Periods of Chinese History
The Consolidation of the Han Empire|
Reforms Towards a Centralized Bureaucratic State
Territorial Expansion and Foreign Policy
The Time of the Emperors Zhao, Xuan and Yuan
The Rise of the Wang Family
The Reign of Wang Mang: the Xin Dynasty
The Later Han Dynasty: Between Consort Families and Eunuchs
Foreign Policy of the Later Han
The Rebellion of the Yellow Turbans and the Disintegration of the Han Empire
The Heritage of the Han
The Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE) government's overextension of corvée labour and the replacement of the former nobility by state-employed officials led to great resentment among the whole population. Rebellions by small officials were joined by peasant armies and the lower nobility. Two men were able to subdue the armies of the Qin Dynasty and made a short end to the first empire of China: Xiang Yu 項羽 and Liu Bang 劉邦 (posthumous titles Han Gaozu 漢高祖, r. 206-195 BCE). The former, said to be tyrannic and cruel, killed the last King of the Qin, Ziying 子嬰, and the King of Chu 楚 who had been expected to be a new overlord. Xiang Yu established himself as hegemonial king of West Chu (Xi Chu bawang 西楚霸王) and enfeoffed a dozen of people as kings of the different regions. Liu Bang, made King of Han 漢, was powerful enough to destroy one by one of these new feudal lords, and finally established the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE)
with its capital at Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi) in 202 BC. Nonetheless there were some of Liu Bangs companions that, although being rewarded with royal fiefs (wangguo 王國), strove to become emperor themselves, like Han Xin 韓信. Bound by unceasing military campaigns against these rebellious kings not relative to the imperial house (yixing zhuhouwang 異姓諸侯王), Liu Bang had to rely on his loyal supporters Xiao He 蕭何, Cao Shen 曹參 and Lu Jia 陸賈, and his empress, Lü Zhi 呂雉 (Lü Hou 呂后 or Lü Taihou 呂太后). After Liu Bang's premature death during a military campaign, Empress Lü took over the reign for their weak son Emperor Hui 漢惠帝 (r. 195-188) and two minor emperors.
This ruling woman was blamed later for having usurped the throne of the Liu family 劉. But contemporary historians state that her reign brought an end to a period of permanent warfare that had stretched down from the beginning of the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) in the 5th century until the beginning of the 2nd century BC. After the sudden death of her son, Emperor Hui, the palace intrigues of Empress Lü had the only target to ensure the power of her own family by enfeoffing her relatives as kings, but the few murders inside the palaces had no effect upon the peaceful years under her rule that laid the foundation for a prospering, expanding empire. Under Liu Bang, Emperor Hui and Empress Lü, first steps were undertaken to recover the damaged economy of the empire. Roaming landless people were forced to turn back to their homelands, taxes were eased, slavery as penalty became less frequent, and the Qin laws to the suppression of literature were abolished, as well as the punishments of clan extinction (sanzu 三族) and for lèse-majesté (yaoyanling 妖言令). Taxes were lowered, and the annual corvée became less frequent. During the reign of Emperor Gaozu (Liu Bang), most of the kings not relative to the imperial house were extinguished and replaced by imperial princes (wang 王), except the king of Changsha 長沙, Wu Rui 吳芮, and Zhao Tuo 趙佗, King of Nanyue 南越, who adopted the title of emperor in 196. The usurpation of the Lü family 呂 was only a short interlude and was quickly suffocated after the death of Empress Dowager Lü in 180 BC. Apart from these princedoms, the rest of the empire - theoretically owned by the emperor - was divided into commanderies (jun 郡).
The philosophical and religious trend of the first decades of the 2nd century BCE was the Huang-Lao thought 黄老 that was based upon Daoism. The ruler was only slightly interferring into politics and exterted a regime of laissez-faire (wuwei 無為, chuigong 捶拱), at least during the time of the Emperors Wen 漢文帝 (r. 180-157 BCE) and Jing 漢景帝 (r. 157-141 BCE), a time that is characterized by most historians as a period of a prospering economy (Wen Jing zhi zhi 文景之治 "the rule of the emperors Wen and Jing"). Taxes were lowered to one thirtieth of the harvest, labour corvée was reduced to once every three years, capital punishment by tortures were abolished, the taxes on merchants (suanfu 算賦) were lowered to 40 qian 錢 (copper cash), and the production of salt and iron was promoted. Although merchants were still prohibited from taking an office - a relict from ancient times that survived the whole imperial history - but were rewarded if they substantially contributed to the economic output, on the proposal of Chao Cuo 晁錯. Jia Yi 賈誼 proposed to divide the largest princedoms in order to reduce their political and economical independance. Chao Cuo even suggested to abolish the princedoms. This plan resulted in the rebellion of seven princedoms (Qi guo zhi luan 七國之亂) in 154: Wu 吳, Chu 楚, Zhao 趙, Jiaodong 膠東, Jiaoxi 膠西, Zichuan 淄川, and Jinan 濟南. The execution of Chao Cuo could not appease the rebelling princes, and only general Zhou Yafu 周亞夫 could suppress the uprising. From now on, the princedoms were not allowed to run their own administration with a chancery but were pure large land estates owned by the princes. At the end of Emperor Jing's reign in 141 the state treasury was consolidated, and the state granaries were replenished.
The long reign of Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BC) was not only the zenith or highlight of the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) but it brought also substantial changes in the structure of the central government that resulted in a kind of bureaucratic centralism within a state that was officially Confucian but in fact legalist (wai Ru nei Fa 外儒內法).
