For a general overview of the Chinese Dynasties see:
An earlier case study traced the evolution of transborder sovereignty over the course of China’s longest lasting dynasty-the Zhou Dynasty which lasted from roughly 1000 BC to 221 BC. During the course of the Zhou Dynasty, we see a shift from transborder sovereignty to absolute sovereignty with the Warring States Period representing a transitional phase to imperial China. This was followed by a brief overview first imperial Qin Dynasty.
The Han Empire
It was through the Han expansion that China made its first contacts with peoples outside of the traditional Chinese sphere, as its emissaries reached as far as Parthia (in modem Iran), China developed its earliest firsthand knowledge and understanding of other-particularly Western-cultural worlds. Second, the triumphant military expeditions implanted the Middle Kingdom idea firmly and visibly in the Chinese worldview of international relations, in which China was the center and superpower of the world and other peoples and countries were referred to only in tributary and subordinate terms. This replaced the conception of multination equality that had gradually formed through the pre-expansion Han-Hsiung-nu relations from 200 to 133 B.C. Third, through the martial merits of Emperor Wu, empire building and its accompanying military expansion became in Imperial China a permanent part of the dual criteria of historical judgment of an emperor: wen-chih (civil and cultural merit) and wu-kung (martial achievements). Without wu-kung, wen-chih was not enough to make an emperor stand out in history. Many emperors actually became prisoners of such a concept and unwisely tried too hard to fit the pattern, only to ruin themselves and their empires. Furthermore, in institutional realms Han Wu-ti's many new political organizations, intellectual and economic innovations, and legal measures, which were all instituted to meet needs created by military expansion, remained as permanent features of traditional China, and some even survive today.
In dynastic terms, Emperor Wu's reign reached a peak in the Western Han. His long military expeditions and colonial efforts eventually exhausted the nation's economic resources and manpower, and hence affected, and even broke in some cases, the established political, economic, and intellectual balance and stability of the Western Han empire. In long-range terms, it was Wuti's great expansion that eventually precipitated the decline of the Western Han dynasty. Han Wu-ti and his new empire have been a highly controversial topic in Chinese history. On the one hand, many regarded the emperor as a model ruler and empire builder. But others considered him the personification of pretentiousness, ruthlessness, and selfishness and his great empire a project of self-destruction and a symbol of the misery of the common people. This controversy dates even to Wu-ti's own time. In 89 B.C., he issued an edict deploring his expansionist adventures and expressing his regret about the sufferings they had inflicted on the people. All of this has increased the complexity and variations in historical discourses on the origins, development, and consequences of Emperor Wu's new empire.
The high degree of centralization in the Han government contributed to the internal stability necessary for the Han Court to mobilize large military campaigns. From the time Kao-ti ascended the imperial throne in 202 to the end of his reign in 195 B.C., practically every year the Han Court was threatened by the rebellions of feudal states. These states controlled almost two-thirds of the Han territory, and some of them were extremely large and powerfull. The Ch'i kingdom controlled six provinces (chun) with seventy-three districts (hsien), the Tai kingdom three provinces with fifty-three districts, the Ch'u kingdom three provinces with thirty-six districts, and the Wu kingdom three provinces with fifty-three districts. These kingdoms were virtually independent in every aspect. Furthermore, they had their own royal courts and governing systems, independent economic resources and financial institutions, and, most important, independent armies. The Wu, for example, had an army of over five hundred thousand men, with an additional three hundred thousand from its ally Nan-yueh in the south. Moreover, the powerful generals who helped Uu Pang (the later Kao-ti) create the empire also constituted a threat to the court. The reign of Emperor Hui (Uu Ying) lasted only seven years (195-188 B.C.). The emperor was young, and Empress Lii held the real power. Even though this was a period of consolidation of Han rule, the struggle for power between the Lii clan and the imperial family (Uu clan) was already underway. In the next period, under the reign of Empress Lii (187-180 B.C.), this struggle reached its zenith. The empress ruled through members of her own family; the important members of the imperial clan were in their distant kingdoms and marquisates. At the same time, the threat of the powerful generals continued. The court was in a state of great tension. After Empress Lii's