CHAPTER II

The First Empires: Qin (221—206 BCEand Han (206 BCE-220 CE)

The Qin, like the Zhou before it, grew powerful on the Western fringe of what was then considered the developed world. Whereas the central states were surrounded by potential and real threats, the Qin had more freedom to develop its power uncontested by strong neighbors. Another consequence of its relatively “backward” status was that the Qin court did not have a wealthy and entrenched nobility to contend with; thus it was much quicker to centralize power than were its rivals. The Qin kings were much rougher types than the aristocratic rulers of the other states. One Qin king reportedly died from overexertion in a weight-lifting contest, an activity unimaginable in a court fashioned in the Confucian mold.

The great buildup of Qin power began in earnest in 361 bce with the arrival in the capital of Lord Shang, a young nobleman defector from the state of Wei. A shrewd and ambitious politician, Lord Shang quickly gained the confidence of the Qin king and began to institute a series of reforms to increase the power of the king and the reach and efficiency of the central government. Lord Shang abolished hereditary feudal ranks and made all ranks and titles dependent upon job performance in warfare and government administration. He oversaw the institution of strict laws, which were carved in stone and circulated to all parts of the kingdom. Punishments for infractions included cutting off the nose or feet, death by boiling in a cauldron, tearing apart by chariots tied to the limbs, slicing in half, and burying alive. The Legalists argued that these severe punishments were necessary to deter any and all breaking of the law. Peasants were now free to buy and sell land and were taxed a low enough percentage of their produce so as to encourage them to increase production. Lord Shang was killed in 338 bce, but by then the Qin state made up nearly 30 percent of the territory and population of the Warring States and was much wealthier than any of its rivals. As a result, it took less than 120 years for the Qin to mobilize its growing economic resources in the great task of conquering and pacifying all of the Warring States.

The men most responsible for this monumental task were King Zheng, who ascended to the Qin throne as a mere boy of thirteen in 246 bce, and his chief minister, Li Si, who had worked as a lowly clerk in the southern state of Chu and who came to the Qin state just about the same time that King Zheng rose to power. For the first few years of King Zheng’s reign, the real power behind the throne was the prime minister of Qin, Lu Buwei, whom Confucian historians later charged with being the actual father of (the therefore illegitimate) King Zheng. We will probably never know the truth of this story because the records of the Qin dynasty have been compiled and recorded for many centuries by Confucian historians who had many reasons for hating the Qin regime and all associated with it. Nevertheless, it is clear that Li Si ingratiated himself with Lu Buwei and King Zheng by sharing their ambition and clearly outlining ways to steadily bolster their power. King Zheng assumed power in his own right at age twenty-two in 237 bce; just two years later, Lu was forced to drink poison. Thereafter, Li Si became Commandant of Justice, overseeing the internal administration of the strict Qin laws in all areas under Qin control. For the next fifteen years, King Zheng and his civil and military advisors presided over the rapid military conquest and political takeover of all the other Warring States.

In quick succession, Qin occupied the state of Han immediately to its east in 230, defeated Zhao on its northeast border in 228, and defeated Wei (to the south of Zhao) in 226. One year later, Qin conquered the largest rival state, Chu, which had controlled the entire Yangzi River valley all the way from the southwest border of Qin to the Pacific Ocean. The state of Yan in the far northeast fell to Qin in 222, and last but not least, the small state of Qi, just to the south of Yan, fell in 221, bringing to an end the era of the Warring States. Thus, in the space of a decade King Zheng, Li Si, and a small circle of close advisors to the king presided over the conquest of what they saw as the entire civilized world.

