Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE), like any powerful emperor, wanted to receive deference and respect from the weaker realms that neighbored his empire. One of the main ways that he spread his influence was through the use of his military might, which he used to expand his empire in all directions throughout the course of his reign. Yet, military might was not the only way he tried to impress and awe his neighbors—he also attempted to win over foreign dignitaries by entertaining them with feasts and spectacles that showed off the extravagant wealth and resources of his empire.
Sima Qian, Grand Historian and palace secretary of Emperor Wu, recorded for posterity a list of various ways that the emperor tried to use luxury and opulence to make visitors to his realm feel awe and reverence for the Han Empire. First of all, the emperor reportedly housed foreign visitors in grand and gorgeous lodgings. The dignitaries, however, did not stay in one place, as the emperor apparently liked to send the foreign envoys on tours of China’s greatest cities. When the foreigners were given time to rest in one place, the emperor smothered them with magnificent banquets and exotic shows.
In describing Emperor Wu’s feasts, Grand Historian Sima Qian wrote, “He entertained the foreign visitors with veritable lakes of wine and forests of meat and had them shown around to the various granaries and storehouses to see how much wealth was laid away there, astounding and overwhelming them with the breadth and greatness of the Han empire” (Shi Ji 123). As for non-edible entertainment, the emperor did not spare any expense. Showmen and exotic animals were brought in from all over the empire to impress the foreign visitors. Sima Qian wrote:
“He would hold great wrestling matches and displays of unusual skills and all sorts of rare creatures, gathering together large numbers of people to watch…After the skills of the foreign magicians and tricksters had been imported into China, the wrestling matches and displays of unusual feats developed and improved with each year, and from this time on entertainment of this type became increasingly popular” (Shi Ji 123).
If all of the above was not enough to impress foreign envoys, the emperor still had a few options at his disposal. One such method was for the emperor to simply give the diplomats a parting gift of silks and money before they returned to their homelands.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image of the Dahuting Tomb mural, c. 2nd-3rd century CE, [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.