not through a passive process of harem selection but through a process of struggle in which her own merit was a critical factor. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“After Liu Bang was enthroned, many members of the empress’s family received high imperial positions, and the empress and her relatives formed a conspicuous power bloc at court. It may be that the leverage of the empress was increased by the fact that after the conquest, Liu Bang became infatuated with concubines that now became available to him. Ordinarily, the transference of the emperor’s affection spelled the end of his wife’s power; the designation of another heir would shortly follow.

“But Empress Lü was no ordinary empress. When the emperor made a move to designate another woman’s son as the crown prince, she was able to block him by mobilizing the support of high ministers at court. It seems entirely possible that the emperor’s reluctance to follow through with this plan was equally due to the fact that his relation to his wife was far more balanced than in other cases – his wife had earned her position, and perhaps a peasant felt less comfortable throwing a wife aside than a patrician, born to rule a harem. When Liu Bang died abruptly, the child whom he had thought to raise to crown prince held only the title King of Zhao, and his mother, Liu Bang’s favorite young concubine, was trapped at court in a very vulnerable position (we will describe her unfortunate fate later on).” /+/

Liu Bang as Emperor Gaozu

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Emperor Gaozu came from eastern China, and his family seems to have been a peasant family; in any case it did not belong to the old nobility. After his destruction of his strongest rival, the removal of the kings who had made themselves independent in the last years of the Qin dynasty was a relatively easy task for the new autocrat, although these struggles occupied the greater part of his reign. A much more difficult question, however, faced him: How was the empire to be governed? Gaozu's old friends and fellow-countrymen, who had helped him into power, had been rewarded by appointment as generals or high officials. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Gradually he got rid of those who had been his best comrades, as so many upstart rulers have done before and after him in every country in the world. An emperor does not like to be reminded of a very humble past, and he is liable also to fear the rivalry of men who formerly were his equals. It is evident that little attention was paid to theories of administration; policy was determined mainly by practical considerations. Gaozu allowed many laws and regulations to remain in force, including the prohibition of Confucianist writings. On the other hand, he reverted to the allocation of fiefs, though not to old noble families but to his relatives and some of his closest adherents, generally men of inferior social standing. Thus a mixed administration came into being: part of the empire was governed by new feudal princes, and another part split up into provinces and prefectures and placed directly under the central power through its officials.

“But whence came the officials? Gaozu and his supporters, as farmers from eastern China, looked down upon the trading population to which farmers always regard themselves as superior. The merchants were ignored as potential officials although they had often enough held official appointments under the former dynasty. The second group from which officials had been drawn under the Qin was that of the army officers, but their military functions had now, of course, fallen to Gaozu's soldiers. The emperor had little faith, however, in the loyalty of officers, even of his own, and apart from that he would have had first to create a new administrative organization for them. Accordingly he turned to another class which had come into existence, the class later called the gentry, which in practice had the power already in its hands.”

Liu Bang as a Legalist Ruler

Dr. Eno wrote: “Liu Bang was a colorful character, and his quirks, along with his remarkable rise as a peasant emperor tend to dominate accounts of his court. It is easy to overlook the fact that the most remarkable feature of his reign lies in what he did not do – he did not dismantle the Qin revolution. While Liu Bang was forced to accommodate the feudal pretensions of those of his allied leaders who set themselves up as kings, the active policy that he followed in administrative organization of the empire was to reserve as much territory as he could to his personal control, and then use the Qin system to exercise that control. He viewed the patrician states of eastern China as a temporary phenomenon, and was very active in creating or exploiting conditions that would allow him to gain de facto control over those areas. He was clearly moving towards a full restoration of the centralized empire of the Qin when he died. The design of the Han empire was, as much as was possible, aligned with the models of Shang Yang. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Liu Bang is famous for having relaxed the laws of the Qin; he did so with some fanfare, noting that the people had become exhausted by the burdens that the laws and regulations had imposed upon them. But Liu Bang only relaxed the "implementation" of the Qin law code. He did not abrogate or even significantly revise that code. The Legalist codes that the Qin had created remained substantially in force throughout the Han. Even the most pernicious of these laws, the prohibition of non-approved books, was not repealed. Li Si’s policy that none could possess the works of the philosophers or cite ancient precedents to criticize contemporary policies remained in force throughout Liu Bang’s reign, though it was repealed four years after his death. As we will see below, Liu Bang viewed Confucians with much greater aversion than the First Emperor. /+/

“The central bureaucracy that the Qin had established was also kept, as were the systems of imperial shrines and places of sacrifice. And as important as these, the symbolism of the supreme dominance and sanctity of the imperial throne that had been so carefully cultivated by the First Emperor was revived by Liu Bang, to the best of his plebeian abilities. In every major respect, Liu Bang attempted to retain the structure of the Qin state. /+/

“The importance of this cannot be underestimated. Throughout the rest of the early Han period, subsequent rulers retained the policy of whittling away the powers of the feudal kingdoms and restoring centralized control of all China to the throne. We will see that after 135, Confucianism enjoyed a swift rise to the position of sanctioned state orthodoxy, and all subsequent officials of the dynasty (and of most of the period of traditional China) were men who had been trained in Confucian texts and modes of conduct. In this sense, the first century of the Han appears to represent the emergence of a “Confucian state.” But while China’s bureaucrats may have been educated through Confucian texts and trained to preach the values of Confucianism, they were in fact the servants of an essentially "Legalist state", the legacy of the Qin revolution, as preserved by Liu Bang.” /+/

Events After Liu Bang’s (Gaozu) Death

Gaozu died in 195 B.C. From then to 179 the actual ruler was his widow, the empress Lu, while children were officially styled emperors. The empress tried to remove all the representatives of the emperor's family and to replace them with members of her own family. To secure her position she revived the feudal system, but she met with strong resistance from the dynasty and its supporters who already belonged in many cases to the new gentry, and who did not want to find their position jeopardized by the creation of new feudal lords. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

On the death of the empress her opponents rose, under the leadership of Gaozu's family. Every member of the empress's family was exterminated, and a son of Gaozu, known later under the name of Wen Ti (Emperor Wen), came to the throne. He reigned from 179 to 157 B.C. Under him there were still many fiefs, but with the limitation which the emperor Gaozu had laid down shortly before his death: only members of the imperial family should receive fiefs, to which the title of King was attached. Thus all the more important fiefs were in the hands of the imperial family, though this did not mean that rivalries came to an end.

