Hist 387_7

The end of the Qin and the beginning of the Han dynasty


Due to the Legalist Shang Yang’s reforms the population of Qin was divided into groups of five and ten households, breaking up extended family clans and enhancing state control over the populace.


Population registers were created – the first attempt by the state to plan and control state revenues and army recruitments by conducting a systematic census.


This strict supervision of the population had a psychological effect which influenced the development of religious belief systems: the bureaucracy dominating the people through census and law in life was projected into the neitherworld. The administration of the supernatural realm was thought to bestow a certain life-span for everybody and recorded one’s behavior in life for which one was to face a neitherworld jurisdiction after death. Communication with the spirits of the other world worked through  prayer and offerings of incense and money that was burned.


The death of the first emperor caused multiple problems regarding the succession to the throne. Zhao Gao (?-207 BCE) placed the second son of the emperor on the throne, thus ignoring the emperor’s wish to have his first son succeed him. Worse even, through an intrigue he ordered the first son to commit suicide, had chancellor Li Si excecuted, took over his position and finally had the second son of Qin Shihuangdi killed as well. Yet Zhao enjoyed his strong position without opponents only for a few months: The last Qin emperor, still a young boy, ordered Zhao to be removed and then surrendered to the rebels who attempted to overthrow the Qin.


The burning of books in 213 BCE and the murdering of the scholars in 214 BCE


The aversion against Confucian values and their emphasis on the necessity to link one’s rule to the sage kings of antiquity is said to have inspired the first emperor to conduct a burning of books (= all Confucian Classics and historical records reporting of the rules of the sage kings; only books on agriculture, law, divination, and medicine were exempted), and the cruel execution of 460 Confucian scholars who opposed him.

This report needs to be read with care for several reasons. First, book production consisted of preparing bamboo slips, attaching them to another and inscribing them, a process which limits the amount of copies produced of books in the first place.  And though punishments like beating or fining were common practice for instance towards officials who had failed to keep the laborers assigned to them under control it remains questionable whether the murder of the scholars actually took place or is an exaggeration on the side of historiographers in order to denounce Qin cruelty. They may have used this description for the justification of the overthrow of Qin by the Han, very much like the Zhou legitimized their conquest of the Shang: the evils of Qin made a the overthrow and a transfer of the Mandate of Heaven in evitable.

The burning of books and the torture of Confucian scholars in a late illustration


Archaeology helps to put Han historiography in perspective: the tomb at Shuihudi of a Qin official named Xi (d. 217 BCE) included 1.155 documents written on bamboo slips. They included texts on divination and law. The law texts speak a different language than what is purported as ‘lawless cruelty’ by Han historiography. Though Qin punishments were harsh (forced labor, amputation, cutting off the nose, tattooing, marking the face etc.) there was a systematized law code for an array of different crimes which seems to have been followed with some care.


The founding of the Han

Map of the Han Dynasty



After a dramatic victory over his contender, the noble Xiang Yu of Chu (232 – 202 BCE), the emperor of the successor dynasty to the Qin was a commoner, Liu Bang or Han Gaozu (r. 206-195 BCE). [Xiang Yu was so enraged by Liu Bang’s superiority that he attacked Xianyang, the capital of the former and the new dynasty, destroyed the palace, and burned the archive which contained all books, including those which had been banned /burned?. This then was the real book burning event and the loss of documents was tremendous. Xiang Yu may also have allowed his soldiers to plunder the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi.]


Portraits of Liu Bang / Han Gaozu


One of the first measures in office was that Liu Bang created a new nobility, a class that the Qin had eliminated not without reason. Of common origin himself he instantly enfeoffed his brothers and sons as kings and 150 of his followers as marquis’: the re-establishment of a feudal system. One third of the Han territory including the capital remained under his control, the rest was ruled by his relatives.


The Han government


- central administration:


tax collectors              army supervisor                     government officials


- local administration:

tax collectors, population registration, justice, maintaining infrastructure, recommendation of candidates for office


Foreign affairs


The northern neighbors became and remained an oppressive force. Throughout history it should turn out to be easier to ‘buy peace’ from the Xiongnu and Xianbei by establishing friendly ties through sending gifts such as textiles, wine, and princesses than fighting back their endless attacks.


When Gaozu died in 195 BCE, his wife Empress , took over as a regent for their 15 year old son. His ‘reign’ lasted only eight years. After his death his mother continued to reign for two other infant emperors who died after suspiciously short lifespans. When Empress finally died herself in 180 BCE, the imperial Liu clan tried to get rid of as many relatives that had come to high ranking positions as possible.


