13  The Han Dynasty



Despite the efforts of Confucianists and Daoists, wars between the states of China continued to plague the land. The philosophy that finally unified the states of China was Legalism, which recommended the implementation of a strong centralized bureaucracy with objectively enforced laws and harsh punishments. The mastermind behind this method was the Legalist philosopher Shang Yang. Following his teachings, Qin Shi Huang became the first emperor of China.

His dynasty, known as the Qin Dynasty, did not last long, but its successor, the Han Dynasty, did. The Han combined the effectiveness of Legalism with the traditionalism of Confucianism to create a stable state that lasted 400 years. The Han also created an entire estate of highly respected Confucian scholar-bureaucrats, who were—in line with Confucian theory—picked based on merit and ethical standing. Their highest purpose was to criticize the government to protect the people against bad policies, a calling that some pursued even at the risk of their own lives.


Shang Yang

The ideas that finally brought back stability to China came from the ruthless practical philosopher Shang Yang (c. 390–338 BC). He originally came from the state of Wei, but when he was unable to secure a position there, he went to Qin, where he became chief advisor and convinced the ruler Duke Xiao (381–338 BC) to radically reform its laws. Qin had a reputation for cultural backwardness, in part because it was influenced by the “barbarian” tribes living at its borders. Aware of their intellectual shortcomings, they were clever enough to recruit talent from outside the state, among them Shang Yang. His policies laid the foundations that would, in 150 years, enable Qin to conquer all its rival states.

Shang Yang was a pioneer of the Legalist school of philosophy. The Legalists ignored questions of morality and did not care about what society should ideally be like. Instead, they focused on what practically worked, with the goal of achieving order and security. To achieve this, they recommended instating laws, punishments, and a centralized bureaucracy. They also believed laws should be made public and should be systematically and impartially enforced. As in our modern world, they often used a pair of scales as a metaphor for the objective nature of law. They also borrowed the Daoist concept of wuwei (“doing nothing”), arguing that the law should do the work and not the ruler. True to these principles, Shang Yang enforced his laws even on the tutors of the successor to the throne. As expected, the ruler did not appreciate this and had Shang executed.

In order to establish his bureaucracy, Shang Yang dismissed the hereditary aristocrats who dominated local politics and instead divided the state of Qin into thirty-one districts governed by salaried professional bureaucratic administrators who could be appointed and dismissed at will.

After his death, Shang Yang’s political method was summarized in The Book of Lord Shang. He claimed all attention of the state should go to agriculture and war. To accomplish this, he gifted peasants land in exchange for taxes and service in the military. This had two advantages. With peasants owning their own land, he decreased the power of the feudal lords, who used to wield a lot of power in the provinces of Qin. Instead, power became centralized in the king. Secondly, enrolling peasants in the military allowed for the creation of an army of unprecedented size. Before, the army had been populated only by the aristocracy, leading to armies no larger than 10,000 men, but being able to mobilize the entire state for war, the armies of Qin eventually reached a record of 600,000 men. Shang Yang also made military achievements the only important determinant of status, rewarding people with ranks based solely on military merit.

Shang Yang valued past traditions even less than Mozi. He found it useless to dream of a time when legendary emperors would again rule the land. Their success in the past could just as well have been attributed to the smaller population at the time. He also strongly opposed the Confucian focus on ren (kindness) and li (ritual). In fact, he considered the preaching of peace and the emphasis on ritual dangerous. These ideas could make a man too moderate and restrained to fight for the safety of their state. According to Shang Yang, a Confucian sage would be a terrible king. Everything besides war and agriculture was considered a threat to the state and should be eliminated. We read:

If a country is strong and does not make war, there will be villainy within and six maggots, which are: rites and music, poetry and history; the cultivation of goodness, filial piety and respect for elders; sincerity and truth; purity and integrity; kindness and morality; detraction of warfare and shame at taking part in it. In a country that has these twelve things, the ruler will not be able to make people farm and fight, with the result that he will become impoverished and his territory diminished. [83]

To make sure people would not waste their time on these “maggots,” he believed a state should continually be engaged in expansionist war (Shang Yang himself was put in charge of a number of such wars). Continuous war would burn up all the surpluses that would allow people to concern themselves with long life, female beauty, personal ambition, and pursuing virtue.

He also insisted that loyalty to the state was more important than loyalty to family and that governments should exploit the fear and greed of the population. In one of his least charming moments, he said:

If you undertake what the enemy would be ashamed to do, you have the advantage. [83]


Qin Shi Huangdi

In the year 221 BC, King Ying Zheng of Qin (259–210 BC) conquered all states, uniting China for the first time, ending five centuries of war and chaos, and ushering in the Qin Dynasty (pronounced “chin,” from which we derive our word “China”).

Our knowledge of the Qin and later Han Dynasty comes mostly from a massive historical work called Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), which was finished around 90 BC by the grand historian and royal astronomer Sima Qian (c. 145–86 BC). The work counts as one of the most impressive achievements of Han. Besides a historical narrative, it also includes many biographies of rulers and officials, and even of scholars, merchants, and assassins.

Upon his victory, Ying Zheng asked his minister to devise a title higher than king (wang). The result was Qin Shi Huangdi, often translated as “First Emperor of Qin,” with “Huangdi” being a title similar to “emperor,” which literally meant “shining god.”

While the Zhou kings had claimed the right to rule by appealing to the mandate of heaven, the first emperor of Qin took another route. He referred to China’s five elements—earth, wood, metal, fire, and water. Zhou had been associated with fire, which can be overcome by water. As a result, the emperor picked water, which became the official element of the dynasty, along with the associated color black and the number six. Royal robes and flags were black, hats were six inches tall, and the imperial carriage was drawn by six horses. The later Han Dynasty would pick up this practice and also used water as their symbol.