Hui-di (ruled 194-188 B.C.) and the New Capital of Chang’an

Hui-di (Huidi 195–188 B.C.) — son of Gaozu and the Empress Lü — was the second emperor of the Han Dynasty. Dr. Eno wrote: “He was only twelve at the time that he succeeded to the throne. He had been a delicate child who seems to have been a disappointment to his rough-hewn father. Preserving his rights to the throne had been a bitter battle for the empress, and the reign of Hui-di was, from the beginning dominated by the influence of his mother. During Hui-di’s brief reign, the sole major accomplishment was the completion of a new capital city, located in the Wei River valley, near the sites of the capitals of the Western Chou and of the Qin, the latter city, Xianyang, having been burnt to the ground by Xiang Yu in 207 B.C. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The capital city of the Han,Chang’an, was a massive planned city, the layout of which was intended to reflect the grandeur of imperial power and the magnificence of the emperor. Chang’an became the model for subsequent capitals of China, and also of the capital cities of Japan. Chang’an was planned to be a major population center. The city walls, which were slightly irregular, were approximately three and a half miles on each side, enclosing an area of approximately thirteen square miles. (Some early texts claim that the irregularities were planned with reference to certain features of important constellations, and had cosmic significance.) The walls were about fifty feet thick at the base, about forty at the top, and were over twenty five feet high (almost three storeys). Each wall was pierced by three gates, and from each of these gates a major roadway extended into the city. The gates were not aligned directly opposite one another, so there were, in total, nine main roads running through the city. The texts record that the construction crews mobilized to build the walls of Chang’an numbered 150,000. /+/

“The entire city was constructed on a grid, with over a hundred separate neighborhoods laid out, with two major market places and a number of minor ones. But what was most striking about the city was the domination of the palace grounds. Over half the total area of the city was given over to five walled compound areas, the largest two well over a mile square, within which were located arrays of palaces and pavilions for the use of the imperial family. hang’an was the greatest physical expression of the exaltation of the imperial throne during the Han. Around it would grow in time a set of enormous tumuli, the tombs of the Han emperors and their consorts, which made the entire region a monument to the new imperial order first conceived by the ruler of Qin.

History of Chang'an

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: “The central location of Chang'an (today, Xian) in what is now Shaanxi Province near the confluence of the Wei and Feng Rivers helps explain why the area was the location of several important imperial capitals for about a millennium of Chinese history. The first really unified Chinese empire, that of the Qin, had its capital just north of the current city. Although the Qin emperor failed to establish a lasting dynasty (he died in 210 BCE), in some ways he is the Chinese ruler best known outside of China because of his massive tomb complex with its models of more than 8000 soldiers and their horses, spread over some 56 square kilometers. Its discovery in the 1970s was arguably the most important archaeological find of the twentieth century. Recent work on some of the other Chinese imperial tombs in the area provides a tantalizing hint of spectacular finds to come over the next decades. [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington based on information from Victor Cunrui Xiong, “Sui-Tang Chang'an: A Study in the Urban History of Medieval China” (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2000). washington.edu +|+ ]

“The Han dynasty succeeded the Qin, initially chose Luoyang to the East as its capital, but then in 202-200 BCE to the south of the Qin capital began construction of Chang-an, "the first great city in Chinese history." It was under Emperor Wu Di (141-87 BCE) that the first Chinese missions were sent to Inner Asia, an event considered to mark the beginning of the Silk Road. He substantially expanded the capital with the erection of many new palaces, but the glory of Chang'an came to an end in 24 CE during the disorders connected with the collapse of the Former Han dynasty. The city was looted and burned and subsequently fell to the status of simply a provincial city when subsequent rulers chose Luoyang as their capital. +|+

A poem written in the year 292 evokes the desolation of the city: Street wards are deserted and desolate;
Town dwellings are sparsely scattered.
The buildings and offices, stations and bureaus,
Shops and markets, official storehouses,
Are now concentrated on a single corner of the wall
Of a hundred, barely one survives...
Great bells have fallen in the ruined temple;
Bell frames have collapsed and suspend no more...[Xiong, pp. 15-16]

“Chang'an revived in the fourth century, once more the capital, and witnessed a cultural florescence in part thanks to the fact that it became a center of Buddhist learning. Several important Buddhist pilgrims and translators resided there around the beginning of the fifth century, among them Faxian, who traveled to India, and the scholar Kumarajiva. The revival came to an end in civil strife, and for over a century after a conquering army took the city in 417, it ceased to be the capital. A brief revival in the second half of the sixth century ended abruptly with the accession of the Sui dynasty in 581, since the first Sui emperor decided to build an entirely new city to the south of Han Chang'an and on the exact location of the modern Xian. The choice of the site and the layout of the city were in part determined by divination with reference to astrological signs.” +|+

Empress Lü and Her Power of Cruelty

Empress Lu

Empress Lü (Lu Hou,, Regent 188–180 B.C.) was the third ruler of the Han Dynasty. Dr. Eno wrote: “ The central theme of the reign of Hui-di was the growing power of the empress dowager, the wife of Liu Bang. With her young son on the throne and many of her family members well placed in upper ministerial ranks at court, the empress held the greatest share of power, and used it. Our principal historical source for the early Han, the “Shiji”, is not kind to the Empress Lü: Sima Qian depicts her as a woman whose temperament had grown ungovernable. The pivotal event of Hui-di’s reign, which led to his early death at the age of eighteen, concerns the vengeful conduct of the empress with regard to her formal rival, the Lady Qi, whose son, the child king of Zhao, Liu Bang had initially wished to make crown prince. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Sima Qian wrote in “The Shinji”: “Empress Lü felt deep resentment against Lady Qi and her son, the King of Zhao. She ordered that Lady Qi be held captive within the long lane of women’s quarters on the palace grounds and summoned the King of Zhao to return to court from Zhao, where he had been sent. Three times envoys were sent to Zhao, but the prime minister who had been assigned to serve the child king in Zhao, Zhou Chang, responded to them by saying, “The emperor Gaozu entrusted the King of Zhao to my care because of his young age. I am aware that because of her grudge against Lady Qi the empress dowager wishes to summon him back so that she may kill both of them. I do not dare send the king. Moreover, the king is ill and cannot respond to the summons.” [Source: “The Shinji” (94 B.C.) by Sima Qian, Shiji 9.397 -]

