Wudi Rules Han Dynasty China Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Under Wudi, China became a great power and spread its influence throughout East and Southeast Asia.

Summary of Event

Wudi succeeded to the throne of the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.) in 141 b.c.e. and became one of the most important emperors in Chinese history. He inherited a government that was politically unstable and torn apart by internal strife, and by instituting a series of reforms, he created a dynasty that would dominate East Asia for the next three centuries. Wudi Dong Zhongshu Zhang Qian

Much of the instability in the early Han Empire was connected to the political policies enacted by the Qin Dynasty (Ch’in; 221-206 b.c.e.) under the leadership of Shi Huangdi (Shih Huang-ti; 259-210 b.c.e.). The political and social upheavals of the Warring States Period (475-221 b.c.e.) caused the new dynasty to enact totalitarian political policies based on the philosophy of Legalism. This doctrine represented humanity as basically evil and promoted a social policy based on the strict enforcement of a harsh legal code.

When Liu Bang (Liu Pang; 256-195 b.c.e.) defeated the Qin and established the Han Dynasty, he chose to keep the Legalist system of government. This exacerbated an already oppressive situation and gave rise to a number of conspiracies that undermined his political power. When Wudi ascended the throne, he sought an alternative model on which to base his government. The new emperor wanted to know what factors gave rise to an oppressive regime such as that of the Qin and what actions had to be taken to prevent such a problem in the future. Wudi found the answer to these questions in the writings of the great Chinese philosopher of history, Dong Zhongshu.

Dong’s worldview was based on Confucian principles and consisted of five basic concepts. He believed that universal natural laws governed the history of humankind and that all the actions of the human community were interrelated. He also believed that there is an overarching governing force that created all life on earth. Dong referred to this power as “heaven,” and he stated that all kings and emperors received their right to rule from this divine power (the mandate of heaven). He wrote that all natural events, especially celestial phenomena, reflect the approval or disapproval of heaven.

Dong convinced Wudi that a system could be constructed that would ensure that the actions of a ruler would be in line with these universal laws and thus would win the mandate of heaven. Wudi responded by mandating that the Legalism of the Qin be discredited and that Dong’s neo-Confucian model be accepted by the new government. This was an important turning point in the new emperor’s quest for power because it established him and his policies as a rational and humane alternative to the oppression of the past.

Dong convinced Wudi to establish a national university centered on the teachings of Confucius (Kongfuzi, K’ung-Fu-Tzu; 551-479 b.c.e.) that would be used for the creation of a bureaucracy reflecting the necessary characteristics and skills that were needed to be in compliance with the natural law. The basic text in this university would be Chunqiu (fifth century b.c.e.; The Ch’un Ts’ew with the Tso Chuen, 1872; commonly known as Spring and Autumn Annals), believed at that time to be written by Confucius. Dong was convinced that this great text was a guidebook to the universal law of history. Within its pages, Dong believed he had found evidence that heaven intervened in the lives of human beings, distributing rewards and punishments in accordance with their actions. He also convinced Wudi that the fall of the Qin Dynasty and the ultimate failure of the early Han were the result of heavenly retribution. The new emperor accepted this concept of divine justice and began his reign determined to act in accordance with Dong’s theory.

The implementation of these ideas began with Wudi’s attack on the traditional aristocracy. He removed the nobles from their positions in government and created a bureaucracy based on merit. A government official’s position within this new system was determined initially by the scores received on the civil service exam that was based on the new Confucian curriculum. Future individual progress would be determined by the extent that the bureaucrat followed basic Confucian principles in the execution of his duties. Wudi also attacked the rising new merchant class that was attempting to monopolize the empire’s trade and commerce. He instituted a series of taxes that reduced their power and created government monopolies in selected industries, the most important of which were iron, salt, and liquor. Government control increased the effectiveness of these industries, especially in the area of iron smelting. New, high-quality iron tools increased industrial and agricultural output. This had a dramatic impact on China’s population, which increased from 20 million to 60 million by the beginning of the first century c.e. This population explosion helped make China the most urbanized civilization in the world, with as many as 30 percent of its people living in cities.

Wudi’s reign also witnessed the growth of domestic and foreign trade. He funded the construction of an extensive infrastructure of roads and canals that not only moved goods efficiently but also extended government control throughout the empire. China would also prosper from a series of long-distance trade networks. The most famous part of this system was the great Silk Road that connected China to the other Eurasian superpower, Rome. A wide variety of goods, ideas, religious systems, and diseases moved from one part of Eurasia to the next along this great, ancient highway. These overland routes were also linked to a series of sea lanes that connected the East China Sea and the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. One of the primary reasons for the great success of this trade complex was Wudi’s ability to ensure the safe transportation of goods.

The success of Wudi’s industrialization efforts also enabled him to create a military that could go into battle with the latest high-tech equipment, including steel swords, strong armor, and highly accurate crossbows. Like their Roman counterparts, China’s armies were also trained in civil engineering. Chinese forces created a system of military roads that allowed troops to move quickly throughout the empire in times of trouble. Wudi took advantage of his military strength and launched a series of wars of conquest against Mongolia, Manchuria, southern China, Korea, and parts of Southeast Asia. He also developed plans to move against Japan, but the expense and logistics proved too much of an obstacle.

The primary focus of the emperor’s foreign policy was aimed at pacifying the northern nomadic tribes, the most powerful of which were the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu). Wudi initially constructed a great defensive wall in an attempt to control the movement of these powerful nomads. Eventually, he sent one of his trusted generals, Zhang Qian, to negotiate with the Xiongnu. Zhang’s success was the primary reason China was able to open up and protect its western trade routes. In time, the Han were able to carry on extensive trade with the Roman outpost at Bactria.

Wudi’s wars of expansion placed a great burden on the empire’s finances. In an attempt to remedy this problem, the emperor raised taxes and began to confiscate the land of wealthy landlords. These actions exacerbated an already growing gap between the rich and poor, and a series of rebellions broke out. Later emperors would attempt unsuccessfully to ease these tensions through a series of land redistribution programs.


Wudi’s reign established China as the greatest power in East Asia. Over time, the stress of empire took its toll on Chinese society. The empire would suffer from nomadic invasions and the biological exchanges that were a result of its long-distance trade. Epidemics of smallpox, measles, and the bubonic plague would eventually decrease China’s population by 25 percent.

The reign of Wudi was also the source of the Chinese concept of “dynastic cycle.” This historical model was an attempt to explain the rise and fall of great empires. Future dynasties such as the Tang, Song, and Ming would reach great heights, only to succumb to internal political and social pressures. The factors that caused decline were always a combination of social and economic inequality, cultural decay, and threats to China’s national security.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Crespigny, Rafe. Northern Frontier: The Policies and Strategy of the Later Han Empire. Canberra: Australian University Press, 1984. Discusses the international relations of the Han Dynasty. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fung, Yu-lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953. The most comprehensive guide to the history of Chinese philosophy. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hsiao, Kung-chuan. A History of Chinese Political Thought. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979. A comprehensive overview of Chinese political philosophy. Especially useful for the thought of Dong Zhongshu.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loewe, Michael, and Edward L. Shaughnessy. The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 b.c.e. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A comprehensive overview of the history of ancient China. Maps, bibliography, and index.
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