The Han Dynasty: The Empire Consolidated

In 202 B.C., the year that the Romans defeated the Carthaginians at the

battle of Zama, the peasant Liu Pang defeated his aristocratic rival and established the Han Dynasty.

Named after the Han River, a tributary of the Yangtze, the new dynasty had its capital at Chang-an.

It lasted for more than 400 years and is traditionally divided into two parts: the Earlier Han, from 202 B.C. to A.D. 8, and the Later Han, from A.D. 23 to A.D. 220, with its capital at Lo-yang.

In time and importance, the Han corresponded to the late Roman Republic and early Roman Empire; ethnic Chinese still call themselves "Men of Han."

The empire and power sought by Liu Pang and his successors were those of the Ch'in, but they succeeded where the Ch'in had failed because they were tactful and gradual in their approach.

Liu Pang reestablished for a time some of the vassal kingdoms and feudal states in regions distant from the capital. Peasant discontent was mollified by lessened demands for taxes and forced labor.

But the master stroke of the Han emperors was to enlist the support of the Confucian intellectuals. They provided the empire with an ideology that would last until recent times.

The Chins' extreme Legalistic ideology of harsh punishment and terror had not worked.

The Han emperors recognized that an educated bureaucracy was necessary for governing so vast an empire.

The ban on the Confucian classics and other Chou literature was lifted, and the way was open for a revival of the intellectual life that had been suppressed under the Chin.

In accord with Legalist principles, now tempered by Confucian insistence on the ethical basis of government, the Han emperors established administrative organs staffed by a salaried bureaucracy to rule their empire.

Talented men were chosen for government service through an examination system based on the Confucian classics, and they were promoted by merit.

The examinations were theoretically open to all Chinese except merchants.

(The Han inherited both the Confucian bias against trade as an unvirtuous striving for profit and the Legalist suspicion of merchants who put their own interests ahead of those of the state and society.)

The bureaucrats were drawn from the landlord class because wealth was needed to obtain the education needed to pass the examinations.

Consequently, the earlier division of Chinese society between aristocrats and peasants was transformed into a division between peasants and landowner-bureaucrats.

The latter are also called scholar-gentry, a term first used in the eighteenth century by the British. They saw a parallel with the gentry who dominated the countryside and administration of their own country.

Wu Ti And The Pax Sinica

After sixty years of consolidation, the Han Empire reached its greatest extent and development during the long reign of Wu Ti ("Martial Emperor"), who ruled from 141 to 87 B.C.

To accomplish his goal of territorial expansion, he raised the peasants' taxes but not those of the great landowners, who remained virtually exempt from taxation.

In addition, he increased the amount of labor and military service the peasants were forced to contribute to the state.

The Martial Emperor justified his expansionist policies in terms of self-defense against Mongolian nomads, the Hsiung-nu, known to the West later as the Huns.

Their attacks had caused the First Emperor to complete the Great Wall to obstruct their raiding cavalry.

To outflank the nomads in the west, Wu Ti extended the Great Wall and annexed a large corridor extending through the Tarim River basin of Central Asia to the Pamir Mountains close to Bactria. This corridor has ever since remained a part of China.

Wu Ti failed in an attempt to form an alliance with the Scythians in Bactria, but his envoy's report of the interest shown in Chinese silks by the peoples of the area was the beginning of a commercial exchange between China and the West. This trade brought great profits to wealthy merchant families.

Wu Ti also outflanked the Hsiung-nu in the east by the conquest of southern Manchuria and northern Korea. In addition, he completed the conquest of South China, begun by the Ch'in, and added North Vietnam to the Chinese Empire.

All the conquered lands experienced considerable Chinese emigration. Thus at a time when the armies of the Roman Republic were laying the foundations of the Pax Romana in the West, the Martial Emperor was establishing a Pax Sinica ("Chinese Peace") in the East.

Han Decline

Wu Ti's conquests led to a fiscal crisis. As costs increased, taxes increased, and the peasants' burdens led to revolt.

The end result was that the central government had to rely more and more on local military commanders and great landowners for control of the population, giving them great power and prestige at its own expense.

This cycle of decline after an initial period of increasing prosperity and power has been the pattern of all Chinese dynasties.

During the Han this "dynastic cycle," as Western historians of China call it, led to a succession of mediocre rulers after Wu Ti's death and a temporary usur ation of the throne (A.D. 9-23), which divided the Earlier from the Later Han.

The usurper, Wang Mang, united Confucian humanitarianism with Legalist practice. Like his contemporary in the West, the Roman Emperor Augustus, his goal was the rejuvenation of society.

By Wang Mang's day the number of large tax-free estates had greatly increased while the number of tax-paying peasant holdings had declined. This was a by product of the private landownership that, under the Ch'in, had replaced the old communal use of the land.

Rich officials and merchants were able to acquire the lands of small peasant-owners, who became tenants paying exorbitant rents.

The conflict of landlordship and tenancy, along with the concentration of power of great families, became a major problem in Chinese history.

