Friday, November 16

Reading Assignment:   The Reign of Wu-di

On Friday, we will turn to the final era of the course:  the long reign of Wu-di (140-87).  Over the past few classes, we have begun to foreground the issue of historiography -- given our necessary reliance on Sima Qian, author of the Shiji, how far can we trust his account?  It is with Wu-di's reign - the era in which Sima Qian wrote his book, that this issue must be most clearly raised.  Knowing that the subject of the reading, Han Wu-di, or Emperor Wu of the Han, was the man who ordered Sima Qian's punitive castration, forces us at every turn to question the narrative of Wu-di's reign -- particularly where that narrative touches on the Emperor's personal character and behavior.

Nevertheless, the first obligation is to study the narrative and understand what it tells us -- after all, even if slanted, the tale could not depart so far from reality that contemporaries would not recognize in it the events of their day, and the circumstances of the "witchcraft scandal" of 91-88, which post-date the end of the Shiji and, we presume, Sima Qian's death, do seem to confirm important aspects of the Shiji's general portrait of Wu-di.  Moreover, whatever the bias of the source -- and however fascinating Wu-di's aberrations -- the fact is that Wu-di was one of the most influential people to shape the Chinese imperial state, and an understanding of the transformative effects of his reign are essential to an understanding of the Han, and of all later Chinese history.

The main issues we'll discuss in class will be the following:

        Wu-di (r. 140-87)
                Economy: taxes & monopolies
                Establishment of Confucianism
                Character of Wu-di -- historiographical issues