Emperor Wu (r. 140-87 BCE)
Confucian Sage or Legalist Tyrant?

The Confucian Emperor Wu
Emperor Wu’s Confucianism deeply reflected the influence of his advisor Dong Zhongshu (ca. 198-104 B.C.E.), who believed that the emperor served to link heaven with his subjects. If he governed well, heaven would continue to support him, but if he violated heaven’s intent, heaven could send various portents to warn him of his misconduct. These portents could appear in the form of eclipses, floods, droughts, or any other calamity. ... Sometime around140 B.C.E. the emperor appointed five scholars to the position of Academician, each of whom specialized in a different Confucian classic: The Book of Changes, The Book of Documents, The Book of Songs, The Book of Rites, and The Spring and Autumn Annals. The selection of these five books as the most important texts marked the first step in the formation of the Confucian canon. When the emperor named fifty students to study with the Academicians in 124 B.C.E., he created an imperial academy, whose students could enter the government. It grew quickly, enrolling three thousand students in the next seventy-five years. Emperor Wu also established schools in each locality; students in these schools could join the local government, attend the imperial academy, or be recruited into the central bureaucracy. (OE, 118-9)
The Way of the Great Learning lies in illuminating luminous virtue, treating the people with affection, and resting in perfect goodness. ... Those in antiquity who wished to illumine luminous virtue throughout the world would first govern their states; wishing to govern their states, they would first bring order to their families; wishing to bring order to their families, they would first cultivate their own persons; wishing to cultivate their own persons, they would first rectify their minds; wishing to rectify their minds, they would first make their thoughts sincere; wishing to make their thoughts sincere, they would first extend their knowledge. The extension of knowledge lies in the investigation of things.

It is only when things are investigated that knowledge is extended; when knowledge is extended ...; [it is only] when the state is well governed that peace is brought to the world.
From the Son of Heaven to ordinary people, all, without exception, should regard cultivating the person as the root. It can never happen that the root is disordered and the branches are ordered. (SCT, 330-1)
The Han dynasty continued to recruit officials largely by recommendation, but it required its officials to take examinations after they arrived in the capital in order to place them in appropriate entry-level positions in the bureaucracy. Whenever the central government decided to hire staff at the local level, it asked local officials to recommend talented young men. After entering the bureaucracy as low-ranking clerks, these men could work their way up. (OE, 119)