Once the last state, Qi, had fallen into Qin hands, King Zheng adopted a new and elevated title, Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor of Qin (literally the First Sovereign Lord of Qin). Within a few years, Li Si was promoted to the position of chancellor, the highest and most powerful civilian post under the emperor. As chancellor, Li Si was the mastermind of the unification process in a stunning series of changes imposed on all the former states. The aristocratic families of all the states were forced to move to the Qin capital of Xianyang, where new palaces were built for them and they were far removed from their former power bases and kept under close surveillance. All the former currencies of the states, and their standards of weights and measures, were replaced by Qin currency and Qin standards. The states had evolved different styles of writing Chinese over the centuries, and these styles were also replaced by the Qin “small seal” style of writing. Axle lengths of chariots and carts, which had also differed from state to state, were now regularized so that roads throughout this new empire would be accessible to one size of chariot and cart. More than 4,000 miles of imperial highways were built to facilitate transportation throughout the empire. This level of state centralization and standardization was not achieved in Europe until 2,000 years later. Hundreds of thousands of conscript laborers built a Grand Canal from south to north China and unified parts of earlier state walls into one Great Wall extending 4,000 miles along the northern and western borders of the empire. Qin Shi Huangdi took numerous inspection tours throughout the empire and had inscriptions carved in stone to commemorate his visits and his achievements.

Against officials who argued for the establishment of decentralized rule after the Zhou pattern (with imperial princes and allies independently ruling outlying territories), Li Si prevailed in establishing a centralized state, dividing the entire Qin kingdom into thirty-six large administrative units called commanderies (jun), and subdividing each commandery into several counties (xian). Each commandery and each county were presided over by a civil official, a military official, and an inspector official, each reporting directly to the court or central government. The Qin administrators divided the entire population of all the former states into small groups of five and ten families and made each group collectively responsible for the behavior of everyone in the group. If anyone in the group committed a crime, all would be held responsible and punished equally unless they reported the crime themselves. Thus the entire population was mobilized in the task of law enforcement.

The Qin success was breathtaking in its scope and in the speed of its accomplishment, but it was also highly dependent on a very few extremely capable and hardworking men at the center of power, most especially Li Si and Qin Shi Huangdi. As the emperor became increasingly obsessed with seeking immortality for himself, he also became increasingly paranoid about avoiding death and seeing to his own protection after death. He had his lavish tomb built over a period of more than a decade and positioned armies of terra cotta warriors around it for protection in the afterlife. Peasants digging a well in the 1970s discovered the head of such a warrior, and this has led Chinese archaeologists to one of the most spectacular discoveries of the twentieth century, more than 7,000 life-sized terra cotta warriors in full battle formation, with row upon row of infantry, bowmen, and spear carriers, commanded by officers in four-horse chariots. The sight of this excavation outside the old Qin capital (near today’s Xi’an) offers a truly awesome glimpse into the long-lost power of the Qin state in the age of its great conquests.

These life-sized (6 to 6 1/2 feet high) terra cotta warriors, in battle formation adjacent to the tomb of the First Qin Emperor in Shaanxi province, were intended to protect the emperor’s tomb in the afterlife. In three pits near the tomb, archaeologists have discovered 8,000 warriors, 130 chariots with 520 horses, plus 150 cavalry horses, all made of terra cotta, most of which have not yet been excavated. 

These life-sized (6 to 6 1/2 feet high) terra cotta warriors, in battle formation adjacent to the tomb of the First Qin Emperor in Shaanxi province, were intended to protect the emperor’s tomb in the afterlife. In three pits near the tomb, archaeologists have discovered 8,000 warriors, 130 chariots with 520 horses, plus 150 cavalry horses, all made of terra cotta, most of which have not yet been excavated. Photo by Brad Stern

Confucian historians have long claimed that the First Emperor buried alive some 460 Confucian scholars who criticized his rule in 212 bce and one year later burned all non-Legalist works the government could collect. Today, historians have cast serious doubt on these stories and have shown that many of the stone inscriptions left by the First Emperor and his court paid utmost attention to questions of court rituals and music, all derived from earlier Zhou understandings that we now identify as Confucian. So the Qin should be seen more as synthesizing rather than destroying many of the trends and traditions of the Zhou era.

