The Confucian historians of later years turned the end of the Qin dynasty into a moral parable. The rebellion that brought down the Qin began, they said, with a low-level flunky in the prison system named Chen She, who was placed in charge of transporting 900 convicts from one work camp to another. Unfortunately for him, his progress was delayed, not through any fault of his own but rather the vagaries of the weather. Knowing that the penalty for his tardiness would be death regardless of its cause, Chen considered his options: “At present, flight means death and plotting means death. Evaluating the kinds of death, death for [establishing] a state is preferable!”

Chen She thus chose to lead a rebellion of the people. One legend claims that the rebels armed themselves by breaking into Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum and stealing the very real weapons with which he had equipped his Terracotta Army. And the legend may actually be true: modern archaeologists have indeed found that almost all of the soldiers’ weapons are missing.

In the end, Chen She met the fate he had anticipated for himself: he was killed in the fighting. But by then others had joined the cause. A former Qin functionary named Liu Bang took up Chen’s mantle of rebel leadership, defeating first the forces of Emperor Qin Er Shi and then an array of rival claimants to his vacated throne. In 202 BC, Liu Bang declared himself the new emperor of China, using the same honorific of Huang that had been employed by his unlamented Qin predecessors. He became Emperor Gaozu — the name translates to “High Forefather” — the first monarch of the Han dynasty, with his capital in the city of Chang’an, slightly northwest of the old Qin capital of Xianyang. (Today the areas of both cities have been subsumed into the metropolis of Xi’an.) The dynasty’s name was taken from the Han River in modern-day Shaanxi Province, the region which had served as Liu Bang’s base of operations throughout the series of wars that resulted in him becoming emperor.

This new emperor was a crude specimen of the peasant class, a man more adept at fighting than diplomacy or public policy. One story says that, when a group of Confucian scholars came to see him to discuss the latter, he grabbed the cap off one of their heads and relieved himself into it. He saw no point to their abstractions and prevarications. “All I possess I have won on horseback!” he thundered.

“Your Majesty may have won it on horseback, but can you rule it on horseback?” said one of the scholars in quiet response.

Emperor Gaozu came slowly to see the wisdom in that reply. In fact, he eventually gave the Confucianists that which they had dreamed of for so long: the chance to mold the entirety of China in the image of their philosophy. The last pieces of China’s longstanding national self-image — that of an authoritarian but efficient and, in the minds of its bureaucrats at least, fair-minded, wise, and benign state — fell into place during the Han dynasty, the first central government to control most or all of Inner China that was both robust and long-lived. Tellingly, the phrase “Han Chinese” — the name that modern China’s dominant social and ethnic group uses to refer to itself — echoes the name of this long-vanished dynasty.


It doubtless helped that Gaozu was such an unformed Son of Heaven, clay ripe for molding into the supreme leader the Confucianists felt China deserved. Certainly their depiction of the reason he had come to power — the reason the Mandate of Heaven had deserted the Qin and passed over to him — would have flattered any leader’s sensibilities. Qin China had collapsed, they said, because “it failed to display humanity and righteousness, or to realize that there is a difference between the power to attack and the power to consolidate.” Emperor Gaozu, by implication, suffered from none of these failings.

It is a classic example of the way in which the seemingly naïve Confucian faith in people doing right simply because it is right could become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, to the benefit of everyone: by assuming that Gaozu was humane and righteous, the Confucianists caused him to display those qualities. They constructed a veritable religion around the emperor — one which flattered him, yes, but which also impressed upon him the responsibilities that came with divinity, and the consequences for himself and his people if he should stray from the path of righteousness.

Heaven’s constant desire is to love and bring benefit, its task to nurture. Spring, fall, winter, and summer are the instruments it uses. The emperor also makes loving and bringing benefit his constant desire, and his task is to bring peace and happiness to his age. Love and hate, joy and anger, are the instruments he uses. His love, hate, joy, and anger are like Heaven’s seasons. It is through changes in temperature that things are transformed and completed. If Heaven produces plants and animals in the right season, then the year will be one of abundance, but if at the wrong time, then the year will be a bad one. Similarly, if the ruler expresses his four emotions in accord with moral principles, then the world will be well governed, but if not, the age will be chaotic. Thus an orderly age is like a good harvest, a disorderly age like a bad harvest. Thus one can see that the principles of man match the way of Heaven.