“Empress Lü was enraged and sent an envoy to summon the prime minister himself. When the prime minister obeyed her order and arrived in Chang’an, she sent a man to summon the King of Zhao once again, and the king set out. He had not yet arrived at the capital, when Emperor Hui, aware of his mother’s anger and moved by compassion, went in person to meet him at the River Ba and accompanied him on his arrival at the palace. The emperor kept the younger boy by his side at all times, whether eating or sleeping, so that although the empress dowager wished to kill him, she could find no opportunity. -

“At the end of the first year of Hui-di’s reign the emperor arose one day at dawn to go hunting. The King of Zhao, being too young to go out hunting so early, kept to his bed. When the empress dowager heard that he was at last alone, she sent someone to him bearing a poisoned drink. By the time that Hui-di returned, the King of Zhao was dead.” -

“Then Empress Lü cut off the hands and feet of Lady Qi. She ordered that her eyes should be plucked out and her ears burned off, and she was given a potion to drink that took away her ability to speak. Then she was cast into the trough beneath the palace privy. The empress dowager gave her the title “Human Pig.” After a few days, she sent for Hui-di to see the Human Pig. Staring at her, he asked who this was, and only then did he learn that this was Lady Qi. 7 Hui-di began to sob uncontrollably, became ill, and took to his bed. For over a year he was unable to rise. He sent a man to deliver a message to his mother. “What you have done no human being could do. Since I am your son, I can never be fit to rule the empire.” From this time on, Hui-di gave himself up to drink and debauchery and no longer attended to affairs of state. His illness grew progressively worse.” -

Eno wrote: “Given the enormous bias against powerful women that all early texts exhibit, it is difficult to know what to make of a tale such as this. It does, however, convey the traditional view of the character of the Empress Lü and the circumstances that led to her rise to power. After the death of her son, she ruled China directly for eight years in every way except in name.” /+/

Rule of the Empress Lü, 188-180 B.C.

Dr. Eno wrote: “Hui-di died very young, and his principal wife had borne him no sons. The succession was in doubt. The Empress Lü arranged that one of Hui-di’s children by a secondary consort should be allowed to ascend the throne, but because he was an infant, he was not actually invested as emperor and the empress ruled as a regent. In 184, the boy died under mysterious circumstances, and another infant son of Hui-di was designated as ruler-in-waiting. There was, in fact, widespread doubt that either of these boys was actually a son of Hui-di, and it was suspected that the empress had merely claimed their descent in order to avoid power passing to another branch of the Liu family. Throughout the period when these two boys stood as designated emperors, Empress Lü exercised actual control of the government. Neither child was ever formally installed as emperor. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The central government was not destabilized by the devolution of power into the empress’s hands, but there was growing factionalism at court, and this weakened the ability of the Han to respond to emergencies at its borders.During the years of the empress’s reign, there was renewed trouble in the northwest, where the Xiongnu once again began to raid territories settled by Chinese farmers, in some cases carrying off large numbers of Chinese as prisoners. /+/

“The central court became increasingly unable to respond to these border threats as the period of Empress Lü’s dominance went on. The empress, anxious to solidify her own base of support, continued to fill the government with members of her own clan, appointing them both to ministerial positions and as rulers in the eastern patrician states. By the time of her death, the influence of the Lü clan far outweighed that of any other family group, including the Liu clan. The greater portion of ministers, however, belonged to neither of these two clans, many still being men who had served Liu Bang during the civil war. /+/

Rise and Fall of the Lü Clan

Dr. Eno wrote: ““The Empress died in 180 and attempted to perpetuate the dominance of her clan post-mortem by leaving a testamentary command appointing Lü family members to the highest of all ministerial posts: prime minister and general-in-chief. As the child emperor had not yet been formally enthroned, and as there was doubt as to his paternity, the Lü clan thereupon launched a coup d’état intending to seize power from the Liu clan, the most powerful members of which were scattered in three of the outlying kingdoms in the east. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“However, the Lü clan had aroused much resentment among the senior ministers loyal to Liu Bang, and these ministers, still in control of great power at the capital, thwarted the coup by taking control of the palace guard and regular army. A bloody period ensued wherein virtually the entire Lü clan was wiped out. /+/

“This was the first of many instances in Chinese history where the power of an empress’s family threatened the power of the regularly appointed officers of a dynasty or of the imperial clan. It became, along with the periodic threat of eunuch power (of which Zhao Gao of the Qin is the earliest example) a feature of the dynamics of the imperial court. It is a convention of traditional historians, who generally wrote the stories of dynasties only after they had ended, to account for the downfall of a ruling house by describing the undue influence of the families of empresses or of eunuchs. While it is easy to imagine how these two groups, whose power derived from the sexual lives of emperors rather than from merit gained through avenues of advancement open to all, could have been a frequent threat to the government, it is hard to avoid the impression that in many cases, the effects of other factors pertaining to dynastic strength have been ignored by historians, anxious to emphasize a basic moral lesson. /+/

“Because of the later history of the imperial court, the Empress Lü has always been portrayed as the prototype of an evil and dangerous court woman. If she accomplished any important achievements during the course of her rule, Sima Qian and other annalists of the period have carefully covered them up. /+/

Wen-di (179-157 B.C.)

Emperor Wen, Paragon of Filial Piety

Wen-di (Wen Di, Wendi, Wen Ti, 180–157 B.C.) was the fourth ruler of the Han Dynasty. Dr. Eno wrote: “The annihilation of the Lü clan in itself did not create stability at court. The child whom the Empress Lü had designated as heir to the throne was not generally believed to be Hui-di’s son by the ministers who had foiled the Lü coup d’état. These men, who were fiercely loyal to the Liu clan, were also anxious to see a strong and able emperor installed, rather than a child. Among the various possible alternatives to the designated emperor, the strongest claimants were three brothers of Hui-di who held positions as kings of regions in the east. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The process by which one of these, the future Wen-di, was selected was unusual. The court ministers, controlling an extraordinary degree of power in the aftermath of their counter-coup, simply determined which of the three would be the best. The brother whom they selected was not the most powerful of the three – that brother had actually led troops to Chang’an during the coup and was in best position to coerce a decision in his favor. But the ministers, the histories tell us, viewed him with suspicion because of the strong personality and connections of his mother, whom they feared could become another Empress Lü. A second brother suffered the same maternal handicap. In the end, so widespread was the disaffection for the late empress that the ministers were able to designate Wen-di as the new heir, despite the forces of the other brothers, because his mother was known for her modesty and posed no family threat. /+/

