Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Eighty

Eclipse and Restoration

In China, between 33 BC and AD 75, the Han Dynasty is temporarily replaced because of bad omens, and then is restored for the same reason

AT THE VERY END OF THE ROAD EAST, China under the Han Dynasty was growing into an empire with its own surrounding provinces, not unlike the Roman empire at the very end of the road west. The chronicles of Sima Qian speak of tribe after tribe on its western border, conquered and folded into its borders. And just like the ruling family at the other end of the road, the Chinese royal clan suffered through its own personal dramas, which then weakened the borders of the empire itself.

In 33 BC, while Octavian was still building his powers, the Han emperor Yuandi died. He had inherited the throne from his father Xuandi, and now passed it to his son Chengdi.

Chengdi was eighteen, which in Chinese tradition was not quite old enough for full independent rule. His mother Cheng-chun became the empress dowager, with regentlike powers. When she suggested that Chengdi give her relatives from the Wang clan important government positions, Chengdi obediently complied. Her brothers became lords; her oldest brother, general-in-chief of the army. Other Wang family members were given other posts, until the highest posts in the Han government were overloaded with them.1

Chengdi died in 7, after a reign of over two decades—but with no son of his own. His nephew Aiti succeeded him. After this, the reigns of the Han rulers grow suspiciously short. Aiti died after only six years, also without children; and an eight-year-old cousin who next sat on the throne, Ping, died in AD 6 after a seven-year reign, also childless.

The empress dowager was still alive; she had now outlived four Han monarchs. Now she supervised the accession of yet another baby, a distant Han cousin named Ruzi who could claim to be the great-great-grandson of the earlier emperor Xuandi. As his regent, she appointed her own nephew Wang Mang, a well-respected and educated man who had been serving as a minister for years already. His biographer, the historian Ban Gu, remarked that he had managed to build himself up a loyal following by “distributing carriages, horses, gowns, and furs” to his “scholarly retainers,” while keeping little for himself; in other words, he was proficient at bribery.2

Noblemen who resented the Wang power in government protested; one insisted that Wang Mang had poisoned at least one of the previous kings; another led a short-lived, armed uprising. But Wang Mang promised that he would hand the crown over to the baby king as soon as he was old enough. This gave him at least ten years of grace time.

It only took him three to convince the people of the capital city that the extraordinary bad luck of the Han succession showed that the Will of Heaven had turned against the Han, and that the absence of an adult emperor on the throne was encouraging banditry, murder, and all sorts of crimes. When omens began to favor Wang Mang (for one thing, a white stone discovered at the bottom of a well had written on it “Tell Wang Mang that he must become Emperor!”), he declared that the Han had ended, and that he was now emperor of China. “I am a descendant of the Yellow Emperor,” he announced, “and have been given the Mandate for the continuation of the succession. The omens have indicated the clear commands of the Spirits, entrusting to me the people of the empire.”3

The Han had already survived for 197 years, no mean feat. But for the next decade and a half after AD 9, Wang Mang’s Xin Dynasty—the “New” Dynasty—would eclipse it.

The empress dowager, who finally died in 13 AD after having lived through the reigns of six emperors of China, did not live to see the end of the story. But the effects of the change in dynasty were obvious even before her death. Wang Mang was not a cruel man; he sent the baby prince away to be raised elsewhere, but spared his life (although rumor said that little Ruzi had been so carefully guarded that he did not know a chicken when he saw one). But his decisions were disastrous. He pronounced himself restorer of the old and honored ways, and tried to roll back all of the changes made during the Han to break the old ties of aristocratic privilege. He annoyed the peasants by giving the noble families some of their old feudal powers back; he annoyed the aristocrats by reviving the ancient idea that all of China belonged to the emperor (and even more by following through and claiming some of their territories for himself).4 His policies were so sweeping, and so sudden, that his people were thrown into confusion and discontent. His biographer Ban Gu tells us:

The people could not turn a hand without violating some prohibition…. The rich had no means to protect themselves and the poor no way to stay alive. They rose up and became thieves and bandits, infesting the hills and marshes.5

Wang Mang was also unlucky in the weather. Drought and famine over much of the capital region were joined, cruelly, by flooding; in AD 11, dikes on the Yellow river broke and thousands drowned. The omens that Wang Mang had depended on to sweep him into power turned against him. “Famine and pestilence raged,” says Ban Gu, “and people ate each other, so that before Wang Mang was finally punished [by losing his throne] half the population of the empire had perished.”

