HAN DYNASTY GOVERNMENT

HAN DYNASTY GOVERNMENT


Huo Qubing

The government of the Han Dynasty was structured as an adaptation of Emperor Qin Shihuangdi's centralized government combined with some Confucian ideas. The Han empire retained much of the Qin administrative structure but retreated a bit from centralized rule by establishing vassal principalities in some areas for the sake of political convenience. The Han rulers modified some of the harsher aspects of the previous dynasty; Confucian ideals of government, out of favor during the Qin period, were adopted as the creed of the Han empire, and Confucian scholars gained prominent status as the core of the civil service. [Source: The Library of Congress]

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: The harsh laws of the Qin were repealed, taxes were lightened, the absolute autocracy of the emperor was lessened, and, most importantly, Confucianism was made the basis of the state. The pyramidal bureaucracy of Qin administration was retained, and the Han period saw the beginnings of one of the distinguishing features of the Chinese educational and state system, the recruiting of members of the bureaucracy through civil service examinations. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Wu-di was the strongest of all Han emperors, and his power and accomplishments rank with those of the First Emperor of the Qin. Wu-di restructured the government and the economy of the Han and enormously expanded the territory of China. During this time, Confucianism became the state-sponsored orthodoxy of the Han and the sole form of acceptable discourse in government. Concurrently, the goals of the state returned to the ideals of Legalism, stressing economic policies designed to enlarge the state treasury, expanded centralized power and the size of the state, and exalt the person of the emperor. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Wu-di himself energetically guided the development of "both" of these trends. He consciously selected Confucianism as the chosen ideology of his court and the blueprint for a new form of government. But he placed at the head of his government individuals who would employ this new form of government to pursue the goals of the Legalist state. Confucianism was, for him, a tool in the pursuit of Legalist ends. Wu-di pursued his goals without restraint, and this led to the exhaustion of the country and a subsequent period of contraction, already underway at the time of his death. Nevertheless, the apparent contradiction of a Confucian government pursuing Legalist goals on behalf of an autocrat became the standard structure of imperial Chinese governments for two thousand years.” /+/

During the Han Dynasty, China was one of the largest, and wealthiest, empires on Earth, however, the power of its emperor was not absolute. During this time a number of kings co-existed under the control of the emperor. These kings could amass great wealth and, at times, they rebelled against the emperor.

Good Websites and Sources: Han Dynasty Wikipedia Battle of Red Cliff Wikipedia Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; Books: "Cambridge History of Ancient China" edited by Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy (1999, Cambridge University Press); "The Culture and Civilization of China", a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); "Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties" by Jessica Rawson (British Museum, 1996); “Early Chinese Religion” edited by John Lagerwey & Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: 2009) A fully annotated translation of the “Shiji” text appears in William Nienhauser, et al., "The Grand Scribe’s Records" (Bloomington), v. 1. For an overview of the events of the civil war period, see Michael Loewe, “The Former Han Dynasty,” in "The Cambridge History of China: The Ch’in and Han Empires" (Cambridge University, 1986), pp. 110-19.

Imperial Bureaucracy During the Han Dynasty

Under the Han, government became more centralized, a large bureaucracy with a rigid hierarchy was established, and Confucianism was adopted as a state ideology, a moral guide and model for government. Administrators and local officials were selected on their performance on an exam that measured their knowledge of Confucian classics and then trained at provincial schools and the imperial university. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, February 2004 |=|]

The Imperial Chinese bureaucracy, launched during the Han Dynasty, remained virtually intact as an institution until the 19th century. Local officials reported to central officials in the capital and they in turn reported to the Emperor. A postal system and network of roads was set up to speed communications and tax collections. |=|

The invention of paper in the 2nd century A.D. helped the bureaucratic system to grow. The world's first recorded census was taken in China during the Han dynasty in A.D. 2. It counted 57,671,400 people. The ancient Chinese took censuses to determine revenues and access military strength in each region.

Han-Tang Era Government Administration

Emperor and His Court and Inner Circle:
1) Emperor
2) Three counsellors to the emperor 2. Three counsellors and three (with no active functions) assistants (with no active functions)
3) Eight supreme generals (only 3. Generals and Governors-General appointed in time of war) (only appointed in time of war; but in practice continuously in office)
4) State secretariat: 1) Central secretariat; 2) Secretariat of the Crown; 3) Secretariat of the Palace and imperial historical commission;
Emperor's Secretariat; 1) Private Archives; 2) Court Adjutants' Office; 3) Harem administration
5) Court administration 5. Court administration [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Ministries:
1) Ministry for state sacrifices
2) Ministry for imperial coaches and horses coaches and horses
3) Ministry for justice at court
4) Ministry for receptions (i.e. foreign affairs)
5) Ministry for ancestors' temples temples
6) Ministry for supplies to the court
7) Ministry for the harem
8) Economic and financial Ministry
9) Ministry for the palace
10) Ministry for the payment of guards’salaries
11) Ministry for the court;
12) Ministry for armament (state secretariat) and magazines
13 Ministry of the Interior (Provincial administration)
14) Foreign Ministry
15) Censorship (Audit council).

