Thoughts on the “Repenting Edict of Luntai” by Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty
(Minghui.org) Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty had great talents and bold vision. During his reign, the Han Dynasty's territory doubled in size, and its good reputation reached far and wide. In particular, the Han Dynasty adopted Confucian doctrines as its state ideology and code of ethics, making Confucianism the orthodox school of thought in China's history ever since.
However, as a result of years of war and reckless large-scale construction works in his later years, the state's coffers were nearly empty. People resented authorities, and bandits and thieves appeared in many places. The “disaster of witchcraft” led to the deaths of Empress Wei and the Crown Prince, and it also impacted tens of thousands of people. General Li Guangli, on whom the emperor relied heavily, surrendered to the Xiongnu. All these took a heavy toll on the emperor, making him reflect deeply upon himself.
In March of the fourth year of the Zhenghe Period (89 BC), Emperor Wu went to conduct the Feng Shan ceremony at Mount Tai. He said to his court officials, “Since I was enthroned, I have behaved recklessly and made life miserable for the people. I feel really regretful for what I have done. From now on, anything that harms people and wastes state resources must be stopped.”
In June of the same year, the 68-year-old Emperor Wu rejected a proposal from Minister Sun Hongyang and other officials to send soldiers to Luntai (in today's Xinjiang Province of western China) for military defense and agricultural expansion. He also issued a decree to reflect upon his past policy mistakes, widely known as the “Repenting Edict of Luntai.”
The edict wrote, “Earlier, I received a proposal, suggesting that every person pay an extra tax of 30 coins to support the border defense. This would add burden upon people, especially the elderly, weak, or those who nobody looks after.
“......then general Li Guangli was defeated, and his soldiers either died, were captured, or fled. My heart is saddened whenever I think of them. Now, some officials have proposed to further expand military bases and agricultural campaigns in Luntai. This would further burden the people instead of caring for them. I can't bear to hear such things.
“...... The most important task at the moment is to strictly prohibit officials at all levels from being harsh and cruel to the people and stop them from increasing taxes without authorization. By doing so, we will make ways to greatly enhance agricultural production.”
At the same time, Emperor Wu promoted Minister Tian Qianqiu to be Marquis of Enriching the People, showing his willingness to give people a break and to help them live prosperous lives. He also appointed Zhao Guo, who understood agriculture, to promote agricultural production by adopting an alternating fields system. Emperor Wu also restored the Taoist ideology of “doing nothing” adopted in the early years of Han Dynasty. All these laid a good foundation for the following Zhao-Xuan resurgence, a phase of restorative stability and growth.
It was quite extraordinary for an emperor to reflect upon his policy mistakes in the era when emperors had absolute power. It would have taken Emperor Wu incredible courage to issue the “Repenting Edict of Luntai.” It was evident in his later policy reforms that the edict was issued with great sincerity, not as a publicity stunt.
In history, Emperor Wu of Han is often referred together with Qin Shi Huang (the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty) for their great accomplishments. Indeed, there were a lot of similarities in their governance. We could even say that Emperor Wu of Han finished the political framework designed by Qin Shi Huang, which decided the general direction of future dynasties in history.
On the other hand, while Emperor Wu of Han made similar mistakes as Qin Shi Huang, he avoided the disasters that led to the destruction of Qin. This is because, unlike Qin Shi Huang, Emperor Wu of Han reflected upon his policies and made adjustments before it was too late.
The “Repenting Edict of Luntai” was the first formal and well-preserved edict of repentance in Chinese history.
Some emperors in later generations issued similar edicts of repentance. They include Emperor Ming of Han, Emperor Taizong of Tang, Emperor Lizong of Song, Emperor Xizong of Ming, and Emperor Yongzheng of the Qing Dynasty.
When an emperor made a major mistake that brought disasters to the state and its people, he would often issue a “repenting edict” to openly reflect on his mistakes to the court officials and the people. In contrast, the Chinese Communist Party has caused the deaths of 80 million innocent Chinese and countless tragedies, but it has never admitted any wrongdoing to the Chinese people. Instead, it continues to advocate its everlasting “greatness, glory and correctness,” sealing its fate.