A Concise History of China
Chapter 3: THE FIRST CHINESE EMPIRE
255 B.C. to 220 A.D.
This chapter covers the following topics:
The Kingmakers of Qin
While the political picture changed constantly in minor ways during the Age of Warring States, the only major changes in the balance of power are listed below:
1. The breakup of Jin into three smaller states named Zhao, Wei and Han (458 B.C.).
Throughout those centuries there was hope that a king would emerge who would unite China and inaugurate a great new age of peace and stability. While the Confucians believed that such a king would accomplish the task by showing outstanding moral virtue, the Legalists substituted overwhelming might to make an effective government. The political philosophy of the Legalists, who liked to summarize and justify their doctrine with two words--"It works"--triumphed, and no state became more adept at practicing that pragmatic philosophy than Qin. Contemporary observers regarded the Qin as less civilized than the states closer to the center of China, but like the Assyrians in Iraq and the Spartans in Greece, they eventually prevailed because they had the strongest army.
The Qin rise to preeminence began in 356 B.C., when its ruler, Xiaogong (361-337 B.C.), dispensed with the title of duke and began to call himself king, just like the Zhou monarch and the rivals of Qin. Four years later he selected Lord Shang, a man with Legalist principles, to be chief minister. Recognizing that the growth of Qin power depended on a more efficient and centralized bureaucratic structure than could exist under feudalism, Lord Shang undermined the old hereditary nobility by creating a new aristocracy based on military merit. He also introduced a universal draft beginning at approximately age fifteen. As a result, chariot and cavalry units, in which the nobility had played the leading role, lost their importance in favor of masses of peasant infantry equipped with swords and crossbows.
Economically, Lord Shang further weakened the old landowning nobility by abolishing the peasants' attachment to the land and granting them ownership of the plots they tilled. Thereafter the liberated peasants paid taxes directly to the state, increasing its wealth and power. These reforms soon made Qin the most powerful of the Warring States, and now it began to experiment with other political and social innovations.
What happened next in Qin deserves to be told in detail, since members of the middle class rarely got a chance to affect ancient history. The individuals who did it here were a bureaucrat named Fan Ju and a merchant named Lu Buwei. The events in this section were recorded for us by Sima Qian (145-86 B.C.), ancient China's greatest historian.
Fan Ju's story began in 271 B.C. A minister for the state of Wei, he went to Qi as an assistant to Wei's ambassador, and the mission took so long that upon his return his employer, the king of Wei, accused him of betraying state secrets. One night at a drunken party the prime minister and the other guests beat Fan Ju senseless, broke his ribs, knocked out his teeth, wrapped him in a mat and shoved him down the hole of a privy; then, thinking Fan Ju dead, they took turns urinating on the "corpse." Despite this awful incident, Fan Ju survived (a friendly guard pulled him out after telling everyone else he was disposing of the body) and escaped to the state of Qin, where he spent two years recovering from his injuries and waiting for an audience with Qin's king, Zhaoxiang (306-250 B.C.).
When the king finally allowed a meeting, Fan Ju pretended not to recognize him, shouting, "What king? Qin has no king, only the queen mother and her brothers!" Zhaoxiang winced at this breach of etiquette, but knew that in part it was true; the king's mother had given her brothers huge fiefs, which they enlarged by making war on fiefs ruled by non-relatives. Now they were more powerful than the king himself. This made the king listen to the rest of what Fan Ju had to say: "Those skilled at enriching their families do so at the expense of the state. Those skilled at enriching the state do so at the expense of other states."
Zhaoxiang acted on this advice and banished the royal uncles to the most distant fiefs, where they only had enemies of the state to attack. With that he completed the break with the past started by Lord Shang; instead of letting generals, family & friends administer the country, that job now went to trustworthy bureaucrats. As for those who normally would have gotten the fiefs, they were kept in the capital, given pensions and fancy titles, and watched carefully by the king's corps of spies. Now running lean and mean, Qin became the terror of China.(1) Fan Ju also got revenge; now the prime minister of Qin, he defeated his former boss in Wei and made him eat straw and beans like a horse.
Fan Ju had the good sense to retire before making too many mistakes, and lived the rest of his life heaped with honors, with his head still attached to his neck. Meanwhile, people wondered what would happen to the royal family. Zhaoxiang sat on the throne until he outlived his eldest son; the second son, Prince Anguo, had more than twenty sons by concubines but his official wife, Lady Huayang, was childless. This meant not only that there was no legitimate heir for Qin, but that Huayang had no one to care for her when she got old, always a paramount concern in ancient societies. What could be done?
Into this situation stepped Lu Buwei, the most remarkable entrepreneur in Chinese history. A native of the state of Wei, Lu was doing business in Handan, the capital of Zhao, when he learned that one of Prince Anguo's sons, Zichu, was being held hostage there, to prevent petty wars between Qin and Zhao. Since he was illegitimate, Zichu had no hope of becoming the king of Qin, and though Zhao treated him like a prisoner rather than a guest, his father did not even care. The chance to make friends with a Qin prince looked like a rare opportunity, so Lu Buwei went home and asked his father some questions:
Lu Buwei: "How much profit can I gain when I farm and the harvest is good?"
Armed with that knowledge, Lu Buwei returned to Zhao, paid Zichu a visit and made his proposal with the following words:
Lu Buwei: "I believe I can make your establishment grand."