Administration of the capital:
1) Crown prince's palace
2) Security service: Palace guards and guards' capital office
3) Arms production department
4) Guards of the capital
5) Guards of the city gates
6) Building department
7) Labour service department
8) Building department
9) Transport department
10) Department for education (of sons of officials!)

Han Era Government Officials

The emperor used many government officials organized in a bureaucracy to help him run the empire. The top officials lived in the capital to give the emperor advice while the lower officials lived throughout the empire and checked on things like roads, canals, and grain quotas. Officials ideally were chosen by ability and knowledge rather than social status and connections. They had to pass an intensive test on five Confucian classic texts. These civil servants were evaluated every three years and were either promoted or demoted. [Source: Ancient China, Jennifer Barborek, Boston University]

According to the Han shu: “Senior officials generally come from the mid-level palace attendants; those who rise to positions of 2000 bushels of grain in salary are selected from among sitting officers, often on the basis of their wealth. They are not necessarily worthy. Moreover, in ancient times what counted for merit was based on assessments of performance in office, not solely on accumulated seniority. Thus a man of slight talent, though very senior, would not rise beyond a minor office, while a worthy man’s lack of seniority was no barrier to his becoming a high ranking aide. [Source: Han shu 56.2512-13]

Dr. Eno wrote: “Once established as a state-sanctioned ideology, Confucianism gradually grew into a mass movement. Young men of all backgrounds who hoped for advancement needed to become well acquainted with Confucian ideas and at least some Confucian texts. Those who wished to rise to the topmost levels of government henceforth had to serve time as textual scholars, studying with one or another of the academy teachers for a number of years. This did not happen overnight, and in the course of Wu-di’s reign those studying at his new academy probably did not exceed one or two hundred. But the future seemed to be limitless for the Confucian school, and from this time on, it is customary to refer to the imperial state as “Confucian China.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Han Dynasty Gentry

The Han Dynasty’s first emperor Liu Bang (Gaozu) had little faith in the loyalty of the military, even of his own officers and thus created a new administrative organization to govern his realm that grew into scholar-bureaucrat, also known as or mandarins, Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The term "gentry" has no direct parallel in Chinese texts; the later terms "shen-shih" and "chin-shen" do not quite cover this concept. The basic unit of the gentry class are families, not individuals. Such families often derive their origin from branches of the Zhou nobility. But other gentry families were of different and more recent origin in respect to land ownership. Some late Zhou and Qin officials of non-noble origin had become wealthy and had acquired land; the same was true for wealthy merchants and finally, some non-noble farmers who were successful in one or another way, bought additional land reaching the size of large holdings. All "gentry" families owned substantial estates in the provinces which they leased to tenants on a kind of contract basis. The tenants, therefore, cannot be called "serfs" although their factual position often was not different from the position of serfs. The rents of these tenants, usually about half the gross produce, are the basis of the livelihood of the gentry. One part of a gentry family normally lives in the country on a small home farm in order to be able to collect the rents. If the family can acquire more land and if this new land is too far away from the home farm to make collection of rents easy, a new home farm is set up under the control of another branch of the family. But the original home remains to be regarded as the real family centre. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The term "gentry" has no direct parallel in Chinese texts; the later terms "shen-shih" and "chin-shen" do not quite cover this concept. The basic unit of the gentry class are families, not individuals. Such families often derive their origin from branches of the Zhou nobility. But other gentry families were of different and more recent origin in respect to land ownership. Some late Zhou and Qin officials of non-noble origin had become wealthy and had acquired land; the same was true for wealthy merchants and finally, some non-noble farmers who were successful in one or another way, bought additional land reaching the size of large holdings. All "gentry" families owned substantial estates in the provinces which they leased to tenants on a kind of contract basis. The tenants, therefore, cannot be called "serfs" although their factual position often was not different from the position of serfs. The rents of these tenants, usually about half the gross produce, are the basis of the livelihood of the gentry. One part of a gentry family normally lives in the country on a small home farm in order to be able to collect the rents. If the family can acquire more land and if this new land is too far away from the home farm to make collection of rents easy, a new home farm is set up under the control of another branch of the family. But the original home remains to be regarded as the real family centre.

“In a typical gentry family, another branch of the family is in the capital or in a provincial administrative centre in official positions. These officials at the same time are the most highly educated members of the family and are often called the "literati". There are also always individual family members who are not interested in official careers or who failed in their careers and live as free "literati" either in the big cities or on the home farms. It seems, to judge from much later sources, that the families assisted their most able members to enter the official careers, while those individuals who were less able were used in the administration of the farms. This system in combination with the strong familism of the Chinese, gave a double security to the gentry families. If difficulties arose in the estates either by attacks of bandits or by war or other catastrophes, the family members in official positions could use their influence and power to restore the property in the provinces. If, on the other hand, the family members in official positions lost their positions or even their lives by displeasing the court, the home branch could always find ways to remain untouched and could, in a generation or two, recruit new members and regain power and influence in the government. Thus, as families, the gentry was secure, although failures could occur to individuals. There are many gentry families who remained in the ruling élite for many centuries, some over more than a thousand years, weathering all vicissitudes of life. Some authors believe that Chinese leading families generally pass through a three- or four-generation cycle: a family member by his official position is able to acquire much land, and his family moves upward. He is able to give the best education and other facilities to his sons who lead a good life. But either these sons or the grandsons are spoiled and lazy; they begin to lose their property and status. The family moves downward, until in the fourth or fifth generation a new rise begins. Actual study of families seems to indicate that this is not true. The main branch of the family retains its position over centuries. But some of the branch families, created often by the less able family members, show a tendency towards downward social mobility.

