Han Dynasty of Chinaby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
Trace developments in China from 124 BC to about 200 AD. Specifically, what was China like when Jesus told his disciples "ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem... and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8).
China in the middle 2nd century BC was experiencing a time of prosperity and stability led by the Han dynasty. The previous dynasty, the Qin1, who ruled from 221 BC to 206 BC, had radically changed Chinese society in an attempt to unify its diverse traditions. As the first dynasty to unify China, the Qin deposed all the nobles, instituted a legalistic government, standardized currencies, measurements, and writings, and constructed many public works. The strain of such sweeping reforms on the people was great, and they soon revolted, allowing the Han2 dynasty to come to power in 202 BC. This began a period of internal stability and unification. Minor skirmishes with the neighboring nomads, the Xiongnu, helped forge the Chinese into a single entity. These events brought China's prosperity to its maximum and allowed the nation's attention to be turned outward with the ascension of Emperor Wu3 in 141 BC. The history of China provides a clear example of the benefits and dangers inherent within a family dynasty ruling system.
As a young teen ruler, Wu was partially controlled by older advisors. He maintained control of the government, however, and created a close circle of young advisors who were strictly under his control. In a move that would have long lasting affects on China, he began using Confucius's teachings as the test for determining the worth of new advisors. This embrace of Confucian4 principles would eventually be standardized into the Imperial Examination, a merit-, rather than lineage-, based test for government officials. This combination of Legalism and Confucianism provided a stable base for the government. As Wu grew older, he increased China's military activity and began to assert Chinese influence over neighboring countries. These forceful interventions signified his rising power and harshness. Following several small successes, Wu began a large campaign against the Xiongnu. This conquest met with success in 119 BC when the main Xiongnu force was destroyed defending their headquarters. Wu Ti was forced by the invading Huns to strengthen his northern defenses and became more aggressive to add northern Annam in 111 BC and northern Korea in 108 BC to an expanding Han empire.
Proud of his successes and paranoid about traitors, the Emperor grew continually harsher in his treatment of others and began spending large amounts of money on tours, ceremonies, and the Confucian dogma of the Imperial University. However, Wu departed from the spirit of Confucianism and continued his pattern of military expansion coupled with increased taxation and harsher punishments throughout the rest of his reign, causing many revolts. One result of this was the creation of a land-holding class that forced peasants to pay to work the land. This class grew in power throughout the Han dynasty. The peasant rebellions sparked by these conditions, if not suppressed, were punished with the execution of the government officials responsible for that area. Beginning in 96 BC, large numbers of government officials were accused of witchcraft and executed. Even the crown prince was targeted with these accusations. After many years of harsh rule, Emperor Wu died in 87 BC, leaving his son, Crown Prince Fuling, to succeed him.
Ruling for 13 years, Fuling initially reversed his father's harsh policies and refilled the royal coffers. He eased the tax burden on the peasants and stopped most military expansion. Several attempts on his life, however, caused him to order sweeping executions and heavy-handed punishments on government officials in retribution. These harsh policies were again lifted under the next Emperor, Xuan, who ruled from 74 to 49 BC. He was known for his lifelong mission to reform corruption in the government and promote the well-being of the general people. The wise rule of Xuan was short-lived, however, as the Emperors who succeeded him were weak, and the Han dynasty fractured5. Wang Mang, a powerful court official, seized control, forming the short-lived Xin dynasty. He attempted to completely control people's lives, but succeeded only in causing revolts. A re-forged Eastern Han Dynasty, led by Emperor Guangwu, emerged out of the resulting chaos to re-unify China. Guangwu instituted limited reforms while ruling with a successful mix of brilliant strategies and merciful pardons. During this time period, envoys were exchanged with Rome. Limited trading took place, but the primary exchange was ideas. It is even possible that limited Christianity began to reach China through these exchanges. This contact evolved into more extensive Silk Roads.