Zichu understood that Lu Buwei was looking for a way to benefit them both, so next Lu asked how he would reward him if he used his savings to make him the heir of Qin. The prince said he would give him half the kingdom should they succeed, and it was a deal. Lu gave him half of his money and told him to get a decent wardrobe and some followers with it, and he went off to buy some elegant gifts with the rest. Then he took the gifts to Qin, and presented them to Queen Huayang's elder sister. While handing over the merchandise, he praised the hostage prince to the skies, telling her how much he loved the queen and how sorry he felt about her childless condition. She took the bait, and a heart-to-heart discussion among sisters followed. The elder sister suggested that since Huayang had no son, she should adopt the son of one of the royal concubines as her own, and that a loving son like Zichu would be the best bet; she also should do it soon, before old age took away her beauty. The queen asked Anguo to let her adopt Zichu; Anguo agreed and gave her a jade disk with the promise engraved upon it.
The royal couple appointed Lu Buwei personal tutor of Zichu, and sent him back to Zhao loaded with gifts for the new heir. As Zichu's reputation soared, Lu knew that Zhao and the other states would not try very hard to capture the crown prince, should he escape. Some time after that, Lu and Zichu were drinking. Lu's concubine, the most attractive courtesan in the city, did some dances to provide entertainment, and infatuated, Zichu asked if he could have her. Lu had nearly bankrupted himself to get this far, so he swallowed his pride and said yes. But Zichu got more than just a pretty wife; she was already pregnant with Lu Buwei's child! It was a boy named Zheng, and thinking he was the father, Zichu brought him up accordingly.
Three years later (256 B.C.), Qin attacked Zhao; since Zichu's incarceration was supposed to keep a war like this from happening, the king of Zhao wanted to kill him. Of course Lu Buwei and Zichu had been planning Zichu's breakout since their first meeting, and this was the time to do it; after bribing the guards with gold, Zichu escaped, made his way to the Qin army, and was able to return home with them. His wife came from a powerful family in Zhao, so instead of fleeing, she and her son hid with their relatives. Finally in 250 B.C., King Zhaoxiang went to join his ancestors, Prince Anguo became king, changed his name to Xiaowen, and Huayang became queen. Because Zichu was now the crown prince, it wasn't hard to arrange for his wife and son to be sent to Qin.
Only three months after taking over, Anguo/Xiaowen also died. Zichu was king at last, and he changed his name to Zhuangxiang. The new king rewarded Lu Buwei by giving him 100,000 households in western Henan as a personal fief, and named him assistant prime minister. Then Zhuangxiang died suddenly (246 B.C.). The situation was now as follows: Lu Buwei's thirteen-year-old son was the strongest king in China, and Lu was the prime minister, with the honored title of "second father."
But all was not well in this unusual family. After Zhuangxiang's departure, Lu Buwei renewed the old relationship with his former mistress--now the queen mother. Zheng never considered that the man he called "second father" might really be his first father, so it was very likely that Lu would become dead meat if the king found out about this illicit affair. The ex-merchant decided to find a substitute lover, and let him catch the flack for getting caught in a "compromising situation." A handsome, "well-endowed" gentleman named Lao Ai was picked for the job, and introduced to the queen.
The queen accepted Lao Ai immediately, but Lao Ai was already well known. How could they move him into the palace without attracting a lot of attention? Once again Lu Buwei found a clever solution. He had Lao Ai accused of a crime for which the punishment was castration, and the queen bribed the officer in charge of punishing criminals to report that the sentence had been carried out. Then they had all of Lao Ai's hair and eyebrows plucked out so he looked like a eunuch, and moved him into the queen's quarters as one of her guards. Soon the queen gave Lao Ai a palace of his own, 1,000 retainers, and the title of Marquis of Shanyang. They lived together happily until the queen got pregnant, whereupon she and the "eunuch" moved away from the capital to have their babies.
Because the king was a minor, Lao Ai used his position to take over the Qin government. He got away with it at first, but then in 238 B.C. he let power go to his head. According to the Shuoyuan, a history book written in the first century B.C., "Lao Ai had sole power over the affairs of state and grew increasingly arrogant and extravagant. The high officials and honored ministers of government all drank and gambled with him. Once when he got drunk, he began to speak belligerently. In a provocative fashion, eyes glaring with anger, he bellowed, 'I am the stepfather of the king. How dare some wretch oppose me!' One of those with whom he had quarreled ran to report this to the king, who was outraged."
Because Lao Ai was talking like he was king, the real king realized he could no longer ignore his mother's affairs. Around the same time, he heard rumors that Lao Ai was not really a eunuch, and that many people thought one of Lao Ai's two sons would make a better king than the cruel, paranoid young man who currently sat on the throne. The king called for Lao Ai's arrest; Lao Ai used his connections with the queen mother to gather soldiers on his side, and a battle followed. When it was over all of Lao Ai's family was killed, and Lao Ai's head was hung in the marketplace. Lao Ai's surviving retainers were banished to Shu, the most remote province of Qin. Lu Buwei was also implicated as an accomplice, but because Lu now gave food and lodging to 3,000 scholars, they spoke up in his defense, until their oratory wore down the king and persuaded him to spare his life. Lu Buwei lost his job as prime minister, but was allowed to keep his estates under the title of Marquis of Wenxin.(2)
One who rises from rags to riches cannot be destroyed simply by ending his employment. Lu Buwei continued to be the most important man in the kingdom, living comfortably on his wealth and connections, and receiving visitors from all over China; it was said that you couldn't travel on the roads leading to Lu's estates without meeting several important visitors. This was too much for the jealous king, so in 234 B.C. he sent the Marquis of Wenxin the following letter, which shows how little he knew about his own family:
"What have you achieved for Qin that Qin should have enfeoffed you in Henan to enjoy the revenue from 100,000 households? What intimacy have you shown toward Qin that you should be entitled 'second father?' You are to remove yourself with your family and followers and go and live in Shu!"