death in 180 B.C., the whole Lii clan was massacred by a joint force of members of the imperial family and Kaotsu's old loyal henchmen. Emperor Wen (Wen-ti, Liu Heng, 180-157 B.C.) was enthroned, although he had not been the heir apparent. He was the oldest living son of Kao-tsu and had been the king of Tai (mainly Shansi) before being chosen, emperor. Moreover, as he stated in an edict in the first year of his reign, at this time the king of Ch'u (Uu Chiao, Kiangsu) was his youngest uncle, the king of Wu (Uu P'i, Kiangsu and Chekiang) was his brother (actually a cousin), and the king of Huai-nan (Liu Chang, Anhui) was his younger brother. There were other strong kingdoms of the Uu clan in outlying regions of the empire. At one time, he was even reluctant to accept the throne under these circumstances. The emperor was not in a position to deal effectively with these feudal states, and tensions certainly existed between the states and the Imperial Court. Some of these kings disregarded the orders of the court and plotted rebellion against the emperor. At least two feudal kings openly rebelled against him: the king of Chi-pei in 177 B.C. and the king of Huai-nan in 175 B.C. By the beginning of the reign of Emperor Ching, the conflict between the feudal kings and the Han Court had reached a climax. While the imperial government was preparing to curtail the power of the various feudal kings, a rebellion of seven of the strongest kingdoms-Wu, Ch'u, Chiao-hsi, Chiao-tung, Tzu-ch'uan, Chi-nan, and Chao-broke out in 154 B.C. It was the most serious revolt during the former Han period. It lasted several months and was finally suppressed by the imperial forces under the generals Chou Ya-fu and Tou Ying, which killed more than 130,000 rebel troops. The kings of the seven rebel states all were forced to commit suicide or killed by the imperial forces.
It is clear that during the period from 202 to 154 B.C. the Han empire was not politically stable. The court was frequently threatened by various unruly groups and rebellions. It was impossible for the court to concentrate on external problems or launch all-out military campaigns against the Hsiung-nu and others while the constant threat of internal rebellions continued. For instance, during the reign of Emperor Wen the Hsiung-nu menace became more serious, and so did the threat of the feudal kings. In 177 B.C., the Hsiung-nu's Worthy (Wise) King of the Right invaded the regions south of the Yellow River and northern Pei-ti (in modem Ninghsia). But when Emperor Wen went to Tai (in northern Hopei) and prepared to lead a campaign against the Hsiung-nu the king of Chi-pei (in southern Shantung) immediately took the opportunity afforded by the emperor's absence from the capital to start a rebellion. The emperor was forced to call off the expedition and order his forces to attack the rebellious king.
After 154 B.C., the feudal kingdoms were never again a major threat to the Han Court. From this year to the last quarter of the second century B.C., the Han Court used various means to render the existence of feudal kingdoms merely nominal, and its effort to eliminate more feudal kingdoms continued: three more were destroyed early in Wu-ti's reign. After the Rebellion of the Seven Kingdoms, Emperor Ching also undertook special measures to change the structure of the feudal kingdoms. First, he took away the independence of their political system. He eliminated the position of yu-shih tai-fu (the imperial secretary or deputy chancellor in the royal court) in 147 B.C. and degraded the status of the chancellor in the royal court by changing its title from ch' eng-hsiang to hsiang (chief adviser) in 145 B.C. The next year he changed the governing system in the kingdoms by drastically reducing the number of officials and assigning new titles to them, showing their inferior status compared to officials in the central government. To further eliminate any possible regional division, the emperor even ordered in 142 B.C. all marquises (ch'e-hou) not to assume their posts in their respective marquisates. Second, starting in 147 B.C. the emperor gradually eliminated the feudal kings' economic independence by nationalizing mintage and the currency system and imposing a monopoly on various essential material goods. Third, Emperor Ching broadened the base of entrance into officialdom to include the common people in order to reduce the monopoly of official positions by the hereditary aristocrats and their wealthy followers. In 142 B.C., he reduced the long-established financial requirement for official appointments by 60 percent, from one hundred thousand to forty thousand in cash (copper coins). In the same year, he decreed that merchants, who were usually required to register with the government and were the allies and supporters of the ambitious feudal kings, be prohibited to serve as officials either by merit or by open purchase. With all these aggressive measures, the possibility of any successful challenge to the Imperial Court by the feudal kingdoms and their local supporters was almost completely eradicated under Emperor Ching.