“It is clear from the above that a gentry family should be interested in having a fair number of children. The more sons they have, the more positions of power the family can occupy and thus, the more secure it will be; the more daughters they have, the more "political" marriages they can conclude, i.e. marriages with sons of other gentry families in positions of influence. Therefore, gentry families in China tend to be, on the average, larger than ordinary families, while in our Western countries the leading families usually were smaller than the lower class families. This means that gentry families produced more children than was necessary to replenish the available leading positions; thus, some family members had to get into lower positions and had to lose status. In view of this situation it was very difficult for lower class families to achieve access into this gentry group. In European countries the leading élite did not quite replenish their ranks in the next generation, so that there was always some chance for the lower classes to move up into leading ranks. The gentry society was, therefore, a comparably stable society with little upward social mobility but with some downward mobility. As a whole and for reasons of gentry self-interest, the gentry stood for stability and against change.



Gentry in the Han Government

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The gentry members in the bureaucracy collaborated closely with one another because they were tied together by bonds of blood or marriage. It was easy for them to find good tutors for their children, because a pupil owed a debt of gratitude to his teacher and a child from a gentry family could later on nicely repay this debt; often, these teachers themselves were members of other gentry families. It was easy for sons of the gentry to get into official positions, because the people who had to recommend them for office were often related to them or knew the position of their family. In Han time, local officials had the duty to recommend young able men; if these men turned out to be good, the officials were rewarded, if not they were blamed or even punished. An official took less of a chance, if he recommended a son of an influential family, and he obliged such a candidate so that he could later count on his help if he himself should come into difficulties. When, towards the end of the second century B.C., a kind of examination system was introduced, this attitude was not basically changed. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The country branch of the family by the fact that it controlled large tracts of land, supplied also the logical tax collectors: they had the standing and power required for this job. Even if they were appointed in areas other than their home country (a rule which later was usually applied), they knew the gentry families of the other district or were related to them and got their support by appointing their members as their assistants.

“Gentry society continued from Gaozu's time to 1948, but it went through a number of phases of development and changed considerably in time. We will later outline some of the most important changes. In general the number of politically leading gentry families was around one hundred (texts often speak of "the hundred families" in this time) and they were concentrated in the capital; the most important home seats of these families in Han time were close to the capital and east of it or in the plains of eastern China, at that time the main centre of grain production.

“We regard roughly the first one thousand years of "Gentry Society" as the period of the Chinese "Middle Ages", beginning with the Han dynasty; the preceding time of the Qin was considered as a period of transition, a time in which the feudal period of "Antiquity" came to a formal end and a new organization of society began to become visible. Even those authors who do not accept a sociological classification of periods and many authors who use Marxist categories, believe that with Qin and Han a new era in Chinese history began.

Rise of the Scholar-Bureaucrats

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “As people free from material cares, they were able to devote themselves to scholarship. They went back to the old writings and studied them once more. They even began to identify themselves with the nobles of feudal times, to adopt the rules of good behaviour and the ceremonial described in the Confucianist books, and very gradually, as time went on, to make these their textbooks of good form. From this point the Confucianist ideals first began to penetrate the official class recruited from the gentry, and then the state organization itself. It was expected that an official should be versed in Confucianism, and schools were set up for Confucianist education. Around 100 B.C. this led to the introduction of the examination system, which gradually became the one method of selection of new officials. The system underwent many changes, but remained in operation in principle until 1904. The object of the examinations was not to test job efficiency but command of the ideals of the gentry and knowledge of the literature inculcating them: this was regarded as sufficient qualification for any position in the service of the state. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“In theory this path to training of character and to admission to the state service was open to every "respectable" citizen. Of the traditional four "classes" of Chinese society, only the first two, officials (shih) and farmers (nung) were always regarded as fully "respectable" (liang-min). Members of the other two classes, artisans (kung) and merchants (shang), were under numerous restrictions. Below these were classes of "lowly people" (ch'ien-min) and below these the slaves which were not part of society proper. The privileges and obligations of these categories were soon legally fixed. In practice, during the first thousand years of the existence of the examination system no peasant had a chance to become an official by means of the examinations. In the Han period the provincial officials had to propose suitable young persons for examination, and so for admission to the state service, as was already mentioned. In addition, schools had been instituted for the sons of officials; it is interesting to note that there were, again and again, complaints about the low level of instruction in these schools. Nevertheless, through these schools all sons of officials, whatever their capacity or lack of capacity, could become officials in their turn. In spite of its weaknesses, the system had its good side. It inoculated a class of people with ideals that were unquestionably of high ethical value. The Confucian moral system gave a Chinese official or any member of the gentry a spiritual attitude and an outward bearing which in their best representatives has always commanded respect, an integrity that has always preserved its possessors, and in consequence Chinese society as a whole, from moral collapse, from spiritual nihilism, and has thus contributed to the preservation of Chinese cultural values in spite of all foreign conquerors.