Lu Buwei concluded that the game was over and that a death sentence would soon follow, so instead of going into exile he drank poisoned wine. His last words were reportedly directed at the king: "If he does not kill me, then he is not fit to be my son." Thus ended an amazing career, which Sima Qian summarized by saying, "What Master Kong (Confucius) meant by 'the man of reputation' surely refers to Master Lu." We do not know if King Zheng ever believed that Lu Buwei was his biological father, but he seems to have heard rumors. A few years later the king visited his grave, and he ordered his son to pay respects to Lu Buwei. And when Qin conquered Zhao, his mother's birthplace, Zheng had all of her family's enemies buried alive, as if he was trying to put that story to rest. It is also ironic that the same Confucians who praised Lu Buwei would relegate future merchants to an even lower status than that of the peasants, ensuring that no other businessman would repeat his climb from nobody to prime minister and founder of a dynasty.(3)
When Qin conquered the Zhou royal domain (255 B.C.), King Zhaoxiang proclaimed himself the new king of all China, but of course none of the other states recognized that claim. Twenty years later, Zhaoxiang's great-grandson, Zheng, had eliminated all rivals to the throne, and now he was ready to enforce his vision of an empire upon the rest of China. To start with, he changed his name. Wang, the Chinese word for king, had been the title of the Xia, Shang and Zhou monarchs, but it had lost its original meaning because the ruler of every state now used it as his title. Zheng used a new title, Di, which is translated as emperor. Consequently he became known as Shihuangdi, the "First August Emperor," and is now regarded as the first emperor of China.
Out from Xianyang flowed a steady stream of government officials; in from the provinces came a deluge of reports, recommendations, statistics, etc. The emperor set a personal goal of reading 120 pounds of documents a day.(5) Everyone became equal under the law. Aristocratic titles were abolished, and those nobles who did not support Qin before 221 B.C. were put to work like everybody else. All weapons belonging to the civilian population were melted down to make bells, statues, and other nonviolent decorations. A single harsh legal code, which replaced all local laws, was so detailed in its provisions that it was said to have been like "a fishing net through which even the smallest fish cannot slip out." Criticizing these laws became a crime punishable by death, and citizens were expected to inform on their neighbors. So the empire was finally at peace, though it was a strictly enforced peace.
With the resources of an entire empire to draw on, the emperor could think big. For a start, 700,000 workers spent his entire reign building his tomb, the largest ever seen in China.(6) Once he had 1,000 divers search a river in vain for some cauldrons used in religious rites by the monarchs of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. An army of convicts stripped the trees off the mountain where the ancient king Yao's daughter was buried, and painted the bare slopes red; this was meant to punish her spirit for inconveniencing the emperor with windy weather. New roads were built, and 1,250 miles of canals, many of them still in use today, were dug to improve communication.
The grandest project of all, however, was done to protect the border from attacks by the Xiongnu and their kinsmen.(7) Several older walls were connected to form the Great Wall of China, a 1,500-mile-long structure that marked the northern border of China for the next 1,900 years. Never following the easy path, the wall snakes like a dragon over the highest mountains and ridges, traveling from the Yellow Sea to the deserts of northern Gansu. Spaced at 1/12 mile intervals (twice the distance of a bowshot) are the guard towers, to allow easy watching of the Gobi desert. Historians like Sima Qian tells us that the workers were housed in vermin-infested, makeshift camps. They toiled naked in the summer, wore little besides skins and rags in the winter, and more than 100,000 of them perished in the construction. The taskmasters would not allow time to give a proper burial to those who died, so their bodies were simply thrown into the ditches where the next segment of the wall was going to be built; for that reason, the Great Wall is sometimes called the longest cemetery in the world. They were kept on starvation rations because those who brought food were afraid to approach the wall out of fear of being drafted into the construction. One account says that when 182 loads of grain were sent from Shandong to the wall, only one arrived. Ballads lamenting the fate of the scholars who died there and the heartbreak of their wives are still sung in China.
The Great Wall of China.
The wall was not 100% effective (no security device made by man is); if the barbarians were sufficiently organized and the Chinese government was weak, the northern tribes would get over it anyway. Also, in some places it appears that the wall was constructed merely to show off the emperor's power, with no concern for practicality; extensions split off from the main path and run more than a hundred miles into areas so rugged that no invader could pass through. Parts of the wall have an incline so steep that horses and wheeled vehicles cannot travel on them; only sure-footed men and mountain goats can climb those paths. And the cost of patrolling and maintaining the wall was often too much for the government to pay. Nevertheless, it did stop small raids, and the last tribe that got through, the Manchus, fought on the north side of it without success for thirty years, until a Chinese general invited them into the country to help him put down a rebellion (1644 A.D.). It has been said that building the Great Wall sacrificed one generation and saved a hundred more.
Shihuangdi and his Legalist minister Li Si were always quick to suppress criticism of their policies. In 213 B.C., at a banquet to celebrate the 33rd anniversary of the emperor's coronation, a scholarly guest brought up the fief business again. He stated that previous dynasties had lasted for centuries because they practiced feudalism, and only institutions based on ancient examples can be called enduring. This was most unwise; not only did he criticize the policies of Shihuangdi and Li Si, but he implied that the Qin empire would not last for long. Li Si responded; the past must not be used to discredit the present, and thus the past--the works of philosophy, history and poetry written by Zhou sages--had to be destroyed. Furthermore, he put a death sentence on anyone who hid or quoted the ancient writings. An episode of book burning followed, where any book the government found--except those on useful subjects like science, magic, and farming--went up in flames. When Confucian scholars refused to let their libraries be burned, they were beheaded, buried alive, or sent to work on the Great Wall.
