An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Han Period Philosophy and Thought

October 30, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Literature and Philosophy of Former Han:
The formation of Confucianism and the influence of the Five Agents Theory

Although the founder of the dynasty was not really interested in scholarship and the first rulers of the Han adhered to the principle of a non-interfering government (wuwei 無為, chancellor Cao Shen 曹參), the government had to rely on professional scholars just because they were the people he needed to administer his empire (scholars like Lu Jia 陸賈 who wrote the book Xinyu 新語 "New Speeches"). "An empire can be conquered from the horseback, but not ruled from a horseback", is a recommandation by Lu Jia valid for all Chinese dynasties. During the time of Emperor Wudi 漢武帝, the Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 admonished the ruler to establish an academy (taixue 太學) which should produce erudites (boshi 博士) to educate the crown prince (recommended by Jia Yi 賈宜 in his book Xinshu 新書 "New Essays") and to produce an elite for governmental offices. These officers had to learn and to study the Five Confucian Classics Wu Jing (Wujing) 五經 that were mainly interpreted in a holistic view of universe with man embedded in a cosmic dynamism that connected the natural phenomena with the deeds of men. While the original Confucianism only centered around man and his position in the society, Han time Confucianism was highly intertwined with Zou Yan's 鄒衍 (3rd cent. BC) theory of the Five Elements (wuxing 五行) and the philosophy of Yin-Yang 陰陽 that assumed an everlasting change and influence of all things. After introducing a new calendar in 104 BC (called the taichu 太初 reform), assuming a reign motto (nianhao 年號) and performing the fengshan 封禪 sacrifices to Heaven and Earth by the emperor at Mount Tai 泰山 (suggested by Sima Xiangru 司馬相如) in 110 BC, Confucianism was firmly established as a state doctrine. Confucius was seen as the Highest Saint (zhisheng 至聖) and a religion founder until old writings were discovered in the walls of Confucius' house around 102 BC. These books were said to have survived the Qin emperor's bookburning and were written in old characters (guwen 古文). The interpreters (Kong Anguo 孔安國, Liu Xin 劉歆, Ma Rong 馬融, Zheng Xuan 鄭玄) of these texts saw Confucius mere as the primary teacher (xianshi 先師), but the orthodox direction of the contemporary New-Texts (jinwen 今文) got the upper hand over the Old-Text school in the quarrel about the right interpretation of the Confucian writings. Their position was affirmed by a conference in 79 AD in the "White Tiger Hall" about the true meaning of the classics, written down in the book Baihutong 白虎通. The New-Text Classics were cut in stone in 175 AD during the reign era Xiping "Dawning Peace", hence called the Xiping Classics Xiping Shi Jing 熹平石經. Which one of the texts belonged to the Five Classics, was fixed in the conference at the Shiqu Palace 石渠閣 in 51 BC, other texts were condemned as apocryphical (chenwei 讖緯).
The orthodox Confucianism of the Han Dynasty was not identical to the man-centered philosophy of Confucius who stressed good behaviour of the ruler according to the old customs. This becomes clear if we look at the upcoming of books that were highly influenced with Yin-Yang thought like the collection Huainanzi 淮南子, compiled by a prince in 139 BC. The book saw the universe as a single operative unit of which man forms but one small element. The guiding principle, called dao 道 "way" is operating in the three spheres of Heaven, Earth and Man (Tian, Di, Ren 天地人) through the medium of the Five Elements (wuxing 五行). The Confucian writer Yang Xiong 楊雄 (wrote Taixuanjing 太玄經 "Classic of the Supreme Mystery", and Fayan 法言 "Modeling Words"), a supporter of the usurper Wang Mang 王莽, saw the Great Mystery, being the invisible present essence of all things, as an all embracing unity that centered in the human being. Man as an agent was able to know and recognize all things, but his fate was determined by Heaven. These two books are Yang Xiong's interpretation of the Book of Changes Yijing 易經 and the Confucian Analects Lunyu 論語. Even Dong Zhongshu's 董仲舒 book Chunqiu Fanlu 春秋繁露 "Rich Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals" is full of these influences. Daoism itself had only small influence in Han thought, especially the book Zhuangzi 莊子 that was too intellectual, too dialectical and too literary for cosmologic speculation of the Han thinkers.

Poetry and prose-poetry

Poetry developed to a regular, five and seven syllable poem style later called "old poem" (gushi 古詩). During the reign of Wudi, a shortlived Office of Music (Yuefu 樂府) was established that collected popular and exotic poems throughout the country. Many of these poems are found in the collections "New songs from the Jade Terrace" (Yutai xinyong 玉台新詠), Yuefushi ji 樂府詩集 "Collection of Music Bureau Poetry" and the small anthology "Nineteen Old Poems" Gushi shijiu shou 古詩十九首. A very common verse style from Han to Tang was the rhapsody or prose-poetry fu 賦, mastered by Sima Xiangru 司馬相如, Yang Xiong 楊雄 and Ban Gu 班固.