At the beginning of the Han period, the military consisted to a large part of corvée milita (yibing 役兵) that served for two years as standing forces (zhengzu 正卒) and were garrisoned either in the capital as guard (weishi 衛士) or at the borders as defence forces (rongzu 戎卒). One month for every year, male persons had to serve as temporary citizen-soldier militiamen (gengzu 更卒). The capital was guarded by the southern army (nanjun 南軍) that protected the palace and the northern army (beijun 北軍) that protected the city. The army reform of Emperor Wu led to the creation of garrisons throughout the empire, in the capitals of the commanderies (jun 郡), and from 111 on the standing army was organized in eight commanderies (xiaowei 校尉). Sons of soldiers were later automatically hired by these commanderies, a tendency that resulted in the hereditary status of military positions. The metropolitan area was guarded by a metropolitan commandant (sili xiaowei 司隸校尉).
Imperial inspections (xun 巡) had been a regular part of administration during the Qin period. Emperor Wen was the first to inspect the central commanderies (Sanfu 三輔: Jingzhao 京兆 or Jingshi 京師, Fengyi 馮翊, Fufeng 扶鳳). In 106 Emperor Wu had the empire divided into 13 inspectional regions (zhoubu 州部). The task of inspection was now managed by a Censor-in-chief (yushi dafu 御史大夫) who led regional inspectors (cishi 刺史). Their main task was to control the work of the officials in the commanderies, the central agency was the Censorate (yushitai 御史臺).
Emperor Wu had the obsession to believe being cursed by witchcraft and to be the victim of political plots of the feudal princes and their consultants (retainers binke 賓客, "wandering knights" youxia 遊俠). For the reason of high treason, princes and wealthy persons could be charged and annihilated by the regional inspectors. Persons like Zhang Tang 張湯, Zhou Yang 周陽, Du Zhou 杜周, Wang Wenshu 王溫舒 and Zhao Yu 趙禹 were able to destroy the power of the local gentry and of the traditional high officials within the central government. At the same time, the persecution of the emperor's real or pretended enemies lead to the creation of a penal law. A further reduction of the feudal princedoms' power was the possibility for princes to grant marquis feuds (houguo 侯國) to their sons and relatives that were politically subordinated to the commanderies (jun 郡) and therefore to the emperor.
In the economic sphere the situation of the deficit spending of Emperor Wu because of wars and luxury made tax reforms necessary. Sang Hongyang 桑弘羊 served as financial expert and proposed some new measures to increase the tax revenue. The casting of coins became a state monopoly that was observed by special officials, and the currency was standardized to a nominal face value of five zhu 銖. The most important tax reform was concerning the state monopoly on production, transport and merchandise of salt and iron that was centally organized by the chamberlain for the national treasury (da sinong 大司農). The transport system was standardized by special regulations (junshufa 均輸法), as well as the quality control of the goods (pingzhunfa 平準法). Sang Hongyang's main argument was the release of the peasant's financial burden, but another target was to weaken the economical power of rich merchants and estate owners. Merchants had to pay now taxes on capital and commodities and on their transport tools like carts and boats by just counting their money strings (hence called "string-counting duty" suanminqian 算緍錢) and measuring the size of their vehicles. A few decades later, in 81 BC, a court conference about the salt and iron monopoly was held, by which pro and contra arguments were imbedded into a universal philosophy. The theoretical part of the discourses about salt and iron are recorded in Huan Kuan's 桓寬 Yantielun 鹽鐵論.
A state as large as Han China often lacked appointees to be appointed for the many civil offices in the capital and throughout the empire. Until the time of Emperior Wu sons and relatives of high officials entered the civil service as gentlemen-attendant (lang 郎) and from this position climbed the ladder of official career. Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 proposed to extract the best talents from all over the empire and to recruit an annual quota of junior officials from every commandery. They were educated in the National University (taixue 太學) and were elected by the emperor himself through examinational questions (cewen 策文 or duice 對策). But the highest political positions were filled with men of the emperor's confidence. At the beginning of the Han period the Counsellor (chengxiang 丞相) was the mightiest official, a position occupied by men of high ability like Xiao He, Cao Shen or Shentu Jia 申屠嘉. Emperor Wu appointed counsellors like Gongsun Hong 公孫弘, but the political decisions were made with men outside of the official positions. This "inner court" (neichao 內朝, in contrast to the official goverment, the "outer court" waichao 外朝) was dominated by virtual regents with temporary military titles like general-in-chief serving as commander-in-chief (dasima dajiangjun 大司馬大將軍), people like Huo Guang 霍光, Shangguan Jie 上官桀, and Jin Midi 金日磾 (sic!).
A further significant political change during the reign of Emperor Wu was the elevation of Confucianism (rujiao 儒教) to the official and sole state doctrine of the Han empire. Emperor Wu climbed Mount Taishan 泰山 and observed the Fengshan 封禪 offerings to Heaven and Earth, he altered the cyclical imperial colour, installed the ancestral and agricultural temples, introduced a new calendar with the first month of the year (before being the eleventh month) as the begin of the Taichu calendar 太初曆. Furthermore, he was the first ruler to who made regularly use of a reign motto (nianhao 年號). In fact, Confucianism was not yet that deep-rooted under Emperor Wu; the belief in a religion called Huang-Lao, a kind of religious Daoism. The ruler himself believed in magicians and sorcery, and many internal disturbances were caused by Emperor Wu's tendency to superstition.
During the first years of the Han period the steppe federation of the Xiongnu 匈奴 dominated the whole northern region from modern Xinjiang province through Mongolia to the northeast of China. The highest ruler of the Xiongnu, Modu 冒頓 (sic!) with the title of Chanyu 單于 (sic!; comparable with the later title of khan; Pulleyblank reconstructs the word as tarqan) attacked the comparably weak Chinese empire, and the steppe nomads undertook raids on the unprotected border regions. The internal situation of the Han empire made in necessary to conclude peace with the martial nomads, especially after the Xiongnu ambush at Pingcheng 平城 (modern Datong 大同, Shanxi) in 200 BCE. By sending a Chinese princess to the khan the Xiongnu became nominal relatives of the imperial house of Han and reduced the number of border raids (a diplomatic method called heqin 和親 "peace by marriage"). 166 Xiongnu untertook a raid that led them almost to the gates of the capital Chang'an. The appeasement policy against the southern kingdoms was quite similar during the early Han period. Zhao Tuo 趙佗 was accepted as king of Nanyue 南越 (modern Guangdong), Wuzhu 無諸 as king of Minyue 閩越, and Yao 搖 king of Donghai 東海 (both in modern Fujian).
