Dynastic Consolidation Under Han
A Summary of Han History
Qin collapsed in 207 ВСЕ, but the imperial government of Han was not fully in place until 202. At this point Lu Jia told Liu Bei, the first emperor: "You won the empire on horseback, but can you rale it from horseback?" Liu saw he could not and set up a bureaucracy. The remark became famous and was recycled centuries later by Yelu Chucai, among others, instructing the steppe nomads who took over China in the Conquest Dynasties.
Early Han developed large cities of 200,000-300,000 people (Lewis 2006: 178), and later the capital reached perhaps a million. The huge towns that grew up around imperial tomb sites and housed workers and ritualists may have reached six-figure populations too.
A census in 2 CE revealed about 60,000,000 people, possibly an under-count. These were heavily concentrated in the North China Plain and Wei Valley, with smaller concentrations in the Sichuan basin and the lower Yangzi. There was another in the Red River Delta (now in Vietnam). Han conquered and held this area. The contrast with modern times is striking for the Pearl River area. It was then almost unpopulated, whereas it is now one of the most densely populated parts of the world. This census and one in 140 CE (Lewis 2006: 91) show that household size averaged around five persons, as it was throughout Chinese history.
Under Han, the centralization of China under one emperor in one capital became a reality. The founder (Liu Bang, Emperor Gao Zu) delegated power to his relatives, setting them up as kings. After his death, an empress, Lu, took over in a coup and declared a new empire (187-180 ВСЕ). A countercoup restored the Han line in the person of Emperor Wen (r. 180-157). He relaxed the harsh Qin laws, supported learning, restored Confucianism, and tolerated other peaceful philosophies.
Wen cut land taxes substantially. His successor Emperor Jing lowered the tax on farmers from one-fifteenth of production to one-thirtieth in 155 BCE (E. Anderson 1988; Chang Chun-shu 2007a: 78ff.). This was the principal tax farmers paid (there was no separate income tax) and should be duly compared to modern world rates, typically around 40 percent of income in developed countries (unless one is rich and thus escapes). The figure of approximately 3 percent became enshrined in Chinese statecraft and was copied as late as the Qing Dynasty. Government services were, of course, comparably low. The government did not interfere very much in business or farming. The "good times of Wen and Jing" were remembered. They set a precedent, still alive and inspiring tax cuts in the Qing Dynasty.
However, Empress Lias coup had taught the dynasty normal caution. While receiving popular approbation for their tax cuts and general kindness, Wen and Jing were quietly and thoroughly eliminating the restless and often rebellious local kings. This process involved eliminating entire families of immediate relatives. By Chinese—or any—standards, this was definitely hardline, but it was necessary for dynastic survival, and it worked. China remained centralized from then on when its government had any power at all.
Early emperors emulated the first emperor of Qin in having pottery armies to guard them in death; Emperor Jings has recently been excavated (see Xu Pingfang 2002 for magnificent photographs of both Qin Shi Huang Dis and Jings pottery armies).
Women were important, with a great deal of influence. This was not always viewed with enthusiasm, especially after yet another coup was brought about by Empress Yuan and her son Wang Mang, who established the Xin Dynasty. Most women were less rebellious. Many exemplary biographies of women—often written by other women—appeared. The women in them defer on the surface to fathers, husbands, and sons but managed to show a great deal of toughness, independence, and agency in the process—contrary to stereotypes (Raphals 1998). This tradition owes a great deal to Ban Zhao, a woman author who also continued the historical work of her father, Ban Bian, and elder brother, Ban Gu, finishing the History of the Former Han Dynasty (Hou Han Shu). She advocated proper deference to male authority but modeled what that meant by completing their work as a competent scholar fully equal to the men in the family. She was not a retiring person.
The great thinker and statesman Jia Yi, an early martyr to fearless speech (he reprimanded the emperor once too often), had much to do with redefining philosophy in a broadly Confucian mold. He followed a lead of Xunzi and anticipated Durkheim and other sociologists in providing startlingly modern functionalist explanations for ritual. He pointed out that rituals keep people together, teach individuals to do right, provide emotional grounding for morals, and represent the proper social relationships—for example, music uniting people and costumes showing the social differences through ritually prescribed dress (see, e.g., Lewis 2006: 20off.). Jia Yi had a great influence on subsequent Chinese thinking, which ever afterward tended to give pragmatic, social-functional explanations for ritual and social norms. I heard many such explanations on the Hong Kong waterfront fifty years ago. These folk explanations may actually trace back to Jia Yi through convoluted historical paths.
