Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (r. 141-87 BCE) expanded his empire in all directions. He started attacking the nomadic Xiongnu coalition to his north around 134 BCE. In the south, the Chinese-Vietnamese borderlands of Southern Yue fell to Han forces between 112-111 BCE, and the emperor followed that up by conquering the North Korean kingdom of Chaoxian between 109-108 BCE. While these conquests were occurring, Emperor Wu had been sending explorers and diplomatic missions westward as far as the region now known as Uzbekistan. A primary task of these envoys was to find and obtain horses, for the horse population in China had suffered catastrophically as a result of Emperor Wu’s campaigns against the Xiongnu. As the envoys began cultivating relationships with the different states and rulers of Central Asia, other goods from the region besides horses began to catch their interest. When the envoys returned to China, they were accompanied by representatives of the foreign Central Asian rulers, and samples of goods from the west were brought before the emperor. Curiously, Emperor Wu was quite impressed by two crops in particular—grapes and alfalfa.
From 104 BCE to 101/100 BCE, Emperor Wu sent his military to campaign against the cities in Central Asia, leading to the conquest or subjugation of states up to the Ferghana Valley. As a result, the emperor gained access to new herds of horses. He was particularly intrigued with a type of horse afflicted with a parasite that made the animal appear to sweat blood. While Han forces rounded up Central Asian land and horses, the emperor had another project in the works on his estates in China—systematically planting crops from the west around his palaces. According to Grand Historian Sima Qian, “when the Han acquired large numbers of the ‘heavenly horses’ and the envoys from foreign states began to arrive with their retinues, the lands on all sides of the emperor’s summer palaces and pleasure towers were planted with grapes and alfalfa for as far as the eye could see” (Shi Ji 123). Emperor Wu apparently used his vineyards for wine experimentation, while the grassy fields were used to supply fodder for his stables. The aforementioned Sima Qian mused, “The people love their wine and the horses love their alfalfa” (Shi Ji 123).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Chinese landscape labeled Walters 35101K, purchased by Henry Walters in 1915, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.