“In the time of Wen-di and especially of his successors, the revival at court of the Confucianist ritual and of the earlier Heaven-worship proceeded steadily. The sacrifices supposed to have been performed in ancient times, the ritual supposed to have been prescribed for the emperor in the past, all this was reintroduced. Obviously much of it was spurious: much of the old texts had been lost, and when fragments were found they were arbitrarily completed. Moreover, the old writing was difficult to read and difficult to understand; thus various things were read into the texts without justification. The new Confucians who came forward as experts in the moral code were very different men from their predecessors; above all, like all their contemporaries, they were strongly influenced by the shamanistic magic that had developed in the Qin period.

Development of Chinese-Style Government During the Han Dynasty

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Against the growing influence of the officials belonging to the gentry there came a last reaction. It came as a reply to the attempt of a representative of the gentry to deprive the feudal princes of the whole of their power. In the time of Wen-di's successor a number of feudal kings formed an alliance against the emperor, and even invited the Xiongnu to join them. The Xiongnu did not do so, because they saw that the rising had no prospect of success, and it was quelled. After that the feudal princes were steadily deprived of rights. They were divided into two classes, and only privileged ones were permitted to live in the capital, the others being required to remain in their domains. At first, the area was controlled by a "minister" of the prince, an official of the state; later the area remained under normal administration and the feudal prince kept only an empty title; the tax income of a certain number of families of an area was assigned to him and transmitted to him by normal administrative channels. Often, the number of assigned families was fictional in that the actual income was from far fewer families. This system differs from the Near Eastern system in which also no actual enforcement took place, but where deserving men were granted the right to collect themselves the taxes of a certain area with certain numbers of families. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Soon after this the whole government was given the shape which it continued to have until A.D. 220, and which formed the point of departure for all later forms of government. At the head of the state was the emperor, in theory the holder of absolute power in the state restricted only by his responsibility towards "Heaven", i.e. he had to follow and to enforce the basic rules of morality, otherwise "Heaven" would withdraw its "mandate", the legitimation of the emperor's rule, and would indicate this withdrawal by sending natural catastrophes. Time and again we find emperors publicly accusing themselves for their faults when such catastrophes occurred; and to draw the emperor's attention to actual or made-up calamities or celestial irregularities was one way to criticize an emperor and to force him to change his behaviour. There are two other indications which show that Chinese emperors—excepting a few individual cases—at least in the first ten centuries of gentry society were not despots: it can be proved that in some fields the responsibility for governmental action did not lie with the emperor but with some of his ministers. Secondly, the emperor was bound by the law code: he could not change it nor abolish it. We know of cases in which the ruler disregarded the code, but then tried to "defend" his arbitrary action. Each new dynasty developed a new law code, usually changing only details of the punishment, not the basic regulations. Rulers could issue additional "regulations", but these, too, had to be in the spirit of the general code and the existing moral norms. This situation has some similarity to the situation in Muslim countries. At the ruler's side were three counsellors who had, however, no active functions. The real conduct of policy lay in the hands of the "chancellor", or of one of the "nine ministers". Unlike the practice with which we are familiar in the West, the activities of the ministries (one of them being the court secretariat) were concerned primarily with the imperial palace. As, however, the court secretariat, one of the nine ministries, was at the same time a sort of imperial statistical office, in which all economic, financial, and military statistical material was assembled, decisions on issues of critical importance for the whole country could and did come from it. The court, through the Ministry of Supplies, operated mines and workshops in the provinces and organized the labour service for public constructions. The court also controlled centrally the conscription for the general military service. Beside the ministries there was an extensive administration of the capital with its military guards. The various parts of the country, including the lands given as fiefs to princes, had a local administration, entirely independent of the central government and more or less elaborated according to their size. The regional administration was loosely associated with the central government through a sort of primitive ministry of the interior, and similarly the Chinese representatives in the protectorates, that is to say the foreign states which had submitted to Chinese protective overlordship, were loosely united with a sort of foreign ministry in the central government. When a rising or a local war broke out, that was the affair of the officer of the region concerned. If the regional troops were insufficient, those of the adjoining regions were drawn upon; if even these were insufficient, a real "state of war" came into being; that is to say, the emperor appointed eight generals-in-chief, mobilized the imperial troops, and intervened. This imperial army then had authority over the regional and feudal troops, the troops of the protectorates, the guards of the capital, and those of the imperial palace. At the end of the war the imperial army was demobilized and the generals-in-chief were transferred to other posts.

“In all this there gradually developed a division into civil and military administration. A number of regions would make up a province with a military governor, who was in a sense the representative of the imperial army, and who was supposed to come into activity only in the event of war.

“This administration of the Han period lacked the tight organization that would make precise functioning possible. On the other hand, an extremely important institution had already come into existence in a primitive form. As central statistical authority, the court secretariat had a special position within the ministries and supervised the administration of the other offices. Thus there existed alongside the executive a means of independent supervision of it, and the resulting rivalry enabled the emperor or the chancellor to detect and eliminate irregularities. Later, in the system of the Tang period (A.D. 618-906), this institution developed into an independent censorship, and the system was given a new form as a "State and Court Secretariat", in which the whole executive was comprised and unified. Towards the end of the Tang period the permanent state of war necessitated the permanent commissioning of the imperial generals-in-chief and of the military governors, and as a result there came into existence a "Privy Council of State", which gradually took over functions of the executive.