Unfortunately, the wise rule of Guangwu did not last as the following string of Emperors all shared fatal flaws. They were mild and lenient with the people, but only because they were generally more interested in parties and drinking. Corruption flourished and revolts were common. In AD 9 Wang Mang, a nephew of the widowed Empress Lu, seized the throne and founded a new dynasty of Hsin. Wang Mang tried unsuccessfully to honor Confucian value of the peasants but his attempt angered the landed class and his failure disappointed the peasants. In AD 17 a rebel group in Shandong painted their faces red (hence their name, Red Eyebrows), adopted religious symbols, and defeated Wang Mang in AD 23.
"Later (Eastern) Han (AD 23-220).
The new ruler who restored peace and order was a member of the house of Han, the original Liu family. His title was Kuang Wu Ti, "Shining Martial Emperor," from AD 25 to 57. During the Later Han, which lasted another 200 years, a concerted but unsuccessful effort was made to restore the glory of the former Han. The Later Han scored considerable success in recovering lost territories, however. Sent to befriend the tribes on the northwestern frontier in AD 73, a great diplomat-general, Pan Ch'ao, eventually led an army of 70,000 almost to the borders of eastern Europe. Pan Ch'ao returned to China in 101 and brought back information about the Roman Empire. The Romans also knew about China, but they thought of it only as the land where silk was produced.
The Later Han period was particularly plagued with evils caused by eunuchs, castrated males recruited from the lower classes to serve as bodyguards for the imperial harem. Coming from uneducated and poor backgrounds, they were ruthlessly ambitious once they were placed within reach of power. Toward the end of the Later Han, power struggles between the eunuchs and the landlord-officials were prolonged and destructive. Peasant rebellions of the Taoist-leaning Yellow Turbans in 184 and the Five Pecks of Rice in 190 led to the rise of generals who massacred over 2,000 eunuchs, destroyed the capital, and one after another became dictators. By 207 General Ts'ao Ts'ao had emerged as dictator in the north. When he died in 220 his son removed the powerless emperor and established the kingdom of Wei. The Eastern Han came to an end, and the empire was divided into the three kingdoms of Wei, Shu Han, and Wu. The pattern of the rise and fall of Han was to be repeated in later periods. This characteristic came to be known as the dynastic cycle."6
Soon the emperors lacked any real power and were completely controlled by corrupt officials. Eunuchs gained power during this time period; eventually becoming the main political force behind the Emperor. The Han dynasty was finally overthrown in 220 AD, when Emperor Xian was deposed. Despite their powerful and prosperous beginnings, the Hans's corruption and incompetence allowed China to break into warring factions with heavy taxation by corrupt governments.
The times of great prosperity followed by harsh tyranny and decline found in the Han dynasty illustrate the typical outcome of an inherited ruling position. When a wise ruler governs the country, great things can be accomplished. A leader who, even if unknowingly, follows biblical principles (such as kindness, justice, mercy, frugality) can cause a positive shift in the government that can last long after his reign. Conversely, a bad ruler can quickly degrade a nation. The corruption and tyranny allowed to flourish under a negligent monarch can destroy a country in a short time. The doctrines of Confucianism helped reinforce rulers' morality. Although an entanglement of Biblical morals and ancestor worship, Confucianism reflects the internal moral compass God has given all men as the Apostle Paul explained in Romans chapter one. Given the corupting nature of power without the moral absolutes of Biblical authority, China degenerated into weakness within a few generations. The idea that someone is fit to rule because of their lineage and in spite of their character is fundamentally flawed and dangerous.
up1 "Qin", Minnesota State University EMuseum http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory/china/early_imperial_china/qin.html (27 January 2006). [It is notable that Alexander the Great had tried to unifiy his known world a century eariler than the Qin, with simular standardization.]
up2 "Han", Minnesota State University EMuseum http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory/china/early_imperial_china/han.html (27 January 2006).
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