More and more peasants fell behind in their rents and were forced to sell themselves or their children into debt slavery.

To remedy this situation and increase the government's tax income, Wang Mang decreed that the land was the property of the nation and should be portioned out to peasant families, who would pay taxes on their allotments.

Wang Mang sought to solve the long-standing problem of inflation, which had greatly increased since Wu Ti first began debasing the coinage when he found himself in financial difficulties, by setting maximum prices on basic commodities.


He also sought to stabilize prices by instituting "leveling" the government bought surplus commodities when prices fell and sold them when scarcity caused prices to rise. (In 1938, a chance reading of Wang Mang's

"leveling" proposal inspired the "ever-normal granary" program of President Roosevelt's New Deal. ^5)

[Footnote 5: Wm. Theodore de Bary, East Asian Civilizations: A Dialogue in Five Stages (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 19]

Wang Mang's remarkable reform program failed, however; officials bungled the difficult administrative task, and the powerful landowners rebelled against the ruler who proposed to confiscate their land. Although Wang Mang rescinded his reforms, he was killed by the rebels in A.D. 23.

The Later Han Dynasty never reached the heights of its predecessor. Warlords who were members of the rich landowner class seized more and more power, and widespread peasant rebellions (one band was led by "Mother Lu," a woman skilled in witchcraft) sapped the state's resources. Surviving in name only during its last thirty years, the Han Dynasty ended in A.D. 220, when the throne was usurped by the son of a famous warlord. Three and a half centuries of disunity and turbulence followed - the longest in China's long history and often called China's "Middle Ages" - as it did in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. But China eventually succeeded where Europe failed: in A.D. 589 China once again was united by the Sui Dynasty (see ch. 8). With minor exceptions, it has remained united to this day.

Han Scholarship, Art And Technology

Scholarship flourished under the Han, but it was mainly concerned with collecting and interpreting the classics of Chinese thought produced in the Chou period. As the basis of education for prospective bureaucrats, Wu Ti established an imperial university in 124 B.C.; a century later it had 3000 students.

The Han scholars venerated Confucius as the ideal wise man, and Confucianism became the official philosophy of the state. Great respect for learning, together with the system of civil service examinations based on the Five Confucian Classics, became fundamental characteristics of Chinese civilization.

Han scholars started another scholarly tradition with their historical

writings. Their antiquarian interest in researching the past produced a comprehensive history of China, the Historical Records (Shih chi).

This voluminous work of 130 chapters has been highly praised, in part for its inclusion of a vast amount of information, beginning with the legendary past, but even more for its freedom from superstition and careful weighing of evidence.

In the Later Han, a scholar wrote the History of the (Earlier) Han, and thereafter it was customary for each dynasty to write the official history of its immediate predecessor. The Chinese believed that the successes and failures of the past provided guidance for one's own time and the future. As stated in the Historical Records, "Events of the past, if not forgotten, are teachings about the future."

Archaeological investigation was used as an aid to the writing of history. One scholar anticipated modern archaeologists by more than a thousand years in classifying human history by "ages": "stone" (Old Stone Age), "jade" (New Stone Age), "bronze," and "the present age" when "weapons are made of iron." ^6

[Footnote 6: Kwang-chih Chang, The Archaeology of Ancient China, 4th ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 5]

Another monument to Han scholarship was the world's first dictionary, Shuo Wen (Words Explained), produced during Wu Ti's reign. It listed the

meaning and pronunciation of more than 9000 Chinese characters.

In contrast to Han scholarship, Han art was clearly creative. The largely decorative art of the past, which served a religious purpose, was replaced by a realistic pictorial art portraying ordinary life. The result was the first great Chinese flowering of sculpture, both in relief and in the round.

Some of the finer examples of this realistic secular art are the sculptured models of the tall and spirited horses that Wu Ti imported from Bactria. The Han greatly admired these proud "celestial" and "blood-sweating" horses from the West, and their artists brilliantly captured their high spirit.

During the Han period, China surpassed the level of technological development in the rest of the world.

Notable inventions included a primitive seismograph capable of indicating earthquakes several hundred miles away; the use of water power to grind grain and to operate a piston bellows for iron smelting; the horse collar, which greatly increased the pulling power of horses; paper made from cloth rags, which replaced cumbersome bamboo strips and expensive silk cloth as writing material; and the humble but extremely useful wheelbarrow. By the end of the first century B.C., the Han Chinese had recognized sunspots and accurately determined the length of the calendar year.

Popular Taoism And Buddhism

By the time the First Emperor united China at the end of the third century B.C., a decadent or popular form of Taoism had emerged. Popular Taoism was a religion of spirits and magic that provided the spiritual comfort not found in either philosophical Taoism or Confucianism. Its goals were long life and personal immortality. These goals were to be achieved not so much as a reward for ethical conduct but through magical charms and spells and imbibing an "elixir of immortality." The search for such an elixir, which was thought to contain the vital forces of nature, led to an emphasis on diet and ultimately to the culinary art for which the Chinese are famous.