“Wen-di was probably in his mid- or late-twenties when he assumed the throne, and he is generally celebrated as the most personally virtuous of all the Former Han emperors. He was modest and gentle with people, and was famous for his thrift in government – a rare quality in a Chinese ruler. The moderately long period of his rule is often pictured as a golden era in the Former Han. /+/

“Wen-di’s procession to the capital for his formal installation as emperor was viewed with delight by his future subjects. A loyal follower of Liu Bang known as Lord Teng (whose tender concern for children was illustrated by an incident recounted in “The Rise of the Han”) entered the palace beforehand and led out the child who had formerly been the emperor-designate. “Where are you taking me?” asked the boy. “We are going to a new home,” replied the loyal Lord Teng. Then he reported back to Wen-di that the palace had been purified and, amidst great ceremony, Wen-di entered and ascended the throne. That night, a subaltern was dispatched and the boy was murdered. Wen-di’s reign of virtue would now be unchallenged.” /+/

Wen-di's Rule

Dr. Eno wrote: “The principal achievement of Wen-di’s reign was to move forward the process clearly envisioned by his father Liu Bang to reduce the number and range of the feudal kingdoms. Although all but one of the kingdoms were now ruled by members of the imperial clan, Wen-di recognized that as time progressed, the sense of family connection with the lineage at the capital was bound to decline, and the kingdoms represented a long-term threat. The reduction of the kingdoms proceeded piecemeal in two ways. Occasionally, one of the royal rulers would defy some order from the imperial throne and raise troops in resistance. In such cases Wen-di’s armies would crush the revolt and remove the ruler. In other cases, a ruler would die without an heir. Generally, Wen-di responded to either sort of vacancy with an extremely diplomatic procedure. He would not terminate the kingdom, but would reduce its territory and the privileges of its royal house in the course of selecting and installing a new occupant to the throne. Thus whereas Gaozu had attempted to bring the kingdoms under centralized control by bringing them within the Liu family, Wen-di pursued the same goals by reducing their status and resources.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “On the whole Wen-di's period of rule passed in comparative peace. For the first time since the beginning of Chinese history, great areas of continuous territory were under unified rule, without unending internal warfare such as had existed under Qin Shi Huang and Gaozu. The creation of so extensive a region of peace produced great economic advance. The burdens that had lain on the peasant population were reduced, especially since under Wen-di the court was very frugal. The population grew and cultivated fresh land, so that production increased and with it the exchange of goods. The most outstanding sign of this was the abandonment of restrictions on the minting of copper coin, in order to prevent deflation through insufficiency of payment media. As a consequence more taxes were brought in, partly in kind, partly in coin, and this increased the power of the central government. The new gentry streamed into the towns, their standard of living rose, and they made themselves more and more into a class apart from the general population. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Wen-di's reign had brought economic advance and prosperity; intellectually it had been a period of renaissance, but like every such period it did not simply resuscitate what was old, but filled the ancient moulds with an entirely new content. Socially the period had witnessed the consolidation of the new upper class, the gentry, who copied the mode of life of the old nobility. This is seen most clearly in the field of law. In the time of the Legalists the first steps had been taken in the codification of the criminal law. They clearly intended these laws to serve equally for all classes of the people. The Qin code which was supposedly Li Kui's [legalist] code, was used in the Han period, and was extensively elaborated by Xiao He (died 193 B.C.) and others. This code consisted of two volumes of the chief laws for grave cases, one of mixed laws for the less serious cases, and six volumes on the imposition of penalties. In the Han period "decisions" were added, so that about A.D. 200 the code had grown to 26,272 paragraphs with over 17,000,000 words. The collection then consisted of 960 volumes. This colossal code has been continually revised, abbreviated, or expanded, and under its last name of "Collected Statues of the Manchu Dynasty" it retained its validity down to the present century.

“Alongside this collection there was another book that came to be regarded and used as a book of precedences. The great Confucianist philosopher Dong Zhongshu (Tung Chung-shu) (179-104 B.C.), a firm supporter of the ideology of the new gentry class, declared that the classic Confucianist writings, and especially the book Chun-chiu, "Annals of Spring and Autumn", attributed to Confucius himself, were essentially books of legal decisions. They contained "cases" and Confucius's decisions of them. Consequently any case at law that might arise could be decided by analogy with the cases contained in "Annals of Spring and Autumn". Only an educated person, of course, a member of the gentry, could claim that his action should be judged by the decisions of Confucius and not by the code compiled for the common people, for Confucius had expressly stated that his rules were intended only for the upper class. Thus, right down to modern times an educated person could be judged under regulations different from those applicable to the common people, or if judged on the basis of the laws, he had to expect a special treatment. The principle of the "equality before the law" which the Legalists had advocated and which fitted well into the absolutistic, totalitarian system of the Qin, had been attacked by the feudal nobility at that time and was attacked by the new gentry of the Han time. Legalist thinking remained an important undercurrent for many centuries to come, but application of the equalitarian principle was from now on never seriously considered.

Foreign Conflicts During Wen-Di’s Reign

Dr. Eno wrote: “Wen-di inherited unstable situations on both his northern and southern borders. In the north and west, the Xiongnu confederation continued to threaten the border farming areas; in the south, the kingdom of Southern Yue still controlled Han lands and claimed imperial sovereignty. During his reign, Wen-di made great progress on both fronts. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The Southern Yue situation was the simpler. Wen-di decided to take a conciliatory stance. Recognizing that the diplomacy of his father had succeeded where the economic blockade imposed by Empress Lü had failed, Wen-di sent to Southern Yue the very same emissary that his father had sent years earlier, a famous scholar. The result was an instant and positive response from the Southern Yue ruler, who declared himself a loyal subject of the Han, immediately ending all conflict on the southern front and effectively extending the political influence of Han to the South China Sea. /+/

“The Xiongnu were more troublesome. Again, Wen-di revived Liu Bang’s policies by negotiating treaties and sending gifts to the Xiongnu chieftains. This was done several times during Wen-di’s reign, but the peace brought by such treaties was short-lived in each case, and in 166, Xiongnu cavalry rode to within a hundred miles of Chang’an, although they withdrew without engaging Chinese forces. In the end, Wen-di ordered the construction of system of garrisoned outposts in the west, and these seem to have settled the issue of the Xiongnu for the next decade or two. /+/

