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Imperial China, The Han Dynasty (206 bc-ad 220)

Dong Zhongshu, Xin dynasty, Emperor Gaozu, Qin empire, castrated men

In 206 bc Liu Bang, a minor Qin official who had mobilized forces against the government, proclaimed himself king of Han, one of the states within the Qin empire. Four years later, after he had defeated his chief rivals, he took the title emperor. The Han dynasty that he founded is normally divided into two periods: the Western Han dynasty and the Eastern Han dynasty. The Western Han (also called the Former Han) is so named because the capital was to the west at Chang’an (modern Xi’an). During the Eastern Han (also called the Later Han), the capital was to the east at Luoyang. The Western Han lasted from 206 bc to ad 9, and the Eastern Han from ad 25 to 220 (a brief interregnum occurred between the two periods).

Liu Bang, better known in history as Emperor Gaozu (Kao-tsu), did not disband the centralized government created by Qin, but rather concentrated on making it less burdensome. The Han rescinded harsh laws, sharply reduced taxes, and allowed merchants to operate without government interference in an effort to promote economic recovery. Gaozu experimented with granting large and nearly autonomous vassal states to his relatives, but he came to see dispersed power as a threat to his rule, and by the middle of the 2nd century bc most of these states had been eliminated. Under the Qin, one of the aims of Legalism had been direct rule by the emperor of all subjects of the empire. The Han government retained this policy in its tax and labor service obligations, which were imposed directly on each subject according to age, sex, and rank, instead of on families or communities.

The most significant difference between the Han government and the previous Qin administration was in the choice of men to staff government offices. Around the 1st century bc, Wudi, the most activist of the Han emperors, decreed that officials should be selected on the basis of Confucian virtues, which gave Confucian scholars a privileged position in society. Wudi established a national university to train officials in the Confucian classics. Wealthy and prominent men began to compete for recognition of their Confucian learning and character so that they could gain access to office.

Credit for the political success of Confucianism belongs in large part to thinkers like Dong Zhongshu (179-104 bc), who developed Confucianism in ways that legitimized the new imperial state and elevated the role of the emperor. Dong joined Confucian ideas of human virtue and social order to notions of the workings of the cosmos in terms of yin and yang and the five agents (wood, metal, fire, water, and earth). He argued that the ruler occupies a unique position because he can link the realms of Heaven, earth, and human beings through his actions.

Another important intellectual accomplishment of the Han dynasty was the development of historical writing. Sima Qian (l45?-90? bc) wrote a comprehensive history of China from the time of the Yellow Lord to his own day, dividing his account into chronological chapters that included discussions of political events, biographies of key individuals, and treatises on such subjects as geography, taxation, and court rituals. During the Eastern Han dynasty, the historian Ban Gu followed a similar model in his account of the Western Han dynasty. From then on, new dynasties regularly had the histories of the preceding dynasty compiled, following the standards established by these two pioneers.

At the same time that the Qin and then Han governments were consolidating their power, the nomadic Xiongnu tribes in the arid steppe region north of China was growing stronger and posing a threat. Defending against the raids of non-Chinese tribes had been a problem since Shang times, but with the rise of nomadism, the problem became much more severe. These nomads were skilled horsemen and hunters, and their ability to shoot arrows while riding horseback made them a potent striking force. When the Xiongnu formed a huge confederation in the late 3rd century bc, northern China needed a strong government to oppose them. The Xiongnu were capable of sending tens of thousands of horsemen into northern China to raid towns and then withdrawing before Chinese armies could be organized to oppose them.

The early Han rulers tried conciliatory policies, but after Wudi came to power he took the offensive, sending several expeditions of 100,000 to 300,000 troops into Xiongnu territory. These campaigns were enormously expensive, requiring long supply lines, and rarely led to direct engagement with the Xiongnu, who were able to evade the Han troops easily. Nevertheless, the Han gained territory in the northwest, and more than a million people were sent to colonize the region. To search for allies, Wudi sent the explorer-diplomat Zhang Qian far into Central Asia, where he learned of the countries of central and western Asia, including the Roman Empire. He also discovered that these regions were already importing Chinese products, particularly silk, from merchants who traded along overland routes across Asia. A single item might change hands many times before arriving at its final destination in western Asia or southern Europe. Eventually, the overland trade route between the capitals of Rome and Chang’an became known as the Silk Road.

To generate revenue to pay for his military campaigns, Wudi manipulated coinage, confiscated the lands of nobles, sold offices and titles, and increased taxes. He established government monopolies in the production of iron, salt, and liquor—enterprises that previously had been sources of great profit for private entrepreneurs. The government also took over large-scale grain dealing. Confucian scholars questioned the morality of these economic policies. They thought that farming was an essential activity, while trade and crafts produced little of real value and should be discouraged. The government, they argued, was teaching people mercantile “tricks” by setting itself up in commerce. Despite their complaints, the Chinese economy seems to have grown rapidly in Han times. By ad 2, the population had reached 58 million. Trade and industry flourished, cities grew, and Chang’an and Luoyang became important cultural centers attracting the best writers and scholars from all over China.

During the last decades of the Western Han, a series of child emperors occupied the throne. Regents, generally from the families of the emperors’ mothers, ruled in their place. One of these regents, Wang Mang, deposed an infant emperor in ad 9 and declared himself emperor of the Xin dynasty. Although condemned as a usurper, Wang Mang was a learned Confucian scholar who wished to implement policies described in the Confucian classics. He renamed offices, asserted state ownership of forests and swamps, built ritual halls, revived public granaries, outlawed slavery, limited land holdings, and reduced court expenses. Some of his policies, such as issuing new coins and nationalizing gold, led to economic turmoil. Matters were made worse when the Huang He breached its dikes and shifted course from north to south, flooding huge regions and driving millions of peasants from their homes. Rebellion broke out, and when Wang Mang was killed by rebels in ad 23, a member of the Han imperial clan reestablished the Han dynasty.

In the 2nd century ad maternal relatives of the emperors again came to dominate the court. Emperors turned to palace eunuchs (castrated men who served as palace servants) for help in ousting the maternal relatives, only to find that the eunuchs were just as difficult to control. In 166 and 169, scholars who had denounced the eunuchs were arrested, killed, or banished from the capital and from official life. In 184 a Daoist sect rose in revolt. The imperial generals sent to suppress the rebels soon took to fighting amongst themselves. In 189, one general slaughtered 2,000 eunuchs in the palace and took the Han emperor captive. Fighting continued for two decades until a stalemate was reached between three warlords, each controlling a distinct territory—one in the north, one in the southeast, and one in the southwest.



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