The low-tax policy eroded as Emperor Wus military campaigns forced raising of revenue. Emperor Wu (Wu Di, Martial Emperor, 156-87 ВСЕ, r. 141-87) dramatically developed the economy with agricultural development research and implementation, including the worlds first known case/control agricultural experiments and the first agricultural manuals (E. Anderson 1988; Bray 1984). However, it was his military drive that gave him his title and his fame. At his death, the Han Empire was the greatest on earth (Chang Chun-shu 2007a: 215). Han had conquered to the current western limits of China and beyond the current southern and northeastern limits. Wu Dis conquests amount to over 1.6 million square miles of real estate, conquered the Xiongnu Empire on the west (see below) and took over the Silk Road, just becoming a major artery.
In the southwest, the powerful Dian kingdom held sway until the Han conquest around 111 ВСЕ. The area was to become independent again with the fall of Han. The Dian kingdom was a powerful, artistically brilliant, highly advanced polity centering on Lake Dian, on whose northern shore is the current city of Kunming (Yao and Jiang 2012). The Dian kingdom was based on advanced rice agriculture and had a diversified economy and superb metal work. It clearly had a highly multilingual and multiethnic citizenry, and the region is today one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse in the world. The elite were probably speakers of one or even several Tibeto-Burman languages (Wang Jianhua 2013), and may have included Thai speakers also.
These conquests did not come without cost; the nearly contemporary Han Shu estimated that the empires population was halved and the resources exhausted (Chang Chun-shu 2007a: 224). Wu Di also eliminated thousands of subjects and supporters who stood in his way or seemed to pose a threat. Wu Di was described by Chang Chun-shu as perhaps "the most brutal and neurotic ruler in Chinese history" (2007a: 94), which would be a true distinction in the land of Qin Shi Huang Di, Zhu Yuanzhang (of Ming), and other memorable tyrants. (I would, however, vote for Zhu over Wu Di any day.) Wu Di stands as one of those brilliant, merciless, isolated individuals—from Sargon of Akkad to Napoleon—who truly changed history through the sheer amounts of violence they used. Yet he also oversaw a dynamic program of expansion in agricultural development, research, and support, including into the newly conquered lands. Land there, and indeed throughout the country, was redistributed to yeoman farmers. Textile production greatly increased.
Then and later, Han also conquered southward into what is now Vietnam, where they encountered phenomenal resistance led by the Trung sisters, who were among the most militarily gifted women in history. Han prevailed but had nothing but trouble from its new subjects. (The Trung sisters became national icons and were much used in anti-American resistance during the 1960s and 1970s.) Thereafter, when China was strong, it dominated northern Vietnam, lost it otherwise, and faced indomitable resistance throughout—a history that caused many experts, including military ones, to warn American presidents to stay out of Vietnam in the 1960s. A similar overreach into hostile territory occurred in Korea, where Han troops were fought to a standstill. Vietnam was to have little effect on China, whereas Korea became a major trading partner over the millennia, supplying ginseng and other medicinal goods as well as more prosaic items, and China in turn sent fine cloth, ceramics, and other manufactured goods. On the whole, China reached a natural limit to its size, which has stood even until today. The only major extension since Han has been the Qing Dynasty incorporation of Tibet
The Chinese world-system was established: a huge, rich, powerful core depending on extremely advanced agriculture, surrounded by smaller but unconquerable states and peoples who slowly came to adopt much of Chinese culture but retained very different languages and rather distinctive arts, folkways, and foods. China had begun a long and fateful dominance over, and mixed response to, eastern Central Asia. Han cities in the Central Asian deserts still survive in ruins preserved with astonishing fidelity by the desert climate. Explorers in the nineteenth century could simply walk into buildings and pick up (some would say loot) the Han records and goods from exactly where they had been left 2,000 years before.