In spite of all his power and success, Shihuangdi could not rest and traveled compulsively on his newly built roads. Sometimes he disguised himself as a peasant to find out what the people really thought of him. Because of several assassination attempts, Shihuangdi was always afraid of death. He slept in a different room every night; the palaces were supplied at all times with food, concubines and servants, so that any one of them would be ready for his unannounced arrival. No one except Li Si and Zhao Gao (the first of several notorious eunuchs in Chinese history) knew where he would sleep next; anyone else who revealed the emperor's whereabouts had his whole family executed. He did not even trust his eldest son, Fu Su, and had him banished to a remote province. To prolong his life, he increasingly sought guidance from mystics, and twice he sent explorers to "the three fairy islands in the Eastern Seas" (Japan?) in search of an elixir that would grant immortality.(8) And wherever he went, he brought musicians along to play songs about "pure beings." He also had a grim sense of humor. When an oracle predicted that he could not complete the Great Wall without the sacrifice of a wan (10,000) of men, he found an individual named Wan and had him killed instead.
Read footnote #10 to find out what happened with the unoccupied territory in the southeast.
When the emperor died on one of his journeys in the provinces (210 B.C.), Zhao Gao, Li Si, and the emperor's youngest son Hu Hai were the only ones who knew about it. Fearing the loss of their power, these three kept Shihuangdi's death a secret until they returned to the capital; a cart full of rancid fish was pulled behind the royal chariot to hide the smell of the corpse. When they arrived Zhao Gao sent Fu Su a fake letter from his father that accused him of disloyalty and "permitted" him to commit suicide; the crown prince obediently complied. Zhao Gao apparently distrusted his co-conspirators because during the next three years he executed Li Si and forced Hu Hai to commit suicide as well. The third and last Qin emperor was supposed to be Zhao Gao's puppet, but he proved to be as treacherous as his patron when he had the power-hungry eunuch killed.
Qin policies had alienated not only the intellectuals and the old nobility but also the peasants, who were subjected to ruinous taxation and forced labor. While intrigue went on in the capital, revolts against the oppressive Qin regime sprang up in every province of the empire. The two most prominent rebel leaders came from the former state of Chu: Xiang Yu, an aristocrat who wanted to bring back feudalism, and Liu Bang, an untutored peasant. At first the rebels cooperated, but after sacking the Qin capital in 207 B.C. they turned against each other. Five more years of civil war gave Liu Bang the final victory, and under the imperial name of Gaozu, he became the founder of one of China's greatest dynasties.
Thus, the Qin dynasty, which Shihuangdi had once predicted would last for "ten thousand generations," outlived its first emperor by only three years. Since that time, scholars have asked themselves what went wrong, and came up with ten crimes of Qin:
Liu Bang's biggest asset was a magnetic personality. When he walked into bars as a youth, he brought so many friends that the bartenders gave him free drinks. He charmed a rich man named Lu into giving his daughter in marriage, despite Mrs. Lu's objections. After he grew up the Qin government appointed him foreman over a hundred workers drafted to labor on Shihuangdi's tomb. One day, he noticed that nearly half the workers had escaped, and realized he would be a dead man if his superiors found out, so he cut the rest loose and ran away to a swamp; several of them followed him, becoming the first unit in the rebel army he raised afterwards. In the war that followed, fighting first alongside, then against Xiang Yu, Liu Bang was a poor but lucky general; one account states that he lost every battle where he commanded except the last one!
Once he became Emperor Gaozu, Liu Bang repealed the severe laws of the Qin dynasty,(9) granted a general amnesty, and built a new capital named Chang'an ("Perpetual Peace," modern Xian) in Shaanxi province, a city that would be the capital of China for most of the next 1,100 years. He also was generous to his rivals; to start with, he adopted Xiang Yu's surviving relatives into his family (actually he was returning a favor, one of them had saved his life from an assassination attempt). Then he provided tomb maintenance for fallen enemies like Xiang Yu and the last Qin emperor. But his mercy had limits; when the former state of Yue revolted again and again, he deported its whole population.(10)
At first Gaozu attempted to restore the feudalism of the Zhou dynasty; only to find that Shihuangdi's revolution had been too thorough to permit a complete return to the "good old days." In the end he ruled the western half of China directly, while restoring several of the old kingdoms like Wu, Qi and Yan in the eastern half. Most of the eastern states became fiefdoms ruled by his relatives; to keep them from becoming rivals, each lord was required to divide the land between every one of his sons when the time came to draw up a will. As a result, the fiefs got smaller with each generation, until most consisted of only a family farm with houses. When even that plot of land became too small to feed the tenants, they would sell it to somebody better off and move to the cities, where they and their descendants would provide most of the labor for construction projects as well as personnel for the well-ordered civil service bureaucracy that arose to take the place of the feudal lords. Thus, no one ever had any doubt where the real power was.
Though he did not persecute the scholars, the redneck emperor had little respect for scholarship; after all, he had conquered China without the works of the Zhou sages! The scholars did not care much for him either, regarding him as too rude and crude. He liked cutting officials down to size, seeing himself as the only thing standing between the people and officialdom. His manners were notorious--once he received a Confucian scholar while washing his feet--but unlike the Qin leaders, he could take criticism. According to another earthy story, when some scholars told him he could not rule without knowledge of the classics, Gaozu ordered the leader of the group to hand over his hat, urinated in it, and then told him to put the hat back on, signifying that he would rule the scholars, not the other way around. For this reason the scholars continued to keep their favorite books hidden until he died in 195 B.C.; the succeeding emperors, however, allowed the classics to come out in the open again; when that happened Confucianism & Daoism flourished and a combination of them became the state religion.(11)
The Xiongnu had taken advantage of the troublesome years between the Qin and Han dynasties by moving part of their tribe across the Great Wall; by 201 B.C. they were laying siege to Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province. At first Gaozu wanted his son, crown prince Huidi, to lead an expedition against the Xiongnu, but Huidi was not up to the job; instead of showing interest in statecraft and war, he spent his spare time in pleasure gardens with a boy named Hong.(12) So Gaozu led the army himself--into near disaster. The Huns were led by Mao Dun, one of their greatest chiefs, and they completely surrounded Gaozu and the Chinese force. To regain his freedom Gaozu had to give tribute and a Chinese princess for Mao Dun to marry. Most of the early Han emperors were relatively peaceful, so the Xiongnu continued to be a pain in the neck for the next sixty years, raiding the lands between the Great Wall and the Yellow River at will.