Under Khan Modu the steppe empire of the Xiongnu was divided into three parts, the middle realm governed by the khan himself, the eastern and western part by a Xiongnu viceroys (zuo/you tuqi wang 左右屠耆王, by the Chinese translated as "worthy prince" zuo/you xianwang 左右賢王). Although the main economic base of the Xiongnu was still pastoral nomadism at that time, there were already some groups engaging in agriculture and established forts (bao 堡) within the steppe. In 134 BCE the Chinese emperor would finally strip off the yoke of the Xiongnu tribute requests, and at the battle of Mayi 馬邑 (north of modern Shanxi) the Chinese troops ambushed the Xiongnu and defeated the nomad warriors for the first time. A few years later general Wei Qing 衛青 freed the region of the northern bend of the Yellow River from the Xiongnu rule. New commanderies were established there, and China started to reconstruct the "Great Wall" that had already served as fortificatory line against the steppe nomads since a few centuries. Now, signal towers (fengsui 烽燧) and postal stations (youtingyi 郵亭驛) played a new role in the defence system of the Great Wall. In the desert climate of these regions important documents of the military colonies and military administration, the so-called Han bamboo strips (Hanjian 漢簡) have survived. In 121 BCE the famous general Huo Qubing 霍去病 advanced with his troops to Lake Juyan 居延海 (modern Etsin Gol, Inner Mongolia) and subjugated the "right" (western) realm of the Xiongnu. The Hexi or Gansu corridor was occupied and divided into new commanderies, the westermost being Dunhuang 敦煌郡. An important economical zone including fertile pasture land was lost to the Xiongnu who withdrew more to the northwest where they still controlled the northern oasises of the Tarim Basin. Chinese militiamen and their families were settled on military agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田) whose fields they worked and defended. The last blow to the Xiongnu was made in 119 BCE by Huo Qubing and Wei Qing who advanced until Zhaoxin 趙信城; the Xiongnu empire split into five realms, each reigned by a khan, and a new treaty with Khan Huhanya 呼韓邪 - who was given a Chinese princess called Wang Zhaojun 王昭君 whose story is very famous (see the theatre play Hangongqiu 漢宮秋).
More to the west were the oasis city states of the Tarim Basin, the state of Cheshi 車師 in the Zhunggar Basin, and the nations of the Yuezhi 月氏 (Tokharians) and Wusun 烏孫 (Aśvin) more to the west. Many of these locations more or less suffered from politicial pressure by the Xiongnu. In 139 a first ambassador was sent to the west to create an alliance against the Xiongnu. On his way to the Yuezhi, Zhang Qian 張騫 was captured by the Xiongnu and was taken prisoner for ten years. The Yuezhi finally had settled in fertile areas more to the west, in the Syr-Darya region (modern Uzbekistan) in modern where they had shaken off the yoke of the Xiongnu domination. Back in 129, Zhang Qian led a second expedition in 122 BCE in the search for a route to Persia (Daqin 大秦) and India (Shendu 身毒). The Wusun, living in the northwest in the Ili Region could finally be won as allies against the Xiongnu. The states of Loulan 樓蘭 and Cheshi who were subservient to the Xiongnu, were extinguished in 108 BC by Chinese troops under Wang Hui 王恢 resp. Zhao Ponu 趙破奴. While Cheshi was the gate to the northwest, Loulan was the starting point of the northern and southern routes that bypassed the Taklamakan Desert. Four years later an espedition under Li Guangli 李廣利 was sent to the west to Dayuan 大宛 (modern Ferghana Basin, Uzbekistan) to buy "blood-sweating" horses that were esteemed to be of highest quality. In 60 BCE the western regions were put under the command of a protectorate (Xiyu duhufu 西域都護府), divided into many commanderies or colonels (xiaowei 校尉) that protected the military colonies (tunken 屯墾). First seat of the protectorate was Wulei 烏壘 (modern Luntai 輪台/Xinjiang), Cheshi became a separate command as Wuji colonel 戊己校尉. The effect of the Chinese expansion to the west was not only the spread of Chinese culture and the diffusion of Chinese people into areas hitherto "barbarian", but also the opening of the very important trade route that later should be called Silk Road. Chinese commodities like silk and ironware were traded to the west, while unknown plants like wine, pomegranades, medicago, sesame and peaches came to China.
At the beginning of Emperor Wu's reign large parts of southern China were still not parts of the Han empire, and some territories were even governed by independant rulers, like the kingdoms of the Eastern Yue 東越 and the Min Yue 閩越 in modern Fujian, the empire of Nanyue 南越 in modern Guangdong, and the kingdom of Dian 滇 in modern Yunnan. Although southern tribes often came down from the mountains and plundered of occupied the fields of Chinese settlers, the situation was generally peaceful, especially at the border markets (guanshi 關市) where Chinese merchants were interested in the products of the south, like ivory, pearls, precious stones, hawksbill, silver, and fruits and clothing material, while the southern tribes bought iron tools and cattle. The conquest of the south began in 135 BCE with a war between the Dong Yue and the Min Yue. In the next decades the Han government took over the local politics and installed the rulers of these two empires. In 112 the local governments were aborted, and the Han empire installed new commanderies that reached until the southern sea and the north of modern Vietnam (commanderies Jiaozhi 交趾, Jiuzhen 九真 and Rinan 日南; Vietnamese Giao Chỉ, Cửu Chân and Nhật Nam). Likewise, the tribes of the Yelang 夜郎 and Qiongdu 邛都 and the realm of Dian in the southwest were conquered by Tang Meng 唐蒙 until 109 BCE. An important "export article" of these regions were slaves (baotong 僰僮).