New tomb finds from the Qin period suggest that the laws were enforced conscientiously with relative equality, fairness and with some flexibility. It is also clear that the First Qin Emperor, for all his paranoia and egomania, was a very capable and tireless monarch who worked extremely hard in reading hundreds of memorials daily from every part of the empire. Moreover, from today’s perspective we can see that the Qin dynasty, for all its excesses, accomplished something truly monumental in creating the centralized bureaucratic empire that became the institutional model for all subsequent Chinese dynasties up until the early twentieth century. If the Qin didn’t last as long as the popular slogan of longevity that was chanted to the emperor (“10,000 years!”), it did establish a workable pattern of government that has been one of the longest lived in human history.

The Qin state was built for warfare, but once it defeated all rival states, its harsh conscription methods no longer served a useful purpose. After Qin Shi Huangdi died in 211 bce, Qin rule rapidly disintegrated, beginning with mutinies by conscripted laborers who were treated so harshly that they had little to lose by openly rebelling. Their rebellion quickly spread to the Qin military. As civil war erupted, many former noble families hoped that some kind of decentralized feudal rule could be reestablished to allow them to return to their home areas and reassert the privileged positions they had enjoyed before the Qin conquest. The two major contenders to succeed the Qin were Xiang Yu, a brilliant aristocratic general, and Liu Bang, an equally brilliant but lowborn general of peasant background. Xiang Yu seemed a more likely emperor, and he promised to do just what the former noble families hoped, to restore the former kingdoms in a feudal-style federation of semi-independent states. But Xiang Yu was overconfident and stubborn enough to underestimate the strategic advantages that Liu Bang enjoyed, having occupied the strongholds of the fallen Qin dynasty. Liu was also a shrewd judge of character, and he rallied a group of loyal generals who led their troops to fight courageously and effectively in his cause. Thus, in 202 bce, Liu Bang’s army decisively defeated Xiang Yu’s forces. Xiang Yu narrowly avoided capture and, with only twenty-eight of his loyal troops remaining at his side, committed suicide to prevent the disgrace of surrender to his enemy.

Liu Bang had proclaimed himself king of the Han state already in 206 bce, and in 202 bce he took the title of emperor. He proceeded to call on the same religious rituals Qin Shi Huangdi had invoked to assure the world of the moral and political legitimacy of his new empire. Liu Bang was one of only two emperors in all of Chinese history to rise from humble peasant background to ascend the dragon throne. He established his capital at the northwestern city of Chang’an (Eternal Peace), very near the old Qin capital, and kept many of the governing institutions established by the Qin, but declared several amnesties, freeing many of the victims of the harsh penalties of Qin law. Liu Bang kept about one-third of the empire, in one hundred commanderies in the west, under his own direct administration while parceling out two-thirds of the empire in the east as semi-independent kingdoms to his brothers, sons, and most trusted generals. This rather informal style of early Han rule notwithstanding, the old indirect feudal rule of the early Zhou period was gone forever. As the founding generation passed from the scene, Han emperors gradually abolished the kingdoms and brought most of the empire under the direct control of the central government.

Liu Bang died in 195 bce and left his fifteen-year-old son on the throne, in part because of his confidence in the young man’s mother, the formidable Empress Lu. When her son died in 188 bce, she placed an infant on the throne so she could hold power herself, and when that young emperor died, she replaced him with another infant, so she basically held power herself from 188 to her death in 180. Empress Lu was a ruthless woman who has long been condemned by Confucian historians as usurping power from the Liu founding family, killing the rightful heirs to the throne, and placing many of her own relatives in powerful positions, but she was also a competent ruler who provided stable leadership at a time when the Han dynasty came under significant military threat from a nomadic people, the Xiongnu, on its northwestern frontier. Once Empress Lu died, many of her relatives were killed or dismissed from office, and power was restored to the Liu family. She was cited ever after by Confucian historians as evidence of the dangers of powerful women in the imperial palace.

The most significant threat to the Han dynasty in its early years came from the Xiongnu nomads of central Asia who united under a charismatic leader, Modun, at about the same time as the Qin unification of the Warring States. By unifying and extending a network of northern walls, the Qin and early Han rulers attempted to push the Xiongnu off their traditional grazing lands and expand the agricultural base of the Chinese state. But as Modun united more and more nomadic tribes under his own control, he frequently led successful raids inside the Chinese walls. Chinese troops could seldom match the nomads’ mobility and shooting accuracy from horseback. The early Han court pursued a policy of “peace and kinship” (heqin), attempting to avoid war with the Xiongnu by sending lavish gifts of silk, gold, and grain and offering Xiongnu leaders Han princesses in marriage.