The mastermind behind the First Emperor’s throne was the chief minister Li Si (c. 280–208 BC), who was hired by Qin from outside the state. Li Si assisted the emperor in implementing legalist ideas. He facilitated the successful unification of China by introducing the empire’s laws, standard weights and measures, a standard chariot width, a standard currency, and even a standard script to be used across the empire. He also had the weapons of conquered states melted and cast into musical bells and large statues to avoid uprisings.

Several ministers petitioned the First Emperor to follow the example of the Zhou Dynasty and establish his relatives as kings of the states, but Li Si reminded them that this had weakened the dynasty over time. He instead recommended refashioning all of China in line with Shang Yang’s policies. And that is what happened. Qin Shi Huangdi abolished all the feudal noble houses of his new empire and divided China into 36 provinces, led by administrative bureaucracies headed by a governor, a military commander, and an imperial inspector, all of whom could be both appointed and removed by the emperor at will. The new bureaucracy was staffed “based solely on merit, so that in the empire sons and younger brothers in the imperial clan were not ennobled, but meritorious ministers were.” He also introduced a system of 20 ranks. The first eight ranks were open to the general public and the rest were for officials. Those with rank 12 and up were free from taxation, military and labor services, and were treated more leniently when convicted of a crime. The final rank could pass on to descendants and granted them land. Qin Shi Huangdi also sent thousands of members of the local aristocracy to the capital, Xianyang, pulling them away from their bases of power in the provinces.

Li Si also convinced Qin Shi Huangdi to harshly suppress any criticism of his rule, especially by the Confucianists who compared the emperor negatively to the great kings of the past:

These masters [Confucians] do not learn from the modern but from the ancient, with which they criticize the present time and confuse the black-haired [meaning the common people].  In the court, they criticize it in their hearts; outside, they debate it on the streets. To discredit the ruler is a means to be famous. [87]

In response, the First Emperor ordered all books to be burned (except for practical works on medicine, divination, and agriculture). It is said he particularly targeted the Confucian classics. On top of this, he executed 460 scholars associated with a man called Master Lu, who had accused the emperor of being “violent, cruel […] and greedy for power.”

Modern scholars believe that some of these stories are likely exaggerated by the later Han Dynasty, who wanted to compare themselves favorably to their predecessor. For instance, the First Emperor is portrayed as anti-intellectual, while we also know he personally consulted scholars, and we still have the rubbings of stone inscriptions which he placed on a mountain top, which do not show an aversion for scholarship. In fact, these inscriptions draw on many Chinese schools of philosophy:

[The emperor] has corrected and equalized the laws and regulations [Legalism]. His sagely wisdom is humane (ren) and righteous (yi) [Confucianism] [and] he embodies the Way (Dao) and practices its power (De) [Daoism]. [88]

Fig. 244 – A 993 AD rubbing of a stele on mount Yi, placed there by Qin Shi Huangdi. The original stele has not survived.

Some modern scholars believe that Li Si ordered the burning of the books not because of anti-intellectualism, but in order to give the government full control over education, for he did have two copies of each book stored in the Imperial Library (which was unfortunately burned to the ground when Xiang Yu, a rival of Qin, sacked the capital). Luckily, not all books were handed in, allowing some to survive the fire.

Qin Shi Huang also started a number of massive building projects, all built by conscripted labor. This included long roads and canals, and most famously, he had Meng Tian (c. 250–210 BC) connect a couple of existing stamped-earth fortifications into the Great Wall of China (Changcheng, literally “long wall”), which was meant to protect the northern borders from the nomadic Xiongnu tribes. The walls built by Qin and Han together span over 3000 kilometers (and during the rest of Chinese history, this was extended to over 20,000 kilometers). The building of the initial wall is believed to have cost hundreds of thousands of lives and took ten years to finish (the wall which is today popular among tourists stems from the Ming Dynasty, which started in the 14th century).

Curiously, the First Emperor also believed that in order to increase his spiritual power it was best to keep out of sight. He even had elevated walkways built so that he could walk from one palace to the next without being seen, and anyone who revealed his location was put to death.

Qin Shi Huang also believed in the possibility of attaining an elixir of immortality, a Daoist pursuit. To this end, he is said to have sent the alchemist and explorer Xu Fu (b. 255 BC) with a fleet of 60 ships and thousands of men to look for it. The elixir was supposedly hidden on a legendary island on which immortals lived, but which was guarded by a sea monster. The First Emperor was said to have shot the beast himself with his crossbow, but he died before he could complete his journey. Qin Shi Huang also employed alchemists to create an elixir. Ironically, it is quite possible that his death was caused by drinking potions that contained high doses of mercury.

Fig. 245 – The journey of Xu Fu by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (18th century) (Museum of Fine Art in Boston)


Fig. 246 – The terracotta army buried with Emperor Qin Shi Huang (Holger Ellgaard, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Uwe Aranas, CEphoto)

When Qin Shi Huang died in 210 BC, he was buried in a vast mausoleum, only part of which has been excavated. The Han dynasty historian Sima Qian, writing over a century after Qin Shi Huang’s death, wrote that the workers were killed to keep the tomb’s location a secret and were buried with him, as were his concubines. The tomb was only rediscovered in 1974. Part of his burial mound contained a vast terracotta army of thousands of life-size soldiers, including infantry, cavalry, charioteers, and archers, armed with actual weapons and originally all brightly painted (see Fig. 246). The soldiers were lined up in formation to form an impressive army, which Qin Shi Huang likely believed would aid him in the hereafter. When the army was discovered, historians were amazed by the realism of Qin art, which far exceeded what was thought possible at the time.

The location of the central tomb of the emperor has also been found, but it has yet to be opened. According to Sima Qian, the central chamber has pearls and precious stones on the ceiling to represent the moon, the sun, and the stars. Channels of mercury on the floor represent the great rivers of China. Sima Qian also warned that crossbows were set up as booby traps to prevent people from entering the tomb.

