China Glossary: The Han Synthesis

Chinese Philosophy
Confucius
Legalism
Mo Tzu
Taoism
   After the disastrous period of totalitarian government during the Ch'in dynasty (221-207 B. C.), the early Han dynasty (207 B.C.-9 A.D.) returned to older forms of imperial government. However, they adopted from the Ch'in the idea of an absolutely central government and spent most of their period in power trying to regain the same level of centrality that the Ch'in and the Legalists had so ruthlessly accomplished. This ideology of central government, along with the Legalists' attempts to standardize Chinese culture and Chinese philosophy, led thinkers of the Han to attempt to unify all the rival schools of Chinese thought and philosophy that had developed over the previous three hundred years. This unification of Chinese into a single coherent system is the most lasting legacy of the Han dynasty. Earlier, the Legalists attempted to standardize Chinese thought by burning the books of rival schools and by making it a capital crime to speak of Confucius, Lao Tzu, or Mo Tzu. The Han thinkers, who thoroughly despised the Legalists and their methods while adopting many of their goals, took a different approach. Rather than reject alternate ways of thinking, they took a syncretic approach and attempted to fuse all the rival schools of thought into a single system. This syncretic project of the early Han is known as the Han synthesis. In many ways it was similar to the larger project of unifying Chinese government.



Chinese Glossary
Tao

Chinese Philosophy
Pre-Confucian China and the Five Classics
   The Han philosophers concentrated specifically on the Five Classics, attempting to derive from them, particularly the I ching , or Book of Changes, the principle of the workings of the universe, or Tao. This new theory of the universe they appended to the I ching ; this appendix explains the metaphysical workings of the entire universe. Once the overall workings of the unverse were understood, then every form of thought could be directly related to each other by appealing to the basic principles of the universe.



Chinese Philosophy
Wu-hsing
Yin/Yang
   The essentials of the Han synthesis are as follows: the universe is run by a single principle, the Tao, or Great Ultimate. This principle is divided into two opposite principles, or two principles which oppose one another in their actions, yin and yang. All the opposites one perceives in the universe can be reduced to one of the opposite forces. In general, these forces are distinguished by their role in producing creation and producing degeneration: yang is the force of creation and yin the force of completion and degeneration. The yin and yang are further differentiated into five material agents, or wu hsing , which both produce one another and overcome one another. All change in the universe can be explained by the workings of yin and yang and the progress of the five material agents as they either produce one another or overcome one another. This is, I need to stress, a universal explanatory principle. All phenomena can be understood using yin-yang and the five agents: the movements of the stars, the workings of the body, the nature of foods, the qualities of music, the ethical qualities of humans, the progress of time, the operations of government, and even the nature of historical change. All things follow this order so that all things can be related to one another in some way: one can use the stars to determine what kind of policy to pursue in government, for instance.



Chinese Philosophy
Mo Tzu

China Glossary
Jen
   Since the Han thinkers had come up with a tool to explain historical and political events, the writing of history took off exponentially during the early Han and later. History became more than a repository of good and bad examples of government, as it had for the ancient Chinese, it became the working out of the yin-yang or five agents system as it applied to human affairs. This meant that the writing of history demanded accuracy, that the facts be laid out with great precision and indifference so that the workings of yin-yang could be followed precisely. The Han, then, developed a rigorously factual approach to history at a very early time in Chinese history.In government, the Han thinkers essentially adapted the Legalist attitude that human beings fundamentally behave badly, but they changed the doctrine significantly. The Han thinkers believed that people behaved in a depraved way because they had no choice; economic and social conditions forced them to behave badly. For at heart, all human beings desire only material well-being; in order to make people behave virtuously, the government should make it possible that the ends of virtue (the well-being of others) and the pursuit of individual well-being should be coterminous, that is, material benefits should accrue to virtuous acts (that's one-half of the Legalist formula). The emperor would bring this about through two means. First, the emperor and the government is responsible for setting up conditions in which people can derive material benefit from productive labor; the stress on productivity, of course, is derived from the Legalists and Mo Tzu. Second, the emperor can provide an example. It is the job of the emperor to care for the welfare of his people (Confucianism), yet at the same time, the Emperor should withdraw from active rule (Taoism). How did the Emperor rule then? By providing a living example of benevolence. This model of Chinese government would remain dominant well into the twentieth century.

Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-15-98