Hist 151 Unit 8: Imperial China: The Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty

Han Gaozu (Liu Bang) Consolidation and Legitimacy

By 208 BCE, the son of Qin Shi huang di, first emperor of China, had proven to be unable to maintain control of the empire. His generals and some administrators began to fight amongst themselves, and eventually overthrew the young second emperor, putting China back into a period of wars between strongmen, each able to field an army, and each attempting to gain the imperial throne and unify China once again under his own rule. These civil wars lasted from 208 BCE to 202 BCE, when a sly and very intelligent organizer, a very competent former mid-level administrator was able to out strategize, and outsmart, his way to the top of the heap. This bureaucrat, Liu Bang by name, eventually defeated most of the former princes and warlords and named himself first emperor of the Han dynasty - Han Gaozu. To those remaining nobles and warlords who submitted to his authority and pledged loyalty to him, he granted feudal rights, though the majority were defeated and destroyed, and their territory subsumed into the Han empire.

Solving the Problem of Legitimacy

Han Gaozu had a problem, though. He was a peasant and a revolutionary, but not a descendant of any great noble or prince, and had no experience ruling an empire save his time working in the Qin bureaucracy. That experience was potentially a detriment as well, because it meant that to be perceived as a legitimate ruler in his own right, he had to deal with the legacy of the unpopular Qin Dynasty and their draconian methods of punishment and law based on Legalist principles.
To solve this problem, he turned back to the Zhou dynasty and made a claim to the Mandate of Heaven. This meant that he had won the civil wars not because of skill, but because Heaven had chosen him to care for China and its people. This claim, based on ancient ideas of why a ruler should be allowed to wield power, and on a long history that also tended to neatly explain civil wars and their end, meant that he had laid a claim to moral authority, not just the military power to rule.
Still, Han Gaozu retained the basic Qin government administrative and legal structures. The system of law was based on the strength of the ruler, and breaking law brought swift and sure punishment, often corporal or capitol in nature. Torture, public humiliation, and death were seen as effective means to curb tendencies of law-breakers and the public toward disregarding imperial law. But the need mentioned above to show himself as a moral ruler also required that he temper the Legalism of the empire with common sense, and with moral rules that overlay the law and both helped prevent problems before they happened, and cushioned the reputation of the government and the emperor when sever punishment was carried out.
In line with the Mandate of Heaven, Han Gaozu carefully organized his new empire. In a geopolitical context, he restructured China into a group of semi-autonomous counties, each governed by a magistrates who is an employee of the emperor, and personally loyal to him. This system of power distribution would last until the 1911 (CE) Republican revolution in China.
Also in character for a dynasty claiming the Mandate of Heaven, and fitting well with his approach of softening the Legalism of the state, Han Gaozu reduced taxes from their Qin-era rates. This gave the impression that the emperor cared about the well-being of each Chinese, and was moving to help them. It also stimulated economic growth, and had the effect of making Chinese people more prosperous. For this, Gaozu became popular, and his government trusted.
In order to make certain that his magistrates and advisors were competent in governing, Han Gaozu encouraged education among Chinese. Though there was no specific pattern to this education in general (as there would be with Confucianism later in the dynasty) - it followed many different ideologies and curricular patterns - the effect was to help find competent bureaucrats for the government. As a by-product, it encouraged the re-writing of books destroyed by the Qin empire, and a new flowering of intellectual growth.

Beginnings of diplomacy in Asia

Han Gaozu also faced the perennial problem of Chinese emperors in the form of the Xiongnu, one of the many horse-riding nomadic societies to the north and west of China who traded when times were good, and raided when times were bad. The Xiongnu had been China's nemesis since before the Zhou dynasty in 1037 BCE, and remained a potential problem for rulers for many centuries. Han Gaozu dealth with this problem primarily through diplomacy rather than warfare. He paid huge sums of money from his treasury to the Xiongnu to encourage them not to attack the northern part of the Han dynasty, and occassionally married a Han princess to a Xiongnu chief in an attempt to seal family bonds, and to create a loyal spy within the enemy camp. While neither of these methods were permanently successful, they did lead to increasing communication between China and the Xiongnu, and led to some episodes of good relations that were mutually satisfying enough to encourage such diplomatic efforts to continue in more difficult times as well.

