Emperor Wu’s Palace Purge After A Tomb Robbery

Around the year 116 BCE, Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE) received the infuriating news that the tomb complex of his grandfather, Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE), had been looted. Grand Historian Sima Qian (r. 145-90 BCE) commented on the scandalous heist, writing, “someone had broken into the funerary park of Emperor Wen and dug up and stolen the offerings of money that had been buried in the mausoleum” (Shi Ji 122). Emperor Wu wanted heads to roll for this sacrilegious crime, and if the thief could not be identified, then he wanted the negligent officials who had not properly protected the tomb to be punished. In particular, Chancellor Qing Di faced a great deal of pressure, for the task of making seasonal inspections of the funerary parks was among the many duties he had as chancellor. To try the case against Chancellor Qing Di, Emperor Wu selected his imperial secretary, Zhang Tang—one of the empire’s most prolific and skilled prosecutors. True Justice, however, did not necessarily coincide with the cases won by Zhang Tang’s legal prowess. Instead, he was known as an unscrupulous law official who had no problem with finding the innocent as guilty, and the guilty as innocent, depending on the whims of the emperor. Chancellor Qing Di knew this reputation well, and as the emperor was so furious about the tomb heist that had occurred under the chancellor’s watch, Qing Di suspected that Zhang Tang’s legal prosecution would be ruthless and ultimately fatal. Sensing this impending doom, the chancellor and his three chief secretaries (Zhu Maichan, Wang Chao, and Bian Tong) began scouring for a way to have Zhang Tang kicked out of government before he completed his case.

It did not take long for Qing Di and his secretaries to dig up some dirt on their foe. Despite the imperial secretary’s no mercy attitude toward his and the emperor’s enemies, Zhang Tang was quite caring toward his friends. Some of his closest comrades from his youth, it happened, were prominent merchants in the imperial capital. This friendship between the merchants and Zhang Tang continued even after he reached high office and, one way or another, some insider trading was committed. If the government was about to pass a law or edict that would affect the price of an item, Zhang Tang would sometimes let information slip to his merchant pals, allowing them to profit from the advance knowledge about incoming price changes. Qing Di and his secretaries, following up on these allegations, interrogated Zhang Tang’s merchant friends and received from them confessions and evidence about the imperial secretary’s economic tip-offs. This information was brought to Emperor Wu, but as he knew the information had been compiled by people with a vested interest in ousting Zhang Tang, the emperor had the matter looked at again by new investigators. When these officials, too, came to the same conclusion as Chancellor Qing Di’s inquiry, the emperor was finally convinced. As told by the aforementioned historian, Sima Qian, Emperor Wu sent a messenger to Zhang Tang who said, “Every charge that people have brought against you is backed by evidence! The emperor would hate to have to send you to prison. Instead he hopes that you will settle things for yourself!” (Shi Ji 122). Zhang Tang received the message loud and clear. He wrote an apology to the emperor and then took his own life in 116 BCE.

Although Zhang Tang was dead, the matter about the tomb robbery was still unresolved. In this, Zhang Tang would have the last laugh. Before his death, he apparently had pieced together a formidable case against Qing Di, and he even roped in the chancellor’s chief secretaries for punishment. Emperor Wu’s officials carried on the case, bringing increasing pressure onto Chancellor Qing Di. Ultimately, he, too, committed suicide. Qing Di’s death, however, did not save the chief secretaries, Zhu Maichan, Wang Chao, and Bian Tong. They were all executed.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Lacquered Chest created by an anonymous artist, dated to the 17th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).



  • 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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