The Legalist Emperor Wu
One major [early Han] departure from Qin policies concerned the treatment of the nobility. Where the Qin emperor had required all the nobility of the vanquished kingdoms to reside in his capital, the Han founder created a new nobility. He gave nine of his brothers and sons the title of king and the lands necessary to sustain them, and named one hundred fifty of his most important followers to the rank of marquis. Two-thirds of his territory remained in the hands of his sons and other relatives. Only one-third of his empire, the crucial western half containing the capital, remained under direct administration. We should remember that the core of the Han-dynasty empire lay in the region around Chang’an, or the modern city of Xi’an in the province of Shaanxi, while the coastal areas and much of south China remained backwaters largely populated by non-Chinese peoples. (OE, 108)
At the same time that Emperor Wu strengthened the bureaucracy, he took strong measures to curtail the power of the regional rulers empowered by the Han founder. Starting in 127 B.C. he required that when a given ruler died, his lands were to be divided among all his sons — not passed down intact to the oldest son as had previously been the case. Like the Qin founder, he required these families to move to a new city close to the capital, and he forbade members of some families to live together. Emperor Wu broke with earlier practice, too, in his consistent refusal to appoint the sons of these powerful families to high office. Emperor Wu chose his own appointees instead. (OE, 1st Edition, 127)
The abolition of [the kingdoms of Huainan and Hengshan] in 122 B.C.E. seems to have been decisive in breaking the power of the kingdoms. In 112 almost all the marquisates that had been inherited since the reign of Emperor Gao were abolished. By that time the share of the empire ruled by kings was much smaller than it had been in 141. (MOF, 58)
Confucian scholars were useful in devising legitimating ceremonies, drafting state papers, and educating the next generation of officials, but they did not determine the main directions of state policy, and frequently opposed them. Emperor Wu’s regime was inclined to take aggressive action in all directions as soon as it was free of the restraining influence of the Grand Dowager Empress Dou [who was committed to Huang-Lao Daoism]. A Han ambush of a large party of Xiongnu in 134 was followed by annual Xiongnu raids along the border. These expansionist policies were opposed by many officials, including one Zhufu Yan ...
But in 127 Zhufu Yan changed his tune, urging that the Han reoccupy the territory within the northward bend of the Yellow River, restoring the Qin line of defenses in that area. His recommendation was followed, and the Han armies were successful. Zhufu Yan also urged a general policy of dividing up the territories of marquises among their heirs, on the Confucian grounds that this would encourage warm family feelings and filial piety, and accused the kings of Yan and Qi of personal moral offenses. Both kings committed suicide, neither had an heir, and their kingdoms came under central control. The linking of efforts to strengthen central power and calls for an aggressive foreign policy, the use of Confucian moral concerns to justify “Legalist” centralization, are striking. Zhufu Yan may have changed his views on foreign policy because he sensed what Emperor Wu and the powerful generals wanted to hear. His days of success as a policy adviser were short, however; the king of Zhao accused him of corruption and he was executed. (MOF, 56-7)
... A spectacular burst of military activity began in 121 [BCE]. The Xiongnu, defeated in 121 and in 119, retreated north, beyond the Gobi Desert. The Xiongnu retreat from the upper reaches of the Yellow River allowed the Han to move into that region and on out along the “Silk Road,” the oasis trade route that linked China with Persia and the Roman Orient. New commanderies were set up on that frontier from 108 to 104. Explorations to the northwest under Zhang Qian culminated in the Han conquest of Ferghana, beyond the present northwest frontier of the People’s Republic, in 104. A series of conflicts in the northeast led to the establishment of full Han rule over much of the Korean peninsula in 108. (MOF, 58)
Almost every measure Emperor Wu introduced, whether sending troops far afield or establishing a Confucian academy, required funds, yet officials soon found that the revenue from the land tax could not meet the empire’s growing financial needs. Following the precedent of the Han founder, Empress Lü had set the land tax at one-fifteenth (6.67%) of agricultural produce, and it was subsequently lowered to one-thirtieth in 168 B.C.E. In 119 B.C.E., to provide a supplementary source of revenue, Emperor Wu created government monopolies for two of the most profitable sectors in the economy: salt and iron. ... Because the government controlled the production of iron, which was used to make farm implements, cooking pots, scissors, and weapons, it was able to charge artificially high prices for the products over which it had monopolies. The profits generated from the monopolies provided an important source of revenue for the central government. The salt and iron monopolies were so successful that in 115 B.C.E. the central government also assumed control of the production of copper and bronze and took the right to mint coins from the commanderies, which had each been minting their own currency. In 98 B.C.E. the government created its fourth monopoly over a drink often translated as wine: a fermented beverage made from grain, closer to beer than wine. (OE, 122)
The Confucian Literati
In the sixth year of the era Shiyuan [81 B.C.E.], an imperial edict was issued directing the chancellor and the imperial secretaries to confer with the worthies and literati who had been recommended to the government and to inquire into the grievances and hardships of the people.
       The literati responded: We have heard that the way to govern men is to prevent evil and error at their source, to broaden the beginnings of morality, to discourage secondary occupations, and open the way for the exercise of humaneness and rightness. Never should material profit appear as a motive of government. Only then can moral instruction succeed and the customs of the people be reformed. But now in the provinces the salt, iron, and liquor monopolies, and the system of equitable marketing have been established to compete with the people for profit, dispelling rustic generosity and teaching the people greed. Therefore those who pursue primary occupations [i.e., farming] have grown few and those following secondary occupations [i.e., trading] numerous. As artifice increases, basic simplicity declines; and as the secondary occupations flourish, those that are primary suffer. When the secondary is practiced the people grow decadent, but when the primary is practiced they are simple and sincere. When the people are sincere then there will be sufficient wealth and goods, but when they become extravagant then famine and cold will follow. We recommend that the salt, iron, and liquor monopolies and the system of equitable marketing be abolished so that primary pursuits may be advanced and secondary ones suppressed. (
SCT, 360-1)

The Imperial Secretary
His Lordship [the Imperial Secretary Sang Hongyang] replied: The Xiongnu have frequently revolted against our sovereignty and pillaged our borders. If we are able to defend ourselves, then it means the hardships of war for the soldiers of China, but if we do not defend ourselves properly, then their incursions cannot be stopped. The former emperor [Wu] took pity upon the people of the border areas who for so long had suffered disaster and hardship and had been carried off as captives. Therefore he set up defense stations, established a system of warning beacons, and garrisoned the outlying areas to ensure their protection. But the resources of these areas were insufficient, and so he established the salt, iron, and liquor monopolies and the system of equitable marketing in order to raise more funds for expenditures at the borders. Now our critics, who desire that these measures be abolished, would empty the treasuries and deplete the funds used for defense. They would have the men who are defending our passes and patrolling our walls suffer hunger and cold. How else can we provide for them? Abolition of these measures is not expedient! (SCT, 361)
So, in the end was Emperor Wu a Confucian Sage,
a Legalist Tyrant ... or something in between?