(EMPIRE and the ANCIENT CHINESE – continued)
In 156 BCE, the son of Wendi, Jingdi, succeeded his father as emperor. He ruled sixteen years and attempted to extend his family's domination over noble families. War between these nobles and Jingdi 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, Jingdi was succeeded by his son, Wudi, 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.
Wudi 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.
Wudi 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.
Wudi, meanwhile, had sent China's first known explorer, Zhang Qian, to Parthia, west of Bactria, to establish relations with the Kushan (Yuzhi). With economic prosperity, Wudi 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 Wudi launched a series of military campaigns.
Wudi'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 Wudi created colonies of soldiers and civilians. Those Xiongnu who stayed behind in what was deemed China were converted to farming, drafted for construction labor and employed as farm laborers. And some of them were drafted into China's army, their families forced to remain where they were as hostages to assure against treason.
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 Wudi's court and brought with him the first reliable description of Central Asia. Wudi 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. Wudi learned more about the origins of goods that China was importing. For added revenues 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.
Wudi sent his armies north and south. In 108 BCE, for the sake of control in the northeast, Wudi 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 a kingdom with many Chinese refugees from the previous century. In the south, Wudi's armies conquered territory that China lost during the civil war that brought the Han dynasty to power, including the port town of Guangzhou. Chinese migrants followed the army.
Then, with heavy fighting, Wudi'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.
Wudi's wars of expansion and his maintenance of large armies of occupation more than offset the benefits from the increase in trade that followed his conquests. Imports contributed more to the pleasures of the wealthy than they did 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 were able to make their land tax exempt. 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 peasants who left farming 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 the 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 having to give away 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 Wudi 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. Wudi 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. Wudi'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.
Copyright © 2009-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.