Economic Prosperity Under Wen-di

Emperor Wen refusing a seat

Dr. Eno wrote: “Wen-di’s reputation for governmental thrift appears to have been well earned, and his reign is generally distinguished by signs of growing economic strength. The basis of this seems to have been increasing crop yields, perhaps brought about by the fact that Wen-di’s reign was the longest sustained period of general peace throughout China since the middle years of the Western Chou. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Chinese farmers, an overwhelming majority of the population, typically paid four kinds of taxes: poll tax, land tax, production tax, and corvée (for one month each year). In 168, Wen-di ordered that the most onerous of these, the production tax, be cut in half, lowering it from about six percent to about three; in 169 he abolished it altogether (although it was reintroduced at three percent after Wen-di’s death). Nevertheless, according to records made close to that time, the granaries were kept overflowing throughout Wen-di’s reign due to the strict austerity measures which he imposed on the government. /+/

“An example of Wen-di’s attitude towards government spending concerns the treatment accorded to those whom the Han had rewarded with noble ranks and estates who were not kings or significant power holders. The Han had continued the Qin practice of distributing rewards for merit according to a finely graded system of rankings. At the top of this ladder, the highest ranks were generally given Zhou titles such as “hou”(marquis) and many of these “hou”were provided with lands to whose income they were entitled. While the scale of these awards was such as to pose no threat to the power of the center, it did create a class of economic elite. Many of these nobles chose to live not on their remote estates but in the capital, the social and political hub of the empire. Since one of the services to which nobles had claim on government officers was the collection and delivery of their incomes, this meant that significant government funds had to be spent transporting tax revenues from estates to their lords in the capital.

“Soon after Wen-di ascended the throne, he put an end to this practice by ordering that all nobles, even those whose duties involved their presence at the capital, should set up permanent residences in their estates and move there. This seems to have achieved a variety of goals. It reduced government expenditures, but its greater purpose may have been to break up concentrations of the wealthy and powerful at the capital. In addition, it was a means whereby some important officers were, with great politeness, dismissed from power. For example, a little more than a year after the original order for the relocation of the nobility was issued, many families at Chang’an had failed to respond. So Wen-di issued a second order, and to show that he meant business, he had the new exodus led by his prime minister, who was himself a marquis. This was indeed a great honor for the prime minister; however, as he had returned to his estate, he was no longer very well positioned to fulfill his ministerial duties, and he was therefore immediately replaced by a man unburdened by such exalted rank. /+/

“Wen-di’s policies of austerity extended even to his own style of living. He wore coarse silk robes and limited the styles that his consorts could wear. He turned down all proposals to improve or enlarge the imperial palace, reduced the size of the imperial retinue, and when his tomb was constructed, he ordered that its fittings and grave goods be entirely fashioned from pottery, without the use of any precious metals. Wen-di was also famous for his generosity with amnesty proclamations and forgiveness of tax debts in times of need. /+/

Rise of the Scholar-Bureaucrats Under Wen-di

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “As people free from material cares, they were able to devote themselves to scholarship. They went back to the old writings and studied them once more. They even began to identify themselves with the nobles of feudal times, to adopt the rules of good behaviour and the ceremonial described in the Confucianist books, and very gradually, as time went on, to make these their textbooks of good form. From this point the Confucianist ideals first began to penetrate the official class recruited from the gentry, and then the state organization itself. It was expected that an official should be versed in Confucianism, and schools were set up for Confucianist education. Around 100 B.C. this led to the introduction of the examination system, which gradually became the one method of selection of new officials. The system underwent many changes, but remained in operation in principle until 1904. The object of the examinations was not to test job efficiency but command of the ideals of the gentry and knowledge of the literature inculcating them: this was regarded as sufficient qualification for any position in the service of the state. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“In theory this path to training of character and to admission to the state service was open to every "respectable" citizen. Of the traditional four "classes" of Chinese society, only the first two, officials (shih) and farmers (nung) were always regarded as fully "respectable" (liang-min). Members of the other two classes, artisans (kung) and merchants (shang), were under numerous restrictions. Below these were classes of "lowly people" (ch'ien-min) and below these the slaves which were not part of society proper. The privileges and obligations of these categories were soon legally fixed. In practice, during the first thousand years of the existence of the examination system no peasant had a chance to become an official by means of the examinations. In the Han period the provincial officials had to propose suitable young persons for examination, and so for admission to the state service, as was already mentioned. In addition, schools had been instituted for the sons of officials; it is interesting to note that there were, again and again, complaints about the low level of instruction in these schools. Nevertheless, through these schools all sons of officials, whatever their capacity or lack of capacity, could become officials in their turn. In spite of its weaknesses, the system had its good side. It inoculated a class of people with ideals that were unquestionably of high ethical value. The Confucian moral system gave a Chinese official or any member of the gentry a spiritual attitude and an outward bearing which in their best representatives has always commanded respect, an integrity that has always preserved its possessors, and in consequence Chinese society as a whole, from moral collapse, from spiritual nihilism, and has thus contributed to the preservation of Chinese cultural values in spite of all foreign conquerors.

“In the time of Wen-di and especially of his successors, the revival at court of the Confucianist ritual and of the earlier Heaven-worship proceeded steadily. The sacrifices supposed to have been performed in ancient times, the ritual supposed to have been prescribed for the emperor in the past, all this was reintroduced. Obviously much of it was spurious: much of the old texts had been lost, and when fragments were found they were arbitrarily completed. Moreover, the old writing was difficult to read and difficult to understand; thus various things were read into the texts without justification. The new Confucians who came forward as experts in the moral code were very different men from their predecessors; above all, like all their contemporaries, they were strongly influenced by the shamanistic magic that had developed in the Qin period.

Wen-di: the Ideal Ruler?

Dr. Eno wrote: “Wen-di became famous for the humanity and generosity of his reign. During the first year of his reign, he issued a proclamation questioning the morality of laws that punished an entire family for the crimes of a single member, a venerable feature of Chinese law. According to “The Shiji” he said: “Laws constitute the upright means of governance: they restrain violent people and guide the good. But now, when sentencing a person who has broken the law, his parents, wife and children, and other members of his family, even though guilty of no crime, share the sentence of guilt and are even forced to become convict laborers. I utterly refuse to adopt such practices.” After submitting the issue to court deliberations, Wen-di abolished the practice. Later in his reign, Wen-di abolished the various mutilating punishments and rescinded sedition laws that punished people for remonstrating with the ruler or high officers. [Source: Shiji 10.418, Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“It was very common for Chinese rulers to issue proclamations in which they mouthed pious beliefs in traditional ethical values and spoke of their own unworthiness. But the proclamations of Wen-di carry an unusual tone of sincerity. For example, early in 178 two eclipses occurred in quick succession, one of the sun and one of the moon. Eclipses were generally viewed as very inauspicious events, especially solar eclipses, which Chinese astronomy was unable to predict. After the second of these eclipses, Wen-di issued the following proclamation, which illustrates the qualities that caused later generations to view him as an ideal ruler.

