Wudi


Wudi
or Wu-ti orig. Liu Che

born 156 BC
died March 29, 87 BC

Emperor of the Chinese Han dynasty who vastly increased its authority and its influence abroad and made Confucianism China's state religion.

Under Wudi, China's armies drove back the nomadic Xiongnu tribes that plagued the northern border, incorporated southern China and northern and central Vietnam into the empire, and reconquered Korea. Their farthest expedition was to Fergana (in modern Uzbekistan). Wudi's military campaigns strained the state's reserves; seeking new income, he decreed new taxes and established state monopolies on salt, iron, and wine.

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▪ emperor of Han dynasty
Wade-Giles romanization Wu-ti , original name  Liu Che 
born 156 BC
died March 29, 87 BC

      posthumous name (shi) of the autocratic Chinese emperor (141–87 BC) who vastly increased the authority of the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) and extended Chinese influence abroad. He made Confucianism the state religion of China.

      Liu Che was probably the 11th son of the Jingdi emperor, the fifth ruler of the Han dynasty. Not being the eldest son, he would normally not have ascended the throne, but relatives of the emperor secured his designation as heir apparent at age seven. From his relatives and his teachers, the future emperor absorbed influences from two basically antagonistic schools: the Daoists (Daoism), inclined to the legalist philosophy favouring an autocratic ruler guided by the rules of expediency, and the Confucianists, who sought through rituals and other means to check the growing power of the Han monarchs.

      The Wudi emperor began his reign in 141 BC. During its early years he was under the moderating influence of relatives and court officials; however, by the late 130s he had decided that the essentially defensive foreign policy of his predecessors was not going to solve his foreign problems. From 133 BC he launched attacks on the nomadic Xiongnu people, who constituted China's principal threat on the northern frontier, and thereafter he committed his realm to the expansion of the empire. By 101 BC Wudi's troops, spurred by an emperor heedless of their hardships and intolerant of defeat, had extended Chinese control in all directions.

      Southern China and northern and central Vietnam were incorporated into the empire. Northern and central Korea, which had slipped from Chinese control in 128 BC, were reconquered and again administered by imperial governors. Imperial troops were also sent across the Gobi (Desert) in unsuccessful attempts to eliminate the threat from the Xiongnu.

      Han armies were farthest from home when they marched west into the Fergana Valley region (now in Uzbekistan). The first expedition, in 104 BC, was a failure, but the emperor refused to accept defeat. His intransigence stemmed from pride and his desire for horses (horse). The horses Wudi wanted from Fergana were not principally intended for his war machine (although the Han armies suffered a chronic shortage of horses); rather, they were “blood sweating” horses (infected by a parasite causing skin hemorrhages), which for the emperor had a mystical significance in that possession of them was considered a mark of Heaven's grace. The second expedition returned in 101 BC with some of the famous horses and the head of the ruler of Fergana; furthermore, the small states between China and Fergana had been humbled. Wudi had brought to submission all but the most distant parts of the world known to the Chinese.

      His wars and other undertakings exhausted the state's reserves and forced him to look for other sources of income. New taxes were decreed and state monopolies on salt, iron, and wine were instituted. Yet, by the latter part of his reign, his regime was in financial difficulties and confronted by popular unrest. The emperor's economic controls were paralleled by his rigid control of the state apparatus. He created institutions for close supervision of the bureaucracy and drew into his personal service men who were outside the normal bureaucratic ranks and who made the bureaucracy more responsive to his will. He usually selected men whose behaviour was much like his own: harsh, demanding, and merciless.

      In spite of his aggressive policies, the Wudi emperor is also known for making Confucianism the state orthodoxy. Although he was unimpressed with the image of the ideal Confucian ruler as a benevolent father figure, he nevertheless appreciated the literary grace of the Confucianists and particularly the Confucian emphasis on ritual, which complemented his religious interests.

      Most of the rituals performed by the Wudi emperor had a dual function; although of dynastic political and religious significance, they frequently manifested his ceaseless search for immortality. He richly rewarded men who he believed could introduce him to immortals (hsien) who would reveal their secrets to him. He sent men in search of the islands of the immortals and constructed elaborate palaces and towers designed to attract the spirits to him. At great expense he had conquered much of the world, and he invested heavily in the ardent hope that he would not have to leave it.

