When Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE) ascended to the throne of the Han Empire in China, he reassessed imperial foreign policy regarding his formidable neighbor, the Xiongnu confederation—a coalition of nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes that lived in the eastern Eurasian Steppe. Whereas earlier Han Dynasty emperors tried to keep peaceful relations with the Xiongnu through trade, bribery and marriage, Emperor Wu instead decided to actively pursue war against the nomads. The formation of this new policy began around 134 BCE, when the emperor tried, but failed, to lure the Xiongnu into a trap at a place called Mayi. Although this particular plot failed, Emperor Wu would continue to launch frequent and relentless campaigns against the Xiongnu for decades to come, eventually conquering great swaths of the confederation land.
By 121 BCE, the Han military was making great progress against their nomadic foes. Low morale and war weariness caused intrigue to arise in the political circles of the Xiongnu leadership. One Xiongnu confederation member, known as the Hunye King, assessed the situation of the war in 121 BCE and calculated that it would be in his best interest to defect to the Han side. The Hunye King turned his thoughts into action, and after murdering one of his fellow Xiongnu leaders, he surrendered himself to the Han military, bringing tens-of-thousands of followers with him. Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE) wrote of this momentous occasion:
“The Hunye king murdered the Xiutu king and combined the latter’s forces with his own. When he surrendered to the Han, he had a force of over 40,000 men, though it was commonly referred to as a force of 100,000. Having gained the allegiance of the Hunye king, the Han found itself far less troubled by barbarian invasions in the regions of Longxi, Beidi, and Hexi” (Shi Ji 110).
Given the benefits of the king’s defection to the Han Dynasty in terms of the war effort and border security, Emperor Wu wanted to keep the defectors happy. He gave them a grand welcome and supplied them with all the transportation they needed for the king and his officers to reach the Han capital city of Chang’an. Yet, despite all of the pomp, these Xiongnu were still potential enemies and the merchants of the capital were given strict orders as to what was legal to sell to the defectors, as well as what would be considered illegal contraband. The emperor actively kept his eyes and ears open for any sign of a breach in this market law and, unfortunately for a large group of thrifty people in the capital, the emperor was deadly serious about his restrictions.
As the story goes, the arrival of the party of foreign nomads into the capital brought with it too many enticing money-making opportunities for the city’s merchant class to resist. According to Sima Qian, an outrageous number of sellers and traders in the city started selling prohibited goods to the Xiongnu defectors, and it proved such a lucrative scheme that, before long, multiple hundreds of merchants had become embroiled in the illicit trade. This flourishing illegal market did not stay a secret for long, however, and when the emperor found out, he was furious. Sima Qian wrote of the emperor’s revenge on the opportunistic merchants, writing, “After the Hunye king arrived in Chang’an some 500 or more merchants and market traders were condemned to death for having sold contraband goods to the Xiongnu” (Shi Ji 120). Some of the emperor’s advisors reportedly disapproved of the sentencing, but their opinions were disregarded by the Chinese ruler and the executions were evidently carried out.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Market scene from a Qing court version of Along the River During the Qingming Festival, by the Painting Academy of the Qing court, c. 18th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.