In the middle of the 2nd Century B.C., a fascinating man came to power. For 54 years he reigned over China, a record on the throne that would stand for 18 centuries. His original name was Liu Che but he is more commonly called Han Wudi.
The Han Dynasty lasted for nearly four and a half centuries, from 202 B.C. to 220 A.D. Han Wudi was the seventh of its 30 rulers and governed from the age of 15 in 141 B.C. until his death in 87 B.C. Here are some highlights of his tenure:
He doubled the size of the empire by force of arms, ultimately stretching it to the Korean peninsula in the east to the jungles of Vietnam in the southeast, to the steppes of Asia in the west.
He threw a lot of public money at the arts. The Imperial Music Bureau proved to be one of his bureaucracies that long outlasted him. Support for art seems to be a common fetish of men of power.
Han Wudi loved “infrastructure” projects. No doubt ancient China needed better roads and dams but when the state built them, they also gave the Emperor a vast source of patronage jobs and loyal beneficiaries. Han Wudi’s government constructed expensive canals, dikes, highways, and bridges.
Coinage in Han Dynasty times was mostly copper. To help cover his extravagant spending, Han Wudi forbade private coinage and declared a state monopoly over the mint.
As the quality of the state’s coinage declined and Han Wudi’s spending soared, he needed ever more revenue. So he established state monopolies over salt, wine and iron and raked off the monopoly profits for the government. He also jacked up taxes to levels that prompted uprisings around the country late in his reign.
In Han Wudi’s final years, his taxing and spending so drained the strength of the empire that retreat became his only option. Popular unrest focused his attention at home as China’s economy shrank under the burdens he imposed.
What was the single best thing that Han Wudi ever did? Hands down, it was his Repenting Edict of Luntai. Issued in 89 B.C. After more than five decades on the throne, Han Wudi publicly apologized to the whole Chinese nation for his numerous policy mistakes. Chinese historian Gongsun Rushui writes,
…[A]s a result of years of war and reckless large-scale construction works in his later years, the state’s coffers were nearly empty. He said to his court officials, “Since I was enthroned, I have behaved recklessly and made life miserable for the people. I feel regretful for what I have done. From now on, anything that harms people and wastes state resources must be stopped.”
Xi Jinping, are you listening? Joe Biden, there’s something here for you to learn too.
The Newnan Carnegie Library Foundation (NCLF) sponsors its next “Lunch and Learn” program on Friday, September 30, from 12 noon to 1:00 pm. The speaker will be Kathryn Smith, acclaimed author of Baptists and Bootleggers: A Prohibition Expedition Through the South. Visit the NCLF page of the Library’s website for more information on this no-charge event and a link to the EventBrite registration page. See you there!
(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. His most recent book is “Was Jesus a Socialist?” He can be reached at email@example.com.)