Li Si and the eunuch Zhao Gao (d. 207 BC) were the first to hear of the First Emperor’s death. Before releasing the news to the public, they sent a note to his successor in name of the emperor, demanding him to kill himself. They then put forward another son of the emperor, the dim-witted Ying Huhai, whom they could easily control, and made him the Second Emperor. Later, Zhao Gao conspired with the emperor to have Li Si arrested and cut in two, after which the eunuch attained his former position as chancellor.

As the Second Emperor grew older, he became exceedingly cruel, executing ministers, princes, and officials. Resistance to his rule became so great, that the Qin Dynasty collapsed after a mere 15 years. The first breach occurred when officer Chen Sheng was assigned to move his troops to guard the northern border, but he was delayed because rain had washed out the roads, for which the penalty was death. Having nothing to lose, they became rebels. He took over the former Kingdom of Chu and then supported rebellions in other parts of China, but he was finally killed by his own chariot driver, who claimed loyalty to Qin.

The rebellion of Chen Sheng had failed, but others would succeed. The main contender to oust Qin was Xiang Yu (c. 232–202 BC), the most capable commander of the time, but he was finally overtaken by an unlikely figure, a former peasant named Liu Bang (256–195 BC), who came from the state of Han. In a story similar to that of Chen Sheng, he became an outlaw when he was set to be punished after some of his prisoners escaped. After a five-year civil war, which included a few near-defeats, Liu Bang became the first emperor of the Han dynasty, under the name Gaozu.

Many historians throughout Chinese history have commented on the collapse of Qin. Confucian writers generally pointed to moral factors. The first commentator was Jia Yi (c. 200–169 BC), who wrote The Faults of Qin. He wrote that Qin became “the laughing stock of the world, […] because it failed to display humanity (ren) and righteousness (yi).” Another commentator, Yan An (2nd century BC), wrote:

If the Qin had only relaxed its punishments, lightened the burden of taxation, and decreased its demands upon the labor of the people; if it had honored benevolence (ren) and righteousness (yi) and scorned power and profit; if it had placed more value on sincerity and less on cunning, and had worked to reform the ways and manners of the people and to educate the empire to virtue, then it might have ruled in peace and security for generations. […] Hardship made life no longer worth living and the people hanged themselves from the roadside trees in such numbers that one corpse dangled within sight of another. Finally, when the First Emperor of the Qin passed away, the whole empire rose up in revolt. […] In the farthest mountains and the remotest valleys heroes sprang to action in numbers too great to recount. […] The Zhou dynasty failed because of its weakness, the Qin because of its strength; both suffered by not changing with the times. [89]


The Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty became one of the most successful dynasties of China, lasting from 206 BC until 220 AD. Emperor Liu Bang moved the capital to Chang’an, a rectangular city with 8-meter-tall city walls, with imposing gateways and towers. The city included various markets, palaces, and just outside the city was the Clear Terrace, the royal observatory. Unfortunately, like all Chinese cities, it was constructed of perishable materials, so nothing remains of it today.

Fig. 247 – An illustration of Chang’an according to a 17th century AD artist.

The Han government was an interesting mix between Legalist and Zhou policies. To keep his powerful allies on his side, he awarded ten kingdoms to his loyal followers (as the Zhou had done), while 14 districts were overseen by government-instated bureaucrats (according to the ideals of Legalism). He also kept the legalist system of objective laws and the system of ranks based on merit. To appease the population, Liu Bang also promised to reduce taxes and softened the harsh laws of Qin.

According to Sima Qian, Liu Bang attributed his own success to his ability to find talented men:

My lords and commanders, speak frankly to me and dare to hide nothing. Why did I gain the empire? Why did Xiang Yu lose it? […] As for calculating strategies within the commander’s tent and thereby assuring victory a thousand miles away, I am not as good as Zhang Liang. As for ordering a state, making the people content, providing rations for troops and assuring that supply lines are not cut, I am not as good as Xiao He. As for assembling a million-man army, winning every battle fought, and taking every city attacked, I am not as good as Han Xin. These three are great men, and I was able to employ them. That is why I gained the empire. Xiang Yu had only Fan Zeng and he could not use him. That is why he was slain by me. [90]

Some of the men mentioned were unlikely superstars. Zhang Liang used to be a bandit chief, who had once tried to assassinate the First Emperor, and Han Xin was a nobody, who had once narrowly escaped execution and ran away from service. Yet Liu Bang correctly spotted their talent and they became men of exceptional abilities under his leadership.

At first, the uneducated Liu Bang had no respect for Confucianism. In fact, when he met a Confucian scholar wearing his traditional robe and cap, he would grab the hat and urinate into it to show his disdain. But this changed when an official named Lu Jia (d. 170 BC) warned him that the skills needed to conquer an empire were quite different from those needed to govern it:

You may have won the world on horseback, but can you rule it on horseback? [87]

Lu Jia explained that to stabilize a dynasty for the ages, Confucian virtues such as kindness (ren) and righteousness (yi) were essential, which was precisely what the Qin Dynasty had lacked. Convinced by this message, Liu Bang had the Confucian scholar Shusun Tong arrange a Confucian ritual for his coronation in 202 BC. Shusun explained: “Confucians are hard to use when marching forward to conquer, but they are good allies in holding on to what one has gained.”

