Confucianism in the Early Han Empire

Episode 11: Contact with the West – the Early Han

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

The first Han emperor Gaozu moved the capitol to Changon after a popular uprising destroyed the Qin capitol Xianyang. Later Han emperors would move it east to Lyoyang.

Ruling a vast empire stretching from Vietnam in the north to Korea in the south and west into Central Asia, Gaozu employed a bureaucracy of highly educated Confucian and Daoist scholars. In the year 2 AD census, the Han empire registered 80 commanderies,* 10 kingdoms and 1,587 prefectures (which were further subdivided into wards).

Immensely popular for reducing taxes on the peasants, the first Han emperor adopted Confucianism as official government policy in 140 BC. The last Han emperor Wudi would found a Confucian academy to educate government officials and initiate the world’s first civil service exam.

The Han Dynasty continued the harsh criminal penalties enacted under the Qin Dynasty and forced all subjects to register locally for conscription for military service and imperial construction crews. To finance his numerous military campaigns, Wudi began minting coins, confiscating lands he had gifted to his nobles and increasing taxes on business activity. This income supplemented growing revenues from the government monopoly on the highly lucrative salt and iron industries.

Wudi is also remembered for dispatching the famous Han envoy Zhang Qian to Central Asia to seek an alliance with the Yuezhi nomads against the aggressive Xiongu nomads to the north of China. The international contacts Zhang Qian initiated would lead to the development of the first Silk Road.

Eventually the fiscal stress caused by Wudi’s military expansionism led to marked peasant unrest and the downfall of the East Han Dynasty in 9 AD. Daoist scholars particularly expressed harsh criticism of corrupt government policies (eg government monopolies in critical industries, incessant wars of conquest and the growing power of palace eunuchs).

One of Wudi’s court officials Wang Mang seized power in 9 AD, declaring the short-lived Xin Dynasty. Wang was immensely popular with Chinese peasants for apportioning land to them under the communal “well field system”** and for establishing grain reserves to stabilize widely fluctuating grain prices.

Wang was overthrown in 23 AD by a group of nobles who resented his favoritism towards the peasants.

The Xin Dynasty was replaced by the East Han Dynasty, which ruled for nearly two centuries. Eunuchs were incredibly powerful under the East Han Dynasty and frequently arrested Confucian scholars for protesting government corruption.

Meanwhile Daoist principles of equal rights and land distribution spread throughout the peasantry, leading to the Yellow Turban Rebellion (184 – 204 AD). As the Han Dynasty collapsed, power eventually fell into the hands of local governments and warlords.

*Provincial regions with decentralized administrative structures

**In the wellfield system, one unit of land was divided among eight peasant families. A shared field was surrounded by eight fields, each worked by an individual family. The field in the center was worked jointly by the families for their noble lord.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

The Qin and the First Emperor of China

Qin Dynasty - HISTORY

Episode 10: The Qin and the First Emperor of China

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

By 221 BC, the kingdom of Qin (pronounced Ch’in – source of the country name China) had sufficient military prowess* to defeat all rival kingdoms and declare their king (Qin Shi Huangdi)  the first Chinese emperor.

In his eleven years of rule, he enacted many reforms to further consolidate his power. He began by moving the nobility of the former rival kingdoms to the Qin and replacing their old fiefdoms with 36 provinces run by hand-picked administrators. Qin Shi Huangdi also abolished feudalism, allowing peasants to own their own land ensuring the legal code no longer favored the nobility.

In addition to harsh punishments for criminal acts (see Great Ideas of the Zhou: Legaism), there were also harsh penalties for possessing weapons, criticizing the emperor or expressing viewpoints that disagreed with Legalist principles (ie Confucianism or Daoism). In total, 460 Confucian and Daoist scholars were ultimately buried alive while multiple copies Confucian and Daoist texts were burned.

The first emperor also introduced Xiaozuan, a new style of writing, as well as new systems of weights, currency and measurement, declaring it an act of treason not to use them.

