(DYNASTIC RULE and the CHINESE – continued)

home | 1000 BCE to 500 CE

DYNASTIC RULE and the CHINESE (5 of 13)

previous | next

Emperor Wen, Confucianism and a New Order

Liu Bang fought to consolidate his power across his empire. He had to fight numerous small wars, some against former allies. Another power consideration that Liu Bang faced was the confederation of tribes on China's northern border, led by a Turkish speaking people called the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu were nomadic herders with supplementary agriculture and some slaves. And like other nomads they had a warrior tradition and their warriors had grown up in the saddle. The Xiongnu had been making raids into China. Liu Bang believed that he was not yet strong enough to defeat the northern tribes, so he bribed the Xiongnu with food and clothing in exchange for their agreeing to no longer raid. And he gave the king of the Xiongnu a woman in marriage whom he claimed was a Chinese princess.

Liu Bang sought support also from China's small farmers – the peasants. He lowered their taxes, and in places he protected them from former nobles trying to retrieve lands they had lost. He made amends to peasants by not working them as hard as had the former emperor, Shihuangdi. And the peasants believed that because Liu had been a peasant that he would continue to govern in their interest.

Liu Bang

A depiction of unknown origin of Liu Bang, founder of the Han Dynasty. After death, his title was Emperor Gaozu

Drawing on his peasant origins, Liu Bang demonstrated his disdain for scholars by urinating into the hat of a court scholar, but in trying to govern he came to see benefit in the use of scholars, and he made peace with them. Many scholars were Confucianists, and he began treating the Confucianists with more tolerance than had Shihuangdi while he forbade Confucianist denunciations of his policies.

For Liu Bang, good government was a strong government – one that could maintain adequate submission. For centralized management of his empire he needed an army of civil servants. For reliable control, he installed his brothers, uncles and cousins as regional princes. He sought the continued support of local warlords who had been a part of his coalition in winning power, and those who had served him as generals or as chancellors he made lesser nobles. Those local Qin administrators who had supported him he left in place, and some friendly nobles he restored to their lands.

Liu Bang and his aides discovered that civil war comrades were inadequate administrators. He had little faith in the innate abilities of soldiers as administrators, and, like a lot of peasants, he distrusted merchants. So he turned to men from moderately wealthy landowning families. A new class was in the making – the gentry – which was to send its most able sons into careers in government and let its less able sons run the farm. And, with a new interest in opportune marriages, the new class began that accorded its daughters more respect.

Liu Bang died in 195 BCE at the age of sixty, and in death he was given the honorific name Gaodi. The common problem with succession followed. Power remained with Liu Bang's wife, the Dowager Empress Lu. She removed members of Liu Bang's family from positions of power and replaced them with members of her own family. After five years of rule she died, and Liu Bang's relatives moved to take back their family's dominance, and they killed every member of Empress Lu's side of the family. A son of Liu Bang, born to a concubine, became emperor, reviving Han rule, and he became known as Wendi (Emperor Wen).

For a while, China had good fortune with Emperor Wen. He was known for his concern regarding the interests of his subjects. When famines occurred he provided famine relief. He provided pensions for the aged. He freed many slaves, and he abolished China's cruelest methods of executions. During his reign, economics was seriously studied, and Emperor Wen gave economic matters serious consideration. He helped the economy by reducing restrictions on copper mining, by spending money frugally and by keep taxes imposed on the peasantry relatively low. Under Emperor Wen, China enjoyed internal peace and unprecedented prosperity. With this came magnificent art that would dazzle people in modern times. And, with prosperity, China's population began to increase, and people pushed into and began clearing and cultivating new lands.

The gentry benefited from the economic boom, and many of them moved to the city. Gentry wished to be thought of as gentlemen like the nobles. This elitism, and the prosperity benefited Confucianism. With time to read, the gentry became interested in the old scholarship. With a renaissance in scholarship, attempts were made to recreate the books that had been burned during the rule of Shihuangdi. Attracted to Confucianism's respect for authority and proper behavior, gentry intellectuals became predominately Confucian. Emperor Wen promoted Confucian scholars to his government's highest offices. He became the first emperor openly to adopt Confucian teachings – as Confucius had dreamed that emperors would.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.