In the region of modern Qinghai, the nomad tribes of the Qiang 羌 were subdued by Li Xi 李息, and in the northeast, the Eastern Hu 東胡 "barbarians" Wuhuan 烏桓 and Xianbei 鮮卑 became subjects within Chinese protectorates. Culturally more important was the conquest of the northern part of modern Korea in 109 BCE under the pretext of punishing Chinese deserters within the Chaoxian 朝鮮 (Kor.: Chosŏn) realm of king Weiman 衛滿 (Kor.: Wiman). The Han China government installed the commanderies Xuantu 玄菟, Bohai 渤海, Lelang 樂浪, Lintun 臨屯 and Zhenfan 真番 (Kor.: Hyŏndo, Parhae, Nangnang, Imdun and Chinbŏn; the last two commanderies were only run for a very short time and then again occupied by the Korean tribes Mahan 馬韓 and Chinhan 辰韓).
Within only three decades the Chinese empire had won territories that almost occupied the same regions like modern China. Chinese culture spread to many directions, and Chinese settlers inhabited regions hitherto only possessed by Non-Chinese peoples. But it was no easy task to hold or appease all these far territories, and rebellions and territorial losses occured many times for the rest of the Han period. At the beginning of Emperor Wu's reign the state treasury was full, but when he died, luxury and war campaigns had exhausted the empire. Furthermore, non-official regents had taken over the rule.
In his later years, Emperor Wu had caused internal disturbances because of his harsh politics against the clans of his consorts and because he hesitated to nominate a successor. Relatives of his empress and the consorts had acheived important ranks in the bureaucratic hierarchy, and the performance of political power was intensively connected with the question of who became the heir apparent. Emperor Wu had brutally extinguished the families of Chen 陳, Wei 衛 and Li 李 who tried to gain influential positions within the inner court. Crown Prince Liu Ju 劉據 (later called the "Outstanding Prince" Li Taizi 戾太子), son of Lady Wei 衛子夫, sister of general Wei Qing, rebelled in 91 BCE and caused bloody turmoils in the streets of Chang'an. The Huo family 霍 who soon rose to power as generals and regents was relative to Prince Liu Ju. Only a few days before he died in 87 BCE, Emperor Wu named the boy Liu Fuling 劉弗陵, son of Lady Zhao 趙婕妤 and without any surviving relatives, to his successor. There was no consort family that could endanger the young emperor or the empire. Huo Guang 霍光, Shangguan Jie, and Jin Midi built a triumvirate to assist the young emperor Liu Fuling (posthumous title Emperor Zhao 漢昭帝, r. 87-74 BCE) in government.
Facing the threat of peasant rebellions since about the year 110 BCE, the new ruler and his regents had to rely on fiscal austerity in order to stabilize the state treasury and to appease the peasant population that rebelled against the heavy yoke of taxes and corvée labour. Taxes were lowered, landless peasants roaming around were given land or forced back to their homelands, granaries were again filled up, and the grain prices could be lowered as to the lowest niveau of the whole Han period.
Huo Guang who meanwhile had become the strongest regent and totally controlled the court politics, organized the throne accession of Liu Bingyi 劉病已 (Liu Xun 劉詢, posthumously known as Emperor Xuan 漢宣帝, r. 74-49 BCE) in 74 BCE after the sudden death of Emperor Zhao. Another pretendant, Liu He 劉賀, was deposed by Huo Guang. This mighty regent and his clan tried to control the question of Emperor Xuan's heir, but Huo Guang died in 68 BCE. Emperor Xuan took the chance to extinguish the Huo family. For a couple of years, there should be no intervention of consort clans into daily politics. Fortunately, expansion and wars within the Western Territories and in Inner Asia were not more in the limelight of daily politics of the Emperors Zhao, Xuan and Yuan 漢元帝 (r. 49-33 BCE). The outer threat by the steppe people was actually ended when the Xiongnu divided themselves into two rivalizing groups in 43 BC. In internal politics, leading statesmen like Sang Hongyang tried to win through the state monopoly on iron and salt, his arguments and the standpoint of his opponents are described in the book Yantielun 鹽鐵論 "Discoures on Salt and Iron". After the adoption of Confucianism as state doctrine under Emperor Wu different versions of the Confucian canonical books were now submitted to the discussion of what version should be the orthodox one. The general internal politics of the era of Emperor Xuan can be described as reformist - in contrast to the expansive and expensive undertakings of the modernist politicians under Emperor Wu. The time of Emperor Xuan is often compared with the peaceful and prosperous time of the Emperors Wen and Jing, but the political background and the forces acting within the inner court were very different to that of the early Han period.
Emperor Xuan's son Liu Shi 劉奭 (posthumous title Emperor Yuan) was a weak person without much political decisiveness. Nonetheless the reformist policy of reducing the court extravagances and mitigation of state punishments to benefit the people was pursued. Statesmen like Shao Xinchen 召信臣 and Gong Yu 貢禹 reduced the state expenses (even the luxurious spendings for state offerings and imperial tombs) and promoted the agricultural producture by lowering the corvée labour duty for peasants. Gong Yu's proposal to replace money by trade through commodities as currency was not implemented. The flooods of the Yellow River were tamed in a large campaign during the reign period Heping 河平 "Pacificating the River". Luckily, figures from the household census of the year 1 CE have survived, providing important information about the population structure of mid-Han time China. Emperor Yuan's consort was Wang Zhengjun 王政君. Her family should win more and more influence on the court politics within the next decades.