The Han Empire 206 BCE to 220 CE

In their treaties with the Xiongnu, the Han recognized the nomadic state as its equal (despite the internal court rhetoric of universal imperial sovereignty). During the early Han, the dynasty functioned more as a tributary vassal of the Xiongnu Empire rather than vice versa. But unlike the Han dynasty, the Xiongnu Empire remained a loose confederation of tribes, not a tightly centralized state, so no peace treaty could be enforced along the entire northern frontier. To the Chinese, frequent Xiongnu raids were simply evidence of nomadic treachery and dishonesty.

Map - Mongolia - Korea - China

In 145 bce, a young ambitious emperor, Han Wudi (the Martial Emperor), took the throne. He was to reign for fifty years, putting his stamp on the institutions of the Han dynasty as no other Han emperor. He greatly strengthened the army, launched a massive horse-breeding campaign, and in 134 bce began a series of military campaigns against the Xiongnu nomads, ultimately pushing them far back into central Asia and away from the Han centers of wealth and power. His successors discontinued Han Wudi’s aggressive approach, but they successfully maintained a chain of guarded defensive watchtowers far into central Asia, and they refused to send tribute, thus depriving the Xiongnu court of its main source of booty. The Xiongnu gradually splintered into several groups, including one that allied with the Han and settled inside the Chinese walls.

Han relations with the Xiongnu were to have profound consequences for Han relations with the outside world and for Chinese-nomad relations in subsequent ages. Even as the Han Chinese came to define their empire and their civilization in self-conscious contrast with the “barbarian” nomads on their borders, they also absorbed many aspects of that nomadic culture into the Chinese identity. Chinese methods of warfare were profoundly shaped by nomadic horsemanship and archery. Several Han emperors became very fond of nomadic dress, food, music, and dance, and such attractions spread to many in the Han social elite as well.

Under the protection of Chinese forces in its western hinterlands, trade flourished along a whole network of routes through central Asia that became known collectively in the nineteenth century as the Silk Roads. Some of the silks and precious metals the Chinese gave to the Xiongnu as gifts or bribes eventually found their way, through many intermediary hands, to Afghanistan, India, Persia, and eventually Rome. Han Chinese, especially in the elite, developed a strong fascination with “exotic” goods from beyond the western borders of the empire. They imported many things from Central Asia, including carpets, clothing, musical instruments, elixirs that promised immortality, new types of fruits and dairy products, and white facial powder, dubbed “barbarian powder,” which adorned the faces of aristocratic Han women and can still be seen today worn by Japanese Geisha.

Parthian merchants frequently served as middlemen in the East-West trade of the Han era, and Indian and Chinese merchants also developed a growing seaborne trade southward from the southernmost Chinese port city of Guangzhou, through the Southeast Asian lands of Malaya, Sumatra, and Burma, and across the Indian Ocean to Ceylon and India. By the late Han period, much of the Chinese silk that made its way to Rome traveled by sea through many intermediate hands past India and on to the Mediterranean. In turn, by the late Han, Indian merchants and Buddhist monks carrying their scriptures, artworks, images, and other religious accoutrements such as incense, made their way to China by both land and sea.

Han Wudi was the most consequential Han emperor for a number of other reasons besides his economic and military success. He greatly strengthened the power of the emperor by eliminating threats to the throne from imperial in-laws, eunuchs, and Confucian scholar-advisors. He raised state revenues very substantially by establishing central-government-run monopolies on the production of salt, iron, copper, bronze, and alcohol. Although he acted like a Legalist emperor in many ways, he also narrowed the curriculum of the state academy to teach prospective officials by focusing on the doctrines of the Confucian school, and he did more than any other emperor to establish Confucianism as a state-sponsored doctrine. He removed some regional overlords, curtailed the power and influence of many aristocratic families, recruited officials from humble backgrounds, and instituted examinations for officials in the Confucian classics.