In line with Confucius’s ideal of placing people of merit and virtue in places of power, Liu Bang issued a historic edict in 196 BC which stated that local officials had to seek out talented men in their districts and send them to the capital to determine whether they qualified for a government position. We read:

At present in the world there are capable men who are wise and able; […]  The trouble is that the ruler of men does not meet them. […] If there are any capable gentlemen who are willing to follow and be friends with me, I can make them honorable and illustrious. […] Let the foregoing be published to all the world [and transmitted down] to commandery administrators. If any among their people have an excellent reputation and manifest virtue, the officials must personally urge them to come, provide them with chariots and horses, and send them to the courts of the chancellor of state to have written down their accomplishments, their appearance, and their age. If there are such ones and any official does not report them, when this fact becomes known he shall be dismissed. [87]

When Liu Bang died, a problem arose that would resurface time and again in both Chinese and Roman history—the transition of power. Liu Bang’s son, Liu Ying, came to the throne, but since he was still underage, his mother, the cruel Empress Lu, ruled as regent. Once in charge, the empress poisoned Liu Ruyi, a son of Liu Bang by a concubine. Liu Bang had favored this son for his succession but finally was discouraged by his advisors from make him his heir. The empress also began to appoint various relatives to positions of power in order to increase the influence of her side of the family. After the empress died, the Liu family attempted to remove her family from power, after which the Lu family plotted to overthrow the dynasty. The attempt failed, after which members of the Lu family were arrested and beheaded.


The Imperial Examinations

Emperor Wen (200–157 BC) continued the practice of finding men of merit, which was highly necessary to staff the ever-growing bureaucracy (which at the peak of Han governed 50 million people). In 165 BC, he ordered his officials to “select men of excellence and integrity” and subject them to imperial examinations. The applicants were expected to compose an essay in which they would “fully display their aims without hiding anything.” The emperor promised to “personally survey [the responses] in order to discern [...] whether or not they met [his criteria].” [91] Emperor Wu (141–87 BC) took the next step by making Confucianism the official philosophy of the state and tested the participants of the exam on their knowledge of the Confucian classics. In 124 BC, Emperor Wu established the Imperial Academy (Taixue), which by the end of the Han Dynasty, about three centuries later, would enroll more than 30,000 students.

Fig. 248 – A painting of an imperial examination, from Recueil historique des principaux traits de la vie des empereurs de la Chine ( 17-18th century) (Bibliotheque Nationale de France)

Over the centuries, the imperial examination system continued to expand, ensuring that talented men occupied the government bureaucracy. In time, even commoners were allowed to take the test, allowing for some social mobility. For instance, Ni Kuan (2nd century BC) first worked as a manual laborer to pay for his education, “carrying a copy of the classics with him as he hoed,” and eventually became an imperial counselor.

Fig. 249 – A scene from the life of Xu Xianqing, depicting the Imperial Civil Service Examination. Xu Xianqing passed the imperial exams and eventually came to head the Guozijian (Imperial College) (1590) (China; Peking Palace Museum)

Influenced by the Chinese, the British East India Company adopted this meritocratic system in the 17th century. Company managers hired and promoted employees based on examinations to prevent corruption and favoritism. Via the East India Company, the idea spread through the Western world, where various great thinkers, including Voltaire, came to endorse it.


The Confucian scholar-bureaucrats

The imperial examination system gave rise to a new elite of Confucian scholar-bureaucrats (shi) who were known to criticize the government to protect the people against bad policies and corruption. Ideally, they would criticize their superiors when in error, even at the risk of death. In this role, they were deemed essential to maintain virtue in society. This might sound too good to be true, and in many cases it likely was, but we do have hundreds of accounts from Chinese history of this ideal being practiced in real life. One of these figures was the historian Sima Qian himsel, who criticized Emperor Wu’s foreign policy and as a result had to choose between being castrated and the death penalty. He chose the former in order to be able to finish his history of China.

In some cases, leadership was willing to listen. Fan Zhun (2nd century AD) wrote a memorial to the empress complaining about the sorry state of the university in his day. He stressed the importance of personal morality and the recruitment of worthy men. The regent empress Deng accepted his argument and made several calls for the nomination of virtuous men. Zhou Ju (2nd century AD) blamed a drought on Emperor Shun’s extravagant lifestyle and his tolerance of corrupt bureaucrats (and he even blamed the empress for endangering the dynasty by not giving birth to a son). Remarkably, Emperor Shun was impressed by the memorial and allowed Zhou Ju to name bad officials to be dismissed from service.

Some Confucianists got fed up with stubborn rulers and refused to serve the government. For instance, Wei Huan (2nd century AD) wrote:

Now to seek a salary and look for advancement might satisfy my personal ambition. There are, however, more than a thousand women in the harem; can their numbers be reduced? There are tens of thousands of horses in the stables; can their numbers be diminished? The attendants of the emperor are powerful and oppressive; can they be removed? […] So you are asking that I go alive [to the court] and come back dead [for speaking out against abuses]. What is the point? [92]

The story of Ji An (2nd century BC) is particularly wild. He was sent to inspect the damage done by a great fire, but on his way he discovered that the locals were very poor, to the point where they resorted to cannibalism. Ji An wrote the following report to the emperor:

I therefore took it upon myself to use the imperial seals to open the granaries of Henao and relieve the distress of the people. I herewith return the seals and await punishment for overstepping my authority in this fashion. [89]

To his surprise, the emperor promoted him instead. He eventually came to work in the palace, but because of his sharp criticism of the emperor he was sent away to become governor in one of the provinces. But hearing of his success, the emperor summoned him back to court, promoting him to one of the nine highest offices in the government. Unable to help himself, he continued to criticize the emperor, bringing “scowls to the emperor’s face.” On one occasion, he said:

“On the surface Your Majesty is practicing benevolence (ren) and righteousness (yi), but in your heart you have too many desires. How do you ever expect to imitate the rule of the sage emperors Yao and Shun in this way?” The emperor sat in silence, his face flushed with anger, and then dismissed the court. The other high officials were all terrified of what would happen to Ji An. After the emperor had left the room, he turned to his attendants and said, “Incredible, the stupidity of that Ji An!” Later, some of the officials reproached Ji An for his behavior, but he replied, “Since the Son of Heaven [the emperor] has gone to the trouble of appointing us as his officials and aides, what business have we in simply flattering his whims and agreeing with whatever he says, deliberately leading him on to unrighteous deeds? Now that we occupy these posts, no matter how much we may value our own safety, we cannot allow the court to suffer disgrace, can we?”