At the beginning of Han period, the Counsellor-in-chief was the mightiest person of the empire, except the ruler himself. But during the reign of Emperor Wu, who was a strong but distrustful ruler, the unofficial post of general-in-chief serving as commander-in-chief (dasima dajiangjun 大司馬大將軍) outshadowed the official posts. Two persons managed to gain the whole control over the weak Han emperors of the last century of Former Han period: Huo Guang and Wang Mang 王莽. Both men were relatives of empresses and gained substantial influence on the government. Wang Mang was a nephew of Emperor Yuan's consort Wang Zhengjun, mother of Emperor Liu Ao 劉驁 (posthumous title Emperor Cheng 漢成帝, r. 33-7 BCE) who acceeded to the throne in 33 BCE as a young man and was assisted by two experienced statesmen, Kuang Heng 匡衡 and Shi Dan 史丹. But Emperor Cheng stood under the influence of his consorts, the sisters Zhao Feiyan 趙飛燕 and Zhao Hede 趙鶴德. Meanwhile members of Empress Dowager Wang's familiy (Wang Feng 王鳳, Wang Gen 王根, Wang Mang) were given inofficial but influential posts within the government. Because Emperor Cheng failed to produce a male heir, Liu Xing 劉興 was nominated crown prince, but he died earlier as the emperor. Instead, the young Liu Xin 劉欣 became emperor, a candidate not favored by the Wang family. During his reign - he is known posthumously as Emperor Ai 漢哀帝 (r. 7-1 BCE) - the aspirations of the Wang family suffered a setback because other consort families like the Zhao 趙, Fu 傅 and Ding 丁 won the control of the emperor. But only a few years later, in the year 1 BCE, Emperor Ai died without a heir (because of his adherence to a catamite named Dong Xiang 董賢?) and was followed by Liu Xing's young son, Liu Jizi 劉箕子, known as Emperor Ping 漢平帝 (r. 1 BCE-5 CE). Wang Mang immediately took control of the governmental affairs and married his own daughter to Emperor Ping. When the emperor suddenly died in 6 CE, Wang Mang acted as acting regent for a young child, a descendant of Emperor Xuan, by historians called Ying the Kid (Ruzi Ying) 漢孺子嬰.
Once back to power, Wang Mang destroyed all his opponents. He was a reformist politician who pursued the policy of the emperors Xuan and Yuan in order to appease the peasant people. On several occasions Wang Mang as benevolent regent following the example of the old Confucian rulers, redistributed fields to landless peasants. With the support of Confucian scholars like Liu Xin 劉歆 who stressed the will of Heaven to end the Han dynasty and to choose a new ruler, Wang Mang became more and more confident that the had to mount the imperial throne himself. While Ying the Kid was not the only left throne pretendant of the Han dynasty, Wang Mang faced several rebellions from the ranks of princes and their loyal officials. After the successful suppression of these few single rebellions, Wang Mang proclaimed himself emperor in the year 8 CE, his dynasty was called Xin 新, "the New".
Wang Mang (r. 8-23 CE) was without doubt a very capable politician and regent, but his access to supreme power was only won by accident - his aunt Wang Zhengjun being Great Empress Dowager surviving several emperors, and Emperor Ai died untimely, while his empress did not survive him. But the young emperor for whom Wang Mang acted as regent, likewise died very young, without leaving any heir. Accusations of Wang Mang having murdered the child emperor soon rose, but because Wang Mang was the father-in-law of Emperor Ping, there is no reason to suppose that Wang Mang should have poisoned the young emperor in order to enhance his political power.
When the regent Wang Mang proclaimed himself emperor in 8 CE, he faced no serious opposition among the rows of officials and scholars. For the justification of his throne accession, he relied on the old theory of the changing Five Phases (wuxing 五行) and the Heavenly Mandate (tianming 天命) that was bestowed upon himself now. Wang Mang's ideal was the old Confucian classic Zhouli 周禮 "Rites of the Zhou" that describes the ideal state of government in a Confucian sense. Trying to be an ideal ruler, Wang Mang tried to reform much of the state and governmental structure. He intended to reorganize the currency, the bureaucracy - he renamed all commanderies-, reformed the tax system and wanted to implement a land reform and to prohibit the buying and selling of private slaves (nubi 奴婢). Debt slavery was a very common social status during the Han period. The prohibition of land selling and slave trade was soon given up under the pressure of large land owners. In order to repress the expolitation of peasants by merchants, Wang Mang implemented price regulations for the five largest markets (wujun 五均). The state monopolies and main control tasks were called the "six regulations" (liuguan 六筦) Later historians like Hu Shi 胡適 called him therefore the first "socialist" ruler of China. His contemporaries on the other hand blamed him for all faults of the former and later rulers. His reforms concerning the administration of the state monopolies on salt, iron and liquor did not prevent the salt traders from expoliting their clients, i.e. the peasantry, and the implementation of new currencies with the prohibition of private coin casting are said to have resulted in an economical chaos as the new currencies were not accepted by the population. In fact, most of Wang Mang's reforms were not real revolutions but rather changes in names, slaves for example were just renamed "private belongings" (sishu 私屬). Some natural desasters lead to shortage in grain, grain prices rose, expenditures for war campaigns against the steppe federation of the Xiongnu and a low tax revenue, as well as the intensive implementation of punishments in order to perform his new policies led to a widespread rejection of Wang Mang's emperorship among the peasantry and the nobility. It was not his politics in general that caused a widespread peasant unrest and eventually lead to downfall, but the immense inundations of the Yellow River who changed its course from the north to the south and opened a second course south of the Shandong peninsula. The rebellions began in the north around 11 CE, continued in the east with the uprising of "Mother Lü" 呂母 in the region of modern Shandong, the first great uprising was that of the Lülin 綠林 region (modern Hubei) that caused severe damages to Wang Mang's reign from 21 CE on. Among the Lülin armies was a member of the old Han dynasty, Liu Xuan 劉玄. Other members of the Liu family like Liu Yin 劉縯 and Liu Xiu 劉秀 sent their own armies out the fight against Wang Mang. In 23 CE Liu Xuan proclaimed himself emperor as refounder of the Han dynasty, but the military force behind him were only the Lülin rebels. In the battle of Kunyang 昆陽 Wang Mang was defeated and made his escape to the capital Chang'an where he was killed inmidst street fightings. Meanwhile Liu Xuan had pronounced the reign motto Gengshi 更始 "New beginning" - he is therefore later called the Gengshi Emperor 更始帝 (r. 23-25 CE). After his victory Liu Xuan took over the imperial palace in Chang'an where he later abdicated and was killed.
