An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Chao Cuo 晁錯

Sep 16, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Chao Cuo 晁錯 (died 154 BCE), sometimes also written 鼂錯, was a high minister of the early Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE). He hailed from Yingchuan 潁川 (modern Yuxian 禹縣, Henan) and was a disciple of Zhang Hui 張恢, an expert in penal law and the writings of legalism.

As a literate scholar Chao Cuo was provisionally appointed Chamberlain for Ceremonials (taichang 太常) to take over a visit to the famous teacher Fu Sheng 伏勝. He also became acquainted with Fu Sheng 伏勝, an expert in the Confucian Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents".

Chao Cuo entered the service of the Crown Prince Liu Qi 劉啓, the eventual Emperor Jing 漢景帝 (r. 157-141 BCE), became Grand Master of the Gates (men dafu 門大夫) and Household provisioner of the Heir Apparent (taizi jialing 太子家令) and was also given the title of erudite (boshi 博士). The Crown Prince highly esteemed him and gave him the style Zhinang 智囊 "Bag of wisdom".

As a politician trained in legalism, Chao Cuo soon identified two dangers for the state: The raids of the steppe federation of the Xiongnu 匈奴 on Chinese territory had to be warded off, and the exploitation of the peasants by rich landowners had to be ended. He therefore regularly memoralized to the emperor and suggested erecting more fortifications in the border area and to enhance the agricultural productivity. The border fortification, he said, could be staffed with officials that had been dismissed because of an offense. Emperor Wen 漢文帝 (r. 180-157 BCE) adopted his suggestions, and Chao Cuo was made Ordinary Grand Master (zhong dafu 中大夫).

Chao Cuo detected a danger for the stability of the dynasty: The imperial princes had hitherto been given large territories (princedoms, wangguo 王國) in which they were economically and politically independant. The only way to prevent the princes from challenging the authority of the emperor was to cut down the size of their princedoms. When Emperor Jing succeeded to the throne, Chao Cuo was made Chamberlain for the Capital (neishi 内史) and was appointed Censor-in-chief (yushi dafu 御史大夫).

He submitted to the throne a memorial, the famous Xiaofance 削藩策 "Stratagem to cut down [the size of] the princedoms", in which he made suggestions how to curtail the power of the princes. He argued that the princes would rebel anyway, and therefore it would be better to cause the rebellion now than later, when they had become even stronger (qi fan ji, huo xiao; qi fan chi, huo da 其反亟,禍小;其反遲,禍大。). The Emperor agreed and confiscated tracts of land from the domains of the Prince of Zhao 趙, Liu Sui 劉遂, the Prince of Jiaoxi 膠西, Liu Ang 劉卬, and of the Prince of Chu 楚, Liu Wu 劉戊. He announced that the next target would be the domain of Liu Pi 劉濞, Prince of Wu 吳. At that time, Chao Cuo's own father came visiting him and warning him that such a policy would lead to disaster, yet Chao Cuo objected that only this step would bring security to the dynasty.

In 154 BCE Liu Pi demanded from the Emperor that Chao Cuo would be executed and initiated the rebellion of the Seven Princes (Wu-Chu qiguo zhi luan 吳楚七國之亂). In face of such a danger, two enemies of Chao Cuo, Yuan Ang 袁盎 and Dou Ying 竇嬰, suggested to Emperor Jing that only the execution of Chao Cuo would end the rebellion. Yuan Ang was appointed Chamberlain for Ceremonials and sent to the Prince of Wu for negotiations. Chao Cuo was charged of treason and was sentenced to death by being cut in two at the waist (yaozhan 腰斬). His family members were executed, too. The rebellion could only be brought to an end after a massive use of troops against the princes.

Yang Zuxi 楊祖希 (1996). "Chao Cuo 晁錯", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 82-83.