Gaozu ruled for less than a decade, and for fifteen years after his death (195-180 B.C.), his widow, Lu Zhi, ruled as the power behind the throne, becoming China's the first important empress. During that time the three official emperors were all weaker than Gaozu had been. Indeed, Gaozu thought the first emperor, his son Huidi, was not up to the job, and had to be talked out of passing him over to make another son his heir. Unfortunately Gaozu was right; seven years after becoming emperor, Huidi drank himself to death without leaving a will (188 B.C.). The next two emperors were underaged sons of Huidi; meanwhile, Lu Zhi continued to run the affairs of the imperial court, and her brothers ran the army and the government. While she was alive, her family's control was absolute, but upon her death in 180 B.C., her rivals took back the government, killing every member of the Lu family they could find. Then they found Gaozu's oldest living son (by another wife) and crowned him as Emperor Wendi.
By the time Wendi was crowned the bureaucracy had completely taken over the day-to-day functions of the government, leaving him with little besides ceremonial functions to perform. This bureaucracy was a completely new form of government, which grew until it contained as many as 130,000 office holders. As feudal land holdings were subdivided out of existence, administrative regions became the country's new provinces. New members of the multilayered bureaucracy were not recruited from a specific social class, but from those who scored best in civil service exams that asked essay questions on the classics. With this system the field of possible candidates was narrowed down to those of exceptional intelligence, honesty, and/or dedication to work. Although some corruption always existed, it was limited by forbidding officials to serve in their home districts. For those who patiently rose through the ranks, the rewards were great: a salary up to twenty times higher than that of the newly employed, one day off out of every five, exemption from military and labor service, and sometimes even a pension.
China now had a society where the best chances for getting ahead went to intellectuals, rather than to members of the clergy or military. This was a remarkable way to run things in an age when the rest of the world looked to tribal chiefs, feudal lords, or priest-kings for leadership and when even literate aristocrats saw clerks as very low on the social ladder. It is even more remarkable that the Confucians managed to create a civil service that was very close to their ideal. They never got rid of hereditary rule at the top but they controlled day-to-day administration. And much of the time they also kept the army firmly in place. As time went on, the bureaucratic system became such a part of life that the priests described Heaven and the gods as ordered by a bureaucracy. Although dynasty succeeded dynasty at the highest level, the bureaucracy worked so well that only minor changes were made in it for the next 2,100 years.(13)
Han scholars added to the scholarly tradition started by Confucius with their historical writings. Their antiquarian interest in researching the past produced a comprehensive history of China, the Historical Records (Shiji), most of which was written by the already mentioned Sima Qian. This voluminous work of 130 chapters and 526,500 characters has been highly praised, in part for its inclusion of a vast amount of information, beginning with the legendary past, but even more for its freedom from superstition and careful weighing of evidence. In the Later (Eastern) Han dynasty, a scholar wrote the History of the (Earlier) Han, and thereafter it was customary for each dynasty to write the official history of its immediate predecessor. The Chinese believed that the successes and failures of the past provided guidance for the present and the future. As stated in the Historical Records, "Events of the past, if not forgotten, are teachings about the future." One scholar anticipated modern archaeologists by more than a thousand years in classifying human history by "ages": "stone" (Old Stone Age), "jade" (New Stone Age), "bronze," and "the present age" when "weapons are made of iron."
Another monument to Han scholarship was the world's first dictionary, Shuo Wen (Words Explained), produced during Wudi's reign. It listed the meaning and pronunciation of more than 9,000 Chinese characters.
To pay for military adventures and public works without raising taxes, the state ran monopolies in key industries such as iron and salt mining. After the West was discovered, the government also controlled most of the international trade. Independent merchants were allowed to practice private enterprise, but they were scorned for taking part in a dishonorable profession (Apparently buying and selling were seen as so dangerous to one's character that only the government could participate in it safely. Those merchants who insisted on working for their own profit were tightly controlled with every form and regulation the bureaucrats could dream up!). Meanwhile the bureaucrats kept meticulous records of everything, first by using bamboo strips, wood, or pieces of silk, but later the invention of paper made administrative work easier to handle. The oldest known census, taken in 2 A.D., recorded China's population as totaling 57,671,400 people, at a time when the Roman Empire probably only had seven million. One Han poet captured the office work in words that are just as relevant today:
"Office work, a wearisome jumble;
The greatest Han emperor was Wudi (140-87 B.C.), the "Martial Emperor." When Wudi came to the throne the nation was under threat at every point along the northern frontier, so his primary goal became putting an end to the Xiongnu problem. After a decade of campaigning, which involved sending the Chinese army all the way to Outer Mongolia, the Xiongnu were driven to the other side of the Gobi Desert (127-117 B.C.). As it turned out, the desert proved to be a more effective (and cheaper!) barrier than the Great Wall. Then he sent armies to establish bases in the far northwestern regions of Gansu and Xinjiang, and extended the Great Wall into the former, a move which made Gansu a permanent part of China.(14)
On other fronts, Wudi outflanked the Xiongnu in the east by the conquest of southern Manchuria and northern Korea. In addition, he completed the conquest of South China, begun by the Qin, and added northern Vietnam to the Chinese Empire. All the conquered lands experienced considerable Chinese immigration, and the natives got a double dose of Chinese culture. Thus at a time when the armies of the Roman Republic were laying the foundations of the Pax Romana in the West, the Martial Emperor was establishing a Pax Sinica ("Chinese Peace") in the East.(15)
Not long after it left China, the embassy was captured by the Xiongnu. Ten years of captivity followed, until the Xiongnu forgot that Zhang Qian was a prisoner and started treating him as one of their own; they gave him a Xiongnu wife, let him go on hunting trips with them, etc. Finally Zhang Qian got a chance to escape; at this point, having been away from home for ten years, with only one servant left of the 100 that had left China with him, he could have gone home and received a hero's welcome. But even now he still felt he had a duty to perform, so he went to look for the Yuezhi.
