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Chinese History - 202-9 BC - Western Han Dynasty

China History Map - Xi Han /  Former HanThe fatiguing pace of life during the Ch'in prompted civil war and the downfall of the empire when those who ruled were overthrown by those they ruled. The victors named their dynasty the Han. Its first Emperor, Kao-ti, established his capital at Chang-an. There he set about replacing the old laws with the teachings of Confucianism, which were to instruct and edify society. Reaching back to the Chou, the Emperor also revived the tenant of the Mandate of Heaven, justifying his authority in the celestial sphere. In the early years of Han, government became less oppressive. Taxes were lowered and extreme punishment curtailed. Merchants, a class generally distrusted, gained new freedoms, and as the floods of the Yellow River were better controlled, more land was brought under plow. Internal disputes subsided and efforts were made to appease the barbarians of the north and west.

The dynasty of Han which lasted for four centuries and included the reigns of thirty-two Emperors was founded by the successful soldier of fortune, Liu Pang. Liu Pang was originally a peasant of the province of Kiangsu who made himself popular among his fellow-villagers by his good nature and courage and made himself wealthy by marriage with the woman who afterwards became notorious as the Empress Lu Hou. Chosen as the head of a band of insurgents Liu Pang gradually attracted to himself leaders of influence and ability, and, proclaiming himself Prince of Han, took advantage of the disturbed condition of the country at the close of the Ch'in dynasty to fight his way to supreme power. His principal opponent was his fellow general, Hiang Yu, a man of immense stature, strength and courage. Victory, however, fell to the lot of Liu Pang and the Empire recognized the victor who forthwith assumed the Yellow Robe under the title of Kao Tsu. The reign lasted about seven years and was marked by considerable wisdom and moderation.

Not so much can be said in favor of the reign which immediately followed. The widow of Kao Tsu terrorized the young prince, her son, who succeeded to the throne, until, at the end of seven years, he was driven into sheer imbecility and died. The masterful Empress then reigned alone and in her own right until her death in B. C. 180. It is the only instance of a female rule over China which is regarded by the historians as possessing a legitimate title. A more attractive personality is that of Wen Ti, who succeeded the stalwart Empress. The moderation and unselfishness of his character are illustrated by the story that he abandoned the building of his projected "Dew Tower" when he learned that its cost would be a hundred bars of gold. "I will not spend on this building," he said, "what will furnish ten households with a fortune."

The greatest of the Han sovereigns was undoubtedly the sixth of the dynasty, Wu Ti [140-87], whose long reign of fifty-four years was one of the most splendid in the whole history of China. He was an enthusiastic patron of literature and during his earlier years he did much to promote the study of the re-discovered Confucian classics. His proclamation, calling for men of genius to present themselves at court, met with a prompt response. Among those who came was the famous Tung-fang So. This worthy replied to the imperial invitation in this wise: "I am now twenty-two years old; I am 9 feet 3 inches high; my eyes are like swinging pearls; my teeth like a row of shells. I am brave as Meng Pen, prompt as Ch'ing Chi, pure as Pao Shu-ya, devoted as Wei Sheng. I consider myself fit to be an high officer of State and with my life in my hand await your Majesty's reply." He was received, and rose to the office of Censor. On many occasions he kept the Emperor amused by his wit, but on one occasion drank a potion of Immortality, brewed by some Taoist sage for his Majesty's own use, and was thereupon condemned to death. He got out of the scrape by exclaiming: "If the potion was genuine, you cannot kill me, whereas, if it was not, what harm has been done?"

Wu Ti displayed in his later life a great devotion to the superstitions and magical rites of Taoism and is said to have been the author of the so-called "Dewreceiving Vase" in the belief that the drinking of the dew thus collected would secure immortality. His addiction to Taoism may have given rise to the legends of the visits of the fairy Queen, Hsi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the West, already referred to in connection with the reign of Mu Wang. Wu Ti initiated a series of Imperial pilgrimages on the most gorgeous scale to perform sacrificial rites at the various mountain shrines.

Wu Ti's real fame rests upon the remarkable expansion of the Empire westward which his reign witnessed. He found on his accession that the Empire was seriously threatened by the growing power of the Hiung-nu, or. Huns, and labored hard (not without much success) to oppose their advances through his own generals and by means of alliance with the Yueh-chih, or Indo-Scythians, against the common enemy. Many famous generals come to the front in this memorable conflict, a conflict which had the most far-reaching results both for Europe and Asia. There was Chang K'ien, who "pierced the void" by penetrating to the extreme west, from whence he brought back not only the laurels of victory but the Persian grape vine. There was Li Kuang, victorious in seventy battles against the Huns, who committed suicide after his last victory, because the Khan, for whose capture he had pledged his word, managed to escape. There was also Li Kuamg-li, who in BC 104 carried his victorious banners to the borders of Persia.