A stately tomb in the Han kingdom of Changsha, discovered 1975

Excavation in progress

Reconstruction of Lady Dai's coffin


Lady Dai’s tomb at Mawangdui
- perfectly preserved corpse (1,54 m tall; 34,3 kg)
- inventory of funerary objects written on bamboo

- grave goods: 154 lacquer vessels; 51 ceramics; 48 bamboo suitcases with clothing and household goods

- 40 baskets filled with 300 replicas of gold pieces; 100,000 bronze coins

- food: rice, wheat, barley, millet, soybeans, red lentils

- recipes for – vegetable stew with meat

                        beef & rice stew

                        dog meat & celery stew

                        deer stew

                        fish stew

                        bamboo stew

                        seasonings: salt sugar, honey, soy sauce, salted beans
Lady Dai

Lacquer cups and fodd containers

Dark and red gown

Gloves and wooden figurines (servants)


The burial banner of Lady Dai

Burial banner


Top section:

- realm of the immortals, entrance guarded by gods of destiny, keeping record of lifespan

- moon with toad and rabbit

- sun with (three-legged) raven

- Queen Mother of the West/: reigns the realm of the immortals in the Kunlun Mountains/ or immortal Lady Dai?


Middle section:

- Lady Dai’s body soul in her tomb; feast with ritual vessels, offerings (chopstocks placed upright in the bowl)

Lower section:

- shrouded body: death



The library of Lady Dai’s and King Li Cang’s son, a military official (d. 168 BCE)


- Book of Changes (Yijing)

-  Book of  the Way and Virtue (Daodejing)

-  Intrigues of the Warring States

-  Texts on law, fortune telling, sexual techniques; three maps


The reign of Han Wudi (r.140-87 BCE)


After Empress died in 180 BCE two emperors had come to the throne and ruled partly under the supervision of regents; during this period the power was taken out of the hands of the relatives of Empress and the number of feudal kingdoms was considerably reduced.

Han Wudi was to become a powerful ruler who reigned for 50 years. He came to the throne aged 15 and ruled for the first nine years under the supervision of regents. When they died, he remained the sole  authority until his own death in 87 BCE. He relied on advisors though, the most influential of whom was the philosopher Dong Zhongshu (175?-105? BCE). His ideal of ruling saw the position of the emperor as a servant to his state. The Confucian vision of a benevolent rulership and mutual responsibility of ruler and subjects formed the basis of his philosophy of statecraft.

Dong saw the larger pattern in which every human including the ruler was integrated, as dominated by the complementary forces of yin and yang and the alternating dominant phases of the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.


In order to disseminate Confucian learning, Han Wudi set up an academy for scholars who became experts of the Five Confucian Classics which they taught to selected students, a group that then provided the candidates of which the emperor selected new officials. Han Wudi chose most of his officials from low-ranking families, securing their boundless loyalty founded on gratitude.


Expansionist politics


The emperor consolidated power by reducing the feudal kingdoms and pacifying border regions in the West (Sichuan)  and Southwest (Yunnan). Yet the Xiongnu continued to pose a severe threat to his power. Armies he sent were repeatedly defeated, generals captured. The decision of Li Ling, one of the generals who surrendered to the Xiongnu when his troops faced complete extinction, enraged Han Wudi. What even enraged him more was that Li Ling’s decision was defended by Sima Qian who knew Li. To punish Sima, Han Wudi made him choose between death by committing suicide or the disgrace of castration.

Sima decided to live with the shame but fulfilled the promise he had given his father on the deathbed: He completed the historical records his father had begun. The amazing intellectual accomplishment remained the model for all dynastic annals.

Expansion of the Han Empire - Expansion of the Xiongnu heartland

After Han Wudi’s death a period of changing child emperors dominated by changing regents determined Han politics.