      The last four years of Wudi's life were a time of retreat and regret. His empire could no longer afford an aggressive foreign policy, and he was forced to begin a period of retrenchment. The deeply suspicious emperor suffered intense personal loss when, in 91 BC, his heir apparent was falsely accused by an imperial confidant of practicing witchcraft against the emperor. In desperation, the son led an uprising in which thousands of people were killed and in which the heir committed suicide. Shortly before the emperor's death, he designated an eight-year-old son as heir apparent; then, anticipating his own death, he had the youth's mother accused of a crime and imprisoned. Reportedly she “died of grief,” but Wudi condoned her death, and perhaps caused it, to avoid having the young emperor dominated by relatives as he himself had been. He died in 87 BC.

      The Wudi emperor is best remembered for his military conquests; hence, his posthumous title, Wudi, meaning “Martial Emperor.” His administrative reforms left an enduring mark on the Chinese state, and his exclusive recognition of Confucianism had a permanent effect on subsequent East Asian history.

Jack L. Dull

Additional Reading
The annals of his reign have been critically translated and annotated by Homer H. Dubs, The History of the Former Han Dynasty, vol. 2 (1944). The foreign policies of the Han rulers are surveyed in Ying-shih Yü [Yu Yingshi], Trade and Expansion in Han China: A Study in the Structure of Sino-barbarian Relations (1967). Michael Loewe, Crisis and Conflict in Han China, 104 BC to AD 9 (1974, reprinted 2005), studies contemporary reactions to Wudi's government.

▪ emperor of Jin dynasty
Wade-Giles romanization  Wu-ti , personal name (xingming)  Sima Yan , temple name (miaohao)  (Jin) Shizu 
born 236, China
died 290, Luoyang, Henan province, China

      posthumous name (shi) of the founder and first emperor (265–290) of the Xi (Western) Jin dynasty (265–316/317), which briefly reunited China during the turbulent period following the dissolution of the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220).

      Sima Yan was the scion of the great Sima clan to which the famous Han historian Sima Qian belonged. He became the most powerful general of the Wei dynasty (220–265/266), the northernmost of the Three Kingdoms into which China had divided at the end of the Han. In 263 the Wei kingdom absorbed the second of the Three Kingdoms, the Shu-Han. In 265 Sima usurped the Wei throne, proclaiming the Jin dynasty. In 280 he conquered Wu, the third of the Three Kingdoms, thus reuniting China.

      Sima attempted to reform the government, disbanding his armies to reduce expenses. He tried to regain control of taxation and to reduce the usurious rent that powerful landowners were extracting from the people. He never really broke the power of the great local families, however, and his reduction of the army left China prey to invasion from foreign tribes. Moreover, he divided his domains into principalities for 17 of his 25 sons and other relatives. The son who succeeded him was unable to control his brothers and the relatives, and Sima Yan's dynasty came apart in a civil war known as the Revolt of the Eight Kings. Sima Yan himself was given the posthumous title of Wudi (“Martial Emperor”).

▪ emperor of Southern Liang dynasty
Wade-Giles romanization  Wu-ti , personal name (xingming)  Xiao Yan , temple name (miaohao)  (Liang) Gaozu 
born 464, Changzhou, Jiangsu province, China
died 549, Jiankang [now Nanjing]

      posthumous name (shi) of the founder and first emperor (502–549) of the Nan (Southern) Liang dynasty (502–557), which briefly held sway over South China. A great patron of Buddhism, he helped establish that religion in the south of China.

      Wudi was a relative of the emperor of the Nan Qi dynasty (479–502), one of the Six Dynasties that existed in South China in the turbulent period between the Han (Han dynasty) (206 BC–AD 220) and Tang (Tang dynasty) (618–907) dynasties. He led a successful revolt against the Nan Qi after his elder brother was put to death by the emperor. He proclaimed himself first emperor of the Liang dynasty in 502, and his reign proved to be longer and more stable than that of any other southern emperor in this period.

      A devout believer, the Wudi emperor diligently promoted Buddhism, preparing the first Chinese Tipitaka (Tipiṭaka), or collection of all Buddhist scripts. In 527, in 529, and again in 547 he renounced the world and entered a monastery. He was persuaded to reassume office only with great difficulty. In 549 Jiankang (present-day Nanjing (Nanking)), the Nan Liang capital, was captured by a “barbarian” general, and Wudi died of starvation in a monastery.

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Universalium. 2010.

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