Despite being allowed to own property, the lives of peasants improved little, owing to forced conscription to work on the Great Wall** and the emperor’s tomb.

Qin Shi Huangdi’s tomb is best known for the thousands of life size terracotta warriors discovered inside. Tomb construction began 24 years before Qin declared himself emperor and ended with his death in 210 BC. In addition to roughly 700,000 men who died during its construction, all surviving laborers were killed to keep the location secret.

The Qin was the shortest dynasty in Chinese history. After the emperor’s death in 210 BC,*** a deadly civil war broke out in the Qin court. By 206 BC, the power struggle was complicated by a popular revolt. When a group of peasants conscripted to work on the Great Wall were delayed by rain, they became outlaws instead of facing likely execution. The tide turned when Qin generals defected to join growing numbers of peasants fed up with brutal conscription laws.

Lui Bagb, a minor local official from the Han kingdom (who became an outlaw to escape execution when prisoners he was escorting to work on the tomb escaped) ultimately declared himself the Han king. On assuming power, he renamed himself Gaozu and established the Han Dynasty.

*The Qin acquired major military advantage over their rivals through large stockpiles of iron weapons and trained horse archers (thanks to repeated confrontations with nomad horse archers – see Intertwined Role of Steppes Nomads and Early Chinese Civilization)

**Begun as rammed earth wall (to help prevent nomadic raids from the steppes) during the Zhou dynasty, under the Qin Dynasty was fortified with granite. The project took 10 years to complete and nearly one million men died during construction.

***Obsessed with his search for immortality, Qin Shi Huangdi most likely died of mercury poison from one of the tonics his doctors prescribed to help him live forever.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

How Steppes Nomads Influenced Early Chinese Civilization

Episode 3 Early Nomads and China

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

Jade burial ornaments imported from the Tarim Basin* are the earliest evidence of contact between steppes nomads and the Xua (2205-1766 BC) and Shang (1766-1122 BC) Dynasty. The discovery of spoked wheels and light chariots from this period also suggests contact with steppes nomads. Harl supports the theory that copper and bronze technology spread from Mesopotamia to China via steppes nomads.

Following the invention of the composite bow around 1000 BC, steppes nomads made repeated raids on China’s settled cities to seize luxury goods and other booty. As early as 600 BC, the independent Chinese kingdoms began building walls to discourage nomad incursions.

With the unification of the Xiongnu confederacy under the first major steppe conqueror Modu Chanyu (234-174 BC), the first Qin dynasty emperor Shi Huangdi 221-210 BC undertook the first serious military campaign against the Xiongu nomads. After leading an expedition driving the Xiongu into the Gobi Desert, General Mang Tieng successfully claimed a handful of frontier territories for the emperor. However lacking horses strong enough to pursue nomad horsemen further north, the Chinese settled for strengthen their frontier fortification (with more walls).

The first Han emperor Gaozu (202 – 195 BC) was the first to pursue an (unsuccessful) campaign to capture nomad territory for the Chinese. In the end, he resorted to the so-called “Five Baits” strategy. This involved a system  of elaborate gifts

  • Fine food “to corrupt their mouths”
  • Clothes and carriages “to corrupt their eyes”
  • Music and women “to corrupt their ears
  • Lofting buildings, granaries and slaves “to corrupt their stomach
  • Wine and food “to corrupt their mind”

According to Harl, the actual gifts mainly consisted of silks, gold and Chinese princesses for the Xiongnu to marry.

The Chinese benefited from this trade through the horses they received from the Xiongnu and collaboration with the nomads on developing the Silk Road trade.

After the Xiongu escalated their demands and escalated their raids, a later Han emperor launched a new series of military campaigns against them (140 -87 BC).

*The Tarim Basin, also known as the Taklaman Desert, is currently part of China’s Uyghur Autonomous Region. It was formally annexed by China in the 18th century.