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Emperor Gaozu to Emperor Wen, 206-157 BCE

Shihuangdi traveled around looking for the source of eternal life, and he died, at the age of forty-nine. That was in 210 BCE. He had said his dynasty would endure for "generations without end,' but this was not to be. Palace eunuchs trying to hang on to their influence murdered some of Shihuangdi's top aids. They kept the emperor's death a secret and sent a forged note to the emperor's son and heir ordering him to commit suicide. The son did, and the eunuchs made a younger son to the throne, whom they hoped to control – another succession mess. Successions would be a source of trouble in China as they would be in Europe.

News of Shihuangdi's death produced attempts by the recent conquered to break away from the what had been the great conqueror's centralized rule. Lords of land organized their own armies in an attempt to regain their former powers. And peasants joined the rebellions, expressing their displeasure at having suffered much forced labor on Shihuangdi's many construction projects. China was starting a centuries-long cycle of disintegration, integration and disintegration again. New leaders were on horseback were exercising their talents at building power.

The fight for power narrowed to two military leaders. One was Xiang Yu, who was excessively violent in trying to win obedience. He has been described as slaughtering defeated troops, as looting and seizing attractive women. He lost to a former policeman, Liu Bang, who added to his following by being conciliatory and converting soldiers he had defeated. He surrounded himself with men of intelligence. In 206 he became the first emperor of what was to be the Han Dynasty (the name Han referring to a fief awarded him.) Liu was his family name. In power, Liu sought support from China's small farmers – its peasants. He lowered their taxes and protected them from lords trying to expand or retrieve lost lands.

After Liu died in 195 BCE he was given the title Emperor Gaozu of Han. His wife, Dowager Empress Lu, removed members of his side of the family from palace positions and replaced them with members of her family. The emperor beginning in the year 195 was the second son of Emperor Liu Bang. (Empress Lu had poisoned the son of Liu Bang and a consort.) The new emperor was dominated more-or-less by his mother, Empress Lu, and he died in 188. And she died in 180 of an unspecified illness. Liu Bang's side of the family recovered their dominance, and to protect themselves they killed all of Empress Lu's side of the family. Authoritarian politics could be a bloody business. (The story of Empress Lu (Lu Zhi) is available in greater detail online.)

A son born to Liu Bang's mistress became known as Emperor Wen (Wendi). He would rule 23 years, to the year 157 BCE. His reign is said to have "brought a much needed political stability" and to have laid "groundwork for prosperity." Emperor Wen introduced recruitment to the civil service through examinations. He provided relief to those suffering from famine. He freed many slaves. He studied economics, was frugal in spending money and kept taxes low for peasants. Under Emperor Wen, China enjoyed an unprecedented prosperity.

With prosperity, of course, came population growth. People pushed into and began cultivating new lands. Moderately wealthy families known as gentry moved to the cities. They became absentee landowners, and the males wished to be known as gentlemen – similar to the more wealthy noblemen or lords.

The gentry had time to read and were interested in China's old scholarship. They were attracted to Confucianism's concern with rank and authority. The first emperor, Shihuangdi, is known for his hostility toward Confucianism. He was accused of burying Confucian scholars alive and burning copies of Confucian works. Emperor Wen rehabilitated Confucius and promoted Confucian scholars to his government's highest offices.

Britannica writes:

To later ages, Wendi epitomized the virtues of frugality and benevolence in a Chinese ruler.

CONTINUE READING: Han success turns into Decline and Fall, 157-9 BCE

Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.