Syncretism in the Western Han
207 BCE-9 CE
Syncretism in the Western Han
Bamboo Page Divider
Chen She Rebels Against the Qin Dynasty
The Fall of the Qin
Sources of Chinese Tradition (Textbook)The downfall of the Qin, more dramatic and sudden even than its rise, had a profound effect upon the thinking of the Chinese. It proved to their satisfaction that terror and strength alone could never rule the world. But the men who wrested from the Qin the vast empire it had created were not bent simply on restoring the old order of things.
       The aristocratic families of the older feudal states of Zhou, which had bitterly resisted the expansion of Qin, had been seriously weakened by the steps the conqueror later took to prevent them from again threatening his power. The opposition that eventually proved fatal to the Qin dynasty, therefore, came not from the ranks of the old aristocracy but from the common people. Chen She, who led the first major revolt against Qin rule, was a day laborer in the fields. Liu Ji [a.k.a. Liu Bang and Han Gaozu], the man who finally set up the Han dynasty after destroying both the Qin and rival rebel factions, was likewise of humble origin, as were most of his comrades who fought with him to victory.
       As commoners under the Qin, these men knew firsthand the suffering that its harsh rule had brought to the people. They were quick to abolish its more offensive laws and institutions, while leaving intact much of the rest of its elaborate machinery of government. Under their leadership the new regime of the Han was marked by plebian heartiness and vigor, simplicity and frugality in government, and abhorrence of the Legalist doctrines of the hated Qin. (SCT, 227-8)
A Second Opinion...
The Open Empire (Textbook)The official history of the Han dynasty tells the story of how a group of laborers, delayed by rain, decided to revolt. “Now if we flee, we shall die,” they said. “If we undertake a great plan, we shall die. It’s death either way. But we could risk death for a kingdom.” Because absconding from labor or service brought death, as did rebellion, they reasoned that they might as well rise up against the harsh rule of the Qin. ... [However,] a tomb excavated in 1975 provides a surprising corrective to received wisdom about Qin brutality. The legal materials from the Shuihudi tomb reveal that men called up for service who failed to report or who absconded were liable to be beaten, not killed, as the Han historians falsely maintained in their account of the dynasty’s founding. The officials in charge of a group of laborers could be fined one shield if the laborers were six to ten days late; a suit of armor if over ten days late. We must conclude that the Han-dynasty historians overstated these punishments to discredit the previous and fallen Qin dynasty. ... The absence of peasant uprisings during his reign suggests that the [First] Qin emperor must have enjoyed a measure of popularity with his subjects. As soon as he died and his unpopular second son succeeded him, many of the former regional states broke away once again. The rebels may initially have hoped to restore the emperor’s first son to power while leaving the Qin dynasty in place. As the situation at court deteriorated, the rebels, who included both bona fide peasants and low-ranking officials, began to denounce the cruelty of the Qin and to call for the founding of a new dynasty. (OE, 102-106)
  • How does Valerie Hansen’s perspective in The Open Empire differ from the one presented in Sources of Chinese Tradition?
  • Are both perspectives equally valid ... and if not how can we decide which one to adopt?
Liu Bang / Han Gaozu
Bamboo copy of the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian)In the tenth month of the first year of Han (November-December 207 B.C.E.) Liu Bang finally succeeded in reaching Bashang [near the capital] ahead of the other leaders [which by agreement among the leaders of different rebel groups made him the new ruler of the Qin heartland]. Ziying, the king of Qin, came in a plain carriage drawn by white horses, wearing a rope about his neck, and surrendered the imperial seals and credentials by the side of Chi Road. Some of the generals asked that the king of Qin be executed, but Liu Bang replied: “... To kill a man who has already surrendered would only bring bad luck!” With this he turned the king of Qin over to the care of his officials. The he proceeded west and entered Xianyang. ... He sealed up the storehouses containing Qin’s treasures and wealth and returned to camp at Bashang. There he summoned all the distinguished and powerful men of the districts and addressed them, saying,
“Gentlemen, for a long time you have suffered beneath the harsh laws of Qin. Those who criticized the government were wiped out along with their families; those who gathered to talk in private were executed in the public market. I and the other nobles have made an agreement that he who first enters the Pass shall rule over the areas within. Accordingly, I am now king of this territory within the Pass. I hereby promise you a code of laws consisting of three articles only: he who kills anyone shall suffer death; he who wounds another or steals shall be punished according to the gravity of the offense; for the rest I hereby abolish all laws of Qin.”