The worshipful respect accorded to the emperor didn’t mean that his capital was free of intrigue. The Confucian scholarly set’s influence at court was consistently rivaled by that of another group: the palace eunuchs who ran the emperor’s household and many of his other personal affairs. It was believed that the fact of their castration made these men “safe,” immune not only to the allure of the emperor’s concubines but to that of power and glory in the abstract. The reality was somewhat different. The eunuchs had actively chosen castration as a means of advancement, a decision which hardly speaks to a lack of personal ambition, and they often weren’t above using their proximity to the emperor for their own material benefit, or to guide the direction of the empire in the way that seemed best to them — or both. In practice, then, the trajectory of Han China changed in tandem with the waxing and waning of these factions — the Confucian mandarins, the eunuchs, and an emperor who sometimes had ideas of his own — in relation to one another.

In addition to the internal struggles, there were also outsiders to be reckoned with. The foreign policy of the early Han years was dominated by the same concerns that had prompted Qin Shi Huang to build his Great Wall: the nomads of the steppes continued to mount regular incursions into Inner China, disrupting both its economic life and the social harmony which the Confucianists so prized. The rise of the Han dynasty unhappily coincided with the rise of the first reasonably coherent rival empire to set up shop close to Inner China. It was the work of a people known as the Xiongnu, whom the Chinese believed to be the descendants of their own mythical Xia dynasty. Emperor Gaozu found it was impossible to garrison enough soldiers along the immense length of the Great Wall to make it into an effective deterrent against the Xiongnu. Masterful horsemen, the Xiongnu could materialize out of nowhere at any instant virtually anywhere along the Great Wall’s length. They soon rendered the barrier still more pointless by setting up encampments inside its perimeter, an ominous development indeed.

Veteran campaigner that he was, Emperor Gaozu decided at last to raise a huge army of his own and lead it into the heart of the rival empire. The result was very nearly disastrous. The Xiongnu, who knew the terrain of the steppes where they dwelt far better than he did, toyed with him until summer had given way to a bitter winter, then lured him into a dead-end canyon and ambushed him there. In the end, though, the Xiongnu elected not to press their advantage to the utmost; they allowed him to retreat. According to the official Chinese records of the period, Gaozu escaped the trap by using “moral persuasion.” The most commonly accepted interpretation of those words is that he bribed the Xiongnu with promises of gold, silk, food, and women, to be sent to them as soon as he returned to his capital.

This inglorious episode marks the point of origin of a habit that would persist in China for many centuries to come: the habit of buying off the dangerous people around the Chinese empire’s long land borders with tribute. Under Emperor Gaozu, it was called the “Peace and Friendship” policy, and was couched in the rhetoric of a civilized land benevolently aiding the benighted barbarian peoples of the world. But in actuality it was a protection racket on the part of the Xiongnu that would make any movie mob boss proud. Han China paid the Xiongnu not to attack it; it was as simple as that. Doing so was not in conflict with the Confucian value system, given how it abhorred war, seeing it as an exigency to be avoided at almost any price.

That said, Han China didn’t always rely on bribery in its relations with the outside world. There were periods during the four centuries that the Han dynasty survived when its military was strong enough to project power well outside its borders. Such periods tended to coincide with the reigns of strong-willed, charismatic emperors — rulers whose unmanageability made them some of the least favorites of the mandarins and the eunuchs alike.

