The Former Han Dynasty
Consolidation and Expansion
Map of the Former Han Dynasty
Icon for the Han Dynasty
Netflix poster for "King's War" (between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu)
Liu Bang/Han Gaozu
Liu Bang/Han Gaozu (from King's War)Confucian Scholar-Official's HatThe first emperor of Han, posthumously known as Emperor Gao, had been a village constable and never entirely lost his rough rural manners; he once replied to a tiresome lecture by a Confucian scholar by seizing the man’s silk hat and urinating in it. But he was quick-witted and courageous, tried to limit the effects of war on the common people, and knew how to judge and make good use of human talent. Starting out as one of many leaders of local rebellions, he was the first to occupy the Qin capital in the Wei valley. He preserved it from pillage and immediately proclaimed the abolition of the harsh and detailed law code of Qin. But then Xiang Yu, his nominal superior and great rival, entered the area and turned his troops loose to burn and kill. From that point on the story as Sima Qian tells it is one of war to the end between Xiang Yu and the future Emperor Gao, full of dramatic personal confrontations and hairbreadth escapes. Neither one called for the restoration of the states of the Warring States; Xiang favored a league of a larger number of states, with himself as first among equals, while Emperor Gao after his victory maintained the Qin centralized order for about half the empire, granting the rest as semi-autonomous kingdoms to his ministers and generals. A more important reason for Emperor Gao’s success and Xiang Yu’s defeat, in Sima Qian’s view, was their different ways of dealing with their subordinates. Xiang Yu was jealous of men of ability, never game them adequate rewards, and never admitted that he had made a mistake. Emperor Gao admitted that he was not a match for his great ministers and generals in leading troops, devising strategies, or organizing the logistics of a great campaign, “but it is because I am able to make use of them that I gained All Under Heaven.”
Map of the Early Han Dynasty
Emperor Gao reigned for only seven years after his final victory over Xiang Yu. Several of the allies whom he had set up in kingdoms revolted and he personally led campaigns to put them down. The most important of the kings was seized, pardoned, moved to a different area, then accused of plotting revolt and executed. When Emperor Gao died only one kingdom remained not in the hands of relatives of the imperial family. His successor, Emperor Hui, died young, and after his death Emperor Gao’s widow, the Dowager Empress L, was the real power behind a succession of child emperors. There were signs that the L family might seize the throne for itself, but after the empress’s death in 180 B.C.E. the princes of the Han imperial family wiped out the L and consolidated the Han succession. The next two Han rulers are portrayed as presiding over a government that, inspired in part by the bad example of Qin and in part by Daoist principles of noninterference in the natural courses of man and nature, kept taxes very low and avoided military action inside and outside the empire.
Sima Qian and Laozi with a chart explaining the "dynastic cycle" associated with the Mandate of Heaven
Sima Qian comments that even among the intrigues of the rise and fall of the L family, “the common people succeeded in putting behind them the sufferings of the age of the Warring States, and ruler and subject alike sought rest in surcease of action. ... Punishments were seldom meted out and evildoers grew rare, while the people applied themselves to the tasks of farming, and food and clothing became abundant.” (MOF, 52-3)
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Han Wudi (Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty)
Emperor Wu
Confucian Sage?
The succession to the throne in 141 B.C.E. of a fifteen-year-old boy, very much under the influence of the relatives of his grandmother, the Grand Dowager Empress Dou, was the unpromising beginning of one of the most critical periods of change in all of Chinese political history. The new emperor, posthumously entitled Emperor Wu, reigned until 87. His posthumous title means “martial”; his reign was one of China’s greatest ages of expansion and conquest. It also was a time of great change in the ceremonies and ideologies of the state and of the conclusive victory of the centralizing imperial power over the regional kings. The first act recorded for the reign was an order for all regional officials to send to the capital men of learning and good character to be tested for their suitability for appointment as officials. ... This first effort was abortive; when the candidates sent to the capital were ordered to write essays on problems of public policy, most wrote in a Legalist vein. The Dou family were devoted to Daoist teachings of minimal government and personal quest for transformation; the Legalist would-be officials were sent home. The call for officials was renewed in 135 after the death of the Grand Dowager Empress Dou, with more positive results. This time many of the men summoned and tested went on to careers in the high bureaucracy. At the same time some of the ore senior scholars were named learned academicians (bo shi), charged with the teaching of a particular classical text to young men at the capital; this was the nucleus out of which an Imperial Academy would grow. Soon a pattern emerged of recommendation by local officials, further study under the learned academicians, examination for selection for service as a “court gentleman,” and eventually appointment as a local official or for other special duty.