“There is no denying that according to our standard this whole system was still elementary and "personal", that is to say, attached to the emperor's person—though it should not be overlooked that we ourselves are not yet far from a similar phase of development. To this day the titles of not a few of the highest officers of state—the Lord Privy Seal, for instance—recall that in the past their offices were conceived as concerned purely with the personal service of the monarch. In one point, however, the Han administrative set-up was quite modern: it already had a clear separation between the emperor's private treasury and the state treasury; laws determined which of the two received certain taxes and which had to make certain payments. This separation, which in Europe occurred not until the late Middle Ages, in China was abolished at the end of the Han Dynasty.

Local Government During the Han Dynasty

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The picture changes considerably to the advantage of the Chinese as soon as we consider the provincial administration. The governor of a province, and each of his district officers or prefects, had a staff often of more than a hundred officials. These officials were drawn from the province or prefecture and from the personal friends of the administrator, and they were appointed by the governor or the prefect. The staff was made up of officials responsible for communications with the central or provincial administration (private secretary, controller, finance officer), and a group of officials who carried on the actual local administration. There were departments for transport, finance, education, justice, medicine (hygiene), economic and military affairs, market control, and presents (which had to be made to the higher officials at the New Year and on other occasions). In addition to these offices, organized in a quite modern style, there was an office for advising the governor and another for drafting official documents and letters. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The interesting feature of this system is that the provincial administration was de facto independent of the central administration, and that the governor and even his prefects could rule like kings in their regions, appointing and discharging as they chose. This was a vestige of feudalism, but on the other hand it was a healthy check against excessive centralization. It is thanks to this system that even the collapse of the central power or the cutting off of a part of the empire did not bring the collapse of the country. In a remote frontier town like Tunhuang, on the border of Turkestan, the life of the local Chinese went on undisturbed whether communication with the capital was maintained or was broken through invasions by foreigners. The official sent from the centre would be liable at any time to be transferred elsewhere; and he had to depend on the practical knowledge of his subordinates, the members of the local families of the gentry. These officials had the local government in their hands, and carried on the administration of places like Tunhuang through a thousand years and more. The Hsin family, for instance, was living there in 50 B.C. and was still there in A.D. 950; and so were the Yin, Ling-hu, Li, and K'ang families.

“All the officials of the various offices or Ministries were appointed under the state examination system, but they had no special professional training; only for the more important subordinate posts were there specialists, such as jurists, physicians, and so on. A change came towards the end of the Tang period, when a Department of Commerce and Monopolies was set up; only specialists were appointed to it, and it was placed directly under the emperor. Except for this, any official could be transferred from any ministry to any other without regard to his experience.


Battle of the Bridge


Han Dynasty Military

As all men from the ages of 25 to 60 were required to serve two years in the army, the Han armies had 130,000 to 300,000 men at any given time. Improved technology in the production of iron provided the Han army with better quality weaponry and shields and longer swords to better fight an enemy at a safer distance. Crossbows were a favorite weapon as they were in earlier dynasties. Kites were used to send messages from one part of the army to another. Horses were greatly valued. The first century B.C. painter Ma Yuan said: “ Horses are the foundation of military might, the great resource of the state.” [Source: Ancient China, Jennifer Barborek, Boston University]

At the beginning of the Han dynasty, every male commoner aged twenty-three was liable for conscription into the military. The minimum age for the military draft was reduced to twenty after Emperor Zhao's (r. 87–74 BC) reign. Conscripted soldiers underwent one year of training and one year of service as non-professional soldiers. The year of training was served in one of three branches of the armed forces: infantry, cavalry or navy. The year of active service was served either on the frontier, in a king's court or under the Minister of the Guards in the capital. A small professional (paid) standing army was stationed near the capital. [Source: Wikipedia +]

During the Eastern Han, conscription could be avoided if one paid a commutable tax. The Eastern Han court favored the recruitment of a volunteer army. The volunteer army comprised the Southern Army (Nanjun), while the standing army stationed in and near the capital was the Northern Army (Beijun). Led by Colonels (Xiaowei), the Northern Army consisted of five regiments, each composed of several thousand soldiers. When central authority collapsed after 189 AD, wealthy landowners, members of the aristocracy/nobility, and regional military-governors relied upon their retainers to act as their own personal troops (buqu). +

During times of war, the volunteer army was increased, and a much larger militia was raised across the country to supplement the Northern Army. In these circumstances, a General (Jiangjun) led a division, which was divided into regiments led by Colonels and sometimes Majors (Sima). Regiments were divided into companies and led by Captains. Platoons were the smallest units of soldiers. +

