Han Dynasty, Everything Zhou, and Kung Fu
I’m assuming most of you guys are a bit tired of geopolitics by now so I’ll keep it light for the Han Dynasty.
When the Qin Dynasty fell, the former peasant Liu Bang (刘邦) became a prominent leader in the rebellion, for which he was rewarded as the king of Han in southern Shaanxi. Afterwards, he fought in the Civil War against the king of Chu and won, becoming Emperor Gaozu (高祖, meaning high founder) of reunified China.
As a former peasantry himself, Emperor Gaozu had generally more reasonable structure in his government and policies in maintaining control. He started off with a pretty decentralized structure of relatively independent commandries (郡) like what existed during the Zhou period, but later on they were reorganized into prefectures, or zhou (州). As many places in China today are descended from the old division system set up during the Han dynasty, its legacy is clear in place names throughout the country, including what were formerly capital cities of prefectures like Guangzhou, Fuzhou and Hangzhou.
The most important innovation of Emperor Gaozu was his promotion of Confucian thought, which he integrated into the old Qin dynasty legalist meritocratic system. Anyone, regardless of social standing, could in theory work their way from peasantry into the higher class through studying the good old classics and scoring well on tests. Finally, equality could be realized without seeing how all skeletons in the battlefield look the same. What this meant was that in the Han dynasty, everyone was encouraged to study and write about traditional text from the Zhou period. The relative stability throughout the Han dynasty also meant that people were more inclined to make scientific discoveries to improve society in one way or another instead of being forced to be a dog of the military.
Here is a somewhat but nowhere near exhaustive rundown of everything the Han came up with.
The most meta thing that comes to mind is probably the field of historiography. Yes, the Confucian scholars did compile documents from the past to paint a narrative of what happened hundreds of years ago during the Zhou Dynasty, but there exists a very distinct shift during the Han. Zhou era histories are like my PSYCH 1101 Lecture Slides: dry, boring, too detailed, and no one today actually reads them even if they do acknowledge its importance. Meanwhile, Han era histories are like my PSYCH 1101 notes: detailed, but mostly rephrasing the slides and judgmental at times of how, for example, Freud is worthless. Plus my friends read them more often than I do to study (they’re not actually that good).
Anyways, Sima Qian (司马迁) completed the Records of the Grand Historian (史记) for the Han dynasty’s imperial court, which had a large biographical narrative in addition to all the boring family trees and year by year annals. This meant that he was free to cast personal judgement much more directly than older texts that he referenced to write it, although Sima Qian and his dad Sima Tan (司马谈) before him did try to be as objective as they could most of the time. Anyway, this book was absolutely massive and is the “definitive” go-to account of all of history up to the Han dynasty, including the main founding myths of Chinese civilizations. All future imperial histories followed this format and is, for the most part, what historians start off of on to study early Chinese history.
To facilitate writing all the commentaries that the government was doing, in addition to recording all the good old political documents for administering the huge empire, Cai Lun (蔡伦) invented modern papermaking. The first Chinese dictionary, Shuowen (说文解字), was also written during this time period to help government scholars to read and understand both ancient Zhou seal scripts and contemporary clerical scripts (throwback to the first blog). If you have ever used a Chinese dictionary, you’re probably familiar with the radical and stroke length organization that was first pioneered by the Han.
Economically speaking, the three most important products of the Han dynasty were SuSSy: Suh-teel, Salt, and Sylk (steel, salt and silk). The first two were important mostly for domestic purposes. Steel was not only important for military purposes but also for increasing productivity in plows to feed the population, provide transportation, and create various tools like drills, knives and pretty much anything else you can think of that uses metal. To drastically increase the production of steel, Han engineers developed the blast furnace and improved smelting processes.
With both a higher quality and a higher quantity of steel, it became possible to mechanize all sorts of gadgets and devices. Mechanical engineers developed mechanical pumps, water wheels, mills, seismometers, and so on, which would all end up becoming irrelevant with the advent of computer science (time to switch majors like me). This technological innovation also had the secondary effect of making it easier to build better ships, spin and weave clothing, and create ceramic pottery. As a result, we have a crap ton of cultural relics from the Han dynasty and the quality of life generally improved for most people at the time. However, most architectural works don’t exist anymore, since they were built from mud bricks or wood, which degrade over time.
Since the Han dynasty were doing so many science-y things, they ended up learning a lot about science. As astrology was an important part of many Zhou era writings, the Han continued making detailed observations of the night sky such as comet passings (including of the Halley’s variety) or constellations. Astronomy was one of the motivations for the rigorous development of math and treatises during the period, including works like the Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art, which included concepts like Gaussian elimination and negative numbers over a thousand years before they were developed in the west. However, the problem solving techniques discussed in the works suggest that the need to keep tabs on debts (a pretty common application of negative numbers) or do calculations for various projects under the government was more important in their development.