Sima Qian wrote in “The Shinji” that Wen-di proclaimed: “I have heard it said that when Heaven gave birth to the teeming people it appointed for them a ruler so that he might look after them and order them. If the ruler of men acts without virtue or if his governance is not fair, then Heaven will express this fact through some disastrous anomaly in order to alert him to his errors. Now on the last day of the eleventh month an eclipse of was manifest in the heavens. What portent could be greater? [Source: “The Shinji” (94 B.C.) by Sima Qian, Shiji 10.422 -]

“I have been entrusted with the protection of the ancestral temples and my insignificant person has been placed above the masses of people, lords, and kings. Whether the empire is ordered or disordered depends upon me, a lone man, with the support of those few who ministers of state whom I rely upon as I do my arms and legs. But here below I have not been able to bring good order and succor to living creatures, while in the realms above my failure has affected even the sun, moon, and stars. How profoundly my conduct has lacked virtue! Wherever this order shall reach, let all ponder my errors and consider in what respects my understanding, vision, and thought have fallen short. I beg you to inform me and to recommend to me wise and upright men who will speak straightforwardly and remonstrate with me, and so help me correct my shortcomings! -

“On this occasion I call on all who occupy official positions to strive to reduce their expenditures in order to benefit the people. Because I have been unable to spread virtue wide, the misdeeds of foreign peoples ever preoccupy my anxious thoughts, and because of these I am not yet able to dispense with measures for defense. But although I cannot presently withdraw the garrisons that guard the borders, there is no further to maintain so great a Palace Guard protecting me. Therefore I order that the army of the General of the Palace Guard be abolished, and that all horses now under the care of the Master of the Palace Stables, beyond those necessary for practical use, be released for the use of messenger relay stations.” -

Taoism Versus Confucianism Under Wen-di

Dr. Eno wrote: “The early Han emperors were careful to maintain the structure of religious symbolism that the First Emperor of the Qin had constructed to convey the exalted status of the emperor. Complex rituals of sacrifice and the maintenance of a widespread system of shrines, sustained by imperial funds, were characteristics of state religion that the Former Han emperors took most seriously. During the reign of Wen-di, considerable effort was expended on such shrines. But apart from these activities, the first Han emperors did not emulate the Qin example of designating a specific school of thought to represent state orthodoxy. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“During Wen-di’s time, two sharply contrasting ideological tendencies developed at court. The first of these owed a great deal to Wen-di’s principal consort, the Empress Dou (another formidable female figure in early Han politics). Empress Dou was devoted to the texts of Daoism. We are not quite sure what the term “Daoism” denoted at this time, but it is recorded that among the texts she most treasured was the “Dao de jing”. The empress sponsored Daoism strongly at court, and insisted that her eldest son, the future emperor, study it. In the form that Daoism took at this time, the ideology was generally referred to as the “Huang-Lao School,” with the word Huang denoting the name of the Yellow Emperor, who was bracketed with Laozi. Twenty years ago, archaeologists excavated from an early Han grave a set of texts that included among them the “Dao de jing”. Others of the texts spun doctrines around the figure of the Yellow Emperor, and we now presume that the full corpus of texts such as these comprised the basis of Huang-Lao ideology. /+/

Emperor Han Jing D

“Huang-Lao ideology seems to have advocated an extreme form of laissez-faire administration, in combination with a regular pattern of government actions or regulations that was conceived as harmonizing with the rhythms of nature. This minimalist program dominated Wen-di’s court and that of his son, Jing-di, who was under the sway of his mother. Huang-Lao combined in certain ways with Legalism, a relationship we saw earlier in the doctrines of the “Han Feizi”, and it is recorded that the ministers who rose to power during the reigns of Wen-di and Jing-di were generally Huang-Lao or Legalist adepts. /+/

“But Wen-di also was the first Han emperor to patronize Confucian studies. During the reign of Wen-di, Confucian membership among the Erudites increased, and included men selected for their mastery of certain texts that Confucianism had come to hold most sacred, known as “classics.” Some of these Confucian “classics” had become extremely difficult to obtain because of the prohibition on them that had been in force between 213 and 191 B.C. Wen-di endorsed vigorous efforts to recover these lost texts and even sent one of his highest ministers to travel to Shandong to recover the “Book of Documents” from the memory of an aged Confucian scholar. We will discuss further the rise of Confucianism during the early Han in a separate section. /+/

“In sum, during the reign of Wen-di, forms of Daoism and Confucianism both thrived at court. Between the two, Daoism was clearly in the dominant position, and would become even more so during the two decades following Wen-di’s death. However, as some thinker once said, “Reversal is the motion of the Dao” – the Dao will bring down the mighty and raise the lowly. This was to be the case with Daoism and Confucianism at the Han court.” /+/

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\^/]

Emperor Jing Kills a Man Who Beating Him at a Board Game

Emperor Jing reportedly killed a man for beating him at a board game Mark Oliver wrote in Listverse: He lost his temper during a game of Liubo, an ancient Chinese game played on a heavy stone board. Emperor Jing was losing, and his opponent, apparently, hurt his feelings. He threw the stone board at his opponent’s head, hitting him so hard that he killed him. [Source: Mark Oliver. Listverse, January 12, 2017]

“Unfortunately for Emperor Jing, his opponent was the prince and heir to the Wu Empire. The King of Wu vowed revenge. He united seven kingdoms and led a revolt against Jing. “Emperor Jing, though, was better at war than he was at Liubo. He managed to crush the rebellion. Then he shrunk the kingdoms of those who dared to question him and his policy of killing anyone who beats him at a board game.

Emperor Han Jing Di (157-141 B.C.)

Emperor Wu di Han Jing Di (ruled 157 -141 B.C.) was the forth emperor of the Western Han dynasty. Regarded as one of the greatest early Chinese emperors, he ruled cautiously and relied “on Taoist discretion” to solidify his power and paved the way for a long and glorious rule by his son Emperor Wu and the domination of his clan, who reigned for more than four centuries. Han Jing Di governed by the Taoist saying: "Do nothing in order to govern." No major building projects took place under his rule, mandatory service was greatly reduced and peasants were only taxed 3 percent of their harvest (compared to 50 percent under Emperor Qin).

