Emperor Wu of the Early Han Dynasty ruled from 141-87 BCE. His reign changed the course of Chinese history. As mentioned, he was instrumental in endorsing Confucianism as the state religion, institutionalizing the state exam based upon the Chinese Classics, and on setting up a Confucian college to promote literacy and the study of these same classics. He also continued the centralization of Chinese politics around the emperor. In addition, Wu-ti also greatly expanded the Chinese empire. He even opened up a trade route with the Roman Empire of the Mediterranean.
While his outward expansion had something to do with the exuberant growth of the early Han Empire, it also had a lot to do with the aggressive nomadic cultures on his northern borders. It seems that everywhere we look in Chinese history that these northern nomads are there. We remember that the Shang dynasty was particularly influenced by their bronze military technology. We remember that the Chou had become tough fighting the nomads on their western borders and then went on to conquer the Shang. We remember that the Ch’in state on the same northwestern border had been forced to adopt the new military techniques of the nomads based upon the rider and horse to deal with the nomadic raiders. The Ch’in also rose to dominance over all of China. While the Ch’in could dominate sedentary and agricultural China, it was necessary for the First Emperor to build a wall to protect China from the growing nomadic cultures. During the Han, these nomadic cultures consolidated under the Hsiung-nu.
Having tamed his aristocracy and achieved internal peace, Emperor Wu decided to deal with the constant nomadic threat. These Hsiung-nu had moved into the strategic Ordos plain at the top of the Yellow River. The plain was so arid that it was difficult to farm and so the agricultural Chinese had not really moved into the area. However the plain was ideal for grazing and the Hsing-nu moved in. Additionally it was a perfect area from which to stage raids to the south or east.
The first thing that Emperor Wu did was to reestablish Imperial control over the militarily strategic Ordos plain. (The ‘Great Wall’ of the First Emperor had always signified a failure of military power rather than an attempt to insulate Chinese culture.) Further Wu-ti attempted to colonize the arid plain with the Chinese agrarian population. The success of this plan required constant pressure on the peasantry.
Once Wu-ti scattered the nomadic empire, the Central Asian steppes were wide open to his dominance. Since the military culture was now based upon horses rather than chariots, each army was looking for the best horses. Wu-ti heard of ‘blood sweating’ horses in distant Ferghana. Alexander the Great probably left these horses behind when he had waged war in India.1 Wu-ti sent his army to Ferghana to obtain the horses. The campaign was successful.
He sent further expeditions along these Central Asian steppes to obtain more horses. In the process of establishing the Chinese Imperial presence along this route, he opened up trade between the Orient, i.e. Eastern Asia, and the Mediterranean.
“Further expeditions sent into distant Ferghana to obtain the famous ‘blood sweating’ horses for the imperial stables, opened up a trade-route which was to carry Chinese silk and lacquer to Rome, Egypt and Bactria.” 2
This route was called the Silk Road and had been used for millennia before and was to be used for many more millennia. This road connected the Roman, Persian, Egyptian and Chinese Empires.
The Han Chinese were not as insular as were later Chinese. Due to their confidence, they were not at all threatened by new ideas. Cleared of the aggressive nomadic tribes, the international traders on the Silk Route introduced the Chinese to many Western innovations, including stone sculpture.
“While the idea of executing stone sculptures in relief was probably derived from western Asia it had been thoroughly assimilated by the Later Han.” 3
As always the Chinese were eager to employ new technologies. However, they always put their own unique stamp upon them.
When the primary Han line died out, Wang Mang was virtually handed the reigns of the government. He was presumably an official of great Confucian virtue, comparable to the Duke of Chou. He established the Hsin dynasty, literally the New Dynasty, and immediately set about to reform society.
In general, there had been three classes in Chinese culture: 1) the rulers, including the administrators, 2) the peasantry, including the army, who were made up of conscripted peasantry, and 3) the rest, including merchants, artisans and traders. The ruling class had a great dependency upon the peasantry to provide them with food, armies, and labor, including the miners that were so vital for weaponry. The peasantry was dependent upon the ruling class 1) to provide them with military protection from nomadic invaders or from other warlords of the ruling class, and 2) to provide social order, which included the maintenance of river control, which included flood control, irrigation, and canals.