The Han dynasty also did a lot of stuff that they thought were science-y but we consider not particularly science-y today. The Zhou dynasty had many insights into various treatments and plants to relieve ailments deriving from folk traditions, which were significantly extended and institutionalized. The Han compiled the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon (黄帝内经) and Shennong’s Herbal Classics (神农本草经), which was like the Records of the Grand Historian but for traditional Chinese medicine (中药). The former includes a bit of a question and answer format with the author larping as the Yellow Emperor that prescribes treatments like eating healthier or acupuncture to balance out your body for various ailments. The book is also an important work in Daoism, including commentary on the five elements, yin and yang (阴阳), and qi (气) which must be in balance for prosperity. Shennong’s Herbal Classics is basically another encyclopedia that lists a crap ton of plants and herbs and what they’re useful for. While many of their ideas of the body, such as energy balances or yin yang transformations are outdated today, the Han’s studies revealed certain insights such as blood circulation along with developing taiji (太极), qigong (气功) and formalizing traditional chinese medicine, which are all important cultural heritage today.
The final super important cultural advancement in the Han dynasty is opening up China to the outside. The Han dynasty managed to conquer the western regions in modern day Xinjiang, which granted them access to the Western World for the first time. The Han’s number one wish list item was the horses of Hellenic (Greek) Central Asia to help them quell the constant attacks from the Xiongnu in the north since the soils of China didn’t have the necessary nutrients (namely selenium) to raise horses. Other goods introduced to China through Central Asia include the Middle Eastern lute, which over time evolved into the traditional pipa (琵琶). Meanwhile, the Romans in the west wanted the silk for clothing, and thus the famous Silk Road was born.
The Silk Road was a huge game changer for the Han. In addition to securing lots of Roman gold, the horses gave the empire a technological advantage to defeat the Xiongnu helped the conquest of what is now modern day Korea. More relevant though, the Silk Road allowed for cultural exchange with Central Asian people and India. Although this cultural exchange arguably reached its height during the Tang dynasty, the Han dynasty featured the introduction of Buddhism into China.
Buddhism completes the trinity, the other two being Daoism and Confucianism, that define Chinese culture today. After reaching China, Buddhism incorporated many elements from Daoism to produce a branch unique from it’s Indian origin. The traditional architecture in China today may have been built during later periods, but most of the most famous temples and pagodas were built for Buddhist purposes after the introduction of the religion during the Han dynasty. Over time, Chinese Buddhism was introduced into Japan and Korea due to the Han Dynasty’s great power and influence, and many today still follow the religion in the countries.
The biggest example of how Buddhism merged together with Chinese culture is probably in martial arts. As mentioned earlier, qigong and taiji exercises had existed in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries as a treatment and preventative care for various ailments. When Buddhism began to merge with traditional Daoist practices, these exercises became an outlet for practicing Yoga (actual yoga not the dumb stretches your high school P.E. teachers made you do) since they focused greatly on the control of energy through the body (allegedly). Thus, these Chinese ideas were only incorporated and popularized into the forms we recognize today by an originally Indian school of thought.
However, Daoism could only influence the “internal” (内功 or 武當) aspects of martial arts as opposed to the cool, Bruce Lee stuff you’re probably more familiar with. Most likely, these explicitly physical practices came from the need to defend the huge monasteries like Shaolin or to guard pilgrims traveling between China and India on the Silk Road, in addition to influence from the martial arts originating from India (like possibly kalari, but I don’t write Indian culture and history blogs so I don’t know much about the similarities or differences). Regardless, over time “external,” physically oriented martial arts (外功) also became an important aspect of strengthening the body and thus the mind just like “internal” martial arts. I’ll skip over the whole drama about it’s actual effectiveness in combat and how martial artists have been involved in military/political situations throughout history (I will say it’s incredibly fascinating though).
I will mention briefly though, later on in the 17th and through the 18th and 19th centuries, Buddhist monk warriors from the monasteries rebelled against the Qing (we might cover this later on, but look up the Boxer Rebellion for a general gist of one example) and faced prosecution and execution by the government as a result. Many refugees from these temples who trained in secret developed many of the other martial arts that we know today, such as Wing Chun or the famous Crane and Snake styles. Eventually, many of these martial arts made its way into Korea and Japan, influencing modern martial arts such as Taekwondo and Karate when combined with pre-existing local fighting styles. Thus, many of the famous martial arts styles we know about today are relatively recent innovations, but only existed due to the prevalence of Buddhist temples like Shaolin where the first styles were developed.
The Han dynasty is one of the most revered eras in Chinese history for its prominent political power and truly solidifying the cultural heritage established by the Zhou into a single state. During this period, Daoist traditions were able to be preserved and expanded upon due to encouragement to study them from the government, and Buddhism began to be incorporated into Chinese culture. Furthermore, the expansion of Chinese culture grew along with the empire’s control over the South, West and East. The Han dynasty is thus a pivotal period for truly consolidating and promoting China as a culture power instead of simply a pragmatic military power as the purely legalist Qin was.
Despite all the developments, though, there was plenty that was wrong with the Han that I did not cover, so stay tuned for next week as we cover 400 years worth of geopolitics.
-Article written by Nicholas Zhang. Contact him at email@example.com for any inquiries or thoughts.