Dr. Eno wrote: Jing-di was “the son of Wen-di and the Empress Dou. Although his reign is noteworthy for its highly successful domestic policy, which essentially brought to a close any threat to the empire that the feudal kingdoms might have presented, Jing-di is generally remembered as a ruler under the thumb of his mother, Empress Dou.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Jing-di faced the first widespread uprising against the authority of the Han since Liu Bang’s wars to eliminate the original array of kings. In 154, a coalition of seven kingdoms revolted against the authority of the Han, led by the king of Wu (where the ancient Yangzi delta kingdom of Wu had been), whose son had earlier been killed at Chang’an following a dispute with the crown prince, who had since become emperor. The coalition represented lands stretching from Wu in the southeast to Zhao in the north, and temporarily took the easternmost strip of China out of the control of imperial forces. /+/

“But the dynasty was well prepared for this. It had been a feature of domestic court policy for years to provoke rebellion in individual kingdoms in order first to subdue the king and then reduce the size and prerogatives of the kingdom. Some historians believe that even the widespread revolt of 154 was intentionally courted by Jing-di. The outcome was, in any event, highly congenial to the house of Liu. The rebel states were conquered quickly and their kings deposed. In some cases the lands of the rebel kingdoms were reduced when a new ruler was appointed. In several instances, one large kingdom was carved into several small and politically powerless hereditary estates. The result was so devastating to the power of the kingdoms empire-wide that they no longer represented a political threat, though a few scattered revolts would still occur from time to time. /+/

“Overall, with the reign of Jing-di we see the culmination of the gradual process to recentralize power in the hands of a single emperor. Though there remained many kings, their thrones were positions of honor, luxury, and local prestige. The kings no longer played any significant role on the imperial stage, and the empire once again resembled in substance, if not in form, the administrative ideal of the Legalist state.” /+/

Han Jing Di's Pint-Size Terra Cotta Army

Member of Han Jing Di's
Terra Cotta Army
Han Jing Di's Terra Cotta Army (part the Tomb of Han Jing Di) is an impressive collection of 700 terra-cotta figures discovered in 1990 by a construction crew because it lay in the path of a highway project in the Xian area. Unlike the life-size figures found in the famous Terra-Cotta Army of Emperor Qin site, the Emperor Jing figures are only two feet tall, or about one third life size. [Source: O. Louis Mazzatenta, National Geographic, August 1992]

They are different in other ways too. First of all they are naked, with genitalia, and pieces of silk found at the site seem to indicate they were clothed when they were buried. Their faces are also more expressive (15 distinctive face types have been identified). Some soldiers had iron swords, leather armor, wooden shields or wooden arms.

In one vault the soldiers looked as if they were marching behind chariots pulled by wooden horses. In another they were lined up behind a cooking pot in what looked like a chow line. So far no archers or armored infantrymen have been found which mean the soldiers found so far are probably supply troops. There are also figures of eunuchs and women.

Paintings found in Xian show that the soldiers were mass produced in molds and then hardened in kilns. Craftsmen retouched the faces to give them individual expressions. They wore wooden armor in addition to their silk garments. Why the contained genitalia even though were clothed is not known.

Among the miniature items that archaeologists found with the soldiers were a hand-painted pigeon-size rooster, sculptured oxen and miniature granaries. Among the large collection of terra-cotta animals are 400 dogs, 200 sheep, pigs, piglets, goats, horses. Other objects found in the excavations include boxes filled with weapons, measuring instruments, chariots, chisels, gold chips, coins, lacquerware, adzes, wooden objects, coins, measuring cups bronze arrowheads, saws, stoves, steamers, government seals.

Wang Zhaojun: One of the Four Great Beauties of China

Wang Zhaojun, also known as Wang Qiang, was born in Baoping Village, Zigui County (in current Hubei Province) in 52 B.C. in the the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–8 AD). She was a gorgeous lady and great at painting, Chinese calligraphy, playing chess and Zheng (a kind of musical instrument in ancient China). In 36 B.C., Wang Zhaojun was selected as royal maid to serve the royal members. At that time, the Han Empire was having conflicts with Xiongnu, a nomadic people from Central Asia based in present-day Mongolia. Before her life took a dramatic turn, she was a neglected palace lady-in-waiting, never visited by the emperor.

Wang Zhaojun

In 33 B.C., Hu Hanye, leader of the Xiongnu paid a respectful visit to the Han emperor, asking permission to marry a Han princess, as proof of the Xiongnu people's sincerity to live in peace with the Han people. Instead of giving him a princess, which was the custom, the emperor offered him five women from his harem, including Wang Zhaojun. No princess or maids wanted to marry a Xiongnu leader and live a distant place so Wang Zhaojun stood out when she agreed to go to Xiongnu.

The historical classic, "Hou Han Shu", reveals that Wang Zhaojun volunteered to marry Hu Hanye. When the Han emperor finally met her, he was astonished by her beauty, but it was too late for regrets. She married Hu Hangye and had children by him. Her life became the foundation and unfailing story of "Zhaojun Chu Sai", or "Zhaojun Departs for the Frontier". Peace ensued for over 60 years thanks to her marriage. [Source: Peng Ran, CRIENGLISH.com, July 17, 2007]

In the most prevalent version of the "Four Beauties" legend, it is said that Wang Zhaojun left her hometown on horseback on a bright autumn morning and began a journey northward. Along the way, the horse neighed, making Zhaojun extremely sad and unable to control her emotions. As she sat on the saddle, she began to play sorrowful melodies on a stringed instrument. A flock of geese flying southward heard the music, saw the beautiful young woman riding the horse, immediately forgot to flap their wings, and fell to the ground. From then on, Zhaojun acquired the nickname "fells geese" or "drops birds." [Source: Wikipedia +]

Statistics show that there are about 700 poems and songs and 40 kinds of stories and folktales about Wang Zhaojun from more than 500 famous writers, both ancient (Shi Chong, Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, Li Shangyin, Zhang Zhongsu, Cai Yong, Wang Anshi, Yelü Chucai) and modern (Guo Moruo, Cao Yu, Tian Han, Jian Bozan, Fei Xiaotong, Lao She, Chen Zhisui). +