On various occasions, the emperor sought an excuse to execute him, but in the end, he promoted him to a rank equivalent of that of prime minister.

Confucian scholars also gave insightful critiques on how to rule the nation. Xu Yue (2nd century BC) noted that the harvest in a certain area had not been great for a couple of years, causing the people to starve. Additionally, since these people lived at the border, they were also constantly burdened by military campaigns. He continued:

In view of this, if I were to attempt to predict the future on the basis of reason, I would say that the people will soon become restless in their present habitations. Being restless, they will begin to shift about, and shifting about is what [causes a dynasty to fall]. The important thing for Your Majesty, therefore, is simply to strive to prevent conditions in the empire that would bring [this] about. [89]

Yan An (2nd century BC) wrote the emperor to convince him not to attack the Xiongnu tribes at the border. He believed attacking them was unwise, since at the time they formed no direct threat and since “wearisome projects in distant lands exhaust the nation’s wealth” and might even lead to rebellion among the people or stir up hatred among the Xiongnu. He concluded: “This is no way to ensure the continuance of the dynasty!”

Both Xu Yue and Yan An were summoned to the throne and the emperor said to them: “Gentlemen, where have you been keeping yourselves up till now? Why have we not met sooner?” He them rewarded them with the rank of palace attendant.


The Debate on Salt and Iron

An important topic of debate between Confucianists and aristocrats was government intervention in the economy. In 81 BC, a debate was held to discuss this topic, which was recorded by Huan Kuan under the title Discourses on Salt and Iron. Emperor Wu’s aggressive foreign policy against the Xiongnu nomads had nearly bankrupted the treasury. To compensate for the loss, he put into place government monopolies on salt and iron. Generally, the Confucian scholars wanted minimal government intervention, believing that most government actions increase the burden on the people, for instance through taxation, warfare, and conscripted labor. In the debate, they also claimed government monopolies take away the profits of small businesses, who, they claimed, produced higher quality tools and better understood the needs of their clients. A minister who spoke for the government countered that most profits instead went to wealthy industrialists and that a government monopoly allowed them to control prices, making the products more affordable.

Confucian scholars were also suspicious of trade, giving them another reason to keep the government out of the sale of salt and iron. Unlike farmers, merchants do not produce anything and were therefore regarded by many as mere parasites (it wasn’t until 18th century England that the value of trade was properly understood).

The money earned by these monopolies largely financed the wars against foreign tribes. According to the Confucianists, these wars had bankrupted the nation and provoked the tribes. In their view, a more effective strategy was to set a good example using the Confucian ideal of benevolence (ren). The minister countered that the Xiongnu tribes posed a real threat to both Chinese authority and the people living near the border. In his view, it was heartless not to come to their aid.

It should be noted that although Confucian scholars generally opposed government interference, they made an exception when the gap between the rich and the poor became too large, believing that a very uneven distribution of wealth polarized society. A crucial quote by Confucius on the matter (although it might have been a later addition) states that rulers “should not worry about poverty but should worry about the uneven distribution of wealth. […] When there is equity in the distribution of wealth, there will be no poverty.” [87] Unfortunately, it is not clear what “uneven” means in this context. It could mean that every citizen should own about the same amount of wealth or that people should be rewarded equally for the same work. Confucius’s opinion probably lay somewhere in the middle. Hard work should be rewarding, but excesses of poverty and wealth should be avoided. The influential Confucian philosopher Xunzi (c.310–238 BC) was also of this opinion. He stated that equality should mean that people get the same reward for the same about of work, which made people “unequal (in outcome) yet equivalent (in opportunity).” At the same time, Xunzi recommended social welfare to provide for orphans, the childless elderly, and the poor. [93]

To close the wealth gap, the Confucianists also recommended capping the maximum amount of land that a single family could own. There were even plans by some for a redistribution of landholdings based on an idealized conception of the Zhou feudal system, but in the end, this was not implemented due to heavy resistance from the elites.


Wang Mang

The Han Dynasty continued uninterrupted until Emperor Ai (25–1 BC) died without an heir. The regent empress Wang (71 BC–13 AD) promoted her nephew Wang Mang (c. 45 BC–23 AD) to marshal of state, the second highest position in the empire. When the young new emperor Ping died a few years later, Wang Mang was given the title of acting emperor. In 9 AD, he took the next step and declared the start of a new dynasty, the Xin Dynasty. At that time, fire (red) had become the accepted element of Han. To convince the public of the legitimacy of his rule, Wang Mang fabricated various omens to suggest that the next element, earth (yellow), was ascendant.

Wang Mang was an educated man who had received a comprehensive Confucian education, had military experience as commander of the Northern Army, and gained popularity among both officials and scholars. His administration was capable and successful and he managed to reign for 15 years, but then the Yellow River changed course, sparking a widespread peasant rebellion known as the Red Eyebrows (who used red paint to color their eyebrows). The rebels even managed to sack and burn the capital Chang’an, but were too disorganized to establish an effective administration. With the new dynasty on its knees, Liu Yan (d. 23 AD) and his brother Liu Xiu (5 BC–57 AD), heirs of the Han Dynasty, defeated and decapitated Wang Mang. Liu Yan was killed as well, allowing Liu Xiu to become the first emperor of Later Han in 25 AD. He established Luoyang as his new capital, which at the time was the most populous city in the world with an estimated population of half a million. The city was protected by a wall and a moat and had two palaces known as the Northern and the Southern Palace, which were connected by an elevated, covered passageway. It also featured a temple known as the Bright Hall, two large hunting preserves, imperial tombs, an observatory called the Spiritual Terrace, and an Imperial Academy.