At the same time, there were conscious efforts to transfer the administrative power from regular cabinet members to officials close to the emperor, as symbolized by the rise of the Inner Court (Nei-t'ing or Nei-ch'ao) to usurp the power of the Chancellery and the Imperial Secretariat. All these measures plus other formal and informal means of control and inspection brought fundamental changes in the power structure and distribution of the Han government. The power of the emperor and the centralization of the government reached their highest degree during the reign of Emperor Wu. The long struggle for power between such powerful pressure groups as the imperial in-laws, the imperial family, and those who were instrumental in the founding of the empire was finally ended during Wu-ti's reign.
Basic changes in the relationship between the central political power and local society also took place. Before Emperor Wu, the monarchy was without real and close ties to local society. Kao-ti, founder of the dynasty, followed a Ch'in practice of moving the rich local elites and the powerful aristocratic families, which numbered more than one hundred thousand, from the eastern regions to the Kuan-chung area (Shensi) under the direct supervision of the central government so that these people could not induce tension and disturbances with their wealth and influence. At the same time, families of his meritorious assistants, who were given high-ranking positions in the government, were moved to the district where his tomb was constructed, which was hence named Ch'angling. Following this latter practice, succeeding rulers moved the families of officials with an annual salary of 2,000 bushels (shih) of grain and local rich elites, merchants and stalwarts to districts and towns of their tombs (ling-i), located in the capital area and constructed in their own times. This measure evidently combined the control of certain potentially dangerous segments of population in the case of local elites and stalwarts-and the traditional system of hostage taking in the case of high-ranking officials. All of these practices, however, were not strictly enforced on a large scale until Wu-ti's time. Moreover, even if they were, they would have achieved only one goal-social stability through population control-and that alone would not be effective enough to enable the central government to fully mobilize the massive manpower and economic resources needed for long and large-scale military expeditions against the Hsiung-nu.
Two basic measures were undertaken in the early period of Wu-ti's long reign. The first was the reinforcement of the practice of population migration. In 139 B.C., the second year of his reign, the emperor first established his tomb in Mou County, which was later called Mou-ling. Next year, for the sake of positive encouragement, he granted to those who moved to Mou-ling two hundred thousand ch'ien in cash to each household and 200 mu (or mou, Han acres) of land. In 127 B.C., two years after his new military offensives had begun, Emperor Wu ordered that stalwarts from provinces and kingdoms and those whose property was worth 3 million ch'ien in cash or more be moved to Mouling. The purpose was to increase the population of the capital area and at the same time prevent the spread of evil and vicious elements in the provinces and kingdoms. The second measure that Emperor Wu undertook to exert thorough control over local conditions was to gradually incorporate leaders of local pressure groups not moved to the capital area into governmental institutions as bureaucrats. This policy was usually carried out by the provincial governors. But their efforts were directed and controlled by the central government.
