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

After the able Emperor Wen came deterioration almost as if his successors were following a general rule that applies to Rome following Augustus.

In the year 157, Emperor Wen was followed 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 limit the power of the local rulers in China's what had been the states conquered by China's first emperor, Shi-huang-di. These local potentates were building up their own military strengths and resisting the Emperor Jing's edits. 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 allowed to keep their heads, but they were denied the power to appoint ministers for their fiefs. Emperor Jing softness went with the 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. He 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 – which helped against the kind of tendency toward greater estates that happened with Rome.

Emperor Wu began with resistance to attacks and threats against China. He launched a series of military campaigns to make trade routes with Central Asia secure. He believed he was strong enough to stop payments to the Xiongnu tribes begun by Liu Bang. He was 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.

Emperor Wu's drive against the Xiongnu was costly in manpower but it pushed most of the Xiongnu 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 in the civil war that had brought his forefather Liu Bang and the Han dynasty to power. In the south he responded to attacks, 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." It was a success that increased trade during, but the expense of large armies of occupation are reported as having more than offset the benefits from the increase in trade. And imports contributed more to the pleasures of the wealthy than it did to China's economic vitality.

Also, a wealth distribution problem was developing. Bureaucrats – belonging to 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. There was more to good governing than glorious military victories and security regarding external threats. While Emperor Wu reigned, 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 Confucian scholar, Dong Zhongshu, complained to the emperor. He 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, violent warfare erupted over who would succeed him. On one side was the family of Wu's empress. 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'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. 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, died childless in 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 his aunt, the late Emperor Cheng's mother, considered a dowager empress. She had taken command, and effective rule by the Liu (Han) family had ended. The pendulum had been swinging back to disintegration again. A civil war was in the making, and in the year 25 another successful conquerer belonging to the extended Liu family would emerge as emperor. The old and fallen Han Dynasty would be called the Western Han (its capital, Chang'an). It had lasted something like 205 years. The new Han Dynasty would be called the Eastern Han (its capital, Louyang). It would be in a state of collapse 140 years later, in the decade of the 160s.

CONTINUE READING: Failure of the Confucianist Wang Mang

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