Emperor Wu’s Classic Communication Problem

Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (r. 141-87 BCE) might be best known for expanding his empire in every direction through conquest, but he also made great political and legal powerplays within his preexisting land. He was always on the lookout for ways to increase the strength of the central Han government at the expense of the empire’s vassal kings and princes. Citing misconduct and treacherous behavior among the semi-autonomous noblemen (sometimes real and other times manufactured), the emperor took every chance to remove the kings and princes from power, dissolve their realms, and reform the regions into provinces that were controlled by the central government. Even if a nobleman was lucky enough to not have his personal domain dismantled, Emperor Wu was also known to have stripped such survivors of the right to appoint their own lesser officials, meaning it was the central government that vetted and appointed people to fill those regional posts. As Emperor Wu expanded the central government’s jurisdiction of control, the Han court had to also grow its bureaucracy in order to govern and administer the new provinces. Yet, when the government started implementing this lengthy network of ministers and officials, some interesting problems began to occur that were awkward to explain to the emperor.

Gongsun Hong, a veteran official who had been in Emperor Wu’s court since 140 BCE, was the man who brought up the problem with his liege. At the heart of the issue, so the story goes, was the style in which Emperor Wu’s edicts were written. The emperor, like many other ancient figures from cultures all over the world, was known to weave throughout his sentences many phrases and quotes from famous classic texts, such as poems, sacred writings, philosophies and histories. Unfortunately, his method of including such quotations into his messages evidently had the effect of harming the clarity of the edicts. It was a daunting task for many of the newly-hired officials in the provinces to decipher what it was that the emperor was actually calling for in his dispatches. The problem was also amplified by the central government’s hiring practices—in their rush to fill the many vacant positions in the newly acquired provinces, the government had begun filling positions with people who were not well versed in the Chinese classics. For such officials, the emperor’s cryptic edicts, with their archaic phrases and quotes, were all the more baffling.

Gongsun Hong, when he brought up the problem with the emperor, was very careful in how he explained the issue. Emperor Wu’s Grand Historian and palace secretary, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), preserved the report that Gongsun Hong submitted to the emperor. Praising the ruler and disparaging the bureaucracy, the report stated:

“We have respectfully examined the edicts and laws which have been handed down to us by Your Majesty and we find that they distinguish clearly the provinces of heaven and man and combine the best principles of ancient and modern times.  Their wording is stately and orthodox, their instructions profound, and the bounty displayed in them most beautiful. Nevertheless we, being petty officials of shallow understanding, have been unable to spread them abroad and therefore they have not been fully publicized and understood by those throughout the empire” (Sima Qian, Shi Ji 121).

Gongsun Hong did not submit his report simply to be the bearer of bad news; instead, he also proposed a solution to the problem within the same report. He did not suggest that the emperor change the style of his edicts, but rather insisted that the central government reform its hiring practices. If the officials hired by the Han government were better versed in the Chinese classics and other influential texts, then they posed a much better chance of deciphering the meaning behind the choice of quotations within the emperor’s edicts. The emperor agreed, and from then on, a new emphasis was placed on hiring officials with profound knowledge of classic writings.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Scene from the Classic of Filial Piety series, produced in Song dynasty (960-1279) China, [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.

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