Emperor Wendi was born in 202 BCE. His name at birth was Liu Heng. He was the fifth son of the Western Han dynasty emperor, Gaodi, and his mother was one of Emperor Gaodi’s consorts. Upon the death of the regent, dowager empress Lu Hou in 180 BCE, his half-brothers installed Liu Heng, then known as the king of Dai, as the third emperor of the Western Han dynasty. His title Wendi (Wen-ti and Han Wendi) means “Literary Emperor”.
Emperor Wendi continued his father’s idea of doing well by the people. The economy grew stable and prosperous under Wendi’s rule. Merchants, who had been subjected to heavy taxes, were relieved from much of this burden.
As the countryside saw less fighting, more food was grown and subsequently stored in government warehouses. This storing of food provided relief from famine when the weather did not cooperate and crops did not grow.
Additionally, the feudal system of king ruling over peasants was lifted. The peasants now became free farmers who grew prosperous from selling their produce and other goods.
Emperor Wendi also removed more laws left from the Qin dynasty regarding punishment, and he set up plans to provide money as pensions to community elders.
How Emperor Wendi Reformed the Civil Service
Prior to Emperor Wendi’s reign, many court advisers, ministers, or workers were from the military, eunuchs or family members. Emperor Wendi introduced the idea of civil servants who took exams to become government workers. It was no longer “who you knew” that got you a job, but rather, “what you knew”.
The exams were based on Confucian texts. This required Confucian philosophy to be taught in schools in order for these young men to take the exams. As well, this meant that Confucian philosophy was now maintained as part of the government as these young men were given high government offices, which provided them a means to practice Confucianism in government affairs.
Emperor Wendi’s Family and Death
Emperor Wendi’s wife was Empress Dou, who believed in Daoism. The religious ideals of Daoism further molded Emperor Wendi’s ideas of a just and proper government.
Emperor Wendi had five sons. Upon his death in 157 BCE, one of his sons, Jingdi, succeeded him as emperor of the Western Han dynasty.