The Xin Interregnum
& the Han Restoration

 

Dragon & Phoenix
Power Struggles in the Imperial Court

The instabilities and conflicts of Han dynasty politics were often the results of one of the basic difficulties of a hereditary monarchy. Sometimes it would produce a child sovereign or an adult one who was not a very capable or energetic ruler. Who would control the imperial institution in those circumstances? Frequently it would be the dead emperor’s widow, the dowager empress, and her male relatives. This domination of the court by “outside relatives” (wai qi) was one of the most persistent difficulties of Han politics, and it plagued many later dynasties as well. ...
 
 
In the last years of the reign of Emperor Wu the families of two of his consorts, Wei and Li, intrigued and occasionally fought in the streets. The old emperor responded by leaving neither of them in a position to exercise outside-relative power after his death, naming an infant related to neither as his heir, and leaving the highly capable senior official Huo Guang in charge as regent. “I want my youngest son set up, with you to act the part of the duke of Zhou.” Huo controlled the court in cooperation with Sang Hongyang and other generals and officials until 80, then accused them of plotting to depose the emperor and install one of the regional kings, and exterminated them and their families. In 74 a successor was installed who seemed to be in the hands of the Li family, outside relations from the reign of Emperor Wu. Amid repeated references to Yi Yin (the minister who deposed the first ruler of the Shang dynasty) and the duke of Zhou, Huo Guang secured the consent of the dowager empress (his own fifteen-year-old granddaughter) and the capital officials in deposing this emperor and putting a child on the throne. Highly competent and ruthless, little interested in the supernatural or in Confucian moral platitudes, Huo dominated the court unchallenged until his death in 68. His relatives were driven from power and exterminated in 66. [MOF, 74]
 

For the idealistic Confucian, the power of the outside relatives was a deplorable violation of the ideals of selection and promotion of officials on the basis of merit and of decision making based on principled discussion of the issues. A more distant and more cynical observer might conclude that it was at least a kind of solution to the inherent problems of hereditary monarchy and was to a degree inherently self-limiting. As an emperor came to adulthood, his empress and her relatives would form a faction of their own. Sooner or later the dowager empress would die, her relatives would lose their ultimate source of support within the palace, and the relatives of the present empress would have a chance to expel and replace them. Thus a kind of circulation of outside relative cliques followed the passing of the generations. [MOF, 74-5]
 
Wang Mang
45 BCE-23 CE

Wang Mang rose to power as an outside relative of an empress, the mother of Emperor Cheng, who reigned from 33 to 7 B.C.E. The Dowager Empress Wang was the center of power in her son’s reign, since Emperor Cheng was not much interested in the hard work of ruling the empire. One after another of her brothers and cousins was appointed marshal of state and general in chief and effectively controlled the central administration. The dowager empress was not involved in the details of government, but her position was the ultimate source of her relatives’ power. Her contribution was simply to be there, to stay alive; she died in 13 C.E. at the age of eighty-four, her long life having made possible the rise of Wang Mang through many twistings and turnings to his ultimate seizure of the imperial throne. ...
From beginning to end, Wang Mang’s public life was full of demonstrations of his humility and selflessness, and also of ambition, political skill, and ruthlessness. We have to come to terms with this mix of personal traits if we are to understand his actions, his appeal to the people of his times, and his ultimate failure. Our efforts are considerably complicated by the biases of the most important source on his career, a long chapter in the History of Han by Ban Gu, written in the first century C.E. Ban Gu was a member of an extremely devoted and eminent family of ministers of the Later Han, which rose out of the collapse of Wang Mang’s regime. A Confucian moralist explanation of the fall of Wang Mang and the success of Later Han had to show that Wang was brought down by his own moral failings, not by bad luck or events beyond his control. Ban Gu’s account presents, very skillfully and insidiously, a picture of Wang as a power-hungry hypocrite. It records Wang’s many selfless deeds very matter-of-factly, and it is only gradually that Ban Gu argues that none of Wang’s acts of selflessness were sincere, that all were calculated to make the best possible impression and to advance his career. [MOF, 77-8]
 