The paradigmatic example of such a leader comes in the person of Emperor Wu, whose long reign lasted from 141 until 87 BC, a time that can be considered Han China’s zenith in many ways. As strong an emperor as any era of China would ever produce, Wu made his land into a socialist state, ignoring the carping of advisors who said that he was betraying Confucian principles and placing his Mandate of Heaven in doubt. He abhorred private individuals “reserving to their sole use the riches of the mountains and the sea in order to gain a fortune, putting the lower classes into subjection to themselves.” His remedy was to nationalize many industries, from salt and iron mining to the production of alcoholic beverages, while at the same time encouraging ambitious peasant farmers to leave the land and take up trades or become urban merchants. He created the ancient equivalents of a public-transport system, a national bank, and a strategic commodities stockpile. During times of economic hardship, he undertook massive public-works projects such as new bridges and canals to provide people with employment. China became the most prosperous land to be found anywhere in the world during his reign.

Emperor Wu funneled much of that prosperity into his military, building a large, well-trained, well-equipped army, led by generals whose names and exploits are still legendary among patriotic Chinese. He ended the tribute system as a means of placating outsiders; instead his generals marched forth to give China’s erstwhile blackmailers all they could handle and then some. Wu took control over every bit of Inner China, then expanded his empire’s borders well beyond it for the first time, taking over most of Manchuria, most of the Korean Peninsula, a large chunk of modern-day Vietnam, and much of the steppe territory once claimed by the Xiongnu. “The Xiongnu submit!” ran a propaganda poem. “Boundless joy reigns for 10,000 years!”

Han China and its neighbors following the conquests of Emperor Wu. (Thomas Lessman)

Alas, the real future would prove somewhat less ebullient for those who subscribed to Emperor Wu’s muscular vision of China. Upon his death, he was succeeded by a seven-year-old boy, whom the other forces at court scrambled to co-opt for their own ends. The Confucian mandarins urged a return to the old ways.

The ancients honored the use of virtue and discredited the use of arms. Confucius said, “If the people of far-off lands do not submit, then the ruler must attract them by enhancing his refinement and virtue. When they have been attracted, he gives them peace.”

At present, morality is discarded and reliance is placed on military force. Troops are raised for campaigns and garrisons are stationed for defense. It is the long-drawn-out campaigns and the ceaseless transportation of provisions that burden our people at home and cause our frontier soldiers to suffer hunger and cold.

We have heard that the way to rule lies in preventing frivolity while encouraging morality, in suppressing the pursuit of profit while opening the way for benevolence and duty. When profit is not emphasized, civilization flourishes and the customs of the people improve.

Recently, a system of salt and iron monopolies, a liquor excise tax, and an equitable marketing system have been established throughout the country. These represent financial competition with the people which undermines their native honesty and promotes selfishness. As a result, few among the people take up the fundamental pursuits [i.e., agriculture] while many flock to the secondary [i.e., trade and industry]. When artificiality thrives, simplicity declines; when the secondary flourishes, the basic decays. Stress on the secondary makes the people decadent; emphasis on the basic keeps them unsophisticated.

“Sophistication,” it should be understood, was an unwelcome social attribute under Confucian doctrine.

The mandarins won out in the end. Most of Emperor Wu’s reforms were abandoned over the following decades as the core tenets of Confucianism reasserted themselves. Once again the Chinese hunkered down behind their Great Wall and paid their enemies not to attack instead of taking the war to them.

The steppe peoples are important to the history of China because of the threat they represented and the way they caused the Chinese to define itself in opposition to them. But there is also another reason for a book like this one to dwell on them: they became a sort of bridge between China and the peoples of the West. During the time of the Han dynasty, the world had two axes in terms of advanced civilization, one being centered on China, the other on the lands around the Mediterranean. They had grown up blissfully unaware of one another over the last several thousand years, and unaware of one another they mostly remained. But the peoples of Central Asia who lived in between the two were familiar with — and to — both.

The ancient Greeks lumped all of the peoples who lived north and east of the Black Sea under the name of the “Scythians.” The historian, geographer, and proto-sociologist Herodotus wrote of them in the early fifth century BC in much the same way as the Chinese did: as savage, uncouth warriors whose culture wasn’t without a certain allure in spite of — or because of — these qualities. “No one knows exactly what exists beyond [their] land,” he wrote. “For I have been unable to find anyone who says he has actually seen it with his own eyes.” What really did lie beyond the land he called Scythia was, of course, China.