The fall of Han

In the 2nd century AD, a number of persistent problems began to weigh the Han Dynasty down—many similar to those plaguing the contemporary Roman Empire. The most obvious problem was the enormous cost of protecting the border. Regular invasions by the Xiongnu tribes in the north and the Qian tribes in the west required constant border protection. Their raids also discouraged people from living near the border, which made it even harder to defend. As the empire grew, there was more and more border to defend, which eventually caused the government to overstretch itself financially, leading to permanent shortages in the treasury. In an attempt to make some extra money, the government began selling government positions, which backfired, as it decreased morale and increased corruption. With these persistent financial problems, the government also became less effective in meeting the needs of the people, making them more likely to riot and even form rebellions. In the second half of the 2nd century AD, these rebellions were often fueled by messianic figures who promised religious utopias, and sometimes managed to attract hundreds of thousands of supporters. Another cause of rebellion was growing income inequality. As the rich acquired more and more land, the poor often became landless and unemployed, pushing them into a life of crime and making them easily recruitable for rebel armies.

As the government became less and less effective, it also began to lose its authority over the distant provinces of China, causing its subjects to shift their loyalty from the emperor to local leaders and strongmen, which in Chinese history was considered a great sin. Eventually, some provinces effectively became independent.

There were also many problems within the government. First of all, every ruler in the 2nd century AD ascended the throne as a child and died before the age of forty, causing great instability. There was also a growing disconnect between the various branches of government. The aristocrats supported extravagant projects and expansive wars to increase the power of the throne, while the Confucianists often prioritized the welfare of the population. The generals, who risked their lives on the battlefield, were not understood by either party and were generally viewed with disdain. Meanwhile, the Chinese emperors had almost zero contact with the outside world. They often relied solely on reports from officials and royal families, who often added their own ideological spin to get their way.

Just as in Rome, the transfer of power often endangered the dynasty, as the system of hereditary succession is inherently unstable. If an emperor had no legitimate heir, disputes often erupted after his death. Powerful families also went to great lengths to marry into the royal family. In various cases, they even murdered the heir if this would mean a member from their own family would be placed on the throne.

Eunuchs also played an increasingly notorious role in Han politics. These men were voluntarily castrated, making them unable to further their lineage, and were therefore deemed trustworthy enough to guard the private areas of the female aristocrats, including the emperor’s harem. As their castration bound them to the throne, they always sided with the emperor, making them dependable allies. As a result, some emperors rewarded them with high positions. This irritated the Confucian scholars, who were often jealous and also believed the eunuchs did not have the best interest of the people at heart.

As the empire was starting to fall apart, many Confucianists risked their lives to combat corruption among the aristocrats, the eunuchs, and the provincial officials. In 142 AD, Emperor Shun (115–144 AD) invited the Confucian scholar Zhou Ju to present his views. Zhou Ju bravely answered that favoritism at court and the abuse of power by great families had led to corruption, which in turn led to resentment among the people. To resolve this problem, he called for an investigation of the provincial administrations. The emperor responded favorably, establishing a special commission to travel around the empire and report on their conduct. Zhou Ju, together with a scholar named Du Qiao, became authorized to remove dysfunctional administrators and they were even allowed to arrest magistrates on the spot.

One controversial member of the commission, Zhang Gang, refused to go on tour, claiming that the greatest problems were not in the provinces, but located in the capital itself. He was especially concerned about the growing power of the Liang family. The scholar Li Gu (c. 94–148 AD) agreed. Emperor Shun appreciated their honesty but took no action, which soon proved to be a big mistake. When Emperor Huan (132–168 AD) came to power in 146 AD he was still too young to rule, and as a result, the regent empress Liang Na (116–150 AD) took charge, together with her cruel and arrogant brother, the marshal of state Liang Ji (d. 159 AD). Liang Ji persuaded the regent empress and the young emperor to execute the critical Li Gu and to arrest Du Qiao, who later died in prison. Both their corpses were displayed at the capital as a warning. These heinous acts against honorable Confucianists prompted various demonstrations, but not enough to oust the Liang family from power.  

Eventually, the eunuchs also began to feel uneasy about the power of the Liang family. The palace eunuch Xu Huang pressured the astronomer Chen Shou to announce that certain bad omens, including an eclipse, pointed to Liang Ji’s misconduct. In response, Liang Ji had the astronomer arrested and killed. This alarmed Emperor Huan, as the astronomer had been one of his advisors. Fearing for his life, he asked for the names of eunuchs who would support him against Liang Ji. When Liang Ji discovered the walls were closing in on him, he committed suicide. Members of his family were arrested and publicly executed.

In 160 AD, the Confucianist scholar Li Yun wrote a memorial to the emperor criticizing his new wife as an unsuitable choice and suggested that her appointment was the cause of a series of earthquakes at the capital. He then added criticism of the emperor’s decision to give land to his eunuch allies. In response, Emperor Huan had Li Yun tortured. The courageous scholar Du Zhong informed the emperor that in case Li Yun were to be executed, he wished to die with him as a martyr. And so it happened. Their joint execution strongly backfired on the government. Emperor Huan then tried to repair some of the damage, by reinstating the scholar Chen Fan, who had also been critical of Li Yun’s treatment. Courageously, Chen Fan continued to offer criticism of the government but was nevertheless allowed to rise to the highest rank. Inspired by their deeds, the students of the Imperial Academy openly picked the side of the Confucian scholars and published lists of what they deemed to be the greatest Confucian martyrs.

