35. Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE)

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Han built on top of Ch’in organization

After the ‘First Emperor’ died, his rigid Empire crumbled. His law-based system had created too many outlaws. He had instituted cruel punishments for minor infractions. Rather than submit, many went into hiding. It was these groups emerging from the state of Han who overthrew the Ch’in. While the Han dynasty rejected the extreme sense of legalism of the brief Ch’in dictatorship, their government retained Shih Huang Ti’s political organization of China.

The Context for the Han ascendancy

Before delving into the philosophical and religious developments in China during the Han, let us first establish a context.

One generation: from late Chou, through Ch’in,  to the Han

Imagine yourself born in China about 250 BCE. Social chaos dominates the political landscape. As warlords are battling for supremacy, bandits take advantage of the lawlessness. All you and your family want is peace. The Ch’in dictatorship offers peace and social stability. You support rise of the Ch’in. They attain supremacy in 221 BCE, when you are just 29 years old.

However, the Ch’in government achieved social stability at the cost of personal freedom. You see many imprisoned and executed for trivial offenses. While not wanting to return to the chaos of the late Chou, you are not happy in the totally ordered society of the Ch’in.

After nearly a decade of rule, the Ch’in Emperor orders all the books burned. This is the last straw. Law and order is one thing, but book burning and cultural destruction is taking this path too far. Waiting patiently, the Emperor dies in 207 BCE, when you have just turned 43.

The Time is Right. Time for revolt. Everyone is waiting for the sign.

How did it happen?

After the First Emperor died, a Ch’in regiment was late because mud had slowed them down. They realized that the penalty for this minor infraction was death. Rather than submit, they revolted successfully. Inspired by the soldiers, the Chinese massed together to throw off the oppressive rule that had unified China at the expense of personal freedom. In the nearly spontaneous revolt that followed, two achieved ascendancy, Hsiang Yu and Liu Pang.

Liu Pang

To avoid a prolonged civil war between the revolutionary forces, Liu Pang deferred to the savage Hsiang Yu. Liu Pang became the king of Han on China’s western frontier, while Hsiang Yu returned home to Ch'u to rule the Empire. Eventually the violent excesses of Hsiang Yu turned the much more moderate Liu Pang into a rallying point for the disgruntled Chinese.

At one point, Hsiang Yu threatened to boil Liu Pang’s parents unless he surrendered. Liu Pang’s un-Confucian response was: “Send me some of the soup.” His outraged parents survived; the savage Hsiang Yu didn’t. Eventually after many twists and turns of fate, Liu Pang became the first emperor of the Han dynasty, but not the first emperor of China.


As a leader, Liu Pang had always offered amnesty and had attempted to negotiate when possible. As a political opportunist, he was not always completely scrupulous. However, more often than not he chose the tolerant solution. Upon entering the capital of Ch’in, he announced that all laws were abolished but three: don’t murder, don’t injure and don’t steal. During his tolerant reign, he invited all the ‘men of wisdom and ability’ to join the government. He continued to run China under the structure that the Ch’in had set up.

Referring to the reign of Liu Pang, Ssu ma Chien, China’s premier historian from the Han dynasty, says:

“Ch’in’s earlier prohibitions against feudalism and arms, as it turned out, served only to aid worthy men and remove from their paths obstacles they would otherwise have encountered.”

It is evident that the Golden Age of the Han dynasty could not have existed without the Ch’in reforms.

Peoples of the Han

In your short life, you saw the chaotic end to the Chou. Then you experienced the rigid Legalism of the Ch’in. The repressive government restored order and undermined the prior feudal structure, but at the expense of personal freedom. Now you’re 50 years old and in the middle of the tolerant Han. You’re grateful. The Chinese were so grateful that they still consider themselves the peoples of the Han.

Tolerant Han follows rigid Ch’in

Rather than attempting to force an absolute moral code on the political order, the Chinese responded to political context. The extreme legalistic ‘Order’ of the Ch’in was the proper response to the feudalistic ‘Chaos’ of the Chou, while the ‘Tolerant’ Han needed to follow the ‘Rigid’ Ch’in. The tolerant Han dynasty could not have followed the chaotic Chou. The Han could only have followed after the unification of China achieved by the Ch’in. The correct response and philosophy is contextual rather than absolute. When things have gotten extremely out of hand, an extreme response is called for, which might be inappropriate in less extreme circumstances.

A brief Political Overview

Former Han (202 BCE to 9 CE)

The Han dynasty followed a similar pattern to the Chou dynasty. During the early centuries of their dynasty, they were strong and expansive. This period is referred to as the former Han. This would be the equivalent of the Western Chou. The empire was expanding globally.

Wang Mang & the Hsin dynasty (9 to 23 CE)

Wang Mang, a social reformer, took over briefly, establishing the Hsin dynasty (9 to 23 CE). All classes of society resisted his reforms. This created a period of social chaos that disrupted trade.

Later Han (25 to 220 CE)

Han descendants regained control for a few more hundred years. This period is known as the Later Han. This period corresponds with the Spring and Autumn Period of the Chou. While on the retreat from the nomads of the north, the Hsiung-nu, the Han Imperial Government was still able to maintain nominal political control over traditional China, which included both the Yellow River and Yangtze River valleys. Simultaneous with the external attacks, they were splintering internally into smaller internal areas of influence. An uneasy peace was maintained through military action.