The steppe dwellers would go on to take as prominent a place in the Western historical imagination as in that of the East. The Mongols on the charge with Genghis Khan at their head, the Cossacks at the vanguard of the Russian Czar’s army… these images of lusty, horse-borne freedom seem almost indispensable, serving as a reprieve from the diffident morality of Christianity as much as that of Confucianism. Some historians believe that the Xiongnu who plagued China during the early Han dynasty and the Huns who harassed the Roman Empire during the twilight of Western antiquity were actually one and the same people, having moved gradually westward over the centuries in between, perchance initially in response to the aggressive expansionism of Emperor Wu. If so, they represent a fascinating intersection between two civilizational histories which can otherwise seem almost entirely siloed off from one another.

Another, equally enticing and much better proven link is the Silk Road, the tenuous overland trade route between East and West. The German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the term in 1877 from the commodity that constituted the majority of the trade from China to the Mediterranean world. Yet the name is also evocative in other ways. We picture these two bustling civilizations, with just the one slender silken thread to connect them, a route taken only by the bravest and hardiest adventurers among them.

Ferdinand von Richthofen conceived of the Silk Road as an artery that could be drawn on a map, as shown in this detail from his 1877 book. The Silk Road here is the solid red line running from east to west. In truth, though, trade between the Eastern and Western worlds was a more indirect, diffuse affair, a matter of zones of influence shading into one another. (Public Domain)

Sadly for the romantic souls among us, this vision of the Silk Road is a confused one. Historians no longer believe that any intrepid traders set off from Rome or Chang’an and personally covered the more than 5000 miles (8000 kilometers) that separated the two capitals. The Silk Road was a more attenuated, diffuse affair than that — so much so that it is difficult to give it a starting date, or even to say at what point each of the world’s two great axes of civilization fully grasped that its greatness didn’t stand alone.

If we insist on pinning the Silk Road down in time on the Chinese side, we might begin with a man named Zhang Qian, who in 138 BC was sent by Emperor Wu to explore the lands and make contact with the peoples well west of Inner China. Over the course of thirteen years and a series of adventures worthy of a pulp novel, he wandered through modern-day India, Pakistan, and Iran. And he heard rumors of what lay still farther to the west, even as he saw some of the cities and monuments which Alexander the Great had left behind two centuries before. All of this was exciting, but Emperor Wu was most excited of all by the magnificent horses which Zhang Qian brought back with him. Clearly there was the potential for a fruitful exchange here.

Meanwhile the Mediterranean powers were probing the inhospitable borderlands to their east, also in search of information and new goods to trade in. Rather than being a direct conduit for trade between Rome and China, as it is so often envisioned, the Silk Road of reality consisted of a series of middlemen who realized that the people to their west were willing to pay a high price for something which they could source from the people to their east — or vice versa. By the time of Jesus Christ, the Chinese and Romans were trading regularly with one another in the big picture while still being culturally aware of one another in only the vaguest sense. It is possible that no Roman citizen made it all the way to China until AD 166, when a Chinese account does describe a visit from a Roman delegation bearing lavish gifts. Still, even this visit appears not to have led to anything like regular diplomatic relations. Roman texts do abound with anecdotes of meetings with representatives of strange cultures from the East, but it is impossible to know for sure whether any of these might be China, given that the Latin language had as yet no agreed-upon word for such a place.

And what sorts of goods were passed from middleman to middleman along the Silk Road? The first thing to understand here is that the overall volume of trade remained small; the Silk Road was never of any real importance to the overall economy of either the West or the East. The difficulties of transit limited the trade to expensive luxury items. The Romans were indeed most interested in the silk that has given the trade route its modern name, whose zealously guarded secrets of production stretched back to the very dawn of Chinese civilization, having allegedly been handed down to them by their mythical first emperor Fuxi. But spices and perfumes, as well as jewelry made from lapis lazuli, emeralds, and pearls, also traveled the Silk Road to Rome. As for the Chinese: it appears that they were more interested in raw Roman gold than they were in anything the distant Westerners could make for them. This would continue to be the pattern throughout their history. (Witness the travails of poor George Macartney!)