From the reign of Han Wudi onward, Chinese emperors came to be seen not only as the military commander-in-chief but also as the cultural leader of the empire and its foremost patron of the arts and scholarship. It was especially on this basis that the emperor demanded and received the support, loyalty, and service of China’s educated elite. Thus emperorship came to be identified with the arts and values of Chinese civilization, in self-conscious contrast with (and despite constant borrowing from) the nomadic cultures on China’s borders.

The most influential scholar of the Han era, in subsequent periods if not in his own time, was Sima Qian, a court historian under Han Wudi. When Sima defended a Han general unfairly accused of treason, he was sentenced to death or castration for the crime of insulting the emperor. Everyone expected Sima Qian to take his own life, as castration was seen as the ultimate humiliation, which would send one to the underworld in a maimed condition. He agonized over his decision, and in the end he decided to accept the pain and humiliation of castration and to live on in order to complete his beloved history, as he later explained in a letter to his friend Ren An: 

When I have completed this work, I shall deposit it in the Mountain of Fame, so that it can be handed down to men who will understand it, and penetrate to the villages and great cities. Then, although I should suffer death from ten thousand cuts, what regrets should I have? 

All the dynastic histories from the Han dynasty up to the twentieth century have been modeled after Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian. He climbed the Mountain of Fame to a greater height than he could have imagined, and he represents to this day the faith of Chinese scholars that their honest writings can in fact outlive the monarchs and power-holders they might criticize and condemn.

The most influential Han dynasty scholar in shaping the Confucian philosophical tradition was Dong Zhongshu (ca. 175-105 bce) who resigned his low official position (because Han Wudi ignored him) and devoted himself to teaching others. Dong Zhongshu saw the emperor as the Son of Heaven and an intermediary between Heaven and Earth. If the emperor was virtuous, he argued, the result would be harmony between Heaven and Earth. Dong took earlier yin-yang theories (that change occurs as a result of complementary opposites interacting) and five-phase theories (that all changes operate by sequential laws whereby water gives way to earth, earth gives way to wood, wood gives way to metal, metal gives way to fire, and fire gives way to water) and incorporated them into a comprehensive Confucian framework. He included aspects of Daoism (the emperor rules from above by nonaction) and Legalism (the emperor is a semidivine lawgiver on whom the harmony and welfare of the whole world depends) in an overall Confucian imperial ideology that would survive into the twentieth century.

Despite Emperor Han Wudi’s undisputed accomplishments, at the time of his death he left the government hard pressed to pay for the many initiatives he had begun. As large landholders found ways to avoid paying taxes, Han dynasty society became increasingly divided between rich aristocratic landholders and poor tenants, slaves, and landless vagabonds. In an attempt to address the problem of large nontaxed estates, the imperial regent Wang Mang seized power and declared the Xin (New) Dynasty in 9 ce. He rationalized his seizure of power with the Zhou-dynasty concept of the Mandate of Heaven that justified rebellion against an unjust ruler. He tried to abolish slavery, seize the property of large landholders, and redistribute land to the restless poor. But his measures only roused the opposition of the most powerful elements in society, and a tremendous Yellow River flood in 11 ce helped inspire open and widespread revolt against Wang Mang’s rule.

Wang was killed in 23 ce, and forces loyal to the Liu ruling family of the Han restored the dynasty two years later. The new emperor, Guangwu, claimed Heaven’s Mandate for the Liu family, following the precedent of Wang Mang, and established the cult of Heaven (tian) as the primary imperial cult, which soon eclipsed in importance the imperial ancestral cult of the early Han. The Mandate of Heaven was to remain the moral and political rationale for all subsequent dynasties.

Guangwu also moved the Han capital several hundred kilometers east of the destroyed Chang’an to the city of Luoyang. Thus the period from 25 to 220 ce is known as the Later Han or Eastern Han.