 
In 1 B.C.E. envoys from a foreign people came to the capital and presented a white pheasant. It was an auspicious sign; foreigners had presented a white pheasant to the duke of Zhou. In 1 C.E. various courtiers proposed that the grand dowager empress should grant him new honors, including the title “Duke Who Brings Peace to the Han” (An Han gong). Wang declined repeatedly, insisting that others were more worthy than he. After his closest associates all had been granted lesser honors, he finally accepted and was given full power to control the government and make decisions on behalf of the boy emperor. In 2 C.E. the elaborate process was begun that would lead to the selection of a wife for the boy emperor. Wang Mang firmly and repeatedly refused to have his daughter included among the young women considered, but hundreds of officials urged that she be selected, and finally he gave in. Now if the boy lived to adulthood there would be a new Empress Wang, and the family’s power as the ultimately successful outside relatives would be unchallengeable.
       The normal Han practice was to grant the father of a new imperial wife a large amount of land and gold; emperors, after all, were supposed to set an example of filial piety and generosity to their relatives. Wang Mang accepted these gifts, but lived much more frugally than most of the great men of his time. He abstained from meat and rich dishes at any time when there was a food shortage in the empire, advised the grand dowager empress to dress more simply, and made large contributions of money and land to relief of the poor and hungry. Many other great men, it was said, followed his example in making such contributions. Wang also used his own funds to support large numbers of scholars at the capital, which enhanced his reputation for generosity and put some of the best talent in the empire at his disposal. [
MOF, 79-80]
 
 
It is not easy to explain Wang Mang’s decision to abandon his declared intention to return power to the Han prince some day and to take the throne himself. The grand dowager empress was still alive as the ultimate guarantor of his power. In 9 C.E. he had the Han prince married to one of his granddaughters, setting the stage for a still longer continuation of outside-relative power. Perhaps Ban Gu is right, and usurpation had been his goal all along. Perhaps there were weaknesses in his position that we cannot see from our limited sources that impelled him to this step. We do know that at the end of 8 there was a great rush of reports of portents that Wang should become emperor. Messengers from Heaven appeared to various people in their dreams. As a message on a stone was being examined, a wind arose, and when the cloud of dust subsided there was a pattern of silk on the ground that was interpreted as another message from Heaven. An official proposed a reinterpretation of the abortive prophecies of 5 B.C.E. to mean that a regent would change the reign period. Finally, a metal box was presented to the ancestral temple of Emperor Gao, founder of the Han, in which there were two documents, one reporting that the Lord of Heaven was sending a seal to Wang Mang, the other reporting that the Red Emperor, Emperor Gao, was transmitting the mandate to the Yellow Emperor. When this was reported to the court, Wang Mang rushed to the temple of Emperor Gao and declared that he finally was convinced that he no longer could evade Heaven’s command that he should take the throne and found a new dynasty. The name of his dynasty, in fact, was to be New (Xin). [MOF 84]

[The Ceremonies of Zhou] is the perfect expression of a strand in Chinese political culture of what might be called bureaucratic idealism, which envisions a realm in which all major facets of human life are organized according to neatly nesting hierarchies of bureaucratic terms, boundaries, and practices. The result is not totalitarian repression but social equity, spontaneous good order and generosity, and ceremonies maintaining proper order among men and between the cosmic and human orders. [MOF, 81]

It was to the Ceremonies of Zhou and other real and imagined Zhou precedents that Wang now turned to guide a series of far-reaching policy initiatives. ... Several different kinds of coins, some of them replicating the knife and spade shapes of some of the late Zhou states, were instituted and made compulsory for certain transactions; it seems clear that the proportion of valuable metal in some of the new coins was lower than in the previous Han coinage, and that this was in fact a debasement of the coinage. Most people refused to accept the new coins, and the policy was widely resented. ...

Most important of all was his proclamation that henceforth there would be no private landholding; all land would be known as the king’s fields and would be subject to confiscation and redistribution. Immediately, rich families having more than one hundred mou (about thirty-three acres) of land were to distribute the excess over that amount to their distant relatives or neighbors. Slaves were not freed, but it was forbidden to buy or sell them. Wang justified these measures as first steps toward the restoration of the well-field system, which he said had been inhumanely destroyed by the Qin.

Little is known about what measures were taken to enforce this remarkably sweeping change. We are told that the buying and selling of slaves was pretty effectively disrupted. It also is clear that these measures aroused the opposition of the entire landed elite. Wang was forced to rescind them in 12 C.E. [MOF, 85]
 
Ban’s account of Wang’s last years shows an increasingly tyrannical government, arresting thousands of people for violating the monopoly on minting coins, conducting executions the year round (in gross violation of the harmony of Heaven and humanity, which restricted them to autumn, the season when the natural world dies). Wang is shown as more and more out of touch, not wanting to hear about rebel advances, but refusing to allow his commanders to mobilize or move their troops on their own initiative. Pursuing the lore of omens and correspondences that had justified his seizure of power, in 21 he ordered a wide search in the empire for women to enter his household: “Because the Yellow Lord had 120 women, he became an immortal.” He also sent men to violate the temple of Emperor Gao of the Han, chopping up its doors and windows, whipping its walls with the whips used to whip criminals. He spent vast sums on splendid ceremonies at the temples of his ancestors; he had come a long way from the times when he did not eat meat if there was hunger anywhere in the empire. Even in these late years, however, Ban records one case in which Wang paid attention to a comprehensive denunciation of his policies and followed one part of its recommendations. The monopolies were abolished, but at the end of 22, much too late. [MOF, 88]
 