Trade with other, closer lands was far more important to Han China — especially trade with India, over a route that is sometimes called the Southern Silk Road. China sent large quantities of silk along with bamboo, ironware, and other forms of cloth to India, and received in return glassware and jewels. But India’s most important gift to China was cultural rather than material: the religion of Buddhism.

The last of the canonical Three Belief Systems of traditional Chinese historiography — the other two are, of course, Confucianism and Taoism — Buddhism is an anomaly in the normally insular cultural life of China simply for having been imported from the outside. Its founding figure was Gautama Buddha, who probably lived during the sixth and/or fifth centuries BC. As I noted in the chapter on Taoism, Buddhism bears some similarities with that belief system in the way it advocates a detachment if not outright withdrawal from the day-to-day concerns of humanity. But, as I also noted then, Buddhism’s spirit of detachment extends further than that of Taoism. It claims that souls are reincarnated endlessly, passing through countless animal and human bodies, moving up or down the hierarchy of forms in response to the good or bad karma they accumulate through their temporal deeds. Believing as she does that a form of eternal life is the baseline status of everyone, the ultimate goal of the Buddhist is ironically — and a little amusingly — at odds with that of the Christian or the Muslim: to escape from eternal life into the blissful nothingness known as Nirvana. Wei Shou, a Chinese scholar of the sixth century AD, elaborates:

The general import of [Buddhist] scriptures is that everything in this and all other lives is a result of karma. Through the three ages of the past, the present, and the future, the conscious spirit is never destroyed. Any act of good or evil will be recompensed. By gradually accumulating good deeds, purifying vulgarities, passing through many forms, and refining the spirit, one can arrive at a level at which rebirth will not recur and thus attain buddhahood. There are many steps and mental activities to take, all proceeding from the simple to the profound, the imperceptible to the manifest. Through building up one’s goodness and obedience, eliminating desires, and practicing serenity, one can break through.

Despite its official acceptance as one of the Three Belief Systems, Buddhism has often been viewed with a certain suspicion by the Chinese establishment, both because of its foreign origin and because of its advocacy of a universal brotherhood of humanity that has no use for the social hierarchies of Confucianism or the aura of patriotic arrogance surrounding the notion of China as the Middle Kingdom, the only place that really matters in the world. “The outstanding people of a generation may be born among the barbarians, while there are also those of exceptional talent among us here,” said one Chinese Buddhist monk of the fourth century AD. “Therefore we know that eminence and greatness are granted by Heaven. How could this depend on being Chinese or barbarian?” Nevertheless, Buddhism holds an unassailable position in the spiritual life of China, joining Taoism as another relief valve for the pressures engendered by Confucianism.

But we must return now to the chronology of Han China, where life sometimes went on in a less orderly way than the Confucian, the Taoist, or the Buddhist might have wished, being marked from time to time by rebellions and even full-fledged civil wars. In AD 9, an interloper named Wang Mang managed to seize and hold the throne for fourteen years. When order was restored, the capital was moved some distance eastward, to the city of Luoyang in modern-day Henan Province. These later years of the Han dynasty — sometimes called those of the Eastern Han, as distinguished from the Western Han that had its capital in Chang’an — were rather less grand than what had come before, producing no more rulers like Emperor Wu. The dynasty was now settling into the complacent decline that Chinese historiography tells us is necessary to set the stage for the next renewal. Still, there is one remarkable achievement dating from the later Han period that we shouldn’t neglect to mention: the invention of paper.

The Chinese had written on many things prior to this point, from bones to bronze, pottery to boulders, wooden tablets to rolls of silk. By the beginning of the Han period, they had settled on bamboo slips as their material of choice. Other peoples in other parts of the world had used clay tablets, animal hides, leaves, bark, and papyrus (this last being as close as the world had yet come to a material as perfect for the purpose as paper would prove, so much so that it is often called papyrus paper today despite being made by a different method). According to traditional Chinese accounts, it was an imperial eunuch named Cai Lun who first discovered in about AD 75 that he could make an ideal surface for writing by soaking shredded wood fibers in water, then draining away the liquid and pressing flat that which was left behind. “From that time,” reads a Chinese history, “paper has been in use everywhere.”

