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Emperor Wen of Han – The emperor is seated and listens intently to his official Yuan Ang at Shanglin Garden.

The Han dynasty, the second imperial dynasty of China (206 BC–220 AD), was founded by Emperor Gaozu, and succeeded by Emperor Wen and Emperor Jing.

The 40-year rule of Wen and Jing brought forth the first Pax Sinica—a golden age of peace and prosperity—in Chinese history.

How did Emperor Wen and Emperor Jing rule the country—how did they lead China to a better time? The secret is revealed in two writings collected from Guwen Guanzhi, an anthology of essays published during the Qing dynasty in 1965. One is Edict of Emperor Wen on the Primacy of Agriculture; the other: Edict of Emperor Jing to Order Officials to Perform Duty. 

In his edict, the Han Emperor Wen pondered why people suffered poor harvests, calamities of flood, drought, and pestilence. Besides reflecting on whether he had adopted improper strategies, Emperor Wen examined potential factors behind the shortage of food. He considered human disharmony, neglect of worship, officials’ lavish behavior, overvaluation of trading with less emphasis on agriculture, and too much use of grain used for wine and livestock feed. Instead of blaming others, Emperor Wen asked officials to look into such reasons while providing strategies to help solve the problems.  

Emperor Jing was the son of Emperor Wen. He adopted the manners of his father. Therefore, in Edict of Emperor Jing to Order Officials to Perform Duty, he also concerned himself with poor harvests and food shortages, hoping to discover the reasons behind them. He owed poor crop yields to such phenomena: Excess of carving and painting causing neglect of farming; indulgence on brocade and embroidery bringing a shortage of female laborers. Emperor Jing practiced what he preached, placing a personal priority on agriculture—he engaged in farming and weaving with his queen. 

In addition, he noticed the drawbacks of bribery committed by officials and exploitation of the masses. To ease people’s burden, he created laws to regulate and punish officials involved in bribery. 

With the two emperors’ serious self-reflection, solicitude for people, personal discipline, and stricter regulation of the government, the first Pax Sinica in Chinese history appeared. It enabled Emperor Wu, the fourth successor, to maintain a powerful army and employ an aggressive foreign policy which significantly expanded the empire, pushing the Han economy, culture and science to new heights. 

In contrast, these days few politicians value self-reflection. Often self-absorbed and blinded by flattery, they blame others—members of the opposite party—for societal problems. In turn, no issue is resolved. Finally, not only their political career, but also the development of the state is negatively influenced. Those in power may well learn the art of self-reflection from the stories and writings of Emperors Wen and Jing. Doing so, perhaps the next Pax Sinica is around the corner.   

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Translator: Amy Hsu 

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