Contests long-standing claims that Confucianism came to prominence under China’s Emperor Wu.
When did Confucianism become the reigning political ideology of imperial China? A pervasive narrative holds it was during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty (141–87 BCE). In this book, Liang Cai maintains that such a date would have been too early and provides a new account of this transformation. A hidden narrative in Sima Qian’s The Grand Scribe’s Records (Shi ji) shows that Confucians were a powerless minority in the political realm of this period. Cai argues that the notorious witchcraft scandal of 91–87 BCE reshuffled the power structure of the Western Han bureaucracy and provided Confucians an opportune moment to seize power, evolve into a new elite class, and set the tenor of political discourse for centuries to come.
Liang Cai is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Arkansas.