Zhang Qian crossed the Pamir mts. and continued west until he reached the Ferghana valley in Uzbekistan; there he used sign language and a few Xiongnu words to get directions to Afghanistan. In Afghanistan he found the Yuezhi, but they refused to return to Gansu; they had found a good place to live, and would not give it up just for the whims of a distant emperor. Zhang Qian's mission was a failure, but he accomplished something of greater importance; he discovered that China was not the only civilized country on earth! Ferghana was an outpost of the Parthian Empire. Zhang Qian wandered around to learn as much as he could about the West before returning home. On the trip back, the Chinese Marco Polo was again captured by the Xiongnu, but this time he escaped after one year's captivity, along with his wife and trusty servant, and they made it back to the court of Chang'an in 126 B.C.
When Zhang Qian told the story of his travels, the response was to open up trade with the Parthians. Soon Chinese iron and silk were being sent on caravans heading west in exchange for exotic Parthian products like wine made from grapes and Arabian horses. When the Romans discovered silk they also got involved in the trade. The names Rome and China gave each other reflected their main exports on the Silk Road; the Chinese called the Roman Empire Da Jin ("great gold") and the Romans called China Serica ("land of silk").(16) Zhang Qian had also heard stories about India, so trade routes were opened to that land, but what they got from there was more than merchandise; the first Buddhist missionaries are reported in Chang'an in 67 A.D.
Whereas in earlier ages China was behind other civilizations in technology, in the Han dynasty China caught up with and surpassed the rest of the world with new inventions. Paper was already mentioned; other notable inventions included the compass; the suspension bridge; a primitive seismograph capable of measuring earthquakes several hundred miles away; the use of water power to grind grain and to operate a piston bellows for iron smelting; the horse collar, which greatly increased the pulling power of horses; a drill that could make a hole 4,800 feet deep; and the humble but extremely useful wheelbarrow. From digging mines they discovered coal and natural gas, and used them for cooking and heating centuries before Europeans did the same. Gunpowder may have been known too, but at this early date only fireworks were made with it; no record of its use as a weapon can be found before the 12th-13th centuries A.D. Chinese herbal medicine developed tremendously, and Chinese astronomers were second to none when it came to predicting eclipses and observing comets, sunspots, etc.
The glory of the Han dynasty was interrupted once. Thanks to the grand schemes Wudi launched without cost control, the Imperial bank balance shrank to zero. The emperor found short-term solutions by debasing the coinage and by selling titles and government jobs--even to businessmen!--but he still bequeathed a broke empire to his successors. One of the reasons was that the number of large tax-free estates was on the increase while the number of taxpaying peasant holdings had declined. This was a by-product of the private landownership that, under the Qin, had replaced the old communal use of the land. Rich officials and merchants were able to acquire the lands of small peasant-owners, who became rent-paying tenants. As more and more peasants fell behind in their rents they were forced to sell themselves or their children into slavery to pay off their debts. The conflict of landlordship and tenancy, along with the concentration of power of great families, became a major problem in Chinese history, lasting until the twentieth century.
Five weak and decadent rulers followed Wudi, and China's influence abroad dwindled to nothing. In 1 B.C. a child was crowned, and the country came under the rule of the emperor's mother and Wang Mang, a distant relative who had distinguished himself in over twenty years of good public service. The emperor sat on the throne for only six years, and he was succeeded by another infant. Eventually Wang Mang decided that radical reform was necessary to save the empire, so in 9 A.D. he deposed the boy king and declared himself the founder of the Xin (new) dynasty.
Once in power Wang Mang promptly launched a program of reforms to address the injustices that had been mounting for decades. Uniting Confucian humanitarianism with Legalist practice, he saw as his ultimate goal the rejuvenation of society. To remedy the plight of the peasants and increase the government's tax income, Wang Mang decreed that all land was the property of the nation and should be portioned out to peasant families, who would pay taxes, not rents, on their allotments.
Wang Mang sought to solve the long-standing problem of inflation, which had greatly increased since Wudi first began debasing the coinage when he found himself in financial difficulties, by setting maximum prices on basic commodities. He also sought to stabilize prices by instituting "leveling": in times of plenty, when the price of grain dropped, the government kept the farmers from going broke by buying up surplus grain; in times of shortage, the government protected consumers by opening the grain warehouses for them. This policy limited speculation and was called the "balanced standard." It is worth noting that in 1938 A.D. Franklin D. Roosevelt heard about the Xin balanced standard and used it as the model for US agricultural policies of our time, like paying farmers not to grow surplus crops.
An energetic lawmaker, Wang Mang also abolished slavery, outlawed the sale of both land and slaves, established price controls, offered interest-free loans to pay for funerals, vastly expanded state support for education, and even cut bureaucratic salaries. To reduce the economic power of the wealthy he proposed an income tax, and ordered that all privately held gold be given to the treasury in exchange for bronze. Unfortunately Wang Mang was too far ahead of his time; because every reform was meant to improve the lives of the peasants at the expense of everybody else, he alienated almost everyone with any power. On top of all that, trade on the Silk Road ground to a halt; the Parthians and Romans would not accept the forms of payment the Chinese now offered in place of the confiscated gold.