Ban Zhao
c. 48-120

A classical education was supposed to be a preparation for a moral life, but especially for service as a minister of the emperor. Since women did not serve in the bureaucracy, the incentives to give girls such an education were not so strong. But it seems likely that Ban Zhao received almost as good an education as her brothers. In an age when the importance of good order and good example within a great family was widely acknowledged, such an education of an upper-class girl may have been more common than it was later. But the Ban family had an exceptional heritage ... and there cannot have been very many women who got such a thorough classical and literary education. It began under her father’s direction, and after his death her much older brothers probably helped to teach her and find teachers for her. [MOF, 92-3]
 
 
In 96 or 97 Ban Zhao was back in the capital, beginning the golden years of her influence and prestige at court. ... She was a well-educated young woman with an excellent reputation for virtuous conduct, diligence, and filial piety. Her entry into the palace, or her later rise in the hierarchy of palace women, may have resulted from the emperor’s efforts to work out a respectable and controllable set of relations to his ladies and their relatives. ... She taught the Classics, astronomy, and mathematics. She also was commanded to compose poems on unusual gifts and other special occasions. ... The emperor also ordered Ban Zhao to come to the imperial library and use its documents to complete her brother’s [i.e. Ban Gu’s] history [i.e. the Han Shu or “History of the Han Dynasty”]. The sections left unfinished at his untimely death included the table of high officials and the essay on astronomy. Ban Zhao completed these very difficult sections. She explained them and the rest of the history to court scholars who found parts of it hard to understand; one of them assisted her in the final editing work. She seems to have been a full participant in the literary and intellectual activity of the court, discussing texts and issues with men and women and teaching their sons and daughters. [MOF, 96-97]

Ban Zhao had made of her life a fine embroidery of scholarship, personal integrity, and a political astuteness that owed much to her reading of history and all that she heard from her brother and other participants in capital politics. But she also was the product of a long tradition of ideals of feminine behavior and of her own experiences as a daughter-in-law. Women should be modest, retiring, diligent in their household duties. It is up to them to keep peace in the household, winning the acceptance of the mother-in-law by modesty and diligence in waiting on her, earning the respect and friendship of brothers- and sisters-in-law. A good name is more important than anything else. Frivolity, gossip, loud chatter with women friends are to be avoided.
       Ban Zhao embodied and taught, especially to Dowager Empress Deng, a pattern of integ
rity, of modesty and yielding in inter-personal relations, of not overreaching or wanting too much power, that was rooted in these feminine virtues and that served her and her imperial pupil very well. She also wrote, for the younger generation and for generations yet to come, a famous statement of these principles called the Nü Jie (Admonitions to Women). ...
 
Husband and Wife
If a husband be unworthy, then he possesses nothing by which to control his wife. If a wife be unworthy, then she possesses nothing with which to serve her husband. If a husband does not control his wife, then the rules of conduct manifesting his authority are abandoned and broken. If a wife does not serve her husband, when the proper relationship between men and women and the natural order of things are neglected and destroyed. As a matter of fact the purpose of these two [the controlling of women by men, and the serving of men by women] is the same. (Lessons for a Woman)
 
... In it she brought up one issue on which she found herself out of step with her own time and on which later generations heeded her much too seldom:
 
Now look at the gentlemen of the present age. They only know that wives must be controlled and that [the husband’s] rules and precedence must be established. They therefore teach their boys to read texts and commentaries. But they do not understand that husbands and masters must also be served, and that proper relationships and ceremonies should be maintained. But if one only teaches men and does not teach women, is that not ignoring the essential relation between them? According to the Ceremonies, children are taught to read beginning at the age of eight, and by the age of fifteen they should be ready for thoughtful study of the Classics. Why should [the education of girls as well as boys] not be according to this rule? [MOF, 98-99]
Needle & Thread
Chill autumn gleam of steel,
Fine, straight, and sharp,
You thrust your way in and gradually advance,
So that things far apart are all strung into one.
Needle and thread, your orderly traces
Seem to have no beginning, but join far and wide
Going back, twisting, flaws are mended,
As smooth as the fine coat of a lamb.
How can we measure your work?
All of it makes your memorial stone.
You’re found in the village home,
And in the great noble hall.
[MOF, 95]