... The people of Qin were overjoyed and hastened with cattle, sheep, wine, and food to present to the soldiers. But Liu Bang declined all such gifts, saying, “There is plenty of grain in the granaries. I do not wish to be a burden to the people.” With this the people were more joyful than ever and their only fear was that Liu Bang would not become king of Qin. (SCT, 232-3 [Shiji 8:15a-16b])
Law Texts Based on the Zhangjiashan Bamboo Slips
And Yet...
As he sought to increase his popular support, Liu Bang attacked the Qin for its brutal laws. When his forces won the decisive battle and entered the Qin capital, he proclaimed [the “three articles” of the new Han law code, cited above]. ... So Liu Bang pledged, but in fact he retained most of the Qin laws, as an important set of legal texts from the Zhangjiashan tomb in Hubei province (dated 186 B.C.E.) shows. ... These Han-dynasty laws often quote Qin laws verbatim, showing that the Han dynasty drew directly from Qin laws, at least in the region southeast of Xi’an, which was in the traditional Qin heartland. (OE, 106)
  • How would you compare a traditional history like the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) and a contemporary history like The Open Empire?
Liu Bang (Han Gaozu) with Confucius
Liu Bang
A Good Confucian?

Bamboo copy of the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian)In the first month [of 202 B.C.E.] the various nobles and generals all joined in begging Liu Bang to take the title of Exalted Emperor (huangdi), but he replied, “I have heard that the position of emperor may go only to a worthy man. It cannot be claimed by empty words and vain talk. I do not dare to accept the position of emperor.”
       His followers all replied, “Our great king has risen from the humblest beginnings to punish the wicked and violent and bring peace to all within the four seas. To those who have achieved merit he has accordingly parceled out land and enfeoffed them as kings and marquises. If our king does not assume the supreme title, then all our titles as well will be called into doubt. On pain of death we urge our request!”
       Liu Bang declined three times and then, seeing that he could do no more, said, “If you, my lords, all consider it a good thing, then it must be to the good of the country.” On the day jiawu [February 28, 202 B.C.E.] he assumed the position of Exalted Emperor on the north banks of the Si River. (
SCT, 233-4 [Shiji 8:28b])
Confucian Scholar-Official's Hat
“At last the whole world is mine,” the first Han emperor, Liu Bang, is said to have declared as he claimed the imperial throne in 202 B.C., the first of 27 Lius to reign. ... [H]e despised learned Confucians, whom he readily identified by their distinctive peaked hats. According to an incident recounted by a famous Han historian, Sima Qian, when Liu Bang encountered one of these worthies he “immediately snatches the hat from the visitor’s head and pisses in it.” (National Geographic, February 2004)
Han Gaozu Sacrifices to Confucius
Han Gaozu Sacrifices a Pig, a Sheep and an Ox to Confucius in 195 BCE
State Confucianism in the Han
State Confucianism
Guidelines for Han Rulers
During the Han period the social conscience of the Confucians, and their scholarly qualifications, brought them in increasing numbers into the new officialdom that replaced the feudal aristocracy of Zhou times. Reconciling themselves to the new imperial system and its bureaucratic structures, they succeeded in having a state college and system of competitive examinations set up, which, at least in normal times, assured a dominant position for scholars in the civil bureaucracy. (SCT, 284; cf. OE, 118-9)
Lu Jia's "New Discourses"
Lu JiaNow actions that do not combine humaneness and rightness are doomed to failure; structures that forsake a firm foundation for a high perch are certain to topple. Thus the sage uses the classics and the arts to prevent disorder, as the craftsman uses the plumb line to correct crookedness. One who is rich in virtue has far-flung influence; one who is ample in brute strength may be merely overbearing. Duke Huan of Qi claimed hegemony through virtue, while the Second Emperor of the Qin perished through his fondness for penal codes. ... The sovereign rules over a good government with humaneness; the ministers conduct orderly affairs in keeping with rightness. The people of the realm respect each other through humaneness, and the officials of the court discourse with each other on the basis of rightness. ... Humaneness is the standard of the Way, and rightness is the learning for sages. (SCT, 288 [Xinyu 1:189-198])
Dong Zhongshu
Relying on two attitudes that characterized the Confucian scholar, a respect for the past and a veneration for the writings of Confucius, Dong [Zhongshu] hoped to reform imperial sovereignty by re-creating both history and text. ... His persuasive interpretations, among other factors, enabled Dong Zhongshu and other reformist scholars under Emperor Wu to end state support for the teaching of non-Confucian texts and to establish a text-based ideology represented in the first Confucian canon. Thenceforth, the Confucian canon played a prominent role in the doctrinal and political life of the traditional state. The designation in 136 B.C.E. of official posts known as the “Erudites of the Five Classics” and the establishment in 124 B.C.E. of the Imperial College, where these texts were taught as a basic prerequisite for training in the polity, were the institutional expressions of this canonization. (SCT, 293-4)
Han Syncretism: Confucius and Laozi with Qin Ershi's Legalist Edict
Confucian Syncretism in the Han
The norms of the people’s ruler are derived from and modeled on Heaven. Therefore he values ranks and so is honored. He subjugates other states and so is humane. He resides in a hidden place and does not reveal his form and so is numinous [i.e. embodies the power of the divine]. He appoints the worthy and employs the capable, observes and listens to the four corners of his realm, and so is brilliant. He confers office according to capability, distinguishes the worthy and stupid, and so there is mutual succession. He induces worthy men to draw near and establishes them as his legs and arms and so endures. He investigates the true nature of the ministers’ achievements, ranks and orders them as the worst and the best, and so completes his age. He promotes those who possess merit and demotes those who lack merit and so rewards and punishes.