Restoration and Control of Patrician States During the Han Dynasty

Dr. Eno wrote: “During the course of the civil wars, most of the major participants anticipated that any new political arrangement which emerged from the chaos would resemble the multi-state polity of the pre-Qin period. The leaders of the largest armies frequently laid claims to the royal throne of whatever region their troops had come to occupy. At some periods of the wars, it appeared that the outcome might resemble the Warring States arrangement of strong independent states with a figurehead emperor; at other periods, it seemed more likely that the outcome would resemble the Western Zhou, with a strong emperor commanding the fealty of patrician lords who were supreme within their own domains. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“When Liu Bang became emperor, he needed to decide whether to restore the system of “Zhou feudalism,” which under Li Si’s stewardship had been thoroughly abolished, or to continue the Qin revolution and confirm the bureaucratic structure of the Chinese state. His decision was a compromise between two extremes. He gave imperial endorsement to those royal titles which his rebel confederates had already appropriated, thus ceding to ten “feudal” lords about sixty percent of the total empire, comprising its eastern half. These regions would not be under the emperor’s direct control, but would be under the control of the various victorious generals of the anti-Xiang Yu forces. The western portion of the empire remained under the emperor’s direct control, organized in the system of commanderies and counties. /+/

“This compromise was quickly adjusted much in the emperor’s favor. The rebel generals who comprised the new royalty were for the most part volatile men from the lower classes, well seasoned as leaders of troops, but unskilled in administration and diplomacy. They, like Liu Bang, were little more than warlords with private armies, and they were well aware of the fact that the new emperor was likely to look upon them as threats to his unstable throne. Thus, during the first half-decade of the Han, first one then another of these kings instigated or was driven to a preemptive revolt against the forces of the emperor. Once again, Liu Bang’s cadre of skilled advisors and military personnel served him with great skill, and one by one, the kings were cut down. By 196, just six years after the Han empire and its royal kingdoms had been settled, only one of the initial set of kings remained on his throne. In the other nine states, a son or brother of Liu Bang had been established as hereditary king. When Liu Bang died in 195, his family was in firm control of China.”/+/

Government Under Wen-di and Wudi


Wu Di

Wen-di (reigned 180–157 B.C.) was the fourth Ham emperor. Dr. Eno wrote: The principal achievement of Wen-di’s reign was to move forward the process clearly envisioned by his father Liu Bang to reduce the number and range of the feudal kingdoms. Although all but one of the kingdoms were now ruled by members of the imperial clan, Wen-di recognized that as time progressed, the sense of family connection with the lineage at the capital was bound to decline, and the kingdoms represented a long-term threat. The reduction of the kingdoms proceeded piecemeal in two ways. Occasionally, one of the royal rulers would defy some order from the imperial throne and raise troops in resistance. In such cases Wen-di’s armies would crush the revolt and remove the ruler. In other cases, a ruler would die without an heir. Generally, Wen-di responded to either sort of vacancy with an extremely diplomatic procedure. He would not terminate the kingdom, but would reduce its territory and the privileges of its royal house in the course of selecting and installing a new occupant to the throne. Thus whereas Gao-di had attempted to bring the kingdoms under centralized control by bringing them within the Liu family, Wen-di pursued the same goals by reducing their status and resources.” /+/

Emperor Wu Di (140-87 B.C.) is regarded is one of China's greatest emperors. Known as the “martial emperor," he ruled for 54 years beginning at the age of 16, and elevated Confucianism to a cultural philosophy, royal religion and state cult and presided over a period of achievement and prosperity. Dr. Eno wrote: “Wu-di was the strongest of all Han emperors, and his power and accomplishments rank with those of the First Emperor of the Qin. Wu-di restructured the government and the economy of the Han and enormously expanded the territory of China. His resemblance to the First Emperor does not end with the magnitude of his political achievements. Like the First Emperor, he was also a superstitious and suspicious man, who, in the course of his long reign, made his own attainment of personal immortality a primary objective of state policy. At the close of his reign, the driving energy of his political and personal goals dissolved in terrible failure, as an exhausted state faced financial ruin and the imperial family lay devastated by bizarre witch hunts and murder. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The foremost historian of the early Han, Michael Loewe, of Cambridge University in England, has characterized Wu-di’s reign as a battle between two opposing philosophies of government, which he calls Modernist and Reformist (in a rather conservative sense), but which have traditionally been referred to as Legalist and Confucian. Loewe is correct in seeking to evade the complex overtones of the traditional terminology in clarifying the nature of the political forces of Wu-di’s time and the way in which they establish the future contours of Chinese politics. But for our purposes it makes sense to retain the older terms, which locate the tensions of Wu-di’s reign in the context of the prior evolution of Chinese society. /+/

On the largest scale, we may characterize Wu-di’s reign as a period of outright contradiction. During this time, Confucianism became the state-sponsored orthodoxy of the Han and the sole form of acceptable discourse in government. Concurrently, the goals of the state returned to the ideals of Legalism, stressing economic policies designed to enlarge the state treasury, expanded centralized power and the size of the state, and exalt the person of the emperor. Wu-di himself energetically guided the development of "both" of these trends. He consciously selected Confucianism as the chosen ideology of his court and the blueprint for a new form of government. But he placed at the head of his government individuals who would employ this new form of government to pursue the goals of the Legalist state. Confucianism was, for him, a tool in the pursuit of Legalist ends. /+/

“Wu-di pursued his goals without restraint, and this led to the exhaustion of the country and a subsequent period of contraction, already underway at the time of his death. Nevertheless, the apparent contradiction of a Confucian government pursuing Legalist goals on behalf of an autocrat became the standard structure of imperial Chinese governments for two thousand years. /+/

“Loewe has maintained that there actually exists no evidence that Wu-di was a dynamic force at court at any period. He has noted that all significant features of the emperor's reign could be attributed to his ministers' initiative, since the historical accounts portray most policy discussion through ministerial memorials. This view would, however, be equally applicable to the First Emperor; intriguing as Loewe’s idea is, the interpretation followed here is that the apparent silence of the emperor is more likely to be a function of conventions of history writing than of his actual passivity.”