The ruling class frequently aligned themselves with the peasantry against the merchant class to protect the peasantry from exploitation. With positive administrations this meant curtailing the power of the merchants to exploit the peasants. Normally, the imperial government would seize control of the merchant’s business so that they could make the money instead of the merchants. Exchanging one master for another. Basically everyone wanted to take advantage of the numerous peasantry.
Perceiving growing inequalities in the Chinese Imperial system, Wang Mang attempted social reform. This included land redistribution, abolishing slavery, peasant loans, curtailing of merchant power, and the centralization of authority. Under the centralization of authority, he attempted to nationalize all businesses. He stated that all land was Imperial land, confiscated all the gold, and instituted income taxes upon all merchants and artisans.
Needless to say the ruling class, whose land was being threatened with redistribution and imperial seizure, resisted his reforms. Further the merchant class, whose businesses were nationalized, and the artisan class, whose income was being taxed for the first time, were both angry. The resistance of these classes disrupted trade, which threatened the well being of the peasantry. Further the weather conspired against Wang Mang creating massive flooding in the Yellow River and droughts in other parts of the country. Eventually all classes of society were alienated. This led to the overthrow of his dynasty by members of the Han. They reestablished the supremacy of the aristocracy at the expense of peasant rights.
Wang Mang was just about 2000 years ahead of his time. These same problems, i.e. peasant exploitation that leads to unrest and social instability, have been a continuing dynamic in Chinese society. This culminated in the Chinese Communist movement of the later half of the 20th century. The same exploited peasantry was the population base of this revolution. While the Chinese literati have always been at the top of the power structure, Mao’s Cultural Revolution was an attempt to root out the shih class from their privileged spot in Chinese culture. While his methods were extreme, the infection was deep.
These same problems of the polarization of society around rich and poor were to come to a head again during the Han. It had severe political repercussions, which eventually included the fall of the illustrious Han dynasty.
The naming of Confucianism as the philosophy of the state and a necessary requirement for state office acted to further polarize Chinese culture. Those who sought to work for the imperial government, while probably acquainted with Taoist thought, of necessity had to specialize in the Classics, which emphasized Confucian thinking. Those who sought local power, far removed from the imperial government, became associated with the local mystery and fertility cults, called Taoists as a group by the ruling Confucians.
These local manifestations of religion appealed much more to the peasantry than did the rational Confucianism with its imperial orientation. In general the Confucians worshipped ancestors, the state and its rulers – all associated with the aristocracy. The local cults had a marvelous pantheon of gods and supernatural beings. The focus upon magic, immortality, and transcendence furthered its appeal. The local fertility and mystery cults, called Taoists as a class by the erudite Confucians, cultivated the magical aspect of reality rather than the rational aspect.
While one Confucian/Taoist polarity would be based upon imperial culture vs. local culture, a more important polarity, in many ways, is between rationality and the supernatural. Voltaire and other rational thinkers of the Enlightenment Era in Europe were initially attracted to the super-rational feature of Confucianism4.
While it attracts the rational scientific establishment, Confucianism repels the counter-culture of New Agers, who would much prefer to believe in auras, reincarnations, astrological signs, and the harmonic convergence. Presently, in 20th century America, Confucius has a bad name amongst the members of the counter-culture establishment who are attracted to eastern thought. Indeed one of the thrusts of this book is to re-elevate Confucius to his rightful place in the philosophical/spiritual hierarchy by differentiating his thought from that of the Confucians, the ju, and by bringing his true accomplishments to the fore.
From early in the time of the Former Han, the Chinese administrators were encouraged to express their opinion forcefully, but not violently. Remember it was they who initiated policy discussions, while the emperor only initiated them after a spirited debate. These officials debated like lawyers, searching for historical precedent and personalities who supported their point of view. Except for natural disasters, including famine, pestilence, plague, or drought, which were considered signs from Heaven, supernatural events were given a lower priority than historical precedent in the debate.