       For this reason Heaven clings to the Way and acts as the master of all living things. The ruler maintains constant norms and acts as the master of a single state. Heaven must be resolute. The ruler must be firm. When Heaven is not firm, evil ministers become chaotic in their offices. When stars become chaotic, they stray from Heaven. When ministers become chaotic, they stray from their ruler. Therefore Heaven strives to stabilize its vital force (qi), while the ruler strives to stabilize his government. Only when resolute and firm will the Way of yang regulate and order others.
       Earth humbles its position and sends up its vital energy; exposes its forms and manifests its true feelings; receives the dead and offers up the living; completes its tasks and confers its merit [on Heaven]. Earth humbles its position and so serves Heaven. It sends up its vital energy and so nourishes yang. It exposes its forms and so is loyal. It manifests its true feelings and so is trustworthy. It receives the dead and so hides away the end of life. It offers up the living and so enhances Heaven’s brilliance. It completes its tasks and so enhances Heaven’s transformations. It confers its merit on Heaven and so achieves rightness. ... (
SCT, 295-6 [Chunqiu Fanlu 17:9b-12b])
Bamboo Page Divider
Han Wudi (Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty)
"Legalist" Edict of Qin Ershi
Emperor Wu (r. 140-87 BCE)
Confucian Sage or Legalist Tyrant?

Dragon and Phoenix
Han Wudi of the Han Dynasty
Emperor Wu’s Confucianism deeply reflected the influence of his advisor Dong Zhongshu (ca. 198-104 B.C.E.), who believed that the emperor served to link heaven with his subjects. If he governed well, heaven would continue to support him, but if he violated heaven’s intent, heaven could send various portents to warn him of his misconduct. These portents could appear in the form of eclipses, floods, droughts, or any other calamity. ... Sometime around140 B.C.E. the emperor appointed five scholars to the position of Academician, each of whom specialized in a different Confucian classic: The Book of Changes, The Book of Documents, The Book of Songs, The Book of Rites, and The Spring and Autumn Annals. The selection of these five books as the most important texts marked the first step in the formation of the Confucian canon. When the emperor named fifty students to study with the Academicians in 124 B.C.E., he created an imperial academy, whose students could enter the government. It grew quickly, enrolling three thousand students in the next seventy-five years. Emperor Wu also established schools in each locality; students in these schools could join the local government, attend the imperial academy, or be recruited into the central bureaucracy. (OE, 118-9)
The Great Learning
The Way of the Great Learning lies in illuminating luminous virtue, treating the people with affection, and resting in perfect goodness. ... Those in antiquity who wished to illumine luminous virtue throughout the world would first govern their states; wishing to govern their states, they would first bring order to their families; wishing to bring order to their families, they would first cultivate their own persons; wishing to cultivate their own persons, they would first rectify their minds; wishing to rectify their minds, they would first make their thoughts sincere; wishing to make their thoughts sincere, they would first extend their knowledge. The extension of knowledge lies in the investigation of things.
Great Learning: Self-Cultivation
It is only when things are investigated that knowledge is extended; when knowledge is extended ...; [it is only] when the state is well governed that peace is brought to the world.
