The Former Han, 202 BC-8 AD

The Former Han, 202 BC-8 AD

   Although the Ch'in pretty much invented Chinese government, or at least the form that all subsequent dynasties would follow. And, standardized Chinese culture in very vital ways: standards, weights, measures, and most importantly, writing, in Chinese history it is the Han, the longest dynasty in Chinese history, that defines Chinese culture. The Chinese themselves frequently refer to themselves as the "people of the Han."

   For all that, the Han were actually two dynasties, but since the second dynasty was founded by a relative of the first, they are considered a single dynasty. The dynasty itself was founded by a commoner, a fact that would be vitally important in twentieth century Chinese politics. Liu Pang was one of the rebel generals who fought the Ch'in; in the process of his rebellion, he gained control over the area around the Wei River, the traditional homeland of the Ch'in. After the fall of the Ch'in, China fell again into a series of territorial conflicts among various rebel generals and nobility. But in four short years, Liu Pang emerged supreme over all the territories. Taking the name, Han Kao Tsu, or "Exalted Emperor of Han," he built his capital at Chang'an and began the long process of reunifying China.

   The official policy of the new Han government was to renounce Legalism and all the administrative policies of the Ch'in, who were hated throughout the land. The laws were made less harsh and punishments less severe, and the regimentation of the population, particularly conscripted labor, was softened. They also renounced the centralizing tendencies of the Ch'in, and divided the Chinese empire into small, somewhat independent, feudal domains under individual lords.World Cultures Glossary
Feudalism


Centralization and State Confucianism

   The reality, however, is that the Han government, though outwardly repudiating Legalism and Ch'in government, continued largely in the same vein. Although they divided Chinese government into several principalities, the government remained centralized under the control of a powerful and large bureaucracy that would eventually end even the illusion of independent principalities. That bureaucracy, however, changed dramatically under the Han rulers. The Han "Confucianized" the Legalist government of the Ch'in, eventually adopting Confucianism as the state philosophy. The first emperor of the Han, Kao Tsu, despised Confucius and philosophers in general; the later emperors would take to Confucianism as a lifeline. The essence of Confucianism is that government should be in the hands of moral people; the purpose of government is the welfare of the people. People, according to Confucius, are born good and can be taught all the moral virtues necessary for government. Since morality can be taught, it follows that only people who have been educated in morality should rule over others. At first, government officials were appointed on the recommendation of other government officials, but in 165 BC, the Han instituted the first examination. This examination primarily concerned Confucius, the Five Classics, and moral questions; admission into government service was possible only through this examination. The Chinese had invented something brand new: rule by merit.Chinese Philosophy
Confucius


   Confucianism became the center of this new rule by merit, and the Confucian principle of "jen," or "benevolence, humanity," became the ideological center of Han government. At the capital in Ch'ang-an, a school was created specifically for teaching Confucian government. This school became the ideological center of the Later Han dynasty. The Han, however, combined Confucian philosophy with Legalist government structures, such as a regimented populace, standardization, and a centralized government. The combination of Confucianism and Legalism in practical governing during the Han is called State Confucianism.

   In Han government, the emperor was the supreme ruler; all authority resided ultimately in the emperor. Below the emperor were court officials who all attained their position through merit; ideally, they exhibited the highest abilities in governing. Besides advising the emperor, their central role was to staff and run the bureaucracy which was the true authority. In addition, the Ch'in had instituted powerful roles for court eunuchs. These eunuchs almost always came from common families; as boys, they were castrated and were servants in the emperor's harem. Because of this, they had close friendships with the emperor's from their early boyhood, and often served as advisors to the emperor. At various times in Chinese history, these eunuchs were more powerful than the court officials.

Han Wu Ti

   Perhaps the greatest and most powerful of the Han emperors was Han Wu Ti, who came to power in 141 BC at the age of sixteen and ruled for fifty four years, the second longest reign in Chinese history. Han Wu Ti is generally regarded as the strongest and most vigorous of the Chinese emperors. He greatly expanded China's borders south into Vietnam and north into Korea, and effectively stopped the raids of the Hsiung Nu by invading their territory south of the Gobi desert and settling Chinese colonists all through the area. He set up outposts and colonies all the way into the Tarim Basin, extending Chinese influence into central Asia. This presence in central Asia led to the creation of the Silk Road, a trade route that brought the Chinese civilization all the way to Rome.China Atlas
The Han Empire


   Han Wu Ti presided over some of the most ambitious economic projects in the history of early China. The most significant was the joining of the Yellow River to the capital at Chang-an thus joining the two central commercial centers of China. In addition, Han Wu Ti established a network of "ever-level granaries," which were designed to store excess grain in order to prevent starvation in times of flood or drought.

The Fall of the Former Han

   The Han depended on taxation in order to maintain their control over the territories, which had grown so large under Han Wu Ti. As the wealthy began to successfully avoid paying taxes, this heavy tax burden fell more and more on the merchant classes and the peasants. By 22 BC, the situation was so bad that revolts broke out all over the country.

   In the fading years of the former Han dynasty, court officials turned to the Han regent, Wang Mang, who ruled in place of the infant emperor. They urged him to become emperor and restore order and when he finally accepted in 8 AD, it was too late. He undertook to reform the government under more strict Confucian principles, but he made several well-meaning but disastrous reforms. Among these reforms were land confiscations which took land from the wealthy and distributed them to the poor peasantry. In addition, a series of floods destroyed the irrigation system and widespread famine plagued China for years; the Hsiung Nu, emboldened by the chaos to the south, took over large parts of the northern Chinese territories. Finally, in 23 AD, a peasant secret society, the Red Eyebrows, which had begun a revolution five years earlier, captured the capital and executed Wang Mang. The Former Han dynasty officially ended when Wang Mang declared himself the emperor; his new dynasty, formed from inside the Han dynasty, had fallen into chaos. For two years, from 23 to 25 AD, China seethed in chaos and constant warfare.

The Later Han, 25-220

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 5-29-97