The upper class forced Wang Mang to repeal the laws against slavery and land purchases, but it was nature and not the nobles that undid him. Two catastrophic floods of the Yellow River in 10 & 18 A.D. drowned thousands and turned millions more into refugees. Convinced that Wang Mang did not have the Mandate of Heaven, the homeless peasants formed an organization called the "Red Eyebrows Society" (members painted their foreheads red) and rose up in revolt. A well-timed Xiongnu raid devastated the northwest, the relatives of the Han emperors joined forces with the Red Eyebrows, and in 23 A.D. they all fell on Chang'an and killed Wang Mang on the spot. But the Red Eyebrows could not set up a government of their own; two years later they fell to an army led by Liu Xiu, a member of the Han royal family. Millions were dead from floods, starvation and warfare, and China was exhausted. Wang Mang's great experiment had failed, and the Han were once again supreme.
Liu Xiu, now enthroned under the name of Guangwu Di, moved the imperial capital from plundered Chang'an to Luoyang, the old Zhou capital, and from there he gradually rebuilt the country. For a time it looked as if the original peace and glory of the Han dynasty had been restored. Internal rebels were suppressed and the nomads were again beaten into submission. But the second reign of the dynasty witnessed little of the innovation and creativity that marked the first. Inventions were improved and scholars commented on the works of earlier thinkers; the population of the empire continued to grow; and trading networks expanded. Major breakthroughs in government, the arts, and invention, however, would have to wait for centuries and the next great dynasty, the Tang.
The basic problems Wang Mang had tried to fix were left unresolved, so the dynasty resumed its decline after 100 A.D. Eight of the fourteen late Han emperors were crowned before the age of 15, and monarchs that young are easily influenced by those around them. While the throne was passed from one underage emperor to another, the real power was held by regents, scholars, and in-laws. To offset their influence, eunuchs were hired as advisors and ministers. Some eunuchs were castrated criminals, and some were orphans, but many were sons of families who viewed their recruitment into the eunuch corps at the palace as a sure way to financial security and political advancement. As it turned out, the cure proved to be worse than the disease. The eunuchs were figures of contempt, their "handicap" seen as doubly bad in a family-oriented society such as China, but their proximity to the emperor gave them a high degree of political power. Always greedy for more power (perhaps because they were scorned by everyone respectable?) the eunuchs persuaded the emperors to increase their numbers in the court from mere tens to more than 2,000. They killed officials who offended them and prevented the relatives of these enemies from holding office. Unashamed of their corruption, the eunuchs brazenly put up for sale the highest positions in the empire; five million coins was the going price to become one of the emperor's nine ministers. The price for the governorship of a province--a job with more opportunities for money making--peaked at twenty million coins.
The playing off of eunuchs against bureaucrats and clique against clique resulted in bloodbaths and endless intrigue. The beginning of the end for the dynasty, however, came with the arrival of those underrated international killers: microbes. In 162 a particularly bad epidemic ravaged northwest China. We do not know what disease it was, but it could have been smallpox or measles, since both caused trouble on the other end of the Silk Road (in Roman-ruled Turkey & Syria) a few years later. At any rate, wherever it struck, it killed three out of ten; this can really mess up a society! Since the government couldn't cope with the problem (it was left understaffed, after all), the common people turned to Zhang Zhue, a Daoist faith healer who cured many with his magic and medicine. He wrote a book called The Way of Peace, and soon had so many followers that he organized them under 36 disciples. They preached the fall of the dynasty in poetic language, put on yellow turbans, and armed themselves. In 184 the Yellow River flooded, causing more epidemics and discontent, and the "Yellow Turban" communities gained more followers because they offered a life with peace and order in it. Later in the same year Zhang Zhue proclaimed a revolution against the Han emperor and his eunuchs; by now the Yellow Turban armies were so large that imperial soldiers fled without a fight. In desperation the emperor, Lingdi, called for help from the wealthy families of the country; by this time these families had hired so many private bodyguards that they outnumbered the soldiers in the imperial army! Several freelance warlords answered the call, brought their troops to Chang'an, and took on the Yellow Turbans in a series of battles across the north China plain. By 188 they had gotten the upper hand against the medical rebels, and Zhang Zhue was slain. Now, instead of the Yellow Turbans, the government had to worry about all the private armies it had conjured up!
The rest of this chapter is taken from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, China's most famous swashbuckling epic. It is usually regarded as a historical novel, but all of the characters in it were real; it should be seen as a combination of truth and legend, like Homer's Iliad. Since no historian like Sima Qian lived in the late second/early third century A.D. to tell us what really happened, it will have to do as the "official" explanation of how the Han dynasty ended.
To start with, both of Lingdi's heirs were little boys. Prince Pian's mother, the empress, came from a humble family; her brother He Jin had gone straight from being a dog butcher to generalissimo. The other prince, Prince Xie, was the son of a concubine who had the backing of the old emperor's mother and the eunuchs. When Ling Di died in 189, He Jin barged into the room where the late emperor's corpse was on display, killed a eunuch who got in the way, and proclaimed his nephew Pian the new emperor. Then he banished and murdered the old empress, but there were so many eunuchs he had to think of another way to deal with them. He decided to call the private armies to the capital, although he knew this was like lighting a furnace to burn a hair!
While the warlords were on the way, He Jin and another general asked the young emperor for permission to execute the court eunuchs; hearing of this plan, the eunuchs ambushed and beheaded He Jin, but the troops obeyed the orders of the other general and slaughtered every eunuch they could find in the palace. Then a private army arrived outside, but it was one led by Dong Zhuo, a relative of the late empress and friend of the eunuchs. When he found out what had just happened in the palace, Dong Zhuo stormed it, replaced Pian with Xie as emperor (Xie was known as Xiandi after this), and killed off the entire He family, boy, mom and all.