Despite the political upheavals of the Wang Mang usurpation and the relocation of the capital to Luoyang, the Han dynasty remained strong and expansive for another century of economic prosperity and cultural creativity. Luoyang became the second largest city in the world (after Rome), and Han political control extended from Korea in the northeast to the foothills of the Himalayan mountains in the southwest, and from Vietnam in the southeast to the Silk Roads oasis towns of central Asia in the northwest.

Han society was highly stratified, especially by modern standards, but it was also more fluid than most preindustrial societies. No families outside the imperial household could guarantee their high social position by heredity alone. In the Confucian view, scholar-officials ranked highest in the social hierarchy, followed by peasants and artisans (the productive backbone of society), followed by merchants at the bottom (seen by Confucians as nonproductive exploiters of the labors of others). In reality, merchants often became quite wealthy, and when they did they saw to it that their sons or grandsons received the classical education that would allow them entrance into the highest status group of scholar-officials.

For most of its history, the Han government achieved a workable balance between central control and local autonomy. Officials were recruited through a system of recommendation by people already working in the government, but all officials were required to study the texts of Confucianism. Through government sponsorship, and the writings of such scholars as Sima Qian and Dong Zhongshu, Confucian values came to permeate the attitudes and lives of the educated elite, and to some (limited) extent, to seep down to the lower levels of society including illiterate peasants. At one point as many as 30,000 young men studied the Confucian classics in the Imperial Academy at the capital. Education in the Han was further facilitated by the invention of paper around 100 ce. This made the dissemination of writings much more efficient than the earlier method of writing on narrow strips of bamboo. The Han government also had many Confucian works carved in stone, which was seen as the appropriate way to preserve the sacred writings of the past. Young scholars came from all over the empire to make stone rubbings of these writings or to copy them by hand and thereby disseminate them more widely. Much of what we know today about China before the Han comes from the conscientious and meticulous efforts of Han scholars.

The relative peace and stability of the Han dynasty over several centuries produced a population of some sixty million people, an extensive market economy that linked different regions into an integrated whole, and a degree of prosperity that had seldom been seen in the world before that time. Because the Han elite tended to bury their dead in elaborate tombs, some of the most spectacular archeological discoveries in the twentieth century have been made through the excavations of Han tombs. Tombs often included miniature models of homes, household goods, servants, entertainers, and official retinues in formal procession, giving us intimate glimpses into Chinese ways of life and death in Han times.

One of the most famous excavations of a Han-era tomb came in the 1960s in Mawangdui, a small village outside Changsha in Hunan Province. This was the tomb of Li Cang, a high official of a regional king who had been an early supporter of the Han founder Liu Bang. Li Cang’s own tomb was badly damaged, but the adjoining tombs of his wife, Lady Dai, and their son, were well preserved. Lady Dai’s tomb included 154 lacquer boxes, trays, cups and bowls, 51 ceramics, 48 bamboo cases of textiles and other household goods, and 40 baskets of clay replicas of gold and bronze coins. Much to the amazement of the archaeologists involved, they discovered Lady Dai’s corpse so well preserved, in four interlocking coffins and wrapped in twenty layers of silk, that her flesh was soft and her muscles were still elastic. Her stomach contained more than a hundred melon seeds, a 2,000-year-old testimony to her last meal. On the top of the innermost coffin lay a beautiful painted silk funeral banner, which has become one of the most studied archeological finds of the last half century.

Scholars are still debating the many possible symbolic meanings of the banner, a task made more difficult by the wide variety of practices and beliefs about the dead expressed in Han writings. Some tombs included passports to the underworld for the deceased, to document their possessions and prevent mistreatment from the underworld bureaucracy. Others include “tomb-quelling texts” designed to ward off evil from the newly deceased and to enforce the strict separation of the living and the dead. Yet other Han documents speak of cultivating long life or attaining immortality by transcending the normal confines of biological death. There was clearly a concern among the Han Chinese that if a person was wrongly killed or a deceased person was not properly cared for, the person’s spirit might escape the tomb and seek vengeance on the wrong-doers. Such a belief, along with the Confucian admonition to treat one’s ancestors with utmost respect whether dead or alive, helps explain why so many tombs of the Han elite were filled with household and luxury goods.

