Emperor Wu of Han China, 141 - 87 BCE

Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty
Emperor Wu and two attendants in a traditional Chinese portrait. via Wikipedia

Emperor Wu sat on the throne of Han China for more than half a century.  In that time, he vastly extended the borders of his realm, sponsored fabulous works of art and literature, and pioneered the use of the Chinese Civil Service Exam, which would shape China's imperial bureaucracies for thousands of years.

Power corrupts, however, and by the end of his long reign, Han Wudi, or "the Martial Emperor of Han," had nearly bankrupted China.

 He died a paranoid and bitter old man.  How did the great Emperor Wu fall so far?  What was his legacy?

Early Life:

The boy who would become Emperor Wu was not supposed to be his father's heir.  He was the tenth or eleventh son of Emperor Jing of Han.  However, the boy Liu Che was born on the same day in 156 BCE that his father accended the throne, and was seen as a lucky omen by his doting father.  As a child, Liu Che was given the title Prince of Jiaodong.  The little prince was a clever child, and was his father's favorite.

Liu Che's mother managed to scheme and manipulate the emperor into deposing his empress and making her the new empress.  He then named the seven-year-old Liu Che as the new crown prince in the place of his older half-brother.

In 141 BCE, when Liu Che was just 15 years old, his father died.  The boy ascended the throne of Han China and became the Emperor Wu.  His mother and grandmother served as his regents, serving as empresses dowager.

Wu the Reformer:

Wu's new empire faced a military threat from the Xiongnu nomads to the north, internal threats from corruption and nepotism within the court, as well as from overly powerful feudal lords.  Emperor Wu would not tolerate this disfunctional system, so only one year into his reign, the young emperor sent the feudal lords away from the capital at Chang'an and back to their home regions.


He also instituted a series of tests, based on the writings of Confucius, that men of any class had to pass if they wished to become court officials.  This was the beginning of the Civil Service Exam, which would last for 2,000 years through the 19th century CE.  It ensured that courtiers got their posts through merit rather than through family connections, and that even commoners could become court officials if they were smart and diligent enough.

Wu's reforms enraged the entrenched powers at court, led by his dowager empress grandmother.  They tried to depose the young emperor on grounds that he (at age 16) had yet to produce a son to carry on the bloodline.  His mother advised Wu to hold off on implementing the reforms, waiting for his frail grandmother to die.  Wu did, but quietly began recruiting clever commoners into the court.  These men, who owed their positions to him, were utterly loyal; they became known as the "insider court," and counter-balanced the aging, conservative "outsider court."

In 138 BCE, the 18-year-old Wu solidified his position by seizing direct control of the military, formerly run by his grandmother, and by getting his concubine Wei Zifu pregnant.  It would be three more years before the Grand Empress Dowager died, but Emperor Wu had taken most of the reins of power into his own hands.

 As soon as she passed away, Wu launched all of his reforms for good.

Wu the Warrior:

Freed from his conservative grandmother's restraining influence in 135 BCE, the young emperor also launched his armies both north and south at the same time.  The Han armies had a relatively easy time in the south, bringing recalcitrant tributary states to heel as far south as what is now Vietnam.

In the north, however, the Han faced the formidable forces of the Xiongnu, likely ancestors of the Huns. For seventy years, the Han had been trying to buy peace with the Xiongnu by sending them silk, gold, and Chinese princesses as brides for the "barbarian" rulers.  However, Emperor Wu wanted no part of this appeasement.  He decided to launch a full-scale attack on the Xiongnu.

Wu's first maneuver was to try to lure 30,000 Xiongnu warriors into a trap set by 300,000 Han.

 The Xiongnu did not fall for the trick; instead, they launched a series of devastating border raids against Han lands to teach the new emperor a lesson.  Older courtiers in Chang'an decided that it was hopeless to oppose the Xiongnu, but Wu poured money into building a more effective cavalry to counter the nomads, and training additional officers.

Between 127 and 119 BCE, this newly emboldened Han cavalry used its overwhelming numbers to drive the Xiongnu north into what is now Gansu Province.  This opened up new trade routes to the west - routes that would become known as the Silk Road.  Silk Road trade gave Emperor Wu access to one luxury item that he desired above all others: the beautiful Ferghana horses of Central Asia, which shone like gold in the sunlight and could run all day without tiring.

The last battle between Wu's armies and the Xiongnu was the Battle of Mobei, in which Han forces pushed into the Gobi Desert and drove the Xiongnu up into Siberia.  In this even harsher climate, the Xiongnu lost much of their livestock and faced starvation.  However, the Han also lost 4/5 of their horses in the battle, along with many men.  The huge taxes that Wu imposed on the peasants afterward to refurbish his armies led many of the Chinese commoners to starve as well.

Wu had also launched a minor invasion of northern Korea in 126 BCE, attacking the Gojoseon kingdom.  The invasion stalemated for some time, with the Han merely establishing military outposts on Gojoseon soil mainly to provide warning if the Koreans decided to ally themselves with the Xiongnu.  In 109 BCE, however, Wu sent 50,000 troops into Gojoseon.  After a year of hard fighting, the Chinese brought down Gojoseon and ruled northern Korea until 313 CE.

Culture and Religion Under Wu:

Emperor Wu was a shamanist, but he also admired the writings of Confucius.  As mentioned above, he instituted the Confucian exam system for court officials.  Much like the earlier Qin emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, Emperor Wu became obsessed with immortality as he entered middle age.

 He hired numerous alchemists, magicians, and quacks to try to find an immortality pill or potion for him.

Much of the poetry that Wu sponsored was associated with the Chu style of shamanism, as well.  Wu is considered a great poet in his own right, although some scholars question whether he actually composed the best poems attributed to him.  In any case, a huge body of Han period poetry and literature survives to this day.

Wu's Later Life:

Emperor Wu drove his military relentlessly, sending them as far west as the Ferghana Valley in what is now Uzbekistan in search of tribute and horses.  His first invasion of Ferghana in 104 BCE ended in defeat, but Wu sent the armies out again in 101.  This time, they returned with the Ferghana king's head and a modest number of horses.

Wu was as merciless in home rule as he was with military campaigning.  He demanded ever higher taxes from the people, and cruelly crushed any unrest that sprang up as a result.  Even nobles and courtiers who practiced any sort of magic would be executed, but the emperor himself desperately sought magical protection against death.  Wu grew increasingly paranoid and harsh as his behavior provoked more and more opposition.

By about 92 BCE, the Han government could not afford to continue the expansionist policies that typified Wu's reign.  The empire began to retract, much to Wu's dismay.  The following year, his heir apparent was falsely accused of using witchcraft to hasten his father's death.  Desperate, the young man led an uprising against his father, but was defeated.  Thousands of the son's followers were killed, and the crown prince was forced to commit suicide.  Emperor Wu replaced him with an eight year old son who was too young to conspire against him; he had the new crown prince's mother killed to prevent her from conspiring on the child's behalf.

Emperor Wu of Han died on March 29, 87 BCE at the age of 69.  He had been on the throne for 54 years, a record surpassed only by the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty over the following 2000 years.  Wu's reforms changed China forever, but his cruelty and paranoia marred the end of his long, long reign.