Shortly after the first uprisings of the Lülin peasant rebels, in the region of modern Shandong Fan Chong 樊崇 led desperate peasants in a huge rebellion army called the Red Eyebrows (Chimei 赤眉) because they had they foreheads painted red. Their unregulated forces proved to be very effective against Wang Mang's regular armies under Wang Kuang 王匡 and Lian Dan 廉丹. The target of the Red Eyebrows were not only the troops of Wang Mang. Liu Xuan, the new emperor and refounder of Han, was also attacked by the Chimei brigades. On their side, the Red Eyebrows proclaimed Liu Penzi 劉盆子, a young man, as their favorite emperor. In 25 CE they occupied the capital Chang'an. Other peasant groups, militia of large land owners, and surviving brigades of Wang Mang were fighting against each other after the demission of Liu Xuan. One of the new leaders was Liu Xiu who was proclaimed emperor and gained more and more territory in the eastern part of the Yellow River basin. He established his capital at Luoyang 洛陽 (modern Luoyang, Henan) and for a second time refounded the Han dynasty, and a period began that was later called the Eastern Han 東漢 or Later Han 後漢 (25-220 CE) in contrast to the Western Han 西漢 or Former Han 前漢. The Red Eyebrow rebels that still occupied Chang'an were starved out systematically and withdrew to the west in search for supplies. When they tried to come back to Chang'an and the Guanzhong region 關中 the new emperor Liu Xiu destroyed their last forces in 27 AD. But his reign was not shure until the defeat of other usurpers like Wei Ao 隗囂 and Dou Rong 窦融 in modern Gansu and Gongsun Shu 公孫述 in the region of modern Sichuan.
The usurpation by Wang Mang who had founded the "New" Xin dynasty 新 (Wang Mang is often designated as Xin-Mang 新莽) was not mere than a short interlude for most historians, but the Han dynasty before and after this usurpation was not the same. During the Former Han period, the emperors relied on individual followers, and the few families of the consorts (waiqi 外戚) like the families Huo and Wang that obtained great power, were an exeption. Now, the dynasty refounder relied on a group of clans without them he would not have been able to hold up his regency. Imperial consorts came not any more from the lower aristocray or even the peasantry but from the high level society and the wealthiest clans and landowners. The second factor that was very different from the Former Han period was the power of the eunuchs (huanguan 宦官). All of them came from the lower levels of society and were able to attain substantial power when the consort clans were not able to hold on their power over weak emperors.
Liu Xiu, the refounder of the Han Dynasty, was posthumously called Emperor Guangwu 漢光武帝 (r. r. 25-57 CE). After a civil war that had lasted for several years, he was able to destroy the Red Eyebrow rebels and several other people that claimed to be the new emperor. He reestablished the princedoms (wangguo 王國) and marquisates (houguo 侯國) and redistributed the imperial land to peasants and to the aristocracy. Because he had to rely politically on the gentry, the granted them the possession of large land estates. But the establishment of the princedoms also contributed to cultural diversity: Prince Liu Ying 劉英 for example, the Prince of Chu 楚, was a great sponsor of Buddhism that was just emerging in China. At the courts of the princes, many wandering knights (youxia 遊俠), philosophers and magicians (fangshi 方士) found employment. During the Former Han period Liu An 劉安, Prince of Huainan 淮南, had employed many philosophers that wrote down their theories in a book called Huainanzi 淮南子 "Master of Huainan".
One crucial task for the young later Han empire was the reconstruction of the economy after the deastrous years of civil war that followed the inundation catastrophies of the Yellow River in CE 3 and 11. Many peasant refugees roaming around in the countryside had to be forced back to their homelands, although we can observe that an immense voluntary migration to the south had taken place at the beginnig of the Later Han period. In order to control the population and to restrict the power of the local gentry, Emperor Guangwu tried implementing a system of "measuring fields" (dutian 度田). The large land owners nontheless resisted the property assessment with armed forces. Great landowners made huge profits from their farms and their engagement in trade during the Later Han period. Their manors (tianzhuang 田莊) included arable field, sericulture ground for silk production, factories producing the self-needed amount of iron tools, some estates included forests and even salt ponds. The farmsteads comprised not only the huge buildings for the living of the gentry family but also farm buildings, mills and factories and were surrounded by a wall that made the farmstead a small fortress (wubao 塢堡). Not few large estate owners also possessed a private army to defend their possessions. Hundreds of servants, slaves and tenant farmers were employed on their grounds. The tenant farmers did not pay taxes to the state but only rental money (dizu 地租) to the landowner. The life of this gentry can be reconstructed from many mural paintings and brickstone reliefs that were be found in their tombs. Some genealogies have survived that account the generations of these rich family clans, e.g. the book Shiben 世本. Emperor Guangwu created a central government that should possess as much power as possible. Consort families should not interfere into politics that was to be made by the highest ministers and the board of ministries (shangshutai 尚書台). In fact, only a few ministers were able to hold the grip on government, like Deng Yu 鄧禹, Li Tong 李通 and Jia Fu 賈復. After Guangwu's death the power fell into the hands of consort families and the court eunuchs. In the field of military institutions, Emperor Guangwu had the local military replaced by commanderies (duwei 都尉) that should be controlled from the political center in the capital Luoyang. The recruitment of officials for bureaucracy was reinstituted, passing the National University (taixue).
The prohibition of people selling themselves as slaves and the land reform of Wang Mang - both measures being continued under Emperor Guangwu - proved to be ineffective in practice and were soon given up. An important undertaking to reconstruct economy was to repair the canals in the lower Yellow River area that had been destroyed by serious floodings in the years before. In the 60s CE Wang Jing 王景 and Wang Wu 王吳 organized the huge project to repair the Bianqu Canal 汴渠, a work to which also many local magistrates contributed with sending peasants as workforce for these official works. Especially these waterworks (also used for water mills) were crucial for the significant rise in agricultural output during the Later Han period.