Temple of Heaven
From the Son of Heaven to ordinary people, all, without exception, should regard cultivating the person as the root. It can never happen that the root is disordered and the branches are ordered. (SCT, 330-1)
Examination System
The Han dynasty continued to recruit officials largely by recommendation, but it required its officials to take examinations after they arrived in the capital in order to place them in appropriate entry-level positions in the bureaucracy. Whenever the central government decided to hire staff at the local level, it asked local officials to recommend talented young men. After entering the bureaucracy as low-ranking clerks, these men could work their way up. (OE, 119)
Dragon and Phoenix
The Legalist Emperor Wu
The Legalist Emperor Wu
Return to FeudalismOne major [early Han] departure from Qin policies concerned the treatment of the nobility. Where the Qin emperor had required all the nobility of the vanquished kingdoms to reside in his capital, the Han founder created a new nobility. He gave nine of his brothers and sons the title of king and the lands necessary to sustain them, and named one hundred fifty of his most important followers to the rank of marquis. Two-thirds of his territory remained in the hands of his sons and other relatives. Only one-third of his empire, the crucial western half containing the capital, remained under direct administration. We should remember that the core of the Han-dynasty empire lay in the region around Chang’an, or the modern city of Xi’an in the province of Shaanxi, while the coastal areas and much of south China remained backwaters largely populated by non-Chinese peoples. (OE, 108)
Map of the Early Han Dynasty
At the same time that Emperor Wu strengthened the bureaucracy, he took strong measures to curtail the power of the regional rulers empowered by the Han founder. Starting in 127 B.C. he required that when a given ruler died, his lands were to be divided among all his sons — not passed down intact to the oldest son as had previously been the case. Like the Qin founder, he required these families to move to a new city close to the capital, and he forbade members of some families to live together. Emperor Wu broke with earlier practice, too, in his consistent refusal to appoint the sons of these powerful families to high office. Emperor Wu chose his own appointees instead. (OE, 1st Edition, 127)
The abolition of [the kingdoms of Huainan and Hengshan] in 122 B.C.E. seems to have been decisive in breaking the power of the kingdoms. In 112 almost all the marquisates that had been inherited since the reign of Emperor Gao were abolished. By that time the share of the empire ruled by kings was much smaller than it had been in 141. (MOF, 58)
Map of Han Commanderies in 2 CE
Confucian scholars were useful in devising legitimating ceremonies, drafting state papers, and educating the next generation of officials, but they did not determine the main directions of state policy, and frequently opposed them. Emperor Wu’s regime was inclined to take aggressive action in all directions as soon as it was free of the restraining influence of the Grand Dowager Empress Dou [who was committed to Huang-Lao Daoism]. A Han ambush of a large party of Xiongnu in 134 was followed by annual Xiongnu raids along the border. These expansionist policies were opposed by many officials, including one Zhufu Yan ...
Map of the Xiongnu Empire
But in 127 Zhufu Yan changed his tune, urging that the Han reoccupy the territory within the northward bend of the Yellow River, restoring the Qin line of defenses in that area. His recommendation was followed, and the Han armies were successful. Zhufu Yan also urged a general policy of dividing up the territories of marquises among their heirs, on the Confucian grounds that this would encourage warm family feelings and filial piety, and accused the kings of Yan and Qi of personal moral offenses. Both kings committed suicide, neither had an heir, and their kingdoms came under central control. The linking of efforts to strengthen central power and calls for an aggressive foreign policy, the use of Confucian moral concerns to justify “Legalist” centralization, are striking. Zhufu Yan may have changed his views on foreign policy because he sensed what Emperor Wu and the powerful generals wanted to hear. His days of success as a policy adviser were short, however; the king of Zhao accused him of corruption and he was executed. (MOF, 56-7)
... A spectacular burst of military activity began in 121 [BCE]. The Xiongnu, defeated in 121 and in 119, retreated north, beyond the Gobi Desert. The Xiongnu retreat from the upper reaches of the Yellow River allowed the Han to move into that region and on out along the “Silk Road,” the oasis trade route that linked China with Persia and the Roman Orient. New commanderies were set up on that frontier from 108 to 104. Explorations to the northwest under Zhang Qian culminated in the Han conquest of Ferghana, beyond the present northwest frontier of the People’s Republic, in 104. A series of conflicts in the northeast led to the establishment of full Han rule over much of the Korean peninsula in 108. (MOF, 58)
Map of the Han Dynasty
Dragon and Phoenix
Han Wudi (Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty)
"Legalist" Edict of Qin Ershi
So, in the end was Emperor Wu a Confucian Sage,
a Legalist Tyrant ... or something in between?