In response to this combination of political change and natural disaster, one of the first secret societies in Chinese history formed: the Red Eyebrows, who organized in a band to fight against the soldiers who came out into the countryside to enforce Wang Mang’s decrees. In an age before uniforms, they painted their foreheads red so that, in battle, they could distinguish friend from foe.6

In AD 23, Wang Mang gave up his throne and fled. He left behind him a mess of Han relatives, none of whom had a clear right to the throne. Battles between them dragged on for two years before one of them, Liu Xiu, won enough support to claim the throne for himself.

Liu Xiu, better known by his imperial name Guang Wudi, set himself to reversing the damage Wang Mang had done. But he created some distance between himself and the earlier Han kingdom (which, after all, had disintegrated into disorder) by moving his capital city from Chang’an to Loyang, two hundred miles east; thus the second half of the Han empire is often called the Eastern Han to distinguish it from the earlier Han rule.

He also did not restore the Han custom of giving all important posts to royal family members, which was how Wang Mang had gotten into power to start with. Instead, he divided the old Han territory up into new counties, and gave more of the government posts to less important families. And as part of his struggle against the constant influence of the old noble families, he built over one hundred training schools for future bureaucrats, in which government-paid teachers taught the skills that government officials needed to run the empire properly. He also put into effect a system of examinations; candidates who passed the examinations could win government posts, regardless of family background. It was a meritocracy, based on Confucian ideas of order, and it became a system that would endure for centuries.7

But the counties which these new administrators would run were smaller, and fewer, than before; the famine, civil war, and flooding had killed many, many Chinese. Census figures suggest that as many as ten million people had died in the last years of the Western Han and the years of the New Dynasty, in one of the great hidden disasters of the past.8

GUANG WUDI REIGNED for a long and prosperous thirty-two years, and then passed the crown to his son Mingdi.

Mingdi was not the emperor’s original heir. Guang Wudi had not entirely abandoned the old practice of building power through alliances with old families; his first marriage had been to a noblewoman of the north, and gave him a strategic link to the northern clans who might have given the emperor a run for the throne. Her son had been named crown prince. But almost twenty years into his reign, Guang Wudi felt in firm control of the north, and started to worry about the south instead. He put his first wife away and took a second, southern wife as official consort. When her son Mingdi was born, Guang Wudi pronounced this son, not his older child, to be his heir.

Mingdi was twenty-nine when he took the throne. He solved the problem of northern resentment by sending his general Pan Ch’ao north to campaign against the ongoing threat of the Xiongnu, above them. Gratitude assured him of the north’s loyalty. And Pan Ch’ao’s campaigns not only whipped the Xiongnu into submission, but also conquered the western area of the Tarim Basin: the so-called Oasis States, an act which reopened, from the eastern end, the road that had already been cleared from the west by the Parthian-Roman treaty.9

According to later biographers, Mingdi then had a dream: he saw a golden god in the sky, asking to be honored. His advisors assured him that this was the Buddha, a god of whom they had heard from India. This is a poetic expression of the reality of migration. Both merchants and missionaries from India had begun to travel regularly into China.

Mingdi sent men to India to learn more about the Buddha. According to Chinese tradition, they came back with the Sutta in Forty-two Sections, which were Buddhist sayings presented in much the same way as the Analects of Confucius.10 Mingdi, pleased by the Sutta, began to adopt its teachings for himself and for his court.

This is probably a simplified presentation of a more gradual adoption of Buddhist principles by the court, but it does show that Buddhism was making its way into China—and that it was spreading in a way quite unlike Confucianism. Confucianism, now set into the structures of Han bureaucracy by Guang Wudi’s schools, had begun among the people and had run along the grass roots of Chinese society, promising ordinary men and women principles that would get them through their day-to-day lives: a republican ethic. But Buddhism came into China at the top of the social tree; it was adopted first by the king, and spread from him downwards. In China, it was the religion of the educated, the powerful, and the well-to-do.


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