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Chinese History: The Han Dynasty Essay

The Han Dynasty was founded by Liu Bang in 206 BCE. He came of peasant stock and rose to power slowly from being a petty government official to the role of emperor. Liu Bang ruled China for eleven years with felicity and wisdom. He was intelligent and sought to win over the elder statesmen by promising to eliminate all the harsh laws of the Qin government. His experience as the “neighborhood head” (Hansen 114) had given him the opportunity to be familiar with the legal system of the Qin Dynasty and he made full use of this knowledge to establish a rule of prosperity and leave a long line of rulers who ruled for four hundred years in China.

This paper will discuss such themes as have emerged from the research done of the Han Dynasty and will be divided into sections each dealing with one theme at a time. State and Succession: The state of China that Liu Bang wrested from the Qin ruler was in turmoil with several intrigues being hatched by the court officials against the cruelty of the Qin ruler. The rebels wanted to place the first son of the emperor to the throne but Liu Bang was able to defeat the rebels and ascended the throne as the founder of the Han dynasty.

He used both stratagem and skill to either defeat his rivals or win them over with promises of sweeping changes in the administration and the legal system. The extent of his empire was divided between his nine brothers and one hundred and fifty loyal followers. The only region that was under direct control of the emperor was the western part of the empire with its capital at Changan and comprised about one-third of the total empire. His rule from 206- 195 BCE was not without troubles.

He had to spend a lot of his time trying to suppress rebellions in different parts of his empire and at this time China was invaded several times by the powerful Xiongnu tribe. After being defeated by them Liu Bang concluded a humiliating treaty with the shanyu, leader of the Xiongnu, by which he had to grant equal status to the Xiongnu people and marry the Chinese Princess to the shanyu. As a result of this diplomatic gesture the Xiongnu people promised to leave China alone and not invade them any further. Liu Bang was followed by his fifteen year old son Huidi to the throne, who ruled for seven years from 195- 188 BCE.

After his death the reigns of the kingdom was taken over by the widow of Liu Bang, Empress Lu who ruled in the name of Han dynasty for eight years between 188 and 180 BCE. She placed minor princes to the throne and ruled as their guardian and was able to bring peace and stability to the empire. After the death of Empress Lu intrigue again raised its head and senior court officials placed the son of Liu Bang’s concubine who was a puppet in their hands. The descendants of Liu Bang’s relative continued to rule two thirds of China while the Han Dynasty was directly in charge of only a third of the entire empire.

Emperor Wu ascended the throne at the age of fifteen in 140 BCE. For the first few years of his reign he was under the control of his grandmother, the dowager Empress Dou and his uncle who was his chancellor. However, from 131 BCE, after the death of the chancellor, Emperor Wu took full charge of his kingdom and established an empire based on the principles of Confucius. He is credited with having extended the Han Empire in the southern districts and continued to maintain diplomatic relations with the Xiongnu people by paying them annuity in keeping with the treaty signed by Liu Bang.

Emperor Wu was a follower of Dong Zhongshu, a student of Confucianism and under his influence established Confucian schools in every district. Emperor Wu strengthened the bureaucracy and curtailed the powers of the regional rulers who had been given kingdoms by Liu Bang (Hansen 127). He ruled as a despot with unlimited powers until his death in 87 BCE. He dissolved the position of the Chancellor and promoted his step brother-in-law to the position of regent who put minor princes on the throne and ruled in their name, thus weakening the power and influence of the Han dynasty.

The influence of the Han dynasty was later restored by the support of some powerful consort families to which it remained beholden. The consort families wanted to marry their daughters to the emperor in the hope of becoming regents of minor princes and ruling in their names. One of the notable emperors of the later Han dynasty was Emperor Huan, who ruled from 146-168 A. D. Emperor Huan threw the yoke of dominance by the consort family by hatching a plot against them with the help of eunuchs.

He managed to break free of the consort family’s stranglehold but set a precedence of encouragement of the eunuchs that did not augur well for the Han dynasty. The last of the Han rulers was a puppet ruler who had to abdicate and thus bring about the end of the Han dynasty in 220 A. D. Administration: Liu Bang had established some good norms of governance that were refined and made more effective by some of the other prominent Han emperors. The administration was carried out at two levels, the central government and the local governments.

There were three major divisions of the central government; collection of taxes, maintaining the army and overseeing the work of the government officials. The three divisions of the local governments were later modified to include; registering population, collecting taxes, maintaining waterways, dispensing justice and recommending educated men for government positions. After becoming emperor, Liu Bang distributed his kingdom between his nine brothers and sons and gave them the titles of kings and named a hundred and fifty men from the nobility, marquis and gave them portions of the kingdom as well.

These later became the regional kingdoms of China. The land directly under the control of the emperor was divided into one hundred commanderies which were further divided into one hundred and fifty counties. Under Emperor Wu the inheritance of land laws were changed and the land was divided equally between all the sons of the Emperor and did not go only to the eldest son after his death. He also altered the practice of appointing sons of the noble families to high official positions and started the practice of appointing his own nominated officials to government positions.

The land revenue had been fixed at one fifteenth by Liu Bang and it was later reduced to one thirtieth by later emperors. However, with the introduction of reforms and establishment of schools and Confucian institutions Emperor Wu realized that the land revenue collected from taxes was not enough to finance his reform projects. So he issues government monopolies on salt and iron. The society under Han dynasty was divided broadly into two categories; the land owners and the slaves.

The structure was not rigid and the emperor had the power to strip a land owner or noble of his land and powers and a slave could buy his freedom and become elevated in social stature. There was great disparity of wealth in the Han society. The rulers used to make grants of land to nobles who gradually made them very powerful and corrupt. They stopped paying land revenue and the revenue dropped considerably so that the emperor had to limit the size of the land holding and number of slaves in 7 BCE. The later Han rulers were able to hold on to their position of power and rule with the help of a few powerful consort families.