While Wu-ti’s ratification of Confucianism worsened the rift, it did not create it. As we’ve mentioned the agricultural peasantry had been dominated by the military aristocracy worldwide. The generated wealth and sedentary nature of agrarian cultures have tempted nomadic raiders ever since the advent of settled agricultural communities. In China this separation probably began with the Xia dynasty and was certainly in full swing, having been permanently institutionalized, by the time of the Shang dynasty. Since the beginning of Chinese history there had developed a philosophy of the state and a separate religion of the populace, eventually called respectively Confucianism and Taoism.
Wang Mang’s response to the growing injustices of the Chinese social system was too extreme. It led to a backlash that thwarted any Chinese attempts at social reform up until the Communist Revolution of the 20th century. His unsuccessful reign was frequently referred to as a historical precedent against any types of social reform.
“Remember Wang Mang.” “Oh yeah, that’s right. Bungled social reform.” “Might as well accept the repression.” “At least we have social stability.”
While his response was too extreme, he was acknowledging the growing social injustices. These didn’t go away after his dynasty fell, but were exacerbated instead.
One of Wang Mang’s main thrusts was to diminish the growing power of the great families. While Wu-ti and his successors had weakened the nobility by requiring them to split their holdings equally among their sons, this did not prevent families in clan alliance from accumulating power. We’ve seen this mechanism before.
The clan structure of the Longshan preceded the Imperial structure of the Shang. Indeed the imperial structure was an extension of clan structure. However it was eventually seen that the clan power structure with its family allegiances was ultimately inimical to the imperial structure. The great splintering of the Chou Empire along clan lines eventually split up the dynasty into warring states. Aware of this problem, the Great Emperor broke up the hereditary states with their nobility. Wu-ti of the Han also immediately perceived the growing threat of clan power and actively curbed the tendency by specific actions, nipping problems in the bud before they developed.
China with its criss-cross mountains was ideal for the development of the clan power structure. Certain areas were separated geographically from others due to local mountains and their river valleys. Without any exterior imperial influence, the natural tendency of the Chinese is to splinter into a clan power structure. With each weak or ineffective emperor, the power of the great families grew accordingly. With each attack, internally or externally, the peasantry had to rely on the local military aristocracy to protect them. The larger the grouping, the more powerful the defense.
A significant Chinese geographical mechanism was the formation of a clan power structure, which splintered and coalesced in regular intervals, depending upon the strength of their individual clans. The splintered Longshan coalesced into the Xia dynasty and then furthered centralized under the Shang and the early Chou. The Chou Dynasty then splintered into princedoms followed by the eventual union of China under the Ch’in dynasty. After the strong rulers of the Former Han, the local families began to grow in power again. The center of power shifted from the central government to a growing number of local families. It was this tendency that Wang Mang was trying to reverse.
After the fall of Wang Mang, the power of the great families began to grow with a vengeance. Although the Han dynasty regained control and actually expanded their imperial influence outwards, the internal power structure began shifting from the imperial capital to local centers of aristocratic power. As the militarism of the imperial government and great families grew, the peasantry was more exploited.
The exploited populace flocked to the local religions in response to the continued imperial exploitation. The Heavenly Masters, which was one of these groups, achieved prominence. This organization presumably began with the coming again of Lao Tzu in 142 CE. He revealed a new covenant to Chang (Tao-) Ling. Chang Ling became the first Heavenly Master. We’ll be back to them.
Especially after infestations, floods, and epidemics between 173 CE and 179 CE, the populace joined together in religious organizations named the Yellow Turbans in the east and the Five Pecks of Rice Band in Szechwan in the southwest. These local religions, still called Taoists as a group by the establishment, offered transcendence from immediate problems. Political activism, rationality or ancestor worship of Confucianism did not address these issues.
In 182 CE, the government set out to suppress these peasant organizations as a political threat to social stability. In 184 CE, both groups declared open rebellion5. As social chaos grew, the government responded with violence. The generals that were sent to quell the revolts seized imperial territory for themselves.
This event began the period of warlords. This relative political turmoil extended from the end of the Han through the period of disunity, through the Sui, into the early Tang. After four hundred years, the Tang dynasty unified all of China under one rule.