Economic problems


Revenues never quite matched expenses during Han Wudi’s rule. Therefore monopolies for salt and iron were set up, later extended to copper, bronze, and alcohol. While lucrative for the state, the monopolies were severely criticized by Confucian scholars as burdens on the people recruited to work for them and pay for the products.  In addition the scholars warned the officials not to engage in trade, especially disgraceful was in their considerations the trade with the neighboring ‘barbarian’ and aggressive Xiongnu. The officials believed that trade was bound to corrupt the officials. Yet trade had already become an integrated part of society and propelled social mobility. Merchants had to put up not only with the fact that their profession was despised, but also because they paid 100% more taxes than artisans for property and transport vehicles such as carts and boats. (e.g. for a property worth 4,000 coins merchants paid 240 coins, artisans 120). Land could be traded and as time went by large estate owners were landlords who either had been enfeoffed with land or had increased their property by buying continuously. As true lords of the communities landowners tried to evade taxes wherever possible. Therefore the government tried to limit landownership, a measure that was only effective during the short period of the rule of former chancellor and formidable diplomat Wang Mang and his New (Xin)Dynasty (9-23 CE).


Wang Mang Interregnum (9-23 C.E.)


Wang Mang intended to create the ideal society of the Zhou as portrayed by Confucius. He started to limit the possession of land and abolished slavery. A politically well versed strategist and diplomat he linked his ideals to the past as captured in the Rites of Zhou. He abolished the trade of slaves (serfs) and the trade of land. Instead he installed a system of land distribution. His measures were reversed though when the Yellow River changed its current in 11 C.E. The river divided into a northen branch flowing into the sea near Tianjin and a new, southern branch which flowed into the Huai River. The flooded and therefore agriculturally unproductive area was vast, tenthousands of people had to be relocated, and it took until 70 C.E. to cut of the southern arm of the Yellow River and re-direct its flow into the old river bed.

Changes of the Yellow River throughout Chinese history; currently the stream flows into the sea south of the city of Tianjin and north of the Shandong peninsula

The flooding left many people without land or income. Under the leadership of religiously inspired 'saviours', one of them a woman called Mother Lü, uprisings contributed to the political destabilization. Leaders of the Han imperial Liu-clan formed an alliance with the 'Red Eyebrows', an enormously strong army that grew out of an uprising led by Mother Lü, in order to defeat Wang Mang. [They painted their eyebrows red in order to be able to distinguish between friend and enemy in war.] Wang Mang's dynasty ended with his death and the Liu's founded the Later Han Dynasty (25 C.E.), but now they were in the position to be threatened by the 'Red Eyebrows' themselves, who wanted to have their own state. It took two more years until they defeated the 'Red Eyebrows' completely. They could accomplish this only with massive support by wealthy landholders who had their own private armies.

The devastation caused by the flooding was one more reason for the migration wave to the south. The threats by the neighboring Xiongnu was the other force that made thousands of families, aristocratic or poor, leave their land and homes and try to find a new home somewhere in the south, where soon a new culture composed of local traditions and influences brought along by the immigrants flourished.

The capital was moved to
Luoyang (to the East therefore: Eastern Han). Though the new capital was smaller than Chang’an, yet 50,000 students attended the academy. One of their most famous teachers was Ban Biao (d. 54 CE), author of the History of the Former Han Dynasty.

His daughter Ban Zhao (ca. 45-120 CE) wrote the most famous book on the education of girls, titled ’Lessons for Women’ [or "Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies"]; she had been married at the age of 14 and later, after her husband had died and her children were coming of age, served as tutor and advisor to empress Deng.
The 'Admonitions for Women' which she wrote when she was 54, is an important source of information on women's life as well as the ideals and standards set for them in their education, which required that women should be able to read and write since educated [elite] women were considered 'capital' for the family in marriage negotiations; in addition: virtue and physical perfection (report of Maid Wu on the future Empress Liang Nüying, d. 159) were requirements added to the concept of an ideal woman which consisted of folowing the four demands of:

1. womanly virtue: chastity and loyalty
2. womanly speech: no chatting
3. womanly bearing: high standard of personal hygiene and hygiene in household organization
4. womanly work: weaving, sewing, food preparation
The low status of women is also symbolized in a rite performed three days after birth. According to Ban Zhao the following acts are performed:
1. the baby girl is laid below the bed to indicate her low status within the family
2. she is given a potshed as a toy symbolizing the hard work she has to be committed to throughout life
3. three days after birth she is presented to the ancestors to introduce her as a new future servant to the ancestors
The period of three days between birth and the introduction of the new family member to the ancestors was often the time in which female infanticide occurred if the woman/family was not capable of raising a(nother) daughter.

Ban Biao's son, Ban Gu (32-92 CE) excelled in the composing of rhapsodies and continued to write the ‘History of the Former Han’, begun by his father. The work was completed by Ban Zhao after Ban Gu’s death.

Idealized image of Ban Zhao writing calligraphy