Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (r. 141-87 BCE) had a lot of hobbies that he was passionate about—he enjoyed sending armies to conquer foreign lands, and took great delight in collecting exotic horses; he sent agents to search for supernatural beings, and gave patronage to scholars who purported to do research into immortality. Besides these military and religious pursuits, the emperor had a much more down-to-earth obsession that he relished. Like many other royals across different cultures and eras, Emperor Wu was a great enthusiast of hunting.
While the armies of the Han Dynasty were hunting humans, the emperor could be found in his private parks, tracking down fearsome big game animals. Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), Emperor Wu’s palace secretary and Grand Historian, wrote that the “the emperor delighted in shooting down bears and wild boars in person and galloping after the various wild beasts” (Shi Ji 117). Emperor Wu apparently enjoyed these hunts to such an extent that he lost all restraint and threw himself, without any inhibitions or precautions, into chasing and killing the mightiest beasts in the imperial forests. The emperor’s carelessness during these expeditions worried many of the courtiers and vassals of the Han empire, who disapproved of the emperor putting himself at such great physical risk. Their fears were reasonable, as many rulers from history lost their lives during hunting accidents against formidable opponents, such as wild boars.
Among the emperor’s entourage for some of these dangerous hunts was the poet, Sima Xiangru (c. 179-117 BCE), one of the courtiers who disapproved of the emperor’s reckless behavior. The poet eventually could no longer be silent about his concerns and ultimately took the bold step of submitting a letter to the emperor in which he criticized the ruler for putting himself at needless risk. His letter was quoted by the aforementioned Grand Historian:
“Now Your Majesty delights in racing through the dangerous mountain defiles and shooting ferocious beasts. But should you suddenly encounter some creature of extraordinary size and strength, should some startled beast spring out from an unexpected quarter and charge down upon the vehicles of your attendants, your carriages would have no room to wheel about, nor would your men have time to employ their skill and, though they might have the strength of Wu Hu and the skill of the archer Feng Meng, they would be powerless to aid you” (letter of Sima Xiangru, quoted by Sima Qian in Shi Ji 117).
Sima Xiangru ended his letter by begging the emperor to consider his advice and to take more measures to ensure his personal safety during his hunts. He ended the letter with these words of wisdom: “An enlightened man sees the end of things while they are still in bud, and a wise man knows how to avoid danger before it has taken shape. Misfortune often lurks in the shadowy darkness and springs forth when men are off their guard” (letter of Sima Xiangru, quoted by Sima Qian in Shi Ji 117). Emperor Wu, who was a great fan of the poet’s published works, reportedly did not take offense to the critique of his behavior. Yet, Grand Historian Sima Qian did not make explicitly clear if Emperor Wu actually took the poet’s suggestions to heart.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Shanglin Park, painted by Qiu Ying (1494–1552), [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.