Imperial Examination System
We have seen a combination of esteem for scholarship and ambition for office as early as Confucius and his disciples, and I have noted that the First Emperor of Qin does not seem to have lacked would-be officials, even though some of them disagreed fundamentally with his policies. Thus it is not surprising that Confucian teachings, not very influential in the Legalist-Daoist confrontations in the first decades of Han, became very influential in this changing bureaucracy. Modern scholars call these teachings “Han Confucianism”; in many ways they were quite different from the teachings of the Master. (MOF, 54-5)
The Five Confucian Classics
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
Trinity of Heaven, Earth, and Humans
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)
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The Legalist Emperor Wu
Emperor Wu
Legalist Tyrant?
Zhufu YanConfucian scholars wee 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 Grand Dowager Empress Dou. 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, who had risen from poverty-stricken origins in Qi and who used Confucian arguments but also cited some wise counsel given by Li Si to the First Emperor of Qin. 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. ...
Map of the Early Han Dynasty
[By] 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. In 106 a new system of regional inspectors sent out by the imperial court was created to maintain closer supervision over the larger numbers and wider distribution of commanderies and prefectures. Equally important were the measures the court now took to tap for its own purposes the wealth of the empire. From the 120s on, growing military expenses had strained state finances. Rich people were rewarded by state honors when they made contributions of money and grain, but still the officials noted the prevalence of rich merchants and idle landlords while the local officials’ treasuries were empty. Moreover, revenues from mines, salt works, and trade had supported the rebellious intentions of Wu and Huainan.
Han Monopolies on Salt, Alcohol and Iron
New taxes were instituted in 119. In 113 the court prohibited any minting of coins, mining of metals, or manufacture of salt by any private party, and it created new offices to manage the resulting state monopoly of the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. A new type of official soon was noticed, frequently from a merchant background, expert in manipulating currency and trade, making excellent careers for themselves and great sums of revenue for the imperial treasury.
Map of the Han Dynasty's military expansion
These new revenues now made possible the rapid expansion of Han armies in all directions. 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, 56-8)
Icon for the Han Dynasty
Earlier Chinese books sometimes bore the name of the person whose teachings were collected in them, like the Mencius, or the person under whose patronage they were compiled, like the Spring and Autumn of Mr. L. But Sima Qian’s great Shi ji (Records of the Grand Historian) is the earliest surviving Chinese book in which the author acknowledges authorship and speaks directly to the reader in the text. ... It was a massive compilation; a complete translation into a Western language would fill two to three thousand pages. (MOF, 62-3)
Mirror (front and back)
The Historian’s Sacred Duty
Sima Tan’s Dying Words to Sima Qian
Sima Qian’s father, Sima Tan, held the office of tai shi, usually translated as “grand historian,” at the court of Emperor Wu. Since early Zhou times officials bearing this and related titles also had kept records of heavenly phenomena and advised on their interpretation; in view of the importance of these matters in Han elite culture, a more appropriate translation of the title might be “grand astrologer.” ... Sima Tan had been working on a great compilation of documents relating to the duties of his office, but had not finished it. As he lay dying, he said to his son. ... (MOF, 61-2)
Portrait of Sima Tan“Our ancestors were Grand Historians for the House of Zhou. From the most ancient times they were eminent and renowned when in the days of Yu and Xia they were in charge of astronomical affairs. In later ages our family declined. Will this tradition end with me? If you in turn become Grand Historian, you must continue the work of our ancestors. ... When you become Grand Historian, you must not forget what I have desired to expound and write. Now, filial piety begins with the serving of your parents; next, you must serve your sovereign; and, finally, you must make something of yourself, that your name may go down through the ages to the glory of your father and mother. This is the most important part of filial piety. ...
The various feudal states have merged together, and the old records and chronicles have become scattered and lost. Now the House of Han has arisen and all the world is united under one rule. I have been Grand Historian, and yet I have failed to make a record of all the enlightened rulers and wise lords, the faithful ministers and gentlemen who were ready to die for duty. I am fearful that the historical material will be neglected and lost. You must remember and think of this!
I bowed my head and wept, saying, “I, your son, am ignorant and unworthy, but I shall endeavor to set forth in full the reports of antiquity that have come down from our ancestors. I dare not be remiss!” (SCT, 370)
What does Sima Tan's dying statement tell us about the importance of filial piety ... and the role of the historian?
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How does this understanding of "history" relate to contemporary Western perspectives?