The time of the emperors Ming 漢明帝 (r. 57-75 CE) and Zhang 漢章帝 (r. 76-88 CE)is seen as a period of relative peace and prosperity when the economy found time to recover from the damages of the last decades. Internally, the political stage was also quite silent before the consort clans and eunuchs started their quarrel for power: When the 10 years old Emperor He 和帝 mounted the throne in 88 CE, his mother, Empress Dowager Dou 窦太后 led the court audiences (linchao 臨朝), and her brother Dou Xian 窦憲 took over the governmental affairs. A eunuch of Emperor He called Zheng Zhong 鄭眾 finally destroyed the power of the Dou family and grasped the power himself. Emperor An 漢安帝 (r. 106-125 CE), only 13 sui old at his throne accession in 106 CE, was controled by Empress Dowager Deng 鄧太后 and her brother Deng Zhi 鄧騭. After the Empress Dowager's death, the eunuchs Li Run 李潤 and Jiang Jing 江京 dominated the court, together with Empress Yan 閻后 and her brother Yan Xian 閻顯. The next ruler, Emperor Shun 順帝 (r. 125-144), only 11 sui old, was installed in 125 CE by the eunuch Sun Cheng 孫程 who extinghuished the Yan family and was rewarded with the title of marquis (hou 侯). After his death in 144, Empress Dowager Liang 梁太后 and her brother Liang Ji 梁冀 became the prominent powerholders of the Later Han court. They were able to control three successive child emperors, Emperor Chong 漢沖帝 (r. 144-145 CE), Emperor Zhi 漢質帝 (r. 145-146 CE), and Emperor Huan 漢桓帝 (r. 146－167). They were able to play off the eunuch factions against the state officials, Liang Ji accumulated immensurable wealth in the twenty years of his leadership. In 159 Empress Dowager Liang died, a fact that gave way to Shan Chao 單超, a eunuch who could defeat the Liang clang. His step to power marked the highlight of the eunuch governance, titles of nobility were bestowed to eunuchs, and like Liang Ji before, they acquired much capital and land. At this point, state officials with their retainers (mensheng 門生, guli 故吏) united and started to launch official critics at the eunuch power in the shape of "pure comments" (qingyi 清議). People like Li Ying 李膺 and the general Huangfu Gui 皇甫規 were banished from office because of the ""prohibition of court factions" (danggu 黨錮). Under Emperor Ling 靈帝 (r. 167-189 CE) in 168 the acting regents Chen Fan 陳蕃, Dou Wu 窦武 and Zhang Jian 張儉 tried to annihilate the powerful eunuch fraction at the court, but without success. Hundreds of their followers were executed or incarcerated. The rift between eunuchs and state officials seemed to be unbridgeable when an event of tremendeous impact made it necessary to unite the two parties: The rebellion of the Yellow Turbans 黃巾起義.
Emperor Guangwu's greatest weakness was his disinterest in foreign policy. Wang Mang had effectively dealt with the claims of the steppe federation of the Xiongnu by dispatching armed forces to the border garrisons and by asophisticated diplomacy. Likewise, he had been able to hold the Western Regions under Han protectorship and appeased the Qiang tribes in the west and the Korean kingdom of Koguryŏ 高句麗. During the civil war following the death of Wang Mang, the Han empire's control of the Western Regions was lost. Emperor Guangwu had to reconquer this region if he wanted the power of the Han empire stretching along the Inner Asian trade routes. After the initial years of defensive politics against the Xiongnu, Han China made an alliance with the southern khan of the Xiongnu, called Bi 比, and allowed the Xiongnu to pasture within China's borders - from now on many Xiongnu started to settle down in the Gansu corridor and modern Shaanxi. Emperor Guangwu nevertheless hesitated to attack the stronger northern Xiongnu under the khan Punu 蒲奴. The northern Xiongnu under the leadership of Punu gradually lost their powerful position in Inner Asia by the permanent pressure from the Turkish Dingling 丁零, the Xianbei and by the city states of the Silk Road. In 73 CE Dou Gu 窦固 and Geng Bing 耿秉 attacked and defeated the northern Xiongnu, in 89 CE again Dou Xian, whereupon the Xiongnu federation disintegrated and the tribes withdrew to the northwest. The imperial politics against the Wuhuan in the northeast was pursued. In the north, a new political power emerged in the shape of the proto-Mongolian Xianbei that filled the vacuum left by the Xiongnu. Around 180 when Han China was in turmoil, one of their leaders called Tanshihuai 檀石槐 became supreme khan of the Xianbei. The northeastern people of the Fuyu 夫余 (or 扶余; Korean: Buyeo) gradually adopted a state system copying the Chinese model. The other Korean states and Japan should follow soon.
Of great importance was the reconquest of the Western Territories that were lost to Xiongnu dominance during the years of civil was after Wang Mang's fall. Especially the smaller city states along the trade routes sent envoys to Han China to free them from the dominance of the Xiongnu and Shache 莎車. In 74 CE, after the victory over the Xiongnu, the Protectorate of the Western regions (Xiyu duhufu 西域都護府) was reinstated but was replaced in 107 CE by an Administration Area (Xixu changshifu 西域長史府). The undertaking to unite the city states against the Xiongnu and to install Han-friendly rulers was the work of Ban Chao 班超 who was able to regain Han China's control of the Western regions in 91 AD. In 107 his son Ban Yong 班勇 continued the work to establish military colonies in the Western region and to settle Chinese people. In 97 CE an embassy was sent to a western realm called Daqin 大秦 (purportedly Rome), but the visit was only returned in 166.