But there is, as usual, good reason to quibble with the official account. Archaeologists have found traces of paper in China that may date from 200 years or more before the time of Cai Lun, although this paper appears to have been used as a material for packing and wrapping rather than writing. The first known example of Chinese paper with actual writing on it, by contrast, dates to about AD 110, some time after Cai Lun’s purported eureka moment. Paper doesn’t seem to have fully superseded bamboo as China’s writing surface of choice until at least two centuries after that. But no matter: China’s claim to the invention, one of the most subtly important in the history of the world, remains unequivocal. Paper didn’t make its way to Europe until the eleventh century, arriving there only after traveling a circuitous route from China through the Muslim Middle East. Chinese historiography, whose love of neatly enumerated lists knows no bounds, records paper as the first of the Four Great Inventions of their land’s history — an appropriate choice for a sprawling, diverse country whose glue has always been the written word. Needless to say, we will meet the others in due course as we continue our journey down through the life and times of China.

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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

8 Comments for "Chapter 7: The Han Dynasty"

  • Aula

    “the overall volume of trade remained the Silk Road was never of any real importance”

    I think there are some words missing; maybe something like “remained so low that”

    • Jimmy Maher

      Yes. Thanks!

  • Todd Carson

    “This inglorious episode marks the point of origin of one of the strangest habits of imperial China to Western eyes, one that would persist for millennia to come: that of buying off the dangerous people around its long land borders with tribute.”

    What about this is strange to Western eyes? Is it significantly different from how the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire gave yearly payments in gold to appease the Huns?

    • Jimmy Maher

      That wasn’t worded terribly well. The act itself wasn’t so strange as the Chinese attitude toward the act, which didn’t cast it as shameful or a sign of weakness. Edit made. Thanks!

  • Martin

    You said – “the Chines and Romans were trading regularly with one another”.

    Chines = Chinese?

    • Jimmy Maher

      Yes. Thanks!

  • Michael Waddell

    > Some historians believe that the Xiongnu who plagued China during the early Han dynasty and the Huns who harassed the Roman Empire during the twilight of Western antiquity stemmed from the same ethnic wellspring, having moved gradually westward over the centuries in between, perchance initially in response to the aggressive expansionism of Emperor Wu.

    This is an excellent way of putting it. The possibility is so enticing that some popular historians word it more boldly as in “The Huns, also called the Xiongnu,…” or “Rome fell because China built a wall”, which are of course unsustainable. But your wording preserves the exciting interrelationships, without going beyond the evidence. Well said.

    > There were periods when its military was strong enough to project power well outside its borders. Such periods tended to coincide with the reigns of strong-willed, charismatic emperors — rulers whose unmanageability made them some of the least favorites of the Confucianists.

    One could argue that we see the same thing in the historic kings of Israel and Judah. Powerful kings such as Omri expanded and strengthened the kingdom, but had no need to submit to the wishes of the YHWH-alone priestly caste who kept records, so Omri is described as a wicked and deficient king despite the prosperity and prestige he brought to Israel. In contrast, weak kings like Hezekiah had to pay outsiders tribute to not invade, but they also submitted to the priests, and so are judged to be ideal kings despite their lack of demonstrable success. It’s interesting to see the same dynamic play out in two very different regions.

    • Jimmy Maher

      “Rome fell because China built a wall” would be grossly inaccurate under any circumstances. As we’ll see, the centuries of Rome’s decline coincided with a similar ebb in Chinese civilization. The old Han capital of Luoyang was sacked by the Xiongnu 99 years before Rome. At the time Rome was being sacked by the Huns, whoever they were, the Xiongnu and other peoples of the step were roaming Northern Inner China with impunity and setting up a dozen or more kingdoms of their own there. The Great Wall presented no obstacle at all to them in the absence of a strong Chinese central government able to garrison it with soldiers.


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