Not less notable again was the ambassador Su Wu who in BC 100 was sent on a mission to the Hun chief and there detained a prisoner for nineteen years. Compelled to tend the flocks of the Huns in the deserts around Lake Balkash, he retained all those years his rod of office which he used as a shepherd's staff. His captivity was at last discovered when a wild goose, with a message from the home-sick exile fastened to its feathers, was shot by the Emperor in his imperial hunting grounds. Su Wu returned at last, B. C. 81, a prematurely old and broken man, but an immortal example of loyalty and patriotic spirit.

Over time China's borders swelled, reaching well beyond the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. By 87 BC much of what is now modern China was under Han's direct rule. The emperor governed well over a million square miles and a population of almost fifty million, an empire comparable in almost every way to that of contemporary Rome.

The general trend of the history of China under the Han dynasty has never been more vividly and comprehensively set forth than in the following passage from the great historian of the period, Ssu-ma Ch'ien. "When the House of Han arose the evils of their predecessors had not passed away. Husbands still went off to the wars. The old and the young were employed in transporting food. Production was almost at a standstill and money became scarce. So much so that even the Son of Heaven had not carriage horses of the same color; the highest civil and military authorities rode in bullock-carts and the people knew not where to lay their heads.

"At this period the Huns were harassing our northern frontier, and soldiers were massed there in large bodies; in consequence of which the food became so scarce that the authorities offered certain rank and titles of honor to those who could supply a given quantity of grain. Later on, drought ensued in the west, and in order to meet necessities of the moment, official rank was again made a marketable commodity, while those who broke the laws were allowed to commute their penalties by money payments. And now horses began to reappear in official stables and in palace and hall signs of an ampler luxury were visible once more.

"Thus it was in the early days of the dynasty, until some seventy years after the accession of the House of Han. The Empire was then at peace. For a long time there had been neither food nor drought, and a season of plenty had ensued. The public granaries were well stocked; the Government treasuries were full. In the capital strings of cash were piled in myriads, until the very strings rotted, and their tale could no longer be told. The grain in the Imperial storehouses grew moldy year by year. It burst from the crammed granaries and lay about until it became unfit for human food. The streets were thronged with horses belonging to the people, and on the highways whole droves were to be seen, so that it became necessary to prohibit the public use of mares. Village elders ate meat and drank wine. Petty Government clerkships and the like lapsed from father to son; the higher offices of state were treated as family heirlooms. For there had gone abroad a spirit of self-respect and reverence for the law, while a sense of charity and of duty towards one's neighbor kept man aloof from disgrace and shame.

"At length, under lax laws, the wealthy began to use their riches for evil purposes of pride and selfaggrandizement and oppression of the weak. Members of the Imperial family received grants of land, while from the highest to the lowest, every one vied with his neighbor in lavishing money on houses, and appointments, and apparel, although beyond the limit of his means. Such is the everlasting law of the sequence of prosperity and decay."

A renewed interest in letters which marked the accession of the Han dynasty. In spite of the fact that the writing brush or pencil had been invented under the Ch'ins, the sword in that period was far mightier than the pen, as the four hundred and sixty literati learned to their cost. Even during the Han period the expansion of the Empire involved the employment of large military forces. But, within the borders of China itself the Hans succeeded in keeping the peace. Naturally, the first of the Hans, the man who had hewn his way to the throne with the sword, was at first inclined to the opposite course. "I won the Empire on horseback," he exclaimed to his ministers. "Yes," they I replied, "but you cannot govern it on horseback." So it proved, and the new era showed a most praiseworthy desire to conform to the ideals of the old literati.

In spite of the fact that the Emperors still patronized Taoism, a vigorous search was made for the missing Confucian books, and, as already noted, they were fortunately recovered from the walls of the Confucian family dwelling place and from the memory of Fu Sheng who, although ninety years old, repeated the precious classics word for word to the officials sent to consult him. Some chapters, however, are said to have been lost irrecoverably. At least when the Chinese are reproached for lack of knowledge in some branch of modern science, the reply may be, "It was all in the lost chapters of Confucius."

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Page last modified: 02-07-2012 18:29:08 ZULU