His foreign policy and wars resulted in Chinese expansion to unprecedented heights and opened up international trade and contacts between China and the rest of the ancient Eurasian world. For these accomplishments he was called Wudi, wu meaning "martial" and di meaning "emperor".
In 141 b.c.e. a young man of 16 years old ascended the Chinese throne upon the death of his father Emperor Jing (Ching). The event inaugurated an era of active government at home and expansion abroad. Until his reign the Han government had focused on light taxes and laissez-faire domestic policies to promote economic growth.
Its foreign policy was based on appeasing the fierce nomadic Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu) in the north through Heqing (Ho-ch’ing) treaties whereby the Han regularly gave the Xiongnu large quantities of silver, silk, and food in return for peace. Appeasement, however, did not end Xiongnu raids.
Wars and Expansion
After 135 b.c.e. China would take the offensive. With a large population, ample resources, and a brimming treasury Wudi initiated all-out war against the Xiongnu. It was preceded by dispatching an emissary named Zhang Qian (Chang Ch’ien) westward to find and form an alliance with the Yuezhi (Yueh-chih), a nomadic group that had been worsted by the Xiongnu earlier and had fled to find a new home.
Zhang failed to recruit the Yuezhi when he finally found them settled in modern Afghanistan, but the report of his travels motivated the emperor to pursue expansion into Central Asia for allies and trade.
Emperor Wu never personally campaigned but was served by talented and ambitious generals, some of whom were related to his empresses or consorts. For example, Generals Wei Qing (Wei Ch’ing) and Huo Qubing (Huo Ch’u-ping) were related to two of his empresses, and Li Guangli (Li Kuang-li) was the brother of a favorite consort.
All three earned fame in defeating the Xiongnu. In 127 b.c.e. Chinese forces retook lands south of the Yellow River; it was followed by several large expeditions resulting in the surrender of one Xiongnu king with a large number of his tribesmen.
Commanderies and dependent states were established in the conquered areas, Chinese colonists were settled on some of the land, and tribal people were brought under Chinese authority. Major campaigns against the Xiongnu came to a halt in 117 b.c.e. In 112 b.c.e.
Han generals crushed another tribal group called the Qiang (Ch’iang), proto-Tibetans and allies of the Xiongnu in the northwest. In 111 b.c.e. Wudi presided over a victory parade north of the Great Wall of China in which 12 generals and 180,000 cavalry troops took part. He lavishly rewarded victorious officers and men and punished generals who failed.
The Great Wall was expanded to the Jade Gate in the northwest, and garrisons were stationed along strategic points to deal with sudden raids, to prevent Chinese deserters from joining the Xiongnu, and to protect trade along the newly opened up Silk Road. These measures ended the Xiongnu stranglehold on Chinese trade with lands to the west.
Chinese power focused on maintaining friendly relations with tribes and oasis states across Central Asia that were hostile to the Xiongnu, enrolling them as vassal states. Rulers of vassal states sent tribute and their sons to China for education (and as hostages).
They received in return lavish gifts and trade privileges and occasionally a Han princess in marriage. Trade flourished between China, India, Central Asia, Persia, and Rome. But the Xiongnu menace did not end, and more large campaigns were launched during and after Wudi’s reign. One, for example, led by General Li Guangli reached as far as Ferghana in Central Asia in 104 b.c.e.
Wudi’s generals also campaigned in the South, Southwest, and Korea. The major obstacles to expansion to the south were terrain and climate. Between 112 and 111 b.c.e. Han forces totaling 100,000 men subdued the Nanyue (Nan-yueh) along the southern coast to the Red River valley. Other armies subdued aboriginal peoples in Yunnan, Sichuan (Szechwan), and Hainan Island.
The lands annexed as a result formed nine commanderies across modern Guangdong (Kuangtung), Guangxi (Kuanghsi), Yunnan, Sichuan, and Hainan Provinces, and northern Vietnam. In 109 b.c.e. a 50,000-man army marched to Korea, conquering the northern part of the peninsula, adding four more commanderies.
The campaigns expanded the empire and made it more secure, but at a huge human and financial cost. The treasury was emptied, resulting in new taxes and state monopolies over iron, salt, and liquor to raise revenue. These measures led to widespread discontent.
Wudi’s reign was also important for other achievements. He systematized the recruitment of civil servants based on examinations and established a state university to train candidates. Their curriculum was based on the philosophy of Confucius under standardized interpretation.
He also created many commanderies under direct central government control and dramatically reduced the land under the feudal princes and lords and their power. He also established vassal states and dependencies in areas with tribal (non-Chinese populations) that became standard practice for subsequent Chinese government’s dealings with frontier peoples.
He adopted rituals and ceremonies of state that also became standard for subsequent dynasties. Wudi took an active role in measures to control floods along the Yellow River, supervised the settlement of people in conquered lands, and sponsored large caravans for trade with western lands.
Ironically, Wudi’s inability to control his wives and consorts led to dynastic crises. His first wife, Empress Chen (Ch’en), had no son, and their daughter was found practicing witchcraft against her father, leading to Empress Chen’s demotion. Several of his consorts were also later accused of practicing witchcraft that led to witch hunts, trials, and executions. In a superstitious age witchcraft was a feared crime.
His second wife, Empress Wei (her brothers were powerful generals) and her son, the crown prince, staged a coup against him in 91 b.c.e. that led to fighting between the Wei family and the Li family, relatives of a powerful consort. It failed, and the empress and crown prince were forced to commit suicide.
In 87 b.c.e., when gravely ill, he appointed an eight-year-old son by a consort named Lady Zhao (Chao) crown prince because she had no powerful relatives. She soon died, rumored murdered. The personality of Wudi remains an enigma. Despite some personal and policy failings, he is one of the most powerful monarchs in Chinese history.