In addition to elaborate tombs for the dead, in the later Han period some members of the elite began building large aboveground shrines to their dead ancestors. These served as public gathering places for ancestral sacrifices. The largest and most complete of these shrines from the Han was dedicated to Wu Liang, a man who had refused to accept appointment in an officialdom he saw as corrupt. The walls of his shrine were decorated with stone carvings that aimed to depict the entire history of the world, from the deep mythological past right up to the present and from the most mundane details of daily life to the heavenly realm of the immortals. A popular deity in Han times was the Queen Mother of the West, who presided over the yin realm of the immortals on Kunlun Mountain, where the golden peaches of immortality ripened only once every 3,000 years. Her less revered counterpart, the King Father of the East, presided over the yang realm of the immortals.

The wall carvings of the Wu Liang Shrine depict a wide variety of people, including ancient kings, filial sons and virtuous men, wise ministers, famous assassins, and eminent women. Among the latter were women who exemplified the highest Confucian virtues of self-sacrifice for the sake of morality. One was a beautiful Zhou dynasty widow, Gaoxing, of the state of Liang, who was so determined to remain a chaste widow that she cut off her own nose to discourage any men from seeking her hand in marriage. Another was the Virtuous Aunt of Liang, who intended to save her brother’s son from a fire but in the excitement of the moment picked up and saved her own son instead. Discovering her mistake, she was so chagrined that she ran back into the flames to her death, claiming that she could not face the shame of having saved her own son instead of her brother’s.

Although most written historical records from the Han period focus on men to the exclusion of women, the most famous female scholar in all of Chinese history lived in the Han dynasty. This was Ban Zhao, whose father, Ban Biao, had vowed to continue the great history of China that Sima Qian had begun. When Ban Biao died prematurely, his son Ban Gu, Ban Zhao’s brother, took up the challenge and completed the Book of Han, the official history of the Han dynasty. Ban Gu’s twin brother achieved equal prominence as a military general and conqueror of many formerly independent kingdoms in Central Asia. Despite her subordinate position as a woman, Ban Zhao matched the accomplishments of her brothers. Married to a prominent official who died as a young man, she devoted herself to raising her one son and to a life of study and writing.

Extremely beautiful and pursued by many suitors after her husband’s death, the Widow Gaoxing of the state of Liang responds to a marriage proposal by cutting off her own nose, thereby discouraging all marriage proposals and preserving her widow chastity.

Extremely beautiful and pursued by many suitors after her husband’s death, the Widow Gaoxing of the state of Liang responds to a marriage proposal by cutting off her own nose, thereby discouraging all marriage proposals and preserving her widow chastity. This ink rubbing was made from one of many wall carvings depicting historical scenes and commemorating virtuous behavior in the ancestral offering shrine for the Wu family erected in front of Wu Liang’s grave in 171 BCE. Feng Yupeng and Feng Yunyuan, Jinshi Suo(An index to bronzes and stone carvings), 1821

She wrote many poems, helped her brother Ban Gu complete his Han dynastic history, and wrote Precepts for My Daughters, the most famous instruction booklet for women in all of Chinese culture.

Since most ethical and philosophical works were written for men, Ban Zhao decided to write ethical instructions specifically for women. She admonished women to exhibit three qualities or virtues: to act with modesty, deference, and respect; to be diligent and hardworking; and to serve their in-laws and carry out the ancestral sacrifices with reverence and dignity. Thus she could assure a good reputation for herself and her family. But, she concluded, “if you fail in any of these three things, there will be no good name to be spread, and divorce and dishonor will be unavoidable!” Her advice was particularly relevant to elite members of her own class, which included all the women of the court, where intrigue and power struggles were very common. Ban Zhao knew the sad fate of powerful empresses who tried to exercise power themselves and ended up being killed along with their closest relatives. In this light, her Precepts for My Daughters can be read as an effective manual of survival for women in a dangerous and male-dominated environment.