Now that Dong Zhuo was the most powerful man in the capital, plotting against him began. One of the would-be assassins was an official named Cao Cao; he tried to kill Dong Zhuo while he slept, but the gleam of his sword woke up the general. Claiming that the sword was a gift, Cao Cao talked himself out of being executed on the spot; then he ran away before Dong Zhuo changed his mind. Outside the capital Cao Cao sent out an invitation to join him in rebellion against Dong Zhuo. Thousands responded, and they converged on Luoyang, putting it to the torch (190 A.D.). Dong Zhuo fled, taking the boy emperor and most of the city's population with him.
Somewhere in the lawless countryside Dong Zhuo was murdered by one of his aides in an argument over a woman. This left the emperor unprotected in a remote area where the crops were failing and the Yellow Turbans were reviving. Eventually the whole imperial household was "rescued" by Cao Cao. He brought them to the former capital, Chang'an, and there Cao Cao became prime minister of Han.
This no longer meant as much as it once had; most of the country was dissolving into anarchy. Many of the competing factions were now led or advised by Daoist magicians, who were widely dreaded and respected in these troubled times.(17) The stories in the rest of this chapter revolve around these wonder-working individuals. In eastern Sichuan, a Daoist cult had been flourishing since the early 100s, founded by a faith healer named Zhang Ling (34?-156?), whose patients gave him five pecks of rice either as payment for his services or for a one-year membership in his cult. In 190 Zhang Ling's grandson, Zhang Lu, established his own army and a theocratic state, which came to be known as the "Five Pecks of Rice" Society. Zhang Lu abolished private property, gave free grain to the people, built "inns of quality" for travelers, and promoted Daoism; his "citizens" were encouraged to work on the roads to atone for their sins. For 25 years Han imperial armies were sent against this state, but they failed to crush it. Finally in 215, Zhang Lu surrendered to Cao Cao, who pardoned him and gave him a large piece of property and an important official title.
In the southeast, the most powerful warlord was Sun Ze, who built a navy on the Yangtze river. According to one tale, one day Sun Ze heard a commotion in the street. He checked it out, and found a crowd gathered around Yu Zhi, a sage famous for his medical magic. Yu Zhi was harmless, but his medical textbook was The Way of Peace, the Bible of the Yellow Turbans; too bad for him! Sun Ze ordered him burned at the stake, but Yu Zhi put out the fire by conjuring up three feet of rain, so he was beheaded instead. The common people claimed that Yu Zhi's ghost haunted Sun Ze until he died a few weeks later.
The most admired of the warlords was Liu Bei, a swashbuckling distant cousin of the Han emperors. Liu Bei had distinguished himself in the first war against the Yellow Turbans, but he did not do too well afterwards, being largely confined to his base of operations in western Sichuan. One of the reasons was that he was too polite and too honorable; following the teachings of Confucius to the letter, he refused to fight dirty or stab anyone in the back the way most of his rivals did. His followers suggested that he needed a Daoist advisor, so he sought out Zhuge Liang, a young hermit magician who, according to legend, had the power to control wind and fire. Zhuge Liang joined him, and together they became a force to reckon with.
Liu Bei called Xiandi a puppet controlled by a usurper, and declared that he had a better claim to the Han throne. But he was not strong enough to take on Cao Cao by himself. After a series of strategic maneuvers, ambushes, and narrow escapes, Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang went to join forces with Sun Ze's family and their navy. Cao Cao marshalled the armies of the north and went after them. They met on opposite banks of the Yangtze River, and there they set up camps that stretched for miles.
Both sides prepared for battle, and the southern admiral, Zhou Yu, challenged his new allies to make a contribution to the cause. Zhuge Liang promised to bring back 100,000 arrows in three days, and the admiral agreed, though he probably thought this was preposterous. Zhuge Liang tied bundles of straw to the outside of twenty large boats, used more straw to make dummy soldiers to stand on the decks of the boats, and waited for suitable weather; it came on the third night, and they sailed out into a dense fog. When they neared Cao Cao's camp, the sailors shouted and beat on drums; the northerners panicked and opened fire, shooting arrows until the boats and their scarecrows looked like pincushions. Then Zhuge Liang's boats returned with 100,000 arrows, give or take a few; even better, they were the enemy's arrows!
On paper Cao Cao's force was far larger than that of the southerners, but few of its men had any experience on the water. This time Zhuge Liang sent a spy into the northern camp, who advised Cao Cao to fasten the ships together so the northern troops can fight on a surface as stable as land. Cao Cao was skeptical, since he knew a notorious wizard worked for the other side, but the spy reassured him, pointing out that because it was winter, the wind will always blow from the north; surely even Zhuge Liang couldn't change that, and a strong north wind should keep his tricks on the other side of the river. Cao Cao took the bait; he ordered the ships tied/chained together into one huge flotilla, and they waited, confident they could destroy any force foolhardy enough to board them. Zhuge Liang went into a shrine to work his stuff, and sure enough, on the third day the wind shifted. When this happened, the southerners sent boats loaded with combustibles straight at the immobilized northern navy. The total incineration that followed was known as the battle of Red Bluff.
The battle of Red Bluff (208 A.D.) sealed the Han dynasty's fate. The next twelve years saw the last of the Yellow Turban rebels suppressed by one faction or another, but China was divided into three kingdoms. Cao Cao and Xiandi ruled the north China plain; Liu Bei ruled the southwest (with Zhuge Liang as his brain trust); the Sun family ruled the southeastern seaboard. Before long they renamed each kingdom after a Zhou dynasty state that had once existed there: the north became Wei, the southwest became Shu, and the southeast became Wu. The end of the Han dynasty came bloodlessly in 220 when Xiandi was persuaded to abdicate, giving his throne to Cao Cao's son. It was the end of a golden age, and the beginning of another warring-states era.
This is the End of Chapter 3.
A Concise History of China
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