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W: Wudi of Han

Emperor Wudi reigned for 54 years

The first golden age

The Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) was a pivotal era, so integral to the shaping of China’s national identity that the majority of Chinese still refer to themselves as the Han people today.

It was the Han’s accomplishments that brought imperial China to new heights – politically, socially and militarily – with Emperor Wu, the seventh monarch of the Han, usually classed as one of the most influential emperors. Reigning for 54 years, Emperor Wu (also known as Han Wudi) governed China for longer than anyone else, until that record was broken some 1,800 years later by Emperor Kangxi (see K for Kangxi).

Han innovations

Science and technology during the Han period saw significant breakthroughs, including paper making (see I for Inventions), steering ships by rudder, and the introduction of negative numbers in mathematics. Han scientists came up with metallic spheres for stargazing and navigation, and early forms of a seismometer that were used to discern distant earthquakes.

Yet historians generally regard its political innovations as the peak of the Han’s greatness. Qin Shi Huang established China’s first unified state, but his dynasty was short-lived, lasting only 14 years (see Q for Qin Shi Huang). The Han court built on these foundations to set up one of the most sophisticated bureaucracies in the ancient world, dividing the Middle Kingdom into a series of administrative areas ruled by centrally appointed officials, for whom promotion was based primarily on merit.

More importantly, the Han started to sponsor Confucianism as a social contract, with Emperor Wu enshrining it as a coherent and commanding ideology of government. Training in Confucian studies became a requirement for civil service candidates (see A for Analects). The result was a relatively stable society and an economy that expanded significantly.

The emergence of a superpower

The Han government was interventionist. It nationalised the silk industry after machines were developed for winding silk fibres onto large reels, making production faster and more efficient. It also helped to commercialise new understandings of how to mine large quantities of salt – a valuable commodity – instead of sourcing it from the sea. Salt became an imperial monopoly, one of the oldest state-owned enterprises in China.

Another notable Han state-owned enterprise was the Shandan Horse Ranch in Gansu province (founded in 121 BC). The breeding facility, now part of the China Animal Husbandry Group – was created by Emperor Wu to provide the best horses for his cavalry.

This marks another important Han legacy: helped by a strong economy and the spirit of invention, Wu excelled at warfare, and almost doubled the size of his empire by pushing into parts of Central Asia, Korea and Vietnam. This made the Han a superpower of the East.

Most notably, Emperor Wu was credited with successful military campaigns against the Xiongnu, nomadic tribes from the Central Asian steppe that posed a constant threat (and were a key reason why the Great Wall was built; see Q for Qin Shi Huang). The Han army’s victory over the Xiongnu was a crucial moment for Chinese civilisation, providing safer conditions for an agrarian economy to thrive. Besides expanding the empire’s territorial reach, it also created safer passage abroad, stretching through modern day Xinjiang to the Mediterranean Sea. These trading routes would later be known as the Silk Road (see S for Silk Road).

The Han model is something to follow?

One lesson that might be inferred from the Han era is that the longevity of its rule rested on both an effective military and a stable economy. Combinations of concentrated state power and bursts of creativity and innovation also brought about the advent of major new technologies, most of which have been to the benefit of the wider world.
Now at the helm of the world’s second biggest economy, Chinese President Xi Jinping has said that his ambition is to maintain his country’s “peaceful rise” while also creating “a community with a shared future for mankind”.

Yet if Xi wants to go down in history as one of China’s most influential leaders, territorial issues can’t be ignored either. Waging wars like the expansionist Emperor Wu isn’t on the agenda, but China is determined to defend its claims. That includes reunification with Taiwan: a goal that all of its modern-day leaders see as national destiny.


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