The Han Dynasty
206 BCE-220 CE
.
Han Gaozu Sacrifices a Pig, a Sheep and an Ox to Confucius in 195 BCE
 
The Fall of the Qin
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 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, 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?
 
 
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 China]. ... 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, 233 (Shiji 8:15a-16b)]
 
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 as in the traditional Qin heartland. [OE, 106]
  • What are the limitations of a traditional history such as the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian)?

 
Liu Bang
A Good Confucian?

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)]
 

“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]
 
 

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 officaldom that replaced the feudal aristocracy of Zhou times. Reconciling themselves to the new imperial system and its bureacratic 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]
 
 
Now actions that do not combine humaneness and rightness are doomed to failure; structures that foresake 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)]
 

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]
 
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)]