Han Wudi and Confucianism

Centralization and Expansion, 141-87 BC.

By the time of Emperor Han Wudi, beginning in 141 BCE, the memory of the brutality of the Qin had faded. There was less need to sugar-coat the Han Dynasty's legalism with Confucian morality and benevolence. Han Wudi saw this as a chance to consolidate Han rule and so began to recentralize imperial power. Among his first major acts were the reconquest of the feudal lands granted to the noble holdouts from the civil wars won by Han Gaozu. Those families were either forced to return their lands to the emperor and his central power, or submit to conquest by Wudi's army, which he often led himself with great success. By the time Wudi's reign ended, no semi-autonomous feudal regions remained on the outskirts of the Han Dynasty - though the remains of many of the estates from which those regions had been ruled did go to branches of Wudi's family.

A system of tight control

Wudi also centralized his regime by a repeat and extension of the principles of standardization that the Qin dynasty had used under Qin Shi huang di. Wudi imposed new taxes on trade, farm production, and mining, for example. He also regulated trade, and created government monopolies on the production of salt and iron. One of his more potent, popular, and long-lasting policies was the "ever-normal granary system," by which a portion of the taxes collected by the state each year (taxes were collected in-kind, rather than in cash) were set aside in granaries - storage buildings - in every county and near every local city. These granaries were always, during Han Wudi's reign, kept full, and used to feed people when times were bad because of a poor economy, a natural disaster, or a famine. This was a direct response to the Mandate of Heaven, and also provided room for economic growth and the ending of social unrest in hard times.
Han Wudi took direct central control of the state by ending all power of the nobility. Nobles under the Han Dynasty after 141 BCE became little more than great names. Their right to advise the emperor, even to attend him at court, their right to tax-free status, and their ability to behave as the social equals of the emperor or to govern any part of the Han empire because of their noble status was ended, and they became as subject to imperial control as any other person in Chinese society.
While this act did reduce to a minimum the concern that a challenge to Han rule might come from the traditional nobility, it also made him dependent on educated officials for his bureaucracy. In order to find enough people to staff the government, Han Wudi would eventually have to swallow a bitter pill and hire people based on a specific set of tests that measured the ability to understand and manage people through the moral precepts of Confucius. Rather than simply look for bureaucrats by word-of-mouth as had happened in the past, the new government's needs were astounding, and so an examination system began. This was not the only, or even the major way into the government bureaucracy during the Han, but it was the beginning of the method that would be used for centuries beginning later in Chinese history.

Conquests - beginning in 111 BC

Han Wudi was also known as the "Martial Emperor" because he was so good at directing his armies (often from the field) and because he spent so much treasure and life in the pursuit of his goal of expanind the empire. In 111 BCE, he began invading Northern Vietnam, a project that he would continue with through most of his reign. Although his fortunes in Northern Vietnam (Annam) were sometimes good, sometimes bad, his success in moving his armies there and pacifying much of China in the process is a testament to his organizational and leadership abilities. By 109 BCE, Wudi had also conquered Manchuria and Korea, and much of the territory to the west in Central Asia, opening the Silk Route to the west and making trading at an international level a major pursuit of Chinese business people. This trade could be taxed, and so it added to Wudi's revenue - and to his financial 'war chest', supplying his armies with food, clothing, and the weapons they needed to continue conquering.

Han Culture

Because of the need for bureaucrats in his government, Han Wudi made Confucianism the official ideology of the Han State. Wudi apparently thought that the moral tenets, and the strong focus of activity toward caring for others and a family-like organization would support the establishment of a strong state with a minimum of crime and corruption. In the process of this, he came to supported the creation of a classic canon of Confucian texts which even until our own time remain the central teachings of the Confucian way of thinking.
Still, the fact was that the need for bureaucracts led to the establishment of an education system that encouraged aspiring scholars to study. Those scholars did not study engineering, or law, or social science or history. They studied Confucian texts and ideas and attempted to apply them more clearly to the world around them. As they became more able to understand society, their skills in dealing with people, operating massive bureacratic systems, etc... became useful to Han Wudi as imperial bureaucrats. And so Wudi made large numbers of these scholars at the very top of the Confucian scale his best advisors and his county magistrates. Since the bureacrats of the empire were Confucians, and since these Confucians were attempting to adapt their principles to the real world, the Legalist code of behavior for the Han state came to be tempered by the Confucian moral certitude of the scholars who administered it.

