The Costly Human Toll Of Emperor Wu’s Unannounced Imperial Tour Of 114 BCE


When Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE) of the Han Dynasty went on the first official tour of his empire in 114 BCE, it caused quite a stir in the realm. The tour was apparently not widely publicized and, perhaps for the sake of security, few of the provincial governors knew where or when the emperor would appear. Unfortunately, several of the unprepared governors would lose their lives because of the emperor’s surprise visits.

The governor of Hedong Province was reported to have been the first provincial official who was blindsided by the emperor’s unexpected arrival. Due to the secrecy of the tour, no preparations had been made whatsoever. There was no public fanfare, no feast or entertainment for the imperial entourage, and no proper quarters were set up for the emperor’s large party. In shame, the governor of Hedong committed suicide.

Although word was now leaking out about the imperial tour, Emperor Wu could march his army of attendants with surprising speed. As such, the emperor was able to catch another governor off guard—this time the governor of Longxi province. This latest victim of the emperor’s surprise tour and speedy march had apparently heard that the imperial procession would be eventually heading his way, and therefore the governor of Longxi began hoarding supplies for their arrival. Yet, due to Emperor Wu’s fast pace, the governor did not have enough time to gather the required food to feed the veritable army of imperial attendants that were following in the emperor’s wake. As with the previous official, the governor of Longxi was now irrecoverably scandalized by his lack of preparation. Following the same pattern as his peer from Hedong, the provincial leader of Longxi also committed suicide.

While the emperor was in Longxi, the other provincial governors along the tour route were apparently able to fill their larders in preparation for the emperor’s visit. Yet, Emperor Wu was a sharp critic with a keen eye, and, unfortunately for another official, the emperor’s gaze found a troublesome flaw in the jurisdiction of the governor of Beidi. While the emperor was out hunting (accompanied by 20,000-30,000 horsemen, it was said), he noticed that large swaths of land were unguarded and unpatrolled, posing a security risk to the empire. Consequentially, Emperor Wu had the governor of Beidi, the governor’s lieutenants, and all of their favorite advisers executed because of the province’s poor defenses. After the deaths of the governors of Hedong, Longxi and Beidi, the other provincial leaders finally got their acts together, obtaining enough food and organizing enough patrols to satisfy the emperor and save their lives.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Imperial procession c. Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368 AD). [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).



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