They dare not challenge their power and gave in to most of their demands. In the third and fourth centuries of Han rule eunuchs became very powerful after the Han Emperor Huan enlisted their support to overthrow the yoke of the noble families and they played an important role in court intrigues. Crime and punishment: Liu Bang became familiar with the legal system of the Qin dynasty as a neighborhood head and realized that though the main tenets of law and justice in the Qin dynasty were good, some of the punishments meted out were harsh and barbaric.

It was with a promise to change these laws that he was able to come into power in 206 BCE. Eventually, he ended up modifying some of the laws and relaxing punitive corporal punishments like beheading. Since he had to depend a lot on the support of the rich and noble families, members of these families were almost exempt from corporal punishment. Most offenders could get away with paying a huge fine or being confined to rigorous labor like masonry for men and pounding grains foe women were the most common punishments. More severe offenses were awarded amputation of a limb or cutting off of the nose.

Shaving off the head and beard and tattooing were considered severe enough punishments for lesser crimes. In keeping with Laozi’s teachings, law was considered to be “the way” that emperors were supposed to rule their empire. Everyone was considered to be equal in the eyes of law. But in reality it remained a guideline and was not always implemented, the rich people usually got less rigorous punishments could pay their way out of serving punishment sentences. There was no law or power to curb the powers of the ruler.

The framework for a good legal system was present and rulers like Emperor Wu made use of the law to curb the rising clout of the nobility. Role of women and eunuchs: Chinese society was male dominated and the position of women was not very enviable. The birth of a girl child was not very welcome. According to Ban Zhao, who was the scholarly and brilliant sister of court historian, Ban Gu, there were three things that had to be performed when a girl was born. The infant needed to be kept under the bed indicating that her position was lowly and weak.

She would be given a potsherd to play with reminding her that she needed to work hard all her life and that the announcement of a girl child to the ancestors needed to be accompanied with an offering to remind the child that she was born to serve them. She mentions four virtues that women should practice; “womanly virtue, womanly words, womanly bearing and womanly work” (Hansen 139). Women were mostly relegated to the chores of cooking, sewing and weaving and hardly ever had the opportunity to voice their opinions.

Ban Zhao advocated the education of women. She preached that both men and women must understand their respective duties and work together to make the marriage work well. She agreed that women must do the household chores but not be ignorant and serve as a slave. She must not be manhandled and treated badly and she should not argue as well. It was a poor man’s bad luck to have a daughter while the rich families could afford daughters and used them to their advantage by marrying them to emperors or nobility.

Though the general condition of women in China was not encouraging there have been some powerful empresses like dowager Empress Dou who ruled in the name of the Han dynasty and brought peace and stability to the kingdom. The instances of the dowager empresses and that of Ban Zhao are examples of how women could break out of stereotypical roles if they wanted to. The Emperor had harems full of women concubines. Emperor Huan was said to have six thousand women in his harem. As the Han dynasty’s rule extended to the third or the fourth centuries the role of eunuchs became very important in the kingdoms.

The eunuchs were usually kept along with womenfolk in the imperial households and played a part in the court intrigues. Like the women dowager empresses they would usually place a minor prince on the throne and rule in their names as their regents. It was during the reign of Emperor Huan that the eunuchs became very powerful because the Emperor hatched a coup to overthrow the influential consort families with the help of the eunuchs. A bitter conflict between the eunuchs and the consort families ensued only to be put down by General Cao Cao when he became regent.

Philosophy and Society: Liu Bang was respectful of Confucian thought and philosophy but was not slavish to it. For example he did not allow personal ties to come between him and his ambitions (Hansen115). The Huang –Lao school of thought founded on the teachings of Laozi and Huang commended their teachings in the books, The Way and Integrity Classic and The Classic of Law. These books gave guidance in various aspects of life and living. However, they could not check the power of a ruler who did not abide by its laws and where there was poor governance.

These teachings were contrary to what Confucians believed and taught Emperor Wu was greatly under the influence of Dong Zhongshu, who believed that the emperor was the link between heaven and his subjects. When Emperor Wu came to power he established Confucian academies in all the districts in order to centralize its power. As the Huang-Lao philosophy was contradictory to the Confucian philosophy Emperor Wu enforced the closure of these schools and established Confucian schools in every district.

Emperor Wu was the first to establish the Confucian canon by had Confucian school of thought and institutions in all the counties. He believed in the Confucian principle that if a ruler ruled his kingdom well heaven would support him and if there were poor governance then the he would incur the wrath of the heavens and his kingdom would be afflicted with floods, droughts and other natural calamities. The tombs of the marquis of Mawangdui and his family bear testament to the Han dynasty’s belief in afterlife.

It also demonstrates that people had two kinds of souls – one was the superior spirit soul or hun that was free to travel to the land of the immortals and the other the inferior body soul or po which had to reside in the tomb and if not taken care of in its tomb, it may have to travel to the netherworld. The tomb had to be supplied with replicas of gold and bronze coins, lacquer vessels, ceramics and bamboo suitcases. The food items that can be assumed to have been presented to Lady Dai, the wife of the marquis, are meat dishes and beer. The scenes depicted within the tomb provide an insight into their ideas of afterlife.

The top section depicts two gods of destiny who keep records of the individual’s life and the moon and sun with their residents and the Queen Mother of the West. From the above study we see that the various themes that emerged during the course of Chinese history have shaped the philosophical and political destiny of China. The present day Chinese beliefs can trace their roots in this period of history. That history of a nation or people is dynamic and sustainable is borne out by the fact that many of the Chinese institutions and policies were shaped by the values and laws of the Han dynasty.

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