The Taxue

In 136 BC, Han Wudi established the first official state school for confucianism, known as the Taxue, or great school. This institution was headed by famed confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu. Dong's primary contribution to Chinese thought in general was to confucianize cosmological correspondences. That is, Dong claimed that Heaven expressed judgment of a ruler by sending portents - to give a ruler time to change his policy.
The basis for this belief was that Dong thought that Heaven is benevolent, in a kind of corrolary to the basic Confucian tenet after Mengxu (Mencius) that people are basically good. Going beyond this basic idea of the goodness of heaven, Dong made the reading of heavenly signs into a kind of science. Blending confucian ideas with Taoism, Dong attempted to make confucianism conform more to the cosmological order people expected. One especially important argument had to do with Yin/Yang & opposition of the 5 agents. Dong was interested in the moral, not the magical, aspect of these beliefs - the idea that natural forces worked in a way that responded to human moral (or immoral) acts.
In any case, the Taxue had faculty positions for five accomplished confucian scholars, and concentrated on the five basic confucian texts: The Book of History, which was thought to provide models for rulers and administrators in their daily activities and moral decisions; the Book of Songs, a collection of Zhou dynasty era poems to help determine the mood of the times; the Book of Changes, which was a divination manual with philosophical interpretations; the Spring & Autumn Annals, which was a historical chronology of the period between 722 and 481 BC; and finally the Ritual Texts: "Zhou Li": an idealised description of bureaucratic rituals of the Zhou; the "I-Li": a collection of elite rituals, including weddings, funerals, etc.; and the "Li-Ji" - a broad general text of rituals.
Also as a part of his educational work, and to be sure that the best scholars, including the graduates of the Taxue, worked in his administration, Han Wudi reluctantly established the Confucian examination system, which tested scholars at various levels, and provided government employment opportunities for the best of them. Along with Confucianism, this examination system came to define literate and upper class culture in China until 1905.
As noted above, the rise of confucian scholars in the bureaucracy led to a combination of Confucian scholars administering a legalist system, which caused significant evolution of law and administrative practice over the years and centuries.

Chinese family and social structure

Chinese society was based on the family structure. According to tradition, and set down on paper by Confucius, Chinese families were headed by males, and males maintained the dominant roles. Wives and mothers were required to accept the superiority of husbands, brothers and sons. Men functioned outside the family in the public realm, in work, politics, and war. Women functioned inside the family in houselhold, economic, and management pursuits. While both were necessary for smooth functioning, it was men who were most dominant, and most prized. Chinese families saw boy children as a blessing that would bring honor and wealth to the family. Girl children, who would only get married and become part of the adult productive structure of a different family, were seen as another mouth to feed.

This family structure became the basis of Confucius' idealized social structure. The Emperor was seen as the father figure for the entire society. He was expected to set an example of hard work and careful saving for the rest of the people, to act as a benevolent ruler whose first interest was the welfare of his people. In exchange, the people of China were expected to repay the emperor's kindness by being good subjects, hard-working, economical, providing the wealth by which the emperor could provide peace, security, and even greater economic opportunity: "[he] who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it." (Confucius - The Analects)

The Silk Road

As the Han dynasty got started in 206 BCE, there is also evidence that there was significant trade occurring throughout Asia, particularly between China, India, and Persia, in the south, and Russia in the North. The policies of Han Gaozu, and later Han Wudi, encouraged trade in and outside of China. Wudi expanded the Han dynasty deep into central Asia, where the Jiyayuguan, or Jade Gate, the last outpost of the Chinese army at the edge of the Gobi Desert in what is now Xinjiang Province, guarded the road that led from the capitol at Xian into central Asia on its way toward Persia and Russia. China sponsored the building of much of the road, and benefitted in both economic and intellectual terms from its use. During the period from 206 BCE until well into the 20th Century CE, the Silk Road was the longest road in the world. It was also the central trade route. Goods of immense value travelled from China into the Asian center and often to Persia, the Arab world, and even Europe beyond. China had little that it needed from the West, but it sold a tremendous amount, and all connected with the silk road trade benefitted from increased knowledge about other parts of Eurasia.