In contrast to the political stability of the Former Han, constant internal power struggles characterized this time period. Each state had dreams of ruling all of China. They formed alliances and then battled other alliances to become the next imperial dynasty. The internal struggles enticed external invaders from the northern steppes, as always. Chinese warlords battled with nomadic warlords to carve up spheres of military influence – another feature of this turbulent time period.
Interestingly, the nomadic warlords did not attempt to enforce their culture upon the Chinese. Instead they assumed the Mandate of Heaven and sought to be rulers with all the Chinese privileges that this entailed. The Chinese bureaucracy was the only system that could be used effectively to manage so many people. Each of these nomadic invaders simply fit into the Chinese political system – becoming rulers with Chinese advisors.
Summarizing: at the end of the Han, the Chinese peasantry, under local religious organizations collectively called Taoists, revolted. The Imperial government sent the army to quell the revolt. The army broke apart, seizing different parts of the country. One general seized the imperial government. He was quickly overthrown by an alliance of warlords. One of these, Ts’ao Ts’ao, made himself protector of the Han dynasty. He suppressed the peasant revolt and nominally held the country together under the prestige of the Han. When he died, his son ritualistically accepted the abdication of the Han, technically signaling the end to the dynasty.
This began the Period of Disunity, when China was officially fragmented. It began with the Three Kingdoms period, when three warlords fought to become the new dynasty. A famous Chinese novel, The Three Kingdoms, romanticized this time. There was a brief period of consolidation under the Chin dynasty. In 316 CE the Hsiung-nu overthrew the Chin capital located at Ch’ang-an in northern China. In time honored tradition, following the example of the Chou dynasty, the government moved south. Many Chinese followed. Gradually northern China was taken over by a variety of the nomadic tribes from the north, including proto-Tibetan, proto-Mongolian, the Hsiung-nu, and proto-Turkic tribes. This was called the 16 kingdoms period. The center of traditional Chinese culture shifted to the southern kingdom, as always, away from the nomad-controlled militaristic north. But it was from the militaristic north that a new Chinese consolidation was to come, as always. The disciplined, but military north was balanced by an artistic, free, but chaotic south.
The fall of Han discredited the Confucianism of the time. Just as the social philosophy of Confucius was unable to halt the social disintegration of the Chou, it was also unable to prevent the fall of the Han. Some social philosophers said the temper of the era, or the will of the gods transcended any human effort. Under this mood of political pessimism of the time, many sought personal meaning outside the realm of the imperial government. Under the optimism of the Former Han, the philosophies of Confucius attracted the idealistic. With the pessimism of the Period of Disunity, the ideas of Confucius seemed useless. Political action on the large levels seemed futile. Local action became the concept of the era. While Confucius ruled on the level of the imperial government, Taoism had always ruled on local levels. In this political climate, Taoism thrived.
Prior to the rise of social chaos more intellectuals had been attracted to Confucius. With the apparent hopelessness of political action in these chaotic times, they sought refuge in the personal values of Taoism.
“Many intellectuals in the south sought escape from the chaos of the times in Taoism, music, calligraphy and the delights of pure talk. Taoism came into its own in the third and fourth centuries, for it seemed to answer the yearnings of men of feeling and imagination for a vision of the eternal in which they could forget the chaos of the present.”6
Remember also that under the Han, Confucianism was the state religion. With the fall of the Han, the ‘others’, the Taoists, could reemerge, but with a new sense of identity.
“The fall of the Han Empire allowed the local Taoist organizations to surface. … Part of what was then China- the richest and most developed western provinces - was organized into local units, all claiming allegiance to the same movement, that of the “Heavenly Masters.”
This organization presumably began with the coming again of Lao Tzu in 142 CE and revealing to Chang Ling a new covenant. Chang Ling became the first Heavenly Master. This marked the beginning of an organized Taoist tradition and liturgy that has lasted to this day.