Establishment of Confucianism Under Wu Di


Ambassaor Visiting Emperor Wu Di

Dr. Eno wrote: “The rise of Confucianism to state orthodoxy under Wu-di was most likely a direct reaction against the influence of Huang-Lao adherents at court. Wu-di’s father, Jing-di, was dominated by his own mother, Empress Dou. The empress dowager was an active patron of Huang-Lao and a commanding personality. Under Jing-di, Huang-Lao and Legalist ministers enjoyed a near monopoly of power. Jing-di died young and Wu-di came to the throne when he was only about sixteen. His grandmother continued to exert great influence at court, but certain ministers who were not part of her closest group of advisors began to look towards the new emperor as a possible counter-weight to the empress. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Judging by his later career, Wu-di came to the throne with a deep appreciation of his own magnificence. It must have been difficult for a person so convinced of his own abilities to contemplate the power of his grandmother.* In the initial years of his reign, proposals came from several sources suggesting the wisdom of enlarging the role of Confucian adherents at court, and these probably led Wu-di to ponder how such policies might over time provide him with an entirely new staff of ministers and administrators, beholden to none but the emperor himself. Even before his grandmother’s death he went so far as to order the institutionalization of Confucian appointments among the court erudites (a policy we will discuss further in a subsequent section). After the Empress Dou died in 135, Wu-di acted swiftly. /+/

“The empress had only been dead a few months when Wu-di issued a proclamation that called for the large scale recruitment of new personnel for the government. The procedures developed for this recruitment drive specifically linked the requirements for candidates to virtues praised by Confucians and, more importantly, to training in Confucian classical studies. Shortly thereafter, the emperor adopted a further set of policies which banned from court service all those devoted to the teachings of Huang-Lao or Legalism, and made Confucianism the exclusive ideology of the bureaucracy. In so doing, the emperor completely freed himself from the influence of those whose true loyalties lay with his grandmother and brought to power a group of outsiders who owed their power, prestige, and wealth exclusively to Wu-di.” Thus “the establishment of Confucianism as a state ideology was at the outset most likely tied to the politics of court, rather than to any ethical convictions on the part of Wu-di, or even any belief that Confucianism was, by nature, a well designed tool for governing the state.” /+/

“Responsibilities of Rulership" by Dong Zhongshu


“The Responsibilities of Rulership”“From Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn Annals” was written by Dong Zhongshu (c. 195–c. 105 B.C.), a renowned Confucian scholar and government official during the reign of the Han Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 B.C.). Dong Zhongshu played a significant role in developing and articulating a philosophical synthesis which, while taking Confucianism as its basis, incorporated Daoist and Legalist ideas and the concepts of yin and yang. “Dong’s thought was important in defining the roles and expectations of rulers and ministers and for making this particular version of Confucianism the orthodox philosophy of government in China. [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 299-300, Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

Section 2 of “The Responsibilities of Rulership” by Dong Zhongshu in the “From Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn Annals: reads: “He who rules the people is the foundation of the state. Now in administering the state, nothingis more important for transforming [the people] than reverence for the foundation. If thefoundation is revered, the ruler will transform [the people] as if a spirit. If the foundation is notrevered, the ruler will lack the means to unite the people. If he lacks the means to unite thepeople, even if he institutes strict punishments and heavy penalties, the people will not submit.

“This is called “throwing away the state.” Is there a greater disaster than this? What do I mean by the foundation? Heaven, Earth, and humankind are the foundation of all living things. Heaven engenders all living things, Earth nourishes them, and humankind completes them. With filial and brotherly love, Heaven engenders them; with food and clothing, Earth nourishes them; and with rites and music, humankind completes them. These three assist one another just as the hands and feet join to complete the body. None can be dispensed with because without filial and brotherly love, people lack the means to live; without food and clothing, people lack the means to be nourished; and without rites and music, people lack the means to become complete. If all three are lost, people become like deer, each person following his own desires and each family practicing its own customs. Fathers will not be able to order their sons, and rulers will not be able to order their ministers. Although possessing inner and outer walls, [the ruler’s city] will become known as “an empty settlement.” Under such circumstances, the ruler will lie down with a clod of earth for his pillow. Although no one endangers him, he will naturally be endangered; although no one destroys him, he will naturally be destroyed. This is called “spontaneous punishment.” When it arrives, even if he is hidden in a stone vault or barricaded in a narrow pass, the ruler will not be able to avoid “spontaneous punishment.” One who is an enlightened master and worthy ruler believes such things. For this reason he respectfully and carefully attends to the three foundations. He reverently enacts the suburban sacrifice, dutifully serves his ancestors, manifests filial and brotherly love, encourages filial conduct, and serves the foundation of Heaven in this way. He takes up the plough handle to till the soil, plucks the mulberry leaves and nourishes the silkworms, reclaims the wilds, plants grain, opens new lands to provide sufficient food and clothing, and serves the foundation of Earth in this way. He establishes academies and schools in towns and villages to teach filial piety, brotherly love, reverence, and humility, enlightens [the people] with education, moves [them] with rites and music, and serves the foundation of humanity in this way.