With Liang Ji gone, a Confucian scholar named Dou Wu (d. 168 AD) stepped in his place. Both Dou Wu and Chen Fan openly expressed their concern about the growing influence of the eunuchs at court. Dou Wu managed to convince the regent empress Dou to put several dysfunctional senior eunuchs to death, but what he actually wanted was a complete purge. When the eunuchs discovered his plan, they swore to destroy him. One of the eunuchs was sent to arrest Dou Wu, who was notified just in time and managed to escape. But then General Zhang Huan arrived at the capital. Not completely sure what had happened, he picked the side of the eunuchs. With the army against him, Dou Wu committed suicide. The eunuchs would later display his head at the capital. Meanwhile, one of the eunuchs had seized the regent’s seal of authority, allowing the eunuchs to illegally issue government edicts. Chen Fan broke into the palace in an attempt to stop this, but was killed in the process. The eunuchs then put the regent empress under house arrest, and with the emperor still young, the government was now firmly in the hands of the eunuchs. More than a hundred leaders of the Confucian reform movement were put to death and many others were removed from office. The scholar Cao Lun courageously urged in a memorial that these Confucianists be reinstated, as they were among the worthiest men of the empire, for which he too was executed.

Starting in the 160s, various religious leaders popped up around the country. They were messianic figures who convinced their subjects they would initiate a utopian era to succeed the Han Dynasty. The element fire (red) of Han, they claimed, would soon give way to the element earth (yellow). As a result, many of these religious leaders associated themselves with the Yellow Emperor. Others picked Huang-Lao, a popular Daoist deity who had incarnated both as the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) and the Daoist sage Laozi. The government made some effort to suppress these movements, but they kept spreading.

In 184 AD, these movements caused a series of peasant rebellions, fueled by extreme poverty among the population and distrust in the government. One influential movement was the Five Pecks of Grain, whose members were obliged to give a certain amount of grain to provide for the community. At their height, they even managed to carve out a small theocratic state. The largest and most influential group was called the Yellow Turbans, who wore yellow caps in reference to the Yellow Emperor. They were led by the Daoist healer Zhang Jue (d. c. 184 AD), who encouraged his disciples to confess sins and drink charmed water as medicine. He also believed in a utopia called the Great Peace (taiping) and responded to a prophecy that “all the world will rejoice [in 184 AD]”. His movement gained hundreds of thousands of followers, whom he recruited to form a large peasant army set to cause uprisings all over China. He picked a date for the attack, but the plan leaked and orders were sent for his arrest. He then decided to attack ahead of time, causing an enormous death toll on both sides, but eventually Zhang Jue was beheaded and his head was sent to the capital.

When it was discovered that some of the eunuchs had been corresponding with the Yellow Turban leader, their influence weakened. He Jin (d. 189 AD), the brother of the empress and commander of the Northern Army, took the opportunity to put them under pressure. He Jin had a personal grudge with the eunuchs, since one of them had tried to kill him, and he preferred Confucian junzi in charge of the bureaucracy. Wanting to remove the eunuchs from positions of power, he called his army to the capital, which deeply frightened them. This was a great mistake, as the army was led by a man named Dong Zhuo (d. 192 AD), who was known to be difficult and had twice refused direct commands to hand over his troops just a few months earlier (otherwise unheard of in Chinese history). As expected, Dong Zhuo responded with enthusiasm, asking permission to “clear away all evil and wrongdoing.” He Jin became worried and sent orders for the army to stop immediately, but Dong Zhuo disregarded the order and continued his approach, halting only 20 kilometers from the capital.

The eunuchs responded with fear and one of them took his sword and cut off He Jin’s head. They then tossed his head into the hall of the palace, stating: “He Jin was planning treason; he has been executed.[92] Hearing there was trouble, two other officers, named Wu Kuang and Yuan Shu (c. 199 AD), joined forces and entered the palace with their staff. The eunuchs took up arms to defend themselves and barred themselves within the palace. To get them out, Yuan Shu ordered the room in which the eunuchs were hiding to be set on fire. When the door opened, all eunuchs were killed. Meanwhile, the fire spread, burning down the entire palace complex.

With both He Jin and the eunuchs gone, Dong Zhuo, who had seen the fire rising from Luoyang, marched into the city, deposed the current emperor, set his younger half-brother Liu Xie (181– 234 AD) on the throne, and made himself the effective head of government. With this act, the Han Dynasty had finally fallen.

As Luoyang was a long way from his homeland, Dong Zhuo shifted the capital back to Chang’an, taking the emperor with him. On their way out, they looted and destroyed the city, leaving it barely habitable. The Imperial Libraries also went up in flames. The politician Wang Yun (137–192 AD) tried to save as many books as he could, but only managed to retrieve 70 wagons filled with books, whereas 2000 were required. The majority of the books he could save from the fire were further damaged or destroyed by heavy rains.

In Chang’an, Dong Zhuo was killed by his own man and Emperor Liu Xie managed to bluff his way out of the city, ordering the guards of the city gate to move aside for the emperor. Meanwhile, various figures were plotting to take over China. Among them was the powerful warlord Cao Cao (155–220 AD), who managed to establish his own state. He also managed to capture Luoyang, including the emperor, whom he used as a means to legitimize his authority. Cao Cao did not succeed in conquering all of China but had to share the land with two other warlords, starting the Three Kingdom Period (220–280 AD). China was finally united once more in 280 AD, during the Jin Dynasty (280–420 AD).


Han science and technology

The Han Dynasty also produced a great number of scientific and technical inventions, among them the padded horse collar and the wheelbarrow, which would not appear in Europe until the 13th century AD. The crossbow, with a sophisticated bronze trigger, was known since the late Zhou period, but was further refined during the Han Dynasty. The Han also discovered that some wells released explosive natural gas. Mixed in the right ratio with oxygen, it could produce a steady flame that could be used for heating and cooking. Around 200 AD, natural gas was even piped into boiling sheds for the production of salt.

