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The Qin and Han Dynasties

The Qin Dynasty

 

 

The Qin Dynasty (秦, 221-206 BCE), founded by Ying Zheng who had conquered the other regional states of the old Zhou Kingdom (周,11th cent.-221 BCE) and first adopted the title of Emperor in 221 BCE, was the first imperial dynasty of ancient China. 

 

Legalism, a philosophy focusing on the ruler and his skill to make use of a bureaucracy, was the doctrine of Qin, supported by the strict laws, standards and regulations.

 

Different from the Warring States period when a hundred schools of philosophers contended with each other, the Qin regime was rather oppressive towards works objected or not concerned with legalism, science, medicine or divination.

 

 

 

The Han Dynasty

 

 

Literature and Philosophy of the Western Han

 

The Formation of Confucianism and the Influence of the Five Phases Theory

 

Although the Han emperor was not really interested in academy and the first rulers adhered to the principle of letting things take their own course (wuwei无为, chancellor Cao Shen 曹参), the government had to rely on professional scholars who were able to assist administering the empire, such as Lu Jia (陆贾) who wrote the book New Speeches (Xinyu, 新语). During the period of the Emperor Wudi (汉武帝), the Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu (董仲舒) admonished to establish an academy (taixue 太学) aiming at cultivating professors to educate the crowned prince and elites for governmental offices. These officers had to learn the Five Confucian Classics (Wujing, 五经) which were mainly interpreted the relation between men and universe in a holistic view, embedding in a cosmic dynamism that connected the natural phenomena with the deeds of men. While the original Confucianism only focused on man and his position in the society, the Han Confucianism was highly involved with Zou Yan's (邹衍, 3rd cent. BC) theory of the Five Elements (wuxing 五行) and the philosophy of Yin-Yang (阴阳) that assumed an everlasting change and influence of the universe. After introducing a new calendar in 104 BC, assuming a reign motto and performing  sacrifices to Heaven and Earth by the emperor at Mount Tai, Confucianism was firmly established as a state doctrine. Confucius was respected as the Highest Saint until old writings were discovered in the walls of Confucius' house around 102 BC which had survived the Qin's bookburning and were written in old characters. The interpreters saw Confucius mere as the primary teacher, but the recognizing direction of the contemporary New-Texts gained the upper hand over the Old-Text school in the controversy of the proper interpretation of the Confucian works. In 79 AD, their position was affirmed by a conference about the true meaning of the classics. The New-Text Classics were engraved on stone in 175 AD and fixed to belong to the Five Classics. Since then, other texts were condemned as apocryphical.

 

Comparing to the man-centered philosophy of Confucius who stressed good behaviour of the ruler according to the old customs, the orthodox Confucianism of the Han Dynasty was not accordant, especially when looking 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, which saw the universe as an operative unit, man forming only one small element. The guiding principle, called Dao (道), was operating in the three spheres of Heaven, Earth and Man through the medium of the Five Elements. The Confucian writer Yang Xiong (杨雄), a supporter of the usurper Wang Mang(王莽), saw the Great Mystery(玄), being the invisible present core of universe, as an essential thought that hung over the human being. Man was capable to know and recognize all things, but his fate was determined by Heaven. Yang Xiong's interpretation of the Book of Changes (Yijing 《易经》) and the Confucian Analects (Lunyu,《论语》), even influenced Dong Zhongshu's (董仲舒) book Rich Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals(Chunqiu Fanlu,《春秋繁露》). Taoism itself had only small influence in the Han thought, especially the book Zhuangzi (《庄子》) which was too intellectual, too dialectical and too literary for cosmologic speculation of the Han thinkers.

 

Poetry and Prose-poetry

 

A regular, five and seven syllable poem style was developed, later called Old Poem (gushi,古诗). During the period of Wudi, an Office of Music (Yuefu 乐府) was established that collected popular and exotic poems throughout the country, many of which were found in the collections New Songs from the Jade Terrace (Yutai xinyong,《玉台新咏》), Collection of Music Bureau Poetry (Yuefu Shiji,《乐府诗集》) and the small anthology Nineteen Old Poems (Gushi Shijiu Shou,《古诗十九首》). A very common verse style from Han to Tang was the rhapsody or prose-poetry (fu,赋), mastered by Sima Xiangru (司马相如), Yang Xiong and Ban Gu (班固).

 

The Foundation of Official Dynastic Historiography

 

The historiography of the Han Dynasty was of great importance because the traditional style of the annual report which were written year by year, such as Classical Annals of Lu (吕氏春秋), Chunqui Zuozhuan (春秋左传) or the Bamboo Annals (竹书纪年) and Stratagems of the Warring States, was replaced by a new style invented by Sima Tan (司马谈) and his son Sima Qian (司马迁). This kind of historical writing style constituted the Records of the Historian or Scribe (Shiji,史记),  a documentary notes of the history from the mythical Five Emperors to the Han Wudi. This biographical type of history writing (纪传体) dominated the official historiography until the end of the Chinese empire.

 

  

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

  

 

During the whole East Han time, terrific disappointment of scholars by the court where eunuchs controlled weak emperors, leading to a widespread critical thinking even if the orthodox Confucianists made the ruler a sacrosanct person. One of the first critics was Wang Chong (王充), with his writing Discussive Weighing (Lunheng, 论衡), presented a rational critic of superstition based on the thought of cosmic universalism, emphasizing the original values of Confucius' thinking that had the moral spirit of mankind as guiding principle. Other scholars, like Huan Tan (桓譚) who wrote New Theories (Xinlun 新論), proposed an approach to rescue the empire from corrupt officials, reckless soldiers and extravagant merchants by reward and punishment. The uselessness of such proposals led to inner autonomy and inner immigration. Interpreters of the Classics went so far like Xun Shuang (荀爽) who regarded the Book of Changes as an expression of moral and political conflict within the state. His nephew Xun Yue (荀悅) analyzed the problems of his time in distinguishing external and internal factors. He expressed the difficulty to recognize the transcendent way in the holistic universe, unruly activities and exploitation of power which 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 did not focus their work on one single book, but saw instead the Confucian Classics as being interpreted as a whole unit. At the end of East Han, Taoism again won over the disappointed scholarship. In the 3rd century, the Taoist 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 汉书) in the biographical-thematic style. The official History of East Han, the Book of Later Han (Hou Han Shu, 后汉书), was written by Fan Ye (范晔).

 

 

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