(DYNASTIC RULE and the CHINESE – continued)

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DYNASTIC RULE and the CHINESE (6 of 13)

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Emperor Wu, Expansion, Class Conflict and Decline

Map of Han Empire

Han Empire, 100 BCE (click to enlarge and focus Map showing the Han Empire

In 156 BCE, a son of Emperor Wen succeeded his father and became Emperor Jing. He ruled sixteen years and attempted to extend his family's domination over noble families. War between these nobles and Emperor Jing ended in compromise, the nobles keeping some of their privileges and powers but no longer permitted to appoint ministers for their fiefs.

In 141 BCE, Emperor Jing was succeeded by his son, Emperor Wu, a bright and spirited sixteen year-old who enjoyed risking his life hunting big game. Emperor Wu prolonged the Han dynasty's good times. He began his rule with a hands-off approach to commerce and economic opportunity which allowed the growth of the economy's private sector.

Emperor Wu altered laws of inheritance. Instead of a family's land remaining under the eldest son, he gave all the sons of a family an equal share of their father's land, which did much to break great estates into smaller units.

Emperor Wu made Confucianism China's official political philosophy. Confucianism became dominant in the civil service. Examinations for China's 130,000 or so civil service positions tested an applicant's knowledge of Confucian ideology, knowledge of ancient writings and rules of social grace rather than technical expertise. Theoretically these examinations were open to all citizens, but in reality they were open only to those with adequate respectability, which excluded artisans, merchants and others of lesser status than the gentry.

Emperor Wu, meanwhile, sent China's first known explorer, Zhang Qian, to Parthia (today, northeastern Iran), to establish relations with the Kushan (Yuzhi). With economic prosperity, Emperor Wu believed he could be more assertive in foreign policy. He believed that he was strong enough to stop payments to the Xiongnu 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, and he wished to make trade routes for commerce with Central Asia secure from assault. So Emperor Wu 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 Emperor Wu 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

Emperor Wu, holder of the Mandate of Heaven, lest there be anarchy Enlarged image of Emperor Wu

The war against the Xiongnu stimulated exploration farther westward. After a thirteen-year absence and ten years of captivity by the Xiongnu, the explorer Zhang Qian returned to Emperor Wu's court and brought with him the first reliable description of Central Asia. Emperor Wu ordered Zhang Qian and assistants back to Central Asia, and they gathered information about India and Persia and explored the fertile farmlands of Bactria. Their explorations and China's success against the Xiongnu brought an exchange of envoys between China and states to the west, and it opened for the Chinese the 4000-mile trade route that would become known as the Silk Road. China began importing a superior breed of horses, and it began growing alfalfa and grapes. For additional revenue he demanded that neighboring states pay his empire to sell their goods to the Chinese, and he began military campaigns to force them to do so.

In 108 BCE, for the sake of control in the northeast, Emperor Wu conquered an iron-using kingdom in northern Korea. This was a kingdom equal in many ways to the Chinese states before the unification of China in 221 BCE, and it was a kingdom with many Chinese refugees from the previous century.

Emperor Wu sent his armies southward and conquered territory that China had lost during the civil war that had brought the Han dynasty to power. This included regaining the port town of Guangzhou. And Chinese migrants followed Emperor Wu's army.

Then, with heavy fighting, Emperor Wu's army conquered northern Vietnam, an area the Chinese called Annam, meaning "pacified south." Here, too, Chinese migrants came, and some would settle near the Annamite Mountains in the center of Vietnam. The Chinese introduced Vietnam to the water buffalo, metal plows and other tools, and they brought to Annam their written language. The Chinese began to change the people of Annam from slash and burn cultivators into a more settled life. They divided Annam into administrative areas, each administration responsible for collecting taxes and supplying soldiers for the central government. But Chinese rule in Annam would remain tenuous, its jungles and mountains giving sanctuary to Vietnamese who would conduct continuous raids and skirmishes against the Chinese.

The cycle of economic prosperity and wars of expansion added to other concerns that weighed on China. Emperor Wu's maintenance of large armies of occupation more than offset the benefits from the increase in trade that followed his conquests. China's imports were contributing more to the pleasures of the wealthy than they were to China's economic vitality. Non-Confucianist government officials made matters worse. They were hostile to private tradesmen, and they led a drive for government control of the economy. Under their influence the government levied a new tax on boats and carts and took over trade in China's two most profitable industries: salt and iron. And with the rise of government involvement, the economy suffered.

The same move to larger land holdings that changed Roman agriculture was changing Chinese agriculture, except that in China the number of people in the countryside had been growing. With the size of lands of the wealthy increasing and the peasant population also increasing, a shortage of land developed. Gentry bureaucrats sought a hedge against insecurity by buying land and often taking advantage of their office to do so, and often they enjoyed tax exemption for their land, while ordinary peasants were paying a larger share in taxes, resulting in their greater need to borrow money, at usurious rates. Farming productivity declined. Many peasants were evicted or were forced to leave farming, making more land available for the gentry. Some were forced to leave farming, and they resorted to banditry, and some struggling peasants sold their children into slavery.

Conscription into the military and conscription for labor added to the peasantry's discontent. China's most renowned Confucian scholar, Dong Zhongshu, was outraged by the plight of the peasants, and he led the way in expressing concern about a class conflict that he identified as social decay. He complained about the vast extent of lands owned by the wealthy while the poor had no spot to plant their two feet. He complained of those who tilled the land of others compelled to give up as much as fifty percent of the harvests they produced. Dong Zhongshu recognized the disadvantage faced by those farmers who could not afford to buy iron tools, who had to till with wood and to weed with their hands. He complained that common peasants had to sell their crops when prices were low and then had to borrow money in the spring in order to start sowing when interest rates were high. And he complained about the thousands put to death every year for banditry.

Dong Zhongshu proposed to Emperor Wu a remedy for the economic crisis: reduce the taxes on the poor; reduce the unpaid labor that peasants had to perform for the state; abolish the government's monopoly on salt and iron; and improve the distribution of farm lands by limiting the amount of land that any one family could own. Nothing came of Dong Zhongshu's suggestions. Emperor Wu wanted peasants to prosper, but he was often deceived by the gentry bureaucrats who governed at the local level. The drive for reform was being led by a Confucianist, but the Confucianist gentry did not rally against their own economic interests. Emperor Wu's only substantial response to the economic decline was to levy higher taxes on the wealthy and to send spies around to catch attempts at tax evasion. He chose to ignore land redistribution, not wishing to offend wealthy landowners, believing that he needed their cooperation to finance his military campaigns.


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