The Daoism and the Confucianism in Han Dynasty

1 January 2017

The Daoism and the Confucianism in Han Dynasty As the dominant philosophical school for around two thousand years in Chinese imperial history, Confucianism is always regarded as the most representative ideology of China, associated with numerous books, poems, artworks and stories that glorify Confucianism’s permeation into every corner of Chinese society.

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However, before Han Wudi, Confucianism was only one of those competing philosophical schools founded in Spring and Autumn period. During the Warring States period and Qin dynasty, Legalism took place of all other philosophical schools and helped King Zheng, the First Emperor, to unify China for the first time. Why Confucianism defeated Legalism as well as other philosophical schools in Han dynasty and thrived thereafter is a very interesting and important topic in Chinese history.

This essay focuses on the transition from Legalism to Confucianism and elaborates the adaptation of Confucianism in the period of Han Wudi. When Han was first established by Gaozu, the country was in a mess due to the lasting wars. The industries were devastated severely, the population decreased, the peasants were in exile, the economy was backwards and the national treasury was empty. What was worse, Gaozu made a mistake by “rewarding his old comrades with large territories to govern as vassal states”, because “dispersed power proved a danger to the emperor” (Ebrey 64).

Under this kind of unfavorable circumstance, the first several emperors of Han, e. g. Gaozu and Wendi, chose to govern the country without imposing too many harsh policies and consolidate the regime in a more Daoism way rather than a Confucianism way. Ebrey describes Gaozu’s and Wendi’s ideas of ruling class as the following: The first Han emperors, although prudently avoiding the harsh policies of repudiated Qin, were not partial to Confucianism.

Gaozu found the Confucian scholars of his day useful primarily as formulators of court rituals that would elevate him above his erstwhile companions and keep them from getting rowdy in court. Wendi (r. 179-157 BC) favoured Daoism, finding much of value in its laissez-faire message. (77) The goal of that era was to maintain peace and harmony in the society and develop the economy to make people’s life better. Therefore, the first several emperors of Han relieved the harsh laws prescribed by Qin, reduced the taxation and solved the conflict with those nomads by conciliatory policies, e. . “wooing the Xiongnu leaders with generous gifts, including silk, rice, cash, and even imperial princesses as brides” (68).

The government preferred Daoists’ laissez-faire way of ruling, which emphasized on the government’s reduced role over civilian lives and governing without action. Thus, consistent with the trend then, Daoism dominated in the early period of Han dynasty and helped Han achieve social and economical stability during Wendi’s and Jingdi’s reigns, which is called the Rule of Wen and Jing  in Chinese history. When Wendi’s grandson Wudi came to the throne, Han was very stable and prosperous. Daoism’s governing without action was not suitable for Han because Han was no longer vulnerable as before. Therefore, Wudi thought it was time for him to solidify his control over the country by centralization of authority. As Ebrey writes: Wudi set about curbing the power of princes and other lords; he confiscated the domains of over half of them on whatever pretext he could find.

Moreover, he decreed that domains would have to be divided among all the lord’s heirs, thus guaranteeing that they would diminish in sized with each passing generation. (64) By impairing the power of vassal states, Wudi implemented his centralization over the whole country. Moreover, in economy, Wudi “curbed the power of great merchants” by “gaining new sources of revenue through his state monopolies and commercial taxes; in foreign relations, he “was especially aggressive, revising the early conciliatory policies” (65).

However, it is always easy to start the process of centralization but difficult to maintain the state of centralization. Faced with this knotty problem, Wudi adopted Confucianism, which underlined “the moral basis of superior-subordinate relations, appreciating that in the long run the ruler would achieve his goals more easily and economically when his subordinates viewed their relationship with the ruler in moral terms of loyalty and responsibility” (65). In fact, Han’s Confucianism is not the same as the Confucianism during the period of the Spring and Autumn or Warring States.

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