Ban Zhao’s precepts reflect elite ideals but not necessarily the social realities of the Han era. We know that many imperial wives in the Han period were very aggressive in asserting their power. The emphasis on filial piety in Han Confucianism made it hard for most emperors to ignore the desires of their mothers, even after the emperor reached adulthood or middle age. Consequently, empress dowagers often found ways to dominate the Han court, especially late in the dynasty’s history. Many dynasties in China were eventually weakened and destroyed by lethal power struggles among four competing groups: empress dowagers and their families, Confucian officials in the imperial bureaucracy, military commanders, and court eunuchs.

In the later Han, the two most powerful groups around the throne were the imperial eunuchs and the families of empresses. Eunuchs were a unique class of people in imperial China. As castrated males, they were scorned, yet as the personal servants of the emperor, they could at times become his closest personal friends and advisors, giving them more power than any other group of people. Eunuchs often came from very humble backgrounds. Why else would they agree to undergo castration (a serious risk to life itself in an age before modern surgery)? Eunuchs were given the duty of managing palace life so as to ensure that any children born in the palace would be legitimate descendants of the emperor and not the product of illicit liaisons between imperial women and lowly servants. Since eunuchs had no descendants of their own, they had fewer temptations to build up their own personal wealth, but the lure of wealth and power was still seductive; and the number of eunuchs tended to grow over time in each dynasty.

In the later Han, there were thousands of eunuchs, and they became so powerful that they were granted the right to adopt heirs of their own. In 124 ce, court eunuchs managed to place an infant on the throne so they could control state affairs in his name. In 159ce, they helped an emperor execute the entire family of the powerful mother of his predecessor. The eunuchs led a series of purges in 166 and 169 in which they killed or exiled thousands of officials from the civil bureaucracy.

All of this turmoil at the court only intensified the weakness of the Han central government, as military leaders in outlying regions paid less and less attention to their “superiors” in the capital, and wealthy families found more and more ways to avoid taxation. Two structural changes in the Eastern Han proved fatal to the dynasty. The court ended the practice of peasant conscription (partly out of fear of armed peasant rebellions) and relied instead on professional armies made up of voluntary recruits, convicts, and non-Chinese nomads resettled within the walled frontiers. These professional soldiers easily formed long-term allegiances to their personal commanders rather than to the Han court. Thus, when trouble erupted in any one area, armies were as likely to join in the unrest as to support the court’s attempts at suppression.

With the central government in complete disarray, it lost the capacity to provide effective relief in times of natural disaster. In 184, a rebellion broke out among the followers of a Daoist religious cult, the Yellow Turbans, which marked the beginning of the end for the Han dynasty. The country dissolved into civil war, as numerous generals declared their independence from the Han and aspired to establish their own new dynastic rule. They proved incapable of doing so, and what had been the Han dynasty split up into three rival kingdoms, each led by a former general or warlord.

The Han dynasty officially came to an end in 220 ce, but its legacy was to reach all the way to the twentieth century. Having lasted more than four centuries, the Han formed the imperial pattern of legalist institutions rationalized by Confucian ideology that was to inspire every subsequent dynasty until the last (the Qing) fell in 1911. At its height, the Han court ruled an empire of about two and a half million square miles (about 70 percent of the contemporary United States) with sixty million people under its direct control. The Han is often compared to the Roman Empire, as both existed at the same time and were near equals in size. Han China was relatively land-locked and almost exclusively agricultural, in contrast to the Roman Empire (known to the Chinese as the Da Qin or Great Qin Empire) with its many trading routes on the Mediterranean Sea. And Han China was much more culturally uniform, with its single written language, its Confucian ideology, and its shared elite culture. The Han government and army were more tightly controlled by one family and its civil officials than was the case in the Roman Empire. And finally, although the Han capital of Luoyang fell almost two centuries before the sack of Rome, in contrast to the irrevocable breakup of the Roman Empire, the Han pattern of one vast unified land-based empire was to be repeated again and again in China into the twentieth century.

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