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Sima Qian before Han Wudi
Sima Qian’s Castration
Weighing One Shame Against Another

Sima Qian himself was among the victims of the vicious politics of the later years of Emperor Wu’s reign. ... Li Ling was the grandson of one of the greatest of Emperor Wu’s generals and already had many successful battles behind him when in 99 B.C.E. he was sent out against the Xiongnu with a force of only five thousand infantry. ... Most of the Han soldiers died fighting, and only about four hundred of the original five thousand got away and reached the border. Li Ling surrendered to the Xiongnu. The emperor took no action, regretting his failure to send the necessary reinforcements. But in 98 someone informed him that Li Ling was training the Xiongnu in the Chinese arts of war. The emperor condemned Li to death and exterminated his family. Li Ling later insisted that the person who had been training the Xiongnu was not he but one Li Xu. He could have returned after a general pardon but refused to do so, dying among the Xiongnu.
Li Ling in exile
There was no particularly close tie of friendship or loyalty between Sima Qian and Li Ling, but still in 98 the grand historian took the extraordinary step of defending Li against the accusation of treason, insisting that he must have surrendered in order to “try to seek some future opportunity to repay his debt to the Han.” The enraged emperor turned Sima Qian over to the legal authorities for trial for the capital crime of defamation of the imperial court. A conviction was a foregone conclusion. In his case, the death sentence was reduced to the most severe of the mutilating punishments, castration. One does not have to be an orthodox Freudian to suspect that fear of and revulsion at castration is deeply built into the male psyche. In Chinese tradition this revulsion was reinforced by the dictates of filial piety, in which one of the child’s first duties is to preserve intact the body received from the parents. Anyone, and especially anyone of honorable standing in society, would be expected to commit suicide, keeping the body whole to death, rather than submit to castration. Sima Qian shared these beliefs and feelings, but also was deeply committed to another side of filial piety. He had promised his father that he would complete his great work, preserving the names and deeds of the great men of antiquity and assuring the fame of the Sima family. And filial piety required not the effacement of self but its fulfillment: “Establish yourself and follow the Way, exalting your name to later generations, in order to shed glory on your father and mother.” (MOF, 68-9)
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Sima Qian’s Self-Defense
Before Li Ling fell into the hands of the enemy, a messenger came with the report [of his attack] and the lords and ministers of the Han all raised their cups in joyous toast to the emperor. But after a few days came word of his defeat, and because of it the emperor could find no flavor in his food and no delight in the deliberations of the court. The great officials were in anxiety and fear and did not know what to do. Observing His Majesty’s grief and distress, I dared to forget my mean and lowly position, sincerely desiring to do what I could in my fervent ignorance. I considered that Li Ling had always shared with his officers and men their hardships and want, and could command the loyalty of his troops in the face of death. In this he was unsurpassed even by the famous generals of old. And although he had fallen into captivity, I perceived that his intention was to try to seek some future opportunity to repay his debt to the Han. Though in the end he found himself in an impossible situation, yet the merit he had achieved in defeating and destroying so many of the enemy was still worthy to be proclaimed throughout the world. This is what I had in mind to say, but I could find no opportunity to express it. Then it happened that I was summoned into council, and I used the chance to speak of Li Ling’s merits in this way, hoping to broaden His Majesty’s view and put a stop to the angry words of the other officials. But I could not make myself fully understood. (Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty, 231-2; cf. Sima Qian’s Self-Defense)
Sima Qian
Justification for a Difficult Choice
My father had no great deeds. ... He dealt with affairs of astronomy and the calendar, which are close to divination and worship of the spirits. He was kept for the sport and amusement of the emperor, treated the same as the musicians and jesters, and made light of by the vulgar men of his day. If I fell before the law and were executed, it would make no more difference to most people than one hair off nine oxen, for I was nothing more than a mere ant to them. The world would not rank me among those men who were able to die for their ideals, but would believe simply that my wisdom was exhausted and my crime great, that I had been unable to escape penalty and in the end had gone to my death. Why? Because all my past actions had brought this on me, they would say. ...
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I too have ventured not to be modest but have entrusted myself to my useless writings. I have gathered up and brought together the old traditions of the world which were scattered and lost. I have examined the deeds and events of the past and investigated the principles behind their success and failure, their rise and decay, in 130 chapters. I wished to examine into all that concerns heaven and man, to penetrate the changes of the past and present, bringing to completion the great task of one family. But before I had finished my rough manuscript, I met with this calamity. It is because I regretted that it had not been completed that I submitted to the extreme penalty without rancor.
When I have completed this work, I shall deposit it in the Mountain of Fame, so that it can be handed down to men who will understand it, and penetrate to the villages and great cities. Then although I should suffer death from ten thousand cuts, what regret should I have? ...
I have brought upon myself the scorn and mockery even of my native village and I have soiled and shamed my father’s grave. With what face can I again ascend and stand before the grave mound of my father and mother? ... Only after the day of death shall right and wrong at last be determined. (MOF, 70-1)
Why did Sima Qian defend Li Ling against the accusation of treason?
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How is this connected to his understanding of the historian's role?
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