The House Of Han, 206-b.c.-220 A. D.
( Originally Published 1910 )
(24 Emperors, 2 Usurpers)
Liu-pang Founds Illustrious Dynasty—Restoration of the Books—A Female Reign—The Three Religions —Revival of Letters—Sze-ma Ts'ien, the Herodotus of China—Conquests of the Hans
THE burning of the books and the slaughter of the scholars had filled the public mind with horror. The oppressions occasioned by the building of the Great Wall had excited a widespread discontent; and Liu-pang, a rough soldier of Central China, took advantage of this state of things to dispossess the feeble heir of the tyrant. He founded a dynasty which is reckoned among the most illustrious in the annals of the Empire. It takes the name of Han from the river on the banks of which it rose to power. When Liu-pang was securely seated on the throne one of his ministers proposed that he should open schools and encourage learning. "Learning," exclaimed the Emperor, " I have none of it myself, nor do I feel the need of it. I got the empire on horseback." " But can you govern the empire on horseback? That is the question," replied the minister. To conciliate the favour of the learned, the Emperor not only rescinded the persecuting edicts, but caused search to be made for the lost books, and instituted sacrificial rites in honour of the Sage.
Old men were still living who had committed those books to memory in boyhood. One such, Fu-seng by name, was noted for his erudition; and from his capacious memory a large portion of the sacred canon was reproduced, being written from his dictation. The copies thus obtained were of course not free from error. Happily a somewhat completer copy, engraved on bamboo tablets, was discovered in the wall of a house belonging to the Confucian family. Yet down to the present day the Chinese classics bear traces of the tyrant's fire. Portions are wanting and the lacuna are always ascribed to the "fires of Ts'in." The first chapter of the Great Study closes with the pregnant words, " The source of knowledge is in the study of things." Not a syllable is added on that prolific text. A note informs the reader that there was a chapter on the subject, but that it has been lost. Chinese scholars, when taxed with the barrenness of later ages in every branch of science, are wont to make the naïve reply, "Yes, and no wonder—how could it be otherwise when the Sage's chapter on that subject has been lost?"
After the second reign, that of Hwei-ti, we have the first instance in Chinese history of a woman seizing the reins of government. The Empress Lu made herself supreme, and such were her talents that she held the Empire in absolute subjection for eight years. Like Jezebel she "destroyed all the seed royal," and filled the various offices with her kindred and favourites. At her death they were butchered without mercy, and a male heir to the throne was proclaimed. His posthumous title Wen-ti, meaning the "learned" or "patron of letters," marks the progress made by the revival of learning.
One might imagine that these literary emperors would have been satisfied with the recovery of the Confucian classics; but no, a rumour reached them that "there are sages in the West." The West was India. An embassy was sent, 66 A. D., by Ming-ti to import books and bonzes. The triad of religions was thus completed.
Totally diverse in spirit and essence, the three religions could hardly be expected to harmonise or combine. Confucianism exalts letters, and lays stress on ethics to the neglect of the spiritual world. Taoism inculcates physical discipline; but in practice it has become the mother of degrading superstition—dealing in magic and necromancy. Buddhism saps the foundations of the family and enjoins celibacy as the road to virtue. Metempsychosis is its leading doctrine, and to "think on nothing" its mental discipline. It for-bids a flesh diet and deprecates scholarship. Through imperial patronage it acquired a footing in China, but it was long before it felt at home there. As late as the eighth century Han Yu, the greatest writer of the age, ridiculed the relics of Buddha and called on his people to "burn their books, close their temples, and make laity of their monks."
Yet Buddhism seems to have met a want. It has fostered a sympathy for animal life, and served as a protest against the Sadducean tenets of the lettered class. It long ago became so rooted in the minds of the illiterate, who form nine-tenths of the population, that China may be truly described as the leading Buddhist country of the globe.
Buddhist monasteries are to be seen on every hand. They are often subsidised by the state; and even at the tomb of Confucius a temple was erected called the "Hall of the Three Religions." In it the image of Buddha is said to have occupied the seat of honour, but prior to the date of my visit it had been demolished.
Each of these religions has a hierarchy: that of Confucius with a lineal descendant of the Sage at its head; that of Lao-tse with Chang Tien-shi, the arch-magician, as its high priest; and, higher than all, that of Buddha with the Grand Lama of Tibet.
Under the house of Han a beginning was made in the institution of civil service examinations—a system which has continued to dominate the Chinese intellect down to our time; but it was not fully developed until the dynasty of T'ang. Belles-lettres made a marked advance. The poetry of the period is more finished than that of the Chous. Prose composition, too, is vigorous and lucid. The muse of history claims the place of honour. Sze-ma Ts'ien, the Herodotus of China, was born in this period. A glory to his country, the treatment Sze-ma Ts'ien received at the hands of his people exposes their barbarism. He had recommended Li Ling as a suitable commander to lead an expedition against the Mongols. Li Ling surrendered to the enemy, and Sze-ma Ts'ien, as his sponsor, was liable to suffer death in his stead. Being allowed an alternative, he chose to submit to the disgrace of emasculation, in order that he might live to complete his monumental work—a memorial better than sons and daughters. A pathetic letter of the unfortunate general, who never dared to return to China, is preserved amongst the choice specimens of prose composition.
Not content with the Great Wall for their northern limit nor with the "Great River" for their southern boundary, the Hans attempted to advance their frontiers in both directions. In the north they added the province of Kansuh, and in the other direction they extended their operations as far south as the borders of Annam; but they did not make good the possession of the whole of the conquered territory. Szechuen and Hunan were, however, added to their domain. The latter seems to have served as a penal colony rather than an integral portion of the Empire. A poem by Kiayi, an exiled statesman (200 B. C.), is dated from Changsha, its capital.
In the south the savage tribes by which the Chinese were opposed made a deep impression on the character of the people, but left no record in history. Not so with the powerful foe encountered in the north. Under the title of Shanyu, he was a forerunner of the Grand Khan of Tartary—claiming equality with the emperors of China and exchanging embassies on equal terms. His people, known as the Hiunghu, are supposed to have been ancestors of the Huns.