The Han (202/206 BCE–220 CE) was a mighty dynasty in Chinese history. The founding emperor, Liu Bang (256–195 BCE), died after only four years on the throne. Therefore, he had few notable national governance achievements. His successors, Emperor Wen (Liu Heng, Liu Bang’s third son, 203–157 BCE) and Emperor Jing (Liu Qi, Liu Heng’s third son, 188–141 BCE) created the first golden age in China’s imperial era—the “Reigns of Wen and Jing.” However, the seventh emperor Liu Che (156–87 BCE), known as Emperor Wu of the Han, was the most famous and influential ruler of the Han dynasty. He was referred to as the “Great Emperor Wu of the Han,” and is considered one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history. Few emperors were regarded as “great” by historians. Another emperor so acclaimed was Kangxi of the Qing dynasty.
Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BCE) was made crown prince when he was seven, ascended the throne at age sixteen, and reigned the Han realm for fifty-four years until his death at age seventy. In Chinese history, Emperor Wu’s rule was only shorter than that of Emperor Kangxi (61 years, 1662–1722) and Emperor Qianlong (60 years, 1736–1795) of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). An innovative monarch, Emperor Wu reigned long enough to realize his great vision and talent.
Having inherited the prosperity of the “Reigns of Wen and Jing,” Emperor Wu practiced good governance. Internally, he recruited talents, promoted education, and boosted the economy; externally, he subdued the “four barbarians,” established contacts with the Western Regions, and demonstrated national prestige. He brought ultimate prosperity to the Western Han dynasty (the first half of the Han dynasty, 206 BCE–24 CE).
It requires men of talent to govern a country well. At that time, the imperial examination system had not been established. Emperor Wu ordered local officials to recommend capable people to the imperial court every year. He also encouraged self-recommendation from commoners. This created a path for ordinary people to pursue a career in civil service. Emperor Wu’s imperial court teemed with talented people in both civil and military sectors. They achieved great accomplishment and left indelible marks in history. Later historians commented that in terms of personal achievement, institutional innovation, and literary performance, no period in Chinese history came close to the reign of Emperor Wu.
Adopting the proposal of Dong Zhongshu (179–104 BCE), a Confucian scholar, Emperor Wu initiated the policy of “proscribing the hundred schools of thoughts and honoring exclusively Confucianism.” Confucian thoughts subsequently became the mainstream of Chinese culture for over two millennia.
Emperor Wu’s military accomplishments secured him a pivotal place in Chinese history. Under his rule, the Han dynasty acquired its largest territory. Historians agree that China’s borders were initially defined by this emperor. He expelled the nomadic Xiongnu to the Gobi in the north, pacified Dongyue and Nanyue in the south, suppressed barbarians in the southwest, and invaded Korea in the east. During Emperor Wu’s reign, a total of twenty-four new prefectures and five vassal states were created. Through military campaigns, he also made his name in the Western Regions and secured the Silk Road. Cultural and economic exchange between China and the Western Regions thrived as never before. Chinese goods and technologies, by way of the Western Regions, reached as far as the Roman Empire and the various places in Europe.
In state governance, the emperor issued the wu zhu coins (wu zhu: five grains, the weight of the coin, approximately four grams) , expanded taxation sources, and prosecuted tax evaders. He nationalized minting of coins, metallurgy, and salt extraction, the three most profitable industries. He stabilized market price, launched hydraulic engineering projects, and harnessed the Yellow River. Emperor Wu was also the first to reform the Chinese calendar.
Emperor Wu achieved greatness in various fields. Some historians criticized him for being suspicious, superstitious, licentious, wasteful, and brutal. Others criticized his militarism in his later years. Despite these objections, one cannot speak of the golden ages of Chinese history without mentioning Emperor Wu of the Han.