CHAPTER II. THE FIRST NATIONAL DYNASTY
This disaster, and his narrow personal escape, seem to have unnerved Kaotsou, for when the Huns resumed their incursions in the very year following the Pingching convention, he took no steps to oppose them, and contented himself with denouncing in his palace Meha as "a wicked and faithless man, who had risen to power by the murder of his father, and one with whom oaths and treaties carried no weight." Notwithstanding this opinion, Kaotsou proceeded to negotiate with Meha as an equal, and gave this barbarian prince his own daughter in marriage as the price of his abstaining from further attacks on the empire. Never, wrote a historian, "was so great a shame inflicted on the Middle Kingdom, which then lost its dignity and honor." Meha observed this peace during the life of Kaotsou, who found that his reputation was much diminished by his coming to terms with his uncivilized opponent, but although several of his generals rebelled, until it was said that "the very name of revolt inspired Kaotsou with apprehension," he succeeded in overcoming them all without serious difficulty. His troubles probably shortened his life, for he died when he was only fifty-three, leaving the crown to his son, Hoeiti, and injunctions to his widow, Liuchi, as to the conduct of the administration.
The brief reign of Hoeiti is only remarkable for the rigor and terrible acts of his mother, the Empress Liuchi, who is the first woman mentioned in Chinese history as taking a supreme part in public affairs. Another of Kaotsou's widows aspired to the throne for her son, and the chief direction for herself. Liuchi nipped their plotting in the bud by poisoning both of them. She marked out those who differed from her, or who resented her taking the most prominent part in public ceremonies, as her enemies, to be removed from her path by any means. At a banquet she endeavored to poison one of the greatest princes of the empire, but her plot was detected and baffled by her son. It is perhaps not surprising that Hoeiti did not live long after this episode, and then Liuchi ruled in her own name, and without filling up the vacancy on the throne, until the public dissatisfaction warned her that she was going too far. She then adopted a supposititious child as her grandson and governed as regent in his name. The mother of this youth seems to have made inconvenient demands on the empress, who promptly put her out of the way, and when the son showed a disposition to resent this action, she caused him to be poisoned. She again ruled without a puppet emperor, hoping to retain power by placing her relatives in the principal offices; but the dissatisfaction had now reached an acute point, and threatened to destroy her. It may be doubted whether she would have surmounted these difficulties and dangers, when death suddenly cut short her adventurous career. The popular legend is that this Chinese Lucretia Borgia died of fright at seeing the apparitions of her many victims, and there can be no doubt that her crimes did not conduce to make woman government more popular in China.
It says much for the excellence of Kaotsou's work, and for the hold the Han family had obtained on the Chinese people, that when it became necessary to select an emperor after the death of Liuchi the choice should have fallen unanimously on the Prince of Tai, who was the illegitimate son of Kaotsou. On mounting the throne, he took the name of Wenti. He began his reign by remitting taxes and by appointing able and honest governors and judges. He ordered that all old men should be provided with corn, meat and wine, besides silk and cotton for their garments. At the suggestion of his ministers, who were alive to the dangers of a disputed succession, he proclaimed his eldest son heir to the throne. He purified the administration of justice by declaring that prince and peasant must be equally subject to the law; he abolished the too common punishment of mutilation, and had the satisfaction of seeing crime reduced to such low proportions in the empire that the jails contained only four hundred prisoners. Wenti was a strong advocate of peace, which was, indeed, necessary to China, as it had not recovered from the effects of the last Hun invasion. He succeeded by diplomacy in inducing the Prince at Canton, who had shown a disposition to assert his independence, to recognize his authority, and thus averted a civil war. In his relations with the Huns, among whom the authority of Meha had passed to his son, Lao Chang, he strove to preserve the peace, giving that chief one of his daughters in marriage, and showing moderation in face of much provocation. When war was forced upon him by their raids he did everything he could to mitigate its terrors, but the ill success of his troops in their encounters with the Tartars broke his confidence, and he died prematurely after a reign of twenty-three years, which was remarkable as witnessing the consolidation of the Hans. The good work of Wenti was continued during the peaceful reign of sixteen years of his son Kingti.