Peoples that had good relations to the Han court send hostages to China that gradually accepted Chinese customs and culture. In the Vietnamese colonies, rebellions shook the Chinese power (the sisters Zheng 徵, Vietnamese: Hai Bà Trưng; Trưng Thắc 徵側 and Trưng Nhị 徵貮), and in the southern parts of the empire, including the realms of Ailao 哀牢, uprisings by aboriginal people of non-Chinese origin occurred almost yearly as consequence of the Chinese immigration to the south (the two census of 2 CE and 140 CE show the difference between the distribution of population: famine caused many families to wander to the south).
Suffering from inundations, starvation, earthquakes and heavy taxes, peasant refugees roamed northern China since the beginning of the 2nd century CE. These peasant refugees (liumang 流氓) formed plundering gangs and even whole armies that devastated the villages in the Yellow River plain. Some of their leaders announced the end of the Han dynasty and suggested changing the imperial colour to the cylical color yellow (see Five Processes). The Daoist magician Zhang Jiao 張角, known as a miraculous healer, propagated the arrival of Heavenly Peace (taiping 太平) and led the rebellion of the Yellow Turbans (Huangjin 黃巾) - their name is derived from the yellow clothing their wound around their heads. From 184 CE on the rebellion took serious dimensions. At the same time the Daoist uprising of the Five-Pecks-of-Grain Sect (wudoumi dao 五斗米道) in the north of modern Sichuan, led by Zhang Daoling 張道領 (Zhang Xiuling 張修領). The Han government was uncertain about how to deal with the challenge of the rebel armies: amnesty, suppression, peaceful admonishions or even buying Zhang Jiao were presented as proposals. Finally the persons in power decided to release all persons that had been incarcerated during the "anti-faction" proscription after 168 CE. The released state officials tried their best to suppress the peasant rebellions. Huangfu Song 皇甫嵩, Zhu Jun 朱儁 and Cao Cao 曹操 defeated the largest rebel army under Bo Cai 波才, but other troops of the religious rebels were surviving several years. The novel Sanguo yanyi 三國演義 "The Three Kingdoms" gives a lengthy report of this time, beginning with the oath of Liu Bei 劉備, Guan Yu 關羽 and Zhang Fei 張飛 to rescue the Han dynasty from the Yellow Turban rebels. As result of the Huangjin rebellions, northern China was devastated, and the military was prepared for the struggle among the various warlords that should dominate China's history for the next twenty years.
When Emperor Ling 漢靈帝 (r. 167-189) died the family of Empress Dowager He 何太后 took over regency and installed Emperor Ling's 13 sui old son Liu Bian 劉辯 as emperor. He Jin 何進, brother of the Empress Dowager, decided that the time had come to destroy the eunuchs definitely, and in order not the repeat the failure of 168 he invited general Dong Zhuo 董卓 to advance with his troops to the vicinity of the capital Luoyang. He Jin was killed by the eunuchs, but the powerful catamites being without military support, commander Yuan Shao 袁紹 and his brother Yuan Shu 袁術 of the imperial guards entered the palace and massacred all eunuchs. Zhang Rang 張讓, the chief eunuch, captured the young emperor (known as Shaodi 少帝 "Minor Emperor", r. 189 CE) and left the capital. Dong Zhuo was able to find the emperor who had been abandoned in the wilderness and installed his brother, Liu Xie 劉協, instead (posthumously called Emperor Xian 漢獻帝, r. 189-220). By intimidation and brutal force, Dong Zhuo had his own position at the court ensured, while most men of rank had left the capital. In the east, a coalition formed against the tyrant Dong Zhuo, led by Yuan Shao and Cao Cao. In 190 Dong Zhuo burned Luoyang to the ground and had the whole court moved to the old capital Chang'an (modern Xi'an, Shaanxi) in the west. Dong Zhuo died a year later but the young emperor only turned back to Luoyang in 196 when China was already divided among many warlords of whom Cao Cao, Sun Quan 孫權 and Liu Bei proved to be the strongest. In 220 CE Emperor Xiandi was forced to abdicate in favor of Cao Cao's son Cao Pi 曹丕 (known as Emperor Wen 魏文帝, r. 220-226) who founded the Wei dynasty 魏. Sun Quan and Liu Bei founded their own empires in southern China and Sichuan, respectively, and so createda a tripartite division of China into the so-called "Three Kingdoms" (sanguo 三國) for the next half century.
The unification of the empire was seen as a crucial task for every Chinese emperor, not only politically, but also in the sphere of ideology and culture. This claim of unity is still seen today, even if Confucianism is not any more the core of state or private thinking. The Qin dynasty had been the first to "unify" China, but it exploitative way of rule led to its downfall. The Han dynasty successfully ruled over China for four hundred years and cemented the fundament of the Chinese empire that was to last until 1911.
The word "China" is allegedly derived from the name of the Qin dynasty, and a lot of terms for "China" are derived from the name of the River Han 漢水 that also gave its name to the glorious Han dynasty. "Chinese language" is called hanyu 漢語, "Chinese characters" are called hanzi 漢字, the majority of people inhabiting China are called hanren 漢人 or hanzu 漢族. The word "Han" does not simply mean "man", but "hero" (compare the expression yingxiong hao han 英雄好漢). Many small dynasties in later times styled themself "Han", even Korean and Japanese families claimed to be decendents of the dynastic family of the Han, the Liu. The Korean capital Seoul is called Hancheng 漢城 "City upon Han River". The centralized governmental system, legalist law and Confucianism as state doctrine remained for almost two thousand years the foundations of the empire.
Sources: Denis Twitchett, Michael Loewe (ed. 1986), The Cambridge History of China., Vol. 1. The Ch'in and Han Empires, 221 B.C.-A.D. 220 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). ● Tong Jianyin 佟建寅, Shu Xiaofeng 舒小峰 (ed. 1994), Baijuanben Zhongguo quanshi 百卷本中國全史, Zhongguo Qin Han zhengzhi shi 中國秦漢政治史 (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe).
October 30, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail
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