“[Taoism] had first become a cult in the Late Han, when Chang Tao-ling, a mystic and magician from Szechwan who called himself the T’ien-Shih, ‘Heavenly Master’, gathered round him a group of followers with whom he roamed the countryside in search of the elixir of life.”7
Let us look at the concept that Lao Tzu had come again. First the connection with Lao Tzu links the movement with traditions of the past. However, the concept of coming again is very reminiscent of the reincarnation of the Hindus. While this idea is associated with the Hindus, it is a Biblical concept as well. Saints come again to help out in a new form. The idea of a Messiah is Jewish. The concept that Jesus was the Messiah who had come to save the world, and would come again to save the world is within the tradition of the Old Testament.
Also the idea of a new covenant is very Biblical. The Old Testament was only open to Abraham and his seed. The new Covenant of the New Testament opened up the Biblical tradition to non-Jews through the personage of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus the idea that Lao-tzu had come again to reveal a new covenant rings of a Christian influence.
There is that possibility. The Han Dynasty, as mentioned, had opened up trade with all of Eurasia, including the Mediterranean, due to making the Central Asian steppes safe for travel. There was a cross-cultural mixture, which was soon to close down with the growing strength of the nomadic tribes. There are those who believed that Jesus traveled to India to study with a master. There are others who believe that the Taoist belief in the coming again of Lao Tzu was stimulated by the Christian model.
No matter where the notion of the ‘coming again of Lao Tzu’ originated, the Heavenly Master tradition became the dominant local religious organization.
“This [Heavenly Master] tradition remained through the centuries the superstructure of local cults, the written and initiatory expression of a shamanistic, popular religion, of which it is both the antagonist and the supporter; even when Taoism opposes itself to shamanism, it always strives to complement it.”8
The religious superstructure of the Chinese people was the Taoist Heavenly Masters. Underneath this umbrella, an incredible diversity existed. Many local cults were linked directly to the prehistoric fertility cults based in shamanistic traditions. The works of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu became associated with these local cults through the Heavenly Master Organization. Alchemists and those seeking immortality were also included under the Taoist umbrella. Taoism was like a mother, taking all religious manifestations under her wing. The Way of Lao Tzu is unknowable and individual. As such, many paths were welcome under the Taoist umbrella.
The fall of the Han Empire to internal struggles signaled the demise of the state religion, Confucianism. Taoism naturally moved in to fill the void, as it is the religion of the people. Along with Taoism came Buddhism. Prior to this point, Buddhism had remained a foreign religion. In times of prosperity, who wants to detach from life? Conversely in times of social upheaval and war, who wants to live forever? In this time of social chaos, the Chinese began to adopt Buddhism as their own religion.
Momma Taoism, which validated the self-cultivation of any path, welcomed and supported this religious newcomer to China. The doctrines of Confucius with his emphasis upon filial piety and government service, and Confucianism with its emphasis upon ancestor worship and Chinese culture, probably viewed Buddhism curiously as some odd foreign cult.
“Buddhism remained a foreign religion in China until the collapse of the Later Han dynasty. It was in the spiritual vacuum created by the Period of Disunity (221-589), short lives and short reigns, that Buddhism really began to influence the cultured elite who alone, through their internalization of the foreign religion, could render it truly Chinese. In times of disunity and political fragmentation the Chinese turned to individualism and retreat, characteristically Taoist virtues, and attempted to live alone in harmony with the Source of Things. It was under the wing of Taoism that Buddhism began to gain a foothold in intellectual circles. The cultured elite at this time were interested in Buddhist meditation. Buddhist ideas were explained using Taoist terminology, and it was suggested that the Taoist Lao-Tzu might have traveled to India, either becoming or teaching the Buddha. The first phase of Chinese intellectual absorption of Buddhism was one of Buddho-Taoist synthesis.”9
One Buddhist theme is that we come to the Truth or the Way of Buddha through pain. Journey to the West addressed this theme frequently. In the midst of social disintegration, China embraced Buddhism. The Chinese looked to Buddhism for answers in this time of turmoil.
Recall that Buddhism came into China under the wing of Taoism. While Taoism assisted in Buddhism’s assimilation, it also assumed more of an identity under the influence of Buddhism. ‘By seeing what you are, I can better understand who I am.’
“Taoism, under the stimulus of Buddhism, developed as an organized church and became a great popular religion.”10
In the interplay of philosophy and religious organization, the Heavenly Masters group had become a full-fledged church, Buddhist style. This occurred by the Chin dynasty - midway through this 400 years of warlords.