Literature about Wang Zhaojun: 1) Chapter novel: You Feng Qi Yuan; 2) Variety Plays (known as Zaju in China) in Yuan Dynasty: Han Gong Qiu; 3) Biography in Ming Dynasty: He Rong Ji; 4) Han Shu, Xiongnu Zhuan (first known account of Wang Zhaojun); 5) Qin Cao ("Principle of the Lute") by Cai Yong (c. 2nd century); 6) Xijin Zaji ("Sundry Accounts of the Western Capital") (c. 3rd century); 7) Han Gong Qiu ("The Autumn in the Palace of Han") by Ma Zhiyuan (c. 13th century); 8) Wang Zhaojun by Guo Moruo (1923); 9) Wang Zhaojun by Cao Yu (1978); 10) Chapter 3, "Naturalizing National Unity: Political Romance and the Chinese Nation," of The Mongols at China's Edge by Uradyn E. Bulag (2002) contains a detailed discussion of variants of the Wang Zhaojun legend. +

Film and television about Wang Zhaojun: 1) Chinese song Wang Zhaojun from Yang Yang; 2) Hong Kong Shaw Brothers, 1964, Beyond The Great Wall. Linda Lin Dai played Wang Zhaojun; 3) Hong Kong Asia Television Limited, TV series in 1984, Wang Zhaojun, supervised by Wang Ximei; 4) Hong Kong Asia Television Limited, TV series in 1985, Wang Zhaojun. Wei Qiuhua played Wang Zhaojun; 5) Taiwan CTV, TV series broadcast at 8 pm in 1988, Wang Zhaojun, directed by Zhou You. Song Gangling played Wang Zhaojun; 6) China Central Television (CCTV) and China Television Media, Ltd, TV series in 2005, Wang Zhaojun. Yang Mi played Wang Zhaojun; 7) China Central Television (CCTV), TV series in 2006, Zhaojun Chu Sai. Li Caihua played Wang Zhaojun. +

Wang Zhaojun Story

Wang Zhaojun was born to a prominent family of Baopin village, Zigui country (now Zhaojun village, Xingshan county, Hubei) in the south of the Western Han empire. As she was born when her father was very old, he regarded her as "a pearl in the palm". Wang Zhaojun was endowed with dazzling beauty with an extremely intelligent mind. She was also adept in pipa and master of all the Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar – Guqin, Weiqi, Calligraphy and Chinese painting. In 36 BC, Emperor Yuan chose his concubines from the whole state. Because of Wang's fame in the county, she was his first choice for the concubine from Nan county. Emperor Yuan issued the edict that Wang should enter the harem soon. Wang's father said that his daughter was too young to enter the harem, but could not violate the decree. Wang left her hometown and entered the harem of Emperor Yuan in early summer. According to the custom in the palace, when choosing a new wife, the Emperor was first presented with portraits of all the possible women. It is said that because of Wang's confidence of beauty and temperament, she refused to bribe the artist Mao Yanshou as the other maids did. As a reprisal, Mao Yanshou painted a mole of widowed tears on Wang's portrait. As a result, during her time in the Lateral Courts, Wang Zhaojun was never visited by the emperor and remained as a palace lady-in-waiting. Wang Zhaojun's portrait was either never viewed by the Emperor, or was not in its true form, and therefore the Emperor overlooked her. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In 33 B.C., Huhanye Chanyu visited Chang'an as part of the tributary system that existed between the Han and Xiongnu governments. He took the opportunity to request to become an imperial son-in-law, which is recorded by Lou Jingde under Emperor Gaozu of Han. As Queen Mother Lü had only one daughter she did not have the heart to send her too far away. Typically the daughter of a concubine would then be offered, but, unwilling to honour Huhanye with a real princess, Emperor Yuan ordered that the plainest girl in the harem be selected. He asked for volunteers and promised to present her as his own daughter. The idea of leaving their homeland and comfortable life at the court for the grasslands of the far and unknown north was abhorrent to most of the young women, but Wang Zhaojun accepted. When the matron of the harem sent the unflattering portrait of Wang Zhaojun to the emperor he merely glanced at it and nodded his approval. Only when summoned to court was Wang Zhaojun's beauty revealed and the emperor considered retracting his decision to give her to the Xiongnu. However, it was too late by then and Emperor Gaozu regretfully presented Wang Zhaojun to Huhanye, who was delighted. Relations with the Xiongnu subsequently improved and the court artist, Mao Yanshou, was subsequently executed for deceiving the Emperor. +

Wang Zhaojun got well with Xiongnu people and made great contribution to maintain the peace and friendship between Han Dynasty and Xiongnu State. Wang Zhaojun became a favourite of the Huhanye chanyu, giving birth to two sons. Only one of them seems to have survived, Yituzhiyashi. They also had at least one daughter, Yun, who was created Princess Yimuo and who would later become a powerful figure in Xiongnu politics.

Sadder Side of the Wang Zhaojun's Story

When Huhanye died in 31 B.C., Wang Zhaojun requested to return to China. Emperor Cheng, however, ordered that she follow Xiongnu levirate custom and become the wife of the next shanyu, the oldest brother (or her stepson, born by her husband's first wife) of her husband. In her new marriage, she had two daughters. Wang was honoured as Ninghu Yanzhi ("Hu-Pacifying Chief-Consort"). Wang Zhaojun's mausoleum is located on the outskirts of Hohhot, capital city of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Her tomb is a part of Zhaojun Museum.

Wang Zhaojun by Hishida Shunso

Peng Ran wrote in CRIENGLISH.com, “Wang Zhaojun's story does not end with a "happily ever after". Hu Hanye was almost twice as old as she was and already married. It's said that he died just three years after their wedding. According to Xiongnu tradition, Wang Zhaojun had to marry the new leader, the eldest son of Hu Hanye, her step-son. She tried to return to the Han Empire but her request was turned down by the emperor. Finally she had to capitulate and marry the new leader and spend the rest of her life in service against her will. [Source: Peng Ran, CRIENGLISH.com, July 17, 2007]

The mausoleum of Wang Zhaojun is called Qing Zhong, or the Green Tomb. It resembles the natural green slope of a hill. She is still commemorated by Inner Mongolia people as a peace envoy, who contributed greatly to the friendship between the Han and Mongolian ethnic groups. A Zhaojun Museum has been set up near her tomb, in which her beautiful likeness is displayed in a white-marble sculpture and her wedding scene has become a bronze statue. In these artistic representations Wang Zhaojun always looks happy and resolved, in accordance with the widely accepted image of her as a brave woman who sacrificed for her country. Her sorrows as a tragic heroine deprived of true love may be buried along with her deep in the green tomb.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; 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 \=/; 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 August 2021

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