home | history

Han Success, Decline, and Fall

In the year 157, Emperor Wen was succeeded by his son, Emperor Jing. He appears to have responded to his father as a model on how to rule. He continued benevolences such as keeping taxes and other burdens down for the peasants, and like his father he struggled with the issue of cruelty and punishments. He also wanted to put limits on local authorities in the states that had been conquered by China's first emperor, Shihuangdi. These local potentates were building up their own military strengths and resisting the Emperor Jing's edicts. In the year 154 the potentates joined together in rebellion – the Rebellion of the Seven States. Emperor Jing crushed the revolt. The revolt's perpetrators were spared execution, but they were denied the power to appoint ministers for their fiefs. Emperor Jing softness is said to have been influenced by his mother's Taoism and its belief in nature, harmony, and what perhaps can be called liberalism.

Emperor Jing ruled for sixteen years and was succeeded in 141 BCE by his eldest living son, who became Emperor Wu. Wu's reign was to last 54 years and he too intended to be a proper emperor — proper in regards to Confucianism. Emperor Wu was an enthusiastic patron of Confucianism and posed as holder of the Mandate from Heaven. He altered laws of inheritance, giving all of the sons of wealthy landowner a share of their late father's land.

Emperor Wu began his rule resisting incursions by "barbarians" into his realm, and he launched a series of military campaigns to make trade routes with Central Asia secure. He believed he was strong enough to stop bribing Xiongnu tribes on China's northern border to stay away — a policy begun by Emperor Gaozu. He remained concerned that the Xiongnu might send an army into northern China's sparsely populated steppe lands or that they might ally themselves with the Tibetans, so he launched a series of military campaigns against them.

Emperor Wu's drive against the Xiongnu was costly in manpower but it pushed most of them back from China's northern frontier. Perhaps as many as two million Chinese migrated into the newly conquered territory, and there the emperor created colonies of soldiers and civilians. Those Xiongnu who stayed behind were converted to farming, drafted for construction labor and employed as farm laborers. And some of them were drafted into China's army while their families were considered hostages to assure against treason.

Emperor Wu built on his success against the Xiongnu by sending his military on a mission of conquest into northern Korea — territory the Chinese had lost a century earlier during warring that brought his forefather, Emperor Gaozu. In the south he responded to attacks on his southern border, and by the year 111 BCE he had extended his rule to the port town of Guangzhou (on the South China Sea, near what today is Hong Kong) and he conquered into what today is northern Vietnam.

The historian Stella Xu writes: "The success of Emperor Wu was the result of social stability and prosperity after decades of political consolidation and economic development." Wu's military success brought expanded trade, but the expense of large armies of occupation are reported as having more than offset the benefits. And imports contributed more to the pleasures of the wealthy than it did to China's economic vitality.

There was also a wealth distribution problem. Bureaucrats from gentry families were buying up land and were often able to take advantage of their offices to make their lands tax exempt. Amid this corruption, peasants were having to pay more in taxes, and they needed to borrow more and at usurious rates.

Emperor Wu, despite his good intentions, let it happen. During Emperor Wu's reign farming productivity declined. Some peasants were forced to leave farming, making more land available for the gentry. Without land on which to support themselves more people turned to banditry – while some struggling peasants were selling their children into slavery.

A famous scholar, Dong Zhongshu, was part of a slightly new Confucianism. He complained to the emperor and spoke of those who tilled land having to give away as much as fifty percent of their harvests to the landowners. He complained of common peasants unable to afford iron tools and having to weed with their hands. To Emperor Wu he proposed reforms: that taxes on the peasants be reduced, that the emperor abolish his government's monopoly on salt and iron and that he limit the amount of land that any one family could own.

Emperor Wu responded with higher taxes on the wealthy, but he ignored land redistribution. He is reported as wanting to continue his alliance with wealthy landowners and as not wanting to offend them.

With the emperor near death in 91 BCE, violence erupted over who would succeed him. On one side was the family of Wu's wife. On the other side was the family of Wu's mistress. The two families came close to destroying each other. A compromise heir was chosen: an eight-year-old put under the regency of a former general. Following Emperor Wu's death in 87 BCE the dynasty suffered a string of eight emperors in 94 or 95 years. Corruption increased. Some of the new emperors were young and had little interest in the duties they had inherited. None of them matched the character of Liu Bang (Emperor Gaozu) who had overcome challenges in winning power. Emperor Cheng ruled from 32 to 6 BCE and he also had little enthusiasm for governing. He was most concerned with personal pleasures, including visiting houses of prostitution at night. During his twenty-seven-year reign he sought guidance from omens, and to satisfy the jealousy of one of his women, he murdered two of his sons born to other women.

Cheng's successor, Emperor Ai, ascended the throne when he was 20 and died childless six years later, in year 1 BCE. By now some Confucian scholars were claiming that the Han Dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven. Ai's successor was a nine-year old: Emperor Ping. Ping's regent was Wang Mang, appointed by the late Emperor Cheng's mother, considered a dowager empress. She had taken command, and effective rule by the Liu (Han) family had ended. A civil war was in the making and a swing back to disintegration.

CONTINUE READING: Failure of the Confucianist Wang Mang

comment | to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.