“By the Chin Dynasty the [Heavenly Master] movement that had originated as a private revolt against the established order had grown into a fully fledged ‘church’ with a canon of scriptures, a hierarchy, temples and all the trappings of a formal religion copied from the Buddhists. On a higher level, however, the Taoists were the intellectual avant-garde.”11
Taoism at this early date had already acquired multiple personalities. Through the Heavenly Masters, it connected all the shamanistic and fertility cults. Through the works of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, these popular cults were linked with the alchemists and those searching for immortality. Just as the literate Confucians considered themselves above the superstitions of the common man, also the intellectuals attracted to Taoist principles considered themselves above common Taoism with its extensive mythology and connection to the supernatural.12
As mentioned, Buddhism came to China from the north and the south. The conquering of the north by alien cultures accelerated the spread of Buddhism. In the Chinese context, a noteworthy aspect of Buddhism was its prolific literary output. In reaction to the volumes written on Buddhist philosophy, Taoists also began to write.
“The decline of the imperial order and, more important, the conquest of Northern China by non-Chinese tribes from Central Asia introduced into China … Buddhism. … The impact was great and the prolific output of Buddhist literature … over time gave rise to the flowering of a Taoist literature of revelation: hundreds of works dictated by the ‘Tao’ rival texts spoken by the ‘Buddha.’”13
Remember that the Lao Tzu in some ways was a reaction to Confucian doctrines. In a similar way now the ‘Tao’ speaks in response to Buddhist thought. In contrast to Buddhist texts, the Taoist revelations retain their wordless nature in that they were not doctrinal. As always, Taoists tend and tended to be oriented towards practices rather than ideas.
With the conquering of the north by nomadic cultures, many Chinese fled south. Because of this migration, there was a mixture of the Northern Heavenly Masters liturgy and the ancient Taoist mysteries of the South. In the South, there arose inspired sayings called “sacred jewels”, ling-pao. Interestingly, ling-pao is also an ancient, poetic name for wu, “shaman.”14 These Sacred Jewels “rarely contain any doctrinal discourse and were hardly ever used in preaching, which is virtually unknown in Taoism.”15 With this proliferation of writings, “the first Taoist Canon was born (the Chinese response to Buddhism)”16 in the 5th century CE and compiled by Lu Hsiu-ching (406-477).
Because of the domination of the north by the foreign cultures during the 16 Kingdoms Period, Taoism found its home in the south.
“Taoism was able to assert its position as the national religion, especially in South China, which had remained Chinese since 317 when the North passed under foreign rule.”
In summary, with the fall of the Han and its centralized imperial structure, the local political organizations associated with Taoism rose to fill the void. With the invasion of the north by the Central Asian cultures, Buddhism found a permanent foothold in China. Under the influence of Buddhism, Taoism assumed a formal organization and acquired a body of writing. Further Taoism consolidated its southern strength.
1 Chinese Art, MacKenzie, 1961
2 The Arts of China, Michael Sullivan, p 67
3 The Arts of China, Michael Sullivan, p 74
4 The rationality of Confucius was very appealing to these European philosophers as they were attempting to break the mental chains of Christianity.
5 Charles Hucker, China to 1850, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1978, pp. 75-6
6 The Arts of China, Michael Sullivan p 93
7 The Arts of China, Michael Sullivan p 93
8 The Taoist Body by Kristofer Schipper, University of California Press, 1993, p. 10.
9 Williams, Paul, Mahayana Buddhism, Routledge, NY, 1989, p. 118
10 EB China 5, 521 d
11 The Arts of China, Michael Sullivan p 93
12 In a modern context, the Confucians would be akin to those ‘modern’ souls who consider themselves above any type of religious manifestation. The great bulk of people with their variety of religious beliefs would be associated with popular Taoism. Those scientists and intellectuals still believing in divinity and its manifestations might be vaguely associated with intellectual Taoism.
13 Schipper, p. 10
14 Schipper, p. 219
15 Schipper, p. 11
16 Schipper, p. 219