Three Kingdoms (220 to 316)

Finally, these Chinese warlords split traditional China into three kingdoms. This was fairly equivalent to the Warring States Era of the Chou. The Kingdom of Wei in the north was the Ch’in equivalent. The Kingdom of Wu in the south was the inheritor of the Ch’u culture. The Kingdom of Shu Han was located in the western area of the Yangtze indicating the western agricultural diffusion of Chinese culture. Appropriately, this is called the Three Kingdoms era.

Sixteen Kingdoms (316 to 581)

As China was involved in these internal battles, the nomads on the borders were becoming stronger. They united to conquer parts of the Yellow River valley. Infighting led to the fragmentation of the north into many small kingdoms. While the north was fragmented, the remains of the traditional Chinese Imperial dynasties attempted to set up shop in the south, as far away from the aggressive nomads as possible.

Sui dynasty (581 to 618)

The north gradually began consolidating under a group of proto-Turkic tribes called the T’o-pa. Eventually this united the north to the extent that they were able to conquer the weak Chinese government in the south and establish the Sui dynasty. The Sui reordered Chinese society in a militaristic fashion. The Sui have been compared to the dictatorial Ch’in dynasty. Just as the Ch’in reforms laid the groundwork for the Han, so did the harsh reforms of the Sui dynasty lay the foundations for the Golden Age of the T’ang Dynasty.

Full circle from Han to T’ang

Reviewing this historical cycle: the vitality of the Western Chou was replaced by the splintering of China in the Spring and Autumn Era. This splintering was followed by a consolidation of China under the semi-barbarian Ch’in of the north. Then the cycle began again. The Golden Age of the Former Han was followed by the splintering of the empire. First the warlords of the later Han divided the Empire into three Kingdoms. Then nomadic tribes from the north further split northern China into 16 kingdoms. Then the consolidation began again culminating in the dictatorial Sui dynasty from the north that united all of China. The tolerant T’ang, who began a new Golden Age for China, replaced them. The cycle is complete from the western Chou to the Former Han to the T’ang.

Specifics of the Former Han

Kao-tsu (202 to 195 BCE), disciplined and tolerant

Liu Pang, known to historians as Han Kao-tsu, became the first Emperor of the Han. His success was based upon the military discipline of his troops combined with his tolerance for the vanquished1. As mentioned, China’s agricultural peasantry, 90% of the population even unto the 20th century, wanted political stability first and foremost. A stable social structure allowed vital trade to flourish by maintaining river control through canals and irrigation projects. Remember that Yu established the first dynasty of China, the Xia, after controlling the Yellow River. The whole country quickly ordered itself around Liu Pang because he offered order and tolerance, ideal traits in any political system.

Can’t rule China on horseback

While Liu Pang had conquered China on horseback, he couldn’t rule China from the back of a horse (a popular Chinese expression). Furthermore Liu Pang, i.e. Kao-tsu, came from a peasant background, which meant that he had no experience administering the large Empire that China had become. Also the First Emperor in his short reign had completely destroyed the feudal organization that had loosely held China together. Kao-tsu did the only thing that he could do under the circumstances. He sought advice from those around him. Further he established two precedents, which have been honored in Chinese politics ever since.

First, as emperor, he didn’t initiate policy proposals himself. His able advisors initiated all policy. Second, the policy decisions of the Emperor were only acted upon after serious discussion and debate.2 Kao-tsu maintained the Ch’in centralization of the Chinese government behind the Emperor and simultaneously opened up the Emperor for recommendations, discussion and advice. While autocratic in his powers, the Chinese Emperor was expected to seek and accept counsel from his advisors.

Recommended for administration

Kao-tsu initially doled out eastern China to his generals, friends, and relatives. In this way, he established a semi-feudal system with hereditary nobility, Chou style, in the east. However non-hereditary appointees of the Imperial Court administered the West – Ch’in style.

China from the time of the Ch’in on needed an incredible number of able administrators to run the Empire. The Ch’in chose administrators by recommendation. To make the system accountable, the Ch’in also sent out imperial inspectors to ensure that everything was run fairly. If the provinces were run poorly, the administrators were removed from political office.

Coming from the peasant class, Kao-tsu realized that people of quality came from every class of life. Kao-tsu, initially used the Ch’in’s same system of recommendation in the west. In 196 BCE he sent out a directive asking local officials to recommend ‘worthy and talented men’. 

The first examinations

By 165 BCE the Imperial government was looking for new men capable of ‘speaking out forthrightly and remonstrating without inhibition.’ Furthermore this Emperor gave out the first written exams to ascertain aptitude and virtue. Later Han Emperors further developed the system into a systematic recruitment process.

Administration of the Nobility

In 154 BCE the princes in the east organized a revolt. The Imperial government was stable enough to quell the revolt. Due to the insurrection, the central government sent imperial administrators to run the east, as they were doing already in the west.

Emperor Wu (141 to 87 BCE)

After some weaker emperors, Emperor Wu, Wu-ti, ascended to the throne. Remembering the relatively recent revolt of princes, he immediately took measures to diminish their power. He confiscated their land for seemingly trivial offenses, bringing more land under imperial control. He demanded expensive presents. Most importantly however, he made it a law that the land of the aristocracy had to be divided equally among the male heirs. Due to large Chinese families, this measure reduced the nobility to peasantry within only a small number of generations. As more land was under direct Imperial control, the government required new methods to administer the burgeoning population.


1 China to 1850: a Short History, Charles O. Hucker, p. 54, Stanford, 1978, p. 56

2 Short History of China, p. 57


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