Emperor Wen: Western Han Rule With Ethics and Courtesy

August 23, 2013 Updated: August 23, 2013

The Qin Dynasty (秦朝) (221–206 B.C.), China’s first imperial dynasty, lasted for only 15 years before it was replaced by the Han Dynasty (漢朝), which lasted more than 400 years (206 B.C.–A.D. 220).

The greatest lesson that Han emperors learned from Qin Dynasty rule was that martial forces could be used to conquer other countries but not to rule them. Ethical ruling was the only way to maintain the empire.

China’s political system, legal system, institutions, and philosophy were all founded during the great Han Dynasty. The dynasty included two periods: the Western Han and the Eastern Han.

During the Western Han Dynasty, there was a long period of prosperity, and the Chinese became known as the Han people. Since then, the words “Han people,” “Han characters,” and “Han clothing” have been used to describe things of Chinese origin.

Emperor Wen (漢皇帝) (202–157 B.C.) was the fifth emperor of the Han Dynasty. He was a son of Liu Bang, or Emperor Gaozu of Han, who founded the Han Dynasty.

Emperor Wen ruled the country for 23 years. During this period, people enjoyed peace and prosperity through good government. It was the turning point for the Han Dynasty to transform from a war-torn nation to a booming economy.

Ethics and Courtesy to Guide Behavior

Emperor Wen’s wisdom and benevolence were reflected in many ways. Here are just a few examples.

Emperor Wen abolished the punishments of facial tattooing and of cutting off a criminal’s nose or foot.  These forms of punishment have since been banned within the borders of China for over 2,000 years.

With the exception of the crime of treason, Emperor Wen abolished guilt-by-association. No longer would the parents, siblings, or children of those convicted of a crime be punished for crimes they themselves did not commit.

Emperor Wen believed that laws should be established to govern the country, deter crimes, and guide people toward good behavior. If only those guilty of a crime were penalized according to the law, others who were innocent would not be implicated or have reason to fear.

Wen believed that, as long as laws and regulations were fair, people would be fair-minded; and proper enforcement of rules would make people believe in them.

Emperor Wen ordered the noble families living in the capital to return to their own feudal lands so that their tenant peasants would not have to transport supplies over long distances to serve them. At the same time, this allowed the nobility to more efficiently manage the peasants and lands directly.

Caring for the People

Like the ancient, virtuous sages, Emperor Wen cared very deeply for his people.

He created a social security system of sorts by which the government provided tax exemptions or loans for widowers, widows, orphans, and seniors.  He even mandated that the government provide food to those over 80 years old, and that cloth and cotton for clothing be given to those over 90.

Emperor Wen, himself, led a very simple life. For the 23 years of his reign, after he moved to the capital, he did not spend government money on lavish things. The clothes he usually wore were of normal quality and were not the exquisite robes emperors were typically expected to wear. This set an example for the nation.

Emperor Wen issued an order that his tomb would not house any decorative metals such as gold or silver. Instead, humble pottery would be used. The order also stipulated that the tomb should only be of moderate size to avoid burdening the people with increased labor and resources.

Emperor Wen abolished the crime of defaming the royal court or criticizing political affairs. If things were not going well, he examined his own conduct first to rectify it. He also believed that listening to and accepting suggestions from the people could open up new opportunities and ways of governing the country, and could prevent imperial willfulness.

When dealing with border defense issues, Emperor Wen made decisions about war and diplomacy on the basis of the people’s best interests. Although Northern Xiongnu (Huns) repeatedly broke bilateral agreements and invaded China, Emperor Wen only ordered the troops to tighten their defenses. He did not declare war on the Xiongnu, as he did not want to bring hardship to his people.

In 165 B.C., Emperor Wen instituted China’s first system of competitive appointment to civil service positions through examinations. Prior to 165 B.C., civil servants had been “nominated” by local officials whose judgments were often subjective.  These examinations attempted to add objectivity to the system and such civil service examinations are common around the world today.

In 159 B.C., China experienced nation-wide droughts, followed by devastating swarms of locusts. Emperor Wen took a series of measures to help the people: he exempted the tributes from the lords, lifted the ban on the development of mountains and lakes, reduced spending on luxury items in the palace, reduced the number of officials, and opened granaries to the needy.        

Filial Piety

In addition to being a benevolent ruler, Emperor Wen also exhibited great filial love and obedience. His mother had been bed-ridden for three years, and Wen often stayed up all night to look after her. Every time his mother had to take medicine, he insisted that he try the medicine first to ensure it was safe.

During Emperor Wen’s reign, ethics and courtesy were highly valued, thus social stability was maintained and the people’s lives were peaceful. The economy recovered from decades of war and the nation thrived.

The Western Han Dynasty is considered one of the rare “harmonious societies” in Chinese history.