A truly monumental invention of the Han Dynasty was paper (zhi). Traditionally, the palace eunuch Cai Lun (d. 121 AD) is credited with its invention, but paper from as far back as the 2nd century BC has been found. Paper had the advantage of being much lighter than the bamboo strips that had been used previously, making it much easier to transport. By the third century AD, paper was in common use in China. It wasn’t until the 11th century that the invention reached Europe.

Associated with paper was the printing press. The first woodblock prints, depicting Buddhist images, were produced in 593 AD. At first, prints were made by painting on a coated surface and then pressing the ink on wood. The ink pattern was then used to carve out a wooden stamp. An early example is a five-meter-long scroll, dated to 868 AD, containing a copy of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra (see Fig. 250). In 1040, Bi Sheng (990–1051) developed the first movable type, consisting of separate characters made from clay that could be arranged to form any text. The invention, however, did not catch on.

Fig. 250 – Part of an early printed version of the Diamond Sutra (868 AD) (British Library)

The polymath Zhang Heng (78–139 AD) is credited with the invention of the seismograph, which he used to discover bad omens. He created a device that could detect small trembles of the earth undetectable by the human body, which caused a ball to drop from the mouth of one of eight metal dragons. By observing which dragon released its ball, Zhang Heng was even able to tell the direction from which the earthquake came. The reaction to this amazing discovery was recorded:

All the scholars at the capital were astonished at this strange effect occurring without any evidence of an earthquake to cause it. But several days later a messenger arrived bringing news of an earthquake in Longxi [about 400 miles away]. Upon this, everyone admitted the mysterious power of the instrument. Thenceforth it became the duty of the officials of the Bureau of Astronomy and Calendar to record the directions from which earthquakes came. [87]

Another crucial Chinese invention was a magnet sensitive enough to align itself with the Earth’s magnetic field, which was first invented in the 1st century AD. Interestingly, this device was also used for divination. A natural magnet, known as a lodestone, was allowed to spin on a platform containing I Ching characters, which are used to predict the future. It took until the 9th century for this technology to be applied to navigation, with the invention of the compass.

Around the 4th century BC, the Chinese also began to use bellows, some powered by waterwheels, to achieve temperatures hot enough to liquefy iron, which could then be cast into molds. This process was much less laborious than forging iron with a hammer, as happened in Europe until the 14th century. The Han government built about 50 huge blast furnaces, each producing several tons of iron a day.

The Chinese also invented gunpowder, but this had to wait until the 10th century AD. The first evidence of its use comes from a painting of the Buddha we’ve seen in an earlier chapter (Fig. 229). One of the demons in the image holds a tube shooting fire, known as a fire lance. The first recipe for gunpowder (charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter) was described in a work called Wujing Zongyao (Collection of Essential Military Techniques) from 1044 AD. When ignited, these substances produce a large amount of gas, creating a sudden expansion that can be used to launch projectiles. With this method, an arrow confined in a bamboo (or later metal) tube could be launched with speeds exceeding that of an arrow released from a bow. Gunpowder also led to the development of grenades, and even rockets, where an arrow was attached to a reservoir of gunpowder that provided an even thrust (see Fig. 251). In the 13th century, about 3000 cannons were placed on the Great Wall in order to defend China from the Mongols.

Fig. 251 – Illustrations of gunpowder weapons from the Huolongjing (c. 1360-1370 AD). From left to right we see a fire lance, a rocket arrow, a rocket arrow in the form of a dragon, a grenade, and two cannons.

The Chinese also made significant astronomical and mathematical discoveries. For instance, they had an accurate calendar of 365.25 days and discovered sun spots in 28 BC by looking at the sun through a piece of jade. In the 4th century AD, the astronomer Yu Xi even discovered precession.

In the field of mathematics, the Chinese came to use negative numbers, decimal fractions, and they managed to approximate pi as 3.15. The Chinese also gave an early proof of the Pythagorean theorem, which we will discuss in a later chapter.


The Silk Road

During the Han era, China also began to connect with the rest of Eurasia through a network of trade routes known as the Silk Road. This trade network was made possible because large empires in this vast region, including the Han, the Kushans, the Parthians, and Rome, had established law and order and had constructed a dependable network of roads. Traders along the Silk Road didn’t travel the entire route but instead handed their goods over to middlemen. Roadside inns were established to allow them to rest and recover after a long day’s journey.

The main commodity sold by China was silk, made from a fiber produced by silkworms. The Chinese had known about silk for centuries, but only during the Han did it become widespread. Silk was especially popular in Rome, where it was worn by the wives of senators, who spent enormous amounts of money to acquire it. Because of its value, the Chinese kept the process of making silk a secret. To prevent this secret from reaching Rome, Chinese traders were searched at the borders to make sure no silkworms were on board. The secret was so well kept that the Romans believed it grew on trees.

As the Chinese generally considered themselves the only civilized people in the world, they had comparatively little interest in the outside world. However limited, the contact with other civilizations during the Han Dynasty is worth mentioning. The diplomat Zhang Qian (d. 114 BC) was sent on a mission that reached Bactria (northwest Afghanistan). In 88 AD, a mission from Parthia (Iran) reached China. In 97 AD, the diplomat Gan Ying set out on a mission to Daqin (the Chinese name for the Roman Empire), but only reached Mesopotamia. In 166 AD, an embassy from Rome supposedly reached China. The Roman men claimed to have been sent by “King Andun,” which might refer to Marcus Aurelius, who ruled during this era. Strangely, there is no Roman record of this encounter. It might be that these travelers were simply merchants from Rome who sought to enhance their reputation by claiming official status. [92]