“If these three foundations are all served, the people will resemble sons and brothers who do not dare usurp authority, while the ruler will resemble fathers and mothers. He will not rely on favors to demonstrate his love for his people nor severe measures to prompt them to act. Even if he lives in the wilds without a roof over head, he will consider that this surpasses living in a palace. Under such circumstances, the ruler will lie down upon a peaceful pillow. Although no one assists him, he will naturally be powerful; although no one pacifies his state, peace will naturally come. This is called “spontaneous reward.” When “spontaneous reward” befalls him, although he might relinquish the throne and leave the state, the people will take up their children on their backs and follow him as the ruler, so that he too will be unable to leave them. Therefore when the ruler relies on virtue to administer the state, it is sweeter than honey or sugar and firmer than glue or lacquer. This is why sages and worthies exert themselves to revere the foundation and do not dare depart from it.”

Wang Mang


Wang Mang

Wang Mang was first and last emperor of China's Xin Dynasty (A.D. 9 - 23), a brief period that interrupted the Han dynasty, dividing it into the periods of the Western Han (206 B.C. - A.D. 9) and the Eastern Han (A.D. 23- 220). In A.D. 9, Wang nationalized his state's land and redistributed it to the peasantry — a revolutionary act cost him his throne and his life. Even today his motives remain unclear.

Tristan Shaw wrote in Listverse: Some 1,900 years before Mao Zedong founded the communist People’s Republic of China, China’s first “socialist” ruler, Wang Mang, seized power from a child emperor and founded the Xin dynasty in AD 9. Wang, an ambitious and socially conscious reformer, embarked on a number of policies that many later historians have interpreted as socialistic. In an attempt to fix China’s dire economic situation and a starving and poor peasantry, Wang’s government took control of all the land in the country and ordered that rich landholders equally redistribute their estates. He also introduced price controls, banned the slave trade, and confiscated thousands of pounds of gold to weaken the power of the elite.[Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, May 16, 2016]

“Not surprisingly, the country’s rich merchants and nobles weren’t very enthusiastic about Wang’s new policies. The reforms only worsened China’s terrible economic crisis, and Wang called them off after only eight years. Wang’s timing, however, proved to be too late. A civil war erupted, and both the elite and the peasantry that he had tried to help took up arms against him. By the fall of AD 23, Wang realized that his situation was hopeless. As the rebels approached his capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an), Wang lingered in his palace, consorting with magicians and trying to cast spells. On October 7 of that year, the rebels invaded Chang’an and stormed Wang’s palace. They beheaded him and then dismembered his body, bringing an end to the first and last Xin emperor.”

Wang Mang’s Reforms

Mike Dash wrote in smithsonian.com: “The little that is known about Wang Mang’s reforms can be summarized as follows. It is said he invented an early form of social security payments, collecting taxes from the wealthy to make loans to the traditionally uncreditworthy poor. He certainly introduced the “six controls”—government monopolies on key products such as iron and salt that Hu Shih saw as a form of “state socialism”—and was responsible for a policy known as the Five Equalizations, an elaborate attempt to damp down fluctuations in prices. Even Wang’s harshest modern critics agree that his ban on the sale of cultivated land was an attempt to save desperate farmers from the temptation to sell up during times of famine; instead, his state provided disaster relief. Later the emperor imposed a ruinous tax upon slave owners. It is equally possible to interpret this tax as either an attempt to make slaveholding impossible or as a naked grab for money. [Source: Mike Dash, smithsonian.com, December 9, 2011 ~~]

“Of all Wang Mang’s policies, however, two stand out: his land reforms and the changes he made to China’s money. As early as 6 A.D., when he was still merely regent for an infant named Liu Ying, Wang ordered the withdrawal of the empire’s gold-based coins and their replacement with four bronze denominations of purely nominal value—round coins with values of one and 50 cash and larger, knife-shaped coins worth 500 and 5,000 cash. Since Wang’s 50-cash coins had only 1/20th the bronze per cash as his smallest coins did, and his 5,000-cash coins were minted with proportionally even less, the effect was to substitute fiduciary currency for a Han dynasty gold standard. Simultaneously, Wang ordered the recall of all the gold in the empire. Thousands of tons of the precious metal were seized and stored in the imperial treasury, and the dramatic decrease in its availability was felt as far away as Rome, where the Emperor Augustus was forced to ban the purchase of expensive imported silks with what had become—mysteriously, from the Roman point of view—irreplaceable gold coins. In China, the new bronze coinage produced rampant inflation and a sharp increase in counterfeiting. ~~

“Wang Mang’s land reforms, meanwhile, appear even more consciously revolutionary. “The strong,” Wang wrote, “possess lands by the thousands of mu, while the weak have nowhere to place a needle.” His solution was to nationalize all land, confiscating the estates of all those who possessed more than 100 acres, and to distribute it to those who actually farmed it. Under this, the so-called ching system, each family received about five acres and paid the state tax in the form of 10 percent of all the food they grew.” ~~

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.