The Ironic Tale Of Di Shan’s Pacifistic Downfall

Di Shan was a scholarly official in the employ of China’s Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE). In his advice, he had a reputation to advocate for peace, diplomacy and trade, instead of war-heightened taxes and costly military conquest. A contemporaneous historian to that time, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), attributed to Di Shan sayings such as, “Weapons are the instruments of ill fortune; they cannot be lightly resorted to time and again!” and “since Your Majesty has again called out the armies…the resources of China have become more and more depleted and the people on the border are troubled by severe poverty and hardship” (Shi ji 122). Di Shan and his admirably peaceful ways might have been better received if he had been an advisor to a different emperor than the one that he actually served. Instead, he was stuck with Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty—a ruler who expanded his realm in all directions and became one of the world’s most prolific conquerors.

Of Emperor Wu’s many wars, the longest-running and most costly was his relentless campaigning against the Xiongnu Confederation. The emperor opened up hostilities against this formidable force of nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples in 134 BCE, when he tried (but failed) to lure their leader into a trap near a city called Mayi. Emperor Wu made his next move after five years of preparation, launching his first major invasion into Xiongnu territory in 129 BCE. The emperor would continue these persistent invasions for decades, eventually pushing the Xiongnu into the Gobi Desert and also expanding Han influence westward as far as the lands now known as Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan. These campaigns against the Xiongnu were impressive from a military standpoint, but they also stretched China’s resources and taxpayers to the limit. For example, Emperor Wu lost hundreds of thousands of horses while chasing the Xiongnu through the deserts. The aforementioned official, Di Shan, was naturally unenthusiastic about Emperor Wu’s costly wars with the Xiongnu, and he did not shy away from submitting advice that argued for a peace to be agreed upon. Di Shan’s insistence on peace, perhaps, increased in intensity around 119 BCE, when the Xiongnu sent a delegation to Emperor Wu’s court to propose an end to hostilities and suggested the possibility, instead, of a new alliance between their rival forces.

Whether it was in 119 BCE or earlier, Di Shan agreed with the sentiment of peace. Emperor Wu and his favorite ministers, however, were still firmly on the warpath. If the emperor was to accept a peace deal from the Xiongnu, he wanted it to be a clear declaration of surrender—and this was something that most of the Xiongnu leaders, although quite battered by this point, were still staunchly unwilling to sign. Suffice it to say, no formal peace deal was reached.

Di Shan’s continued arguments for peace eventually began to cause annoyance in the court of Emperor Wu. One day, the emperor and other more warmongering advisors reportedly ganged up on the pacifist official. They told Di Shan that the Xiongnu posed a real threat to the borders, and asked him how he and his idealist philosophies could protect the realm in a realistic national security situation. According to the aforementioned historian Sima Qian, the emperor asked, “Master Di, if I made you the governor of a province do you think you could keep the barbarian wretches from plundering the region?” (Shi ji 122). As Di Shan was a scholar and not a fighter, he replied with an honest self-assessment that he would not be a good general to govern in the frontiers. Hearing this answer, the emperor continued down the list—could Di Shan defend against the Xiongnu as a district magistrate, or as the commander of a guard post? To these questions, Di Shan acknowledged that he did not feel qualified to be an effective magistrate, but as for being a warrior stationed at a guard post, he felt that anyone, himself included, could contribute to the defense of the realm in such a position. Hearing this, Emperor Wu seized upon the chance to rid himself of the opinionated official. He packed Di Shan off to a frontier guard post, and as the story goes, the unfortunate official was killed by a Xiongnu raid during his first year on the job.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Grooms and Horses, painting attributed to Zhao Mengfu (Chinese, 1254–1322) and his assistants, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).



  • 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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