Ancient China and Its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History

By Nicola Di Cosmo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
From Peace to War
China's Shift from Appeasement to
Military Engagement

Introduction

With the accession of Emperor Wu in 140 B. C., a half-century-long tradition of foreign relations based on the search for diplomatic solutions and negotiated agreements came to an end. In the phase that followed, the Han dynasty assumed an outward-looking, expansion-driven, military-oriented posture. The Han–Hsiung-nu bipolar system of foreign relations came to an end, formally, with the breakup of the Hsiung-nu empire and the formal acceptance by Hu-han-yeh ch'an-yü in 51 B. C. of a position of inferiority to the Han emperor Hsüan-ti (73–49 B. C.). This development was the direct result of the successful military and political campaigns during Han Wu-ti's reign (140–87 B. C.). The shift from the “peace through kinship” strategy to the military solution, which took place during the lifetime of Ssu-ma Ch'ien, is one of the momentous events of Han history, and one whose repercussions were felt at every level of political and social life. This change in the means through which relations with the Hsiung-nu were conducted led to territorial expansion, but it also created economic problems and fostered tensions between government policy makers and the court on the one side, and the literati on the other. The respective positions were represented in stark contrast in the Discourses on Salt and Iron held in the early first century B. C.1

The plain narrative of the confrontation between Han and Hsiung-nu during the reign of Han Wu-ti is well known and does not need to be

____________________
1
Especially relevant to our discussion is chüan seven (sections 43–48) of the Yent'ieh lun (ed. Ssu-pu pei-yao).

-206-

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