In the middle of the 2nd Century B.C., as the Roman Republic began its century-long slide into the dictatorship of the emperors, a ruler 6,000 miles to the east was just getting started. For 54 years he reigned over China, a record on the throne that would stand for 18 centuries. His original name was Liu Che but he is formally known as Wu of Han and more commonly called Han Wudi. Hang on, I promise this will get interesting.
Depending on how you count them, China’s emperors numbered as few as 158 and as many as 557. Much of the disparity stems from scores who claimed they were Emperor but either ruled only a small portion or not at all. I asked an historian of ancient China who was the greatest of them. I hoped he would give me a name of one who either abdicated, or at least left the people freer when he checked out than when he checked in.
Alas, just as in the West, not many at the top in China ever walked away from power. So, in gauging “greatness,” historians (perhaps betraying a state-worshiping bias) usually rank highest the rulers who strengthened the state, even if they weakened the individual. (It’s a sad commentary on the history profession, but that’s another story.)
Apparently, two names dominate when you ask historians of China who the greatest emperor was: Qin Shi Huang and Han Wudi. I investigated them both and can tell you that my favorite of the two is the latter. But that’s like saying I prefer Al Capone to Bugsy Moran.
Qin Shi Huang, who ruled from 247 B.C. to 221 B.C., is regarded as China’s first emperor because he united several bickering states under one regime for the first time. He didn’t do it by sending them engraved invitations. He invaded them, plundered their property, executed hundreds of thousands, engaged in book burnings, and, in his spare time, buried scholars alive. “He also built the Great Wall and commissioned the Terracotta Army, thereby gifting China with billions of tourist revenue millennia later,” writes one historian. It’s doubtful, though, that Qin Shi Huang built either with that motive in mind.
Slavery was widespread and extensive under Qin Shi Huang. (Perhaps The New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones should undertake a “247 B.C. Project.”)
Qin Shi Huang was so ruthless and brutal that, to borrow a line from Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny, “I’m done with this guy.”
Han Wudi was no paragon of virtue, but he’s measurably more appealing. I say that even though his make-work schemes and subsidies remind me of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. If Qin Shi Huang united the Chinese politically and militarily, then we can say Han Wudi united it ideologically while spending a ton of money along the way.
The Han Dynasty lasted for nearly four and a half centuries, from 202 B.C. to 220 A.D. (but for a brief intermission from 9 A.D. to 23 A.D.). Han Wudi was the seventh of its 30 rulers and governed from the age of 15 in 141 B.C. until his death in 87 B.C. Here are the highlights of his tenure:
- He declared Confucianism the official state philosophy. On the surface, that’s a move in the right direction because Confucius taught that rulers should exercise a light touch, be answerable to the people, and practice high moral character. Han Wudi, however, banned competing philosophies and practiced the centralizing impulses of one of them known in Chinese history as “Legalism.”
- He doubled the size of the empire by force of arms, ultimately stretching it to the Korean peninsula in the east to the jungles of Vietnam in the southeast, to the steppes of Asia in the west. When other peoples got in the way, he could be just as brutal as Qin Shi Huang.
- He threw a lot of public money at the arts. The Imperial Music Bureau proved to be one of his bureaucracies that long outlasted him. Support for art seems to be a common fetish of men of power; perhaps they think it softens their image or lulls the public into accepting them. You decide.
- He, along with other rulers of the Han Dynasty, moderated the practice of slave labor. Local officials were limited to 30 slaves apiece, though higher officials could possess as many as 200.
- Han Wudi loved “infrastructure” projects. No doubt ancient China needed better roads and dams but when the state built them, they also gave the Emperor a vast source of patronage jobs and loyal beneficiaries. Han Wudi’s government constructed expensive canals, dikes, highways, and bridges. The famous Silk Road was begun under his administration, and it was during his days, it is believed, that the Chinese learned of the existence of the distant Roman Republic for the first time.
- Coinage in Han Dynasty times was mostly copper. Because Chinese people believed Heaven was round and the Earth was square, their copper coins were round with a square punched out of the middle. To help cover his extravagant spending and assuage his centralizing instincts, Han Wudi forbade private coinage and declared a state monopoly over the mint.
- As the quality of the state’s coinage declined and Han Wudi’s spending soared, he needed ever more revenue. So he established state monopolies over salt, wine, and iron and raked off the monopoly profits for the government. He also jacked up taxes to levels that prompted uprisings around the country late in his reign.
In Han Wudi’s final years, his taxing and spending so drained the strength of the empire that retreat became his only option. Popular unrest focused his attention at home as China’s economy shrank under the burdens he imposed. Increasingly paranoid, he ordered mass executions of mostly innocent people on charges of political conspiracy and even witchcraft.
All in all, a mixed record. If you ask me what the single best thing was that Han Wudi ever did, I have a ready answer. Hands down, it was his Repenting Edict of Luntai. Issued in 89 B.C. two years before his death, it was a remarkable gesture that almost no potentate in world history ever emulated in the centuries since. After more than five decades on the throne, Han Wudi publicly apologized to the whole Chinese nation for his numerous policy mistakes. Not even Franklin Roosevelt ever did that.
Chinese historian Gongsun Rushui writes,
…[A]s a result of years of war and reckless large-scale construction works in his later years, the state’s coffers were nearly empty. People resented authorities, and bandits and thieves appeared in many places. The “disaster of witchcraft” led to the deaths of Empress Wei and the Crown Prince, and it also impacted tens of thousands of people…All these took a heavy toll on the emperor, making him reflect deeply upon himself….
He said to his court officials, “Since I was enthroned, I have behaved recklessly and made life miserable for the people. I feel regretful for what I have done. From now on, anything that harms people and wastes state resources must be stopped.”
No kidding. Han Wudi really meant it, too. He even rejected proposed tax increases, restrained the military, and embraced the old “Taoist” policy of laissez faire. It was one of the sharpest and boldest turnarounds in the history of public policy—begun with a remarkable mea culpa from the supreme leader himself.
Xi Jinping, are you listening? Joe Biden, there’s something here for you to learn too.
Han Wudi the reformer spent his last two years reforming his own half-century of mischief. If that doesn’t make him a “great” emperor, at least it makes him better than the rest.
For additional information, see:
Wu, Emperor of the Han Dynasty (156-87 B.C.) by Ferlicity Jiang
Emperor Wu of Han (Wikipedia)
Han Wudi by ChinaCulture.org
Han Wudi and Ancient China by Miriam Greenblatt
Top 10 Greatest Chinese Emperors by Ced Yong
Thoughts on the Repenting Edict of Luntai by Gongsun Rushui