The foundation of official dynastic historiography

Historiography reached a crucial point during the Han Dynasty because the traditional style of the report of events year by year (biannian 編年) that is found in the Classical Annals of Lu, Chunqiu-Zuozhuan 春秋左傳 or the Bamboo Annals (Zhushu Jinian 竹書紀年) and the free anecdotical style that is found in the Zhanguoce 戰國策 "Stratagems of the Warring States" was replaced by a style of historical writing that was invented by Sima Tan 司馬談Í and his son Sima Qian 司馬遷, composing the universal history Shiji 史記 "Records of the Historian or Scribe" that reached from the mythical Five Emperors down to Emperor Han Wudi. This type of biographical-thematical history writing (jizhuan 紀傳) was used as the standard type of official historiography until the end of the Chinese empire.
Bibliogaphies of the imperial library were compiled by Liu Xiang 劉向 and his son Liu Xin 劉歆, calling them "Abstracts of the Six Disciplines" (liuyilüe 六藝略). He collected himself old texts, stories and statements and put them together to his four books Xinxu 新序 "New Stories", Shuoyuan 說苑 "Garden of Explanations", the Lienüzhuan 列女傳, a book about outstanding good and bad women, and he was responsible for the redaction of unofficial histories of the Eastern Zhou period 東周, the Guoyu 國語 "Accounts of the Regional States" and the Zhanguoce.

Literature and Philosophy of Later Han: Highlight and Decline of Confucianism

The disappointment of many scholars by the events at the court, where eunuchs controlled weak emperors lead to a widespread critical thinking during the whole Later Han time even if the orthodox Confucianists made the ruler a sacrosanct person. One of the first criticians of his temporarians was Wang Chong 王充 who with his writing Lunheng ("Discussive weighing" 論衡) showed a rationalist critic of superstition and the thought of cosmic universalism. He emphasized the original values of Confucius' thinking that had the moral spirit of mankind as guiding principle. Other scholars like Huan Tan 桓譚 (wrote Xinlun 新論 "New Theories"), Cui Shi 崔寔 and Wang Fu 王符 (wrote "Comments of a recluse" Qianfulun 潛夫論) proposed a legist approach to rescue the empire and the ruler from corrupt officials, undisciplined soldiers and extravagant merchants by using methods of reward and punishment. The uselessness of such proposals led to inner autonomy and inner immigration. Interpretors of the Classics went so far like Xun Shuang 荀爽 who saw the Book of Changes as an expression of moral and political conflict within the state. His nephew Xun Yue 荀悅 (writing Shenjian 申鑒 "Mirror of Pleadings") analyzed the problems of his time in distinguishing external and internal factors. He saw the imperial order and Confucian thought as good, but because it was hard to recognize the transcendent way in the holistic universe, unruly activities and exploitation of power led to misgovernment. The scholar's disillusionment was clearly seen in the upcoming of private scholarship that nonetheless had great influence on the interpreting of Classics. The most famous interpretors are four persons from the end of the Han Dynasty, Jia Kui 賈逵, Ma Rong 馬融, Cai Yong 蔡邕 and Zheng Xuan 鄭玄, who did not focus their work on one single book like people before but who saw instead the Confucian Classics as being interpreted as a whole unit. At the end of Later Han, Daoism again won over the disappointed scholarship, and it was in the 3rd century, that the small book Daoist book Liezi 列子 was compiled.
Ban Biao 班彪 and his son Ban Gu 班固 wrote the History of the Former Han Dynasty (Hanshu 漢書) in the biographical-thematic style of the universal history Shiji 史記 (ending during the reign of Emperor Han Wudi), a style that was prevalent for official histories (zhengshi 正史) during the whole history of the Chinese empire. But there exist also other (bieshi 別史) year-by-year styled histories like the History of Former Han Qianhanji (Qian Han ji) 前漢記 by Xun Yue 荀悅. The official History of Later Han Dynasty, Houhanshu (Hou Han shu) 後漢書, was written by Fan Ye 范曄. Other historiographies about the Eastern Han are Houhanji 後漢紀 by Yuan Hong 袁宏, Dongguan hanji by a collective of authors, and the Houhanshu versions of eight different writers (Bajia Houhanshu 八家後漢書; written by Xie Cheng 謝承, Xue Ying 薛瑩, Sima Biao 司馬彪, Hua Jiao 華嶠, Xie Shen 謝沈, Zhang Ying 張瑩, Yuan Shansong 袁山松, and Zhang Fan 張璠). For the administration history of Han China, we know the fragments of six scholars (Wang Long 王隆, Wei Hong 衛宏, Ying Shao 應劭, Cai Zhi 蔡質, Ding Fu 丁孚, and Hu Guang 胡廣) Hanguan liuzhong 漢官六種, published by Sun Xingyan 孫星衍. The Song time scholar Xu Tianlin 徐天麟 wrote an institutional history of Former and Later Han, Xihan huiyao 西漢會要 and Donghan huiyao 東漢會要. We possess a corpus of stories and unofficial histories from the Han Dynasty, and some fragments that are preserved within the commentaries to the official histories.
At the court library, a scholar named Xu Shen 許慎 wrote the first etymological character dictionary of China, the Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 with 540 radical determinants. There exist also other dictionaries from the Han Dynasty that are less known: one of it, the Erya 爾雅, even became part of the Confucian Classics.

Étienne Balazs, “Political philosophy and social crisis at the end of Han,” in Chinese civilization and bureaucracy: Variations on a theme by Étienne Balazs, ed. Arthur F. Wright, trans. H. M. Wright (New Haven, 1964), pp. 187–225,