Another measure in the imperial government's quest for internal political and social control and stability was the use of "harsh officials" (k'u-li). These officials believed in strict legal order as the basis of good government, in the use of cruel measures against unlawful conduct, and in the equality of all people commoners, noblemen and officials-before the law. They held positions of various types and ranks, such as governor (t'ai-shou or chun-shou), regional military commandant (tu-wei or chun-wei, chief commandant), capital commandant (chung-wei), prefect or governor of the capital (nei-shih), palace counselor (chung ta-fu), commandant of justice (t'ing-wei), general, clerks in offices of different levels, and others. They often employed tricky and vicious investigators to look for unlawful activities. Their main targets of investigation and persecution were members of the rich elite, the nobility, corrupt officials, stalwarts and men of evil influence, and racketeers and vicious merchants. With only one exception in Kao-ti's time, officials with such political and legal philosophies did not gain influence and prominence until late in Ching-ti's reign-after the Rebellion of the Seven Kingdoms was crushed in 154 B.C. Emperor Ching was the first Han ruler to send an official with a harsh reputation to a specific region. In about 151-150 B.C., the famous Chih Tu was appointed the governor of Chi-nan (in central Shantung) to restrain the Hsien clan. This clan consisted of over three hundred households and was so notorious for its power and lawlessness that none of the two thousand officials in the area could do anything to control it. Chi executed the worst offenders of the Hsien clan, along w!th their families, and the rest were overwhelmed with fear. After a year or so under Chih T u's rule, no one in the province dared even to pick up belongings that had been dropped on the streets and roads. Other harsh officials operated in much the same way and at times employed even harsher measures. Among the people they arrested, prosecuted, and executed in the provinces and kingdoms, as well as in the capital area, were court ladies, feudal kings, high-ranking officials, local elites, rich merchants, and commoners. Such officials became more dominant early in Wu-ti's reign. They reached the highest echelon of the bureaucracy, and their measures became even crueler. The governor of Ting-Hsiang (in southern Suiyuan) executed four hundred people in one day. The governor of Ho-nei (eastern Honan) executed over one thousand families. Their blood is said to have flowed over ten Ii (Han miles). In the inquest of conspiracy for rebellion conducted by the feudal kings of Huai-nan (mainly Anhui), Heng-shan (in Anhui), and Chiang-tu (central Kiangsu), Chang T'ang-the most influential harsh official of early Han times-was in charge of investigations and judgments. He put to death tens of thousands, at times merely on circumstantial evidence. These officials became so notorious that they were given such nicknames as Vicious Hawk, Vicious Killer, and the like.
Furthermore, in 130 B.G Chao Yii and Chang Tang, two of the most notorious and influential harsh officials at the time, were empowered by Emperor Wu to draw up various new statutes and ordinances. Among these were the laws that anyone who knowingly allowed a criminal act to go unreported was as guilty as the criminal and that officials could be prosecuted for the offenses of their inferiors or superiors in the same bureau. From this time on, the laws became more complicated, and they were applied with increasing strictness. This was a pronounced departure from earlier Han practice, which in general stressed simpler laws and lenient applications. In the earlier reigns of Emperors Kao and Hui and Empress Lii, as recently discovered Han era documents show, there were only twenty-eight sets of statutes and ordinances and a number of cases and precedents for reference and comparison. The principal legal philosophy was "following the established tradition."20 The clear intent of this change was to impose strict political and social order by means of harsh legal institutions and enforcement. Small wonder, then, that of the fifteen notorious harsh officials of Former Han times whose biographies appear in the Shih-chi (Historical Records) and Han-shu (History of the Former Han Dynasty), ten flourished in Wu-ti's time. All were extremely influential in decision making at the highest level, and a majority of them were instrumental in the formulation of the most important new political and economic measures undertaken during Wu-ti's reign.
During the seven years of the Ch'in-Han transition from 208 to 202 B.C., the main force of production in the economy, the population of able bodies, was drastically reduced because of the continuing war destruction and carnage. There were at least eighty large-scale battles and over one hundred fifty of a lesser scale. However, the casualties in each of these bloody conflicts ranged from several thousand to tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands. In 207 B.C., for example, over two hundred thousand Ch'in soldiers were buried alive by the rebel leader Hsiang Yii (232-202 B.C.) in Hsin-an (east of modern Mien-ch'ih in western Honan). Overall, the Chinese population at the beginning of the Han dynasty was reduced to less than one-half of the former Ch'in figure of 28 million by the end of the dynasty. In many regions, the loss was even greater. Chii-ni District (in Hopei), for example, had only one-sixth of the Ch'in era population left, down from thirty thousand households to five thousand. The large cities generally, retained only 20 to 30 percent of their former populations due to war deaths and flight. The great T'ang historian Tu Yu (A.D. 735-812) estimated that the population of the Han dynasty at its founding was less than one-third of the population of China in the Warring States period (404-222 B.c.). The modem scholar Liang Ch'i-ch'ao (1873-1929) estimated the Han population in Emperor Kao-tsu's time at only about 5 or 6 million, but more recently others have estimated it to have been in the range of 8.8 to 18 million; my own estimate is 12 to 16 million.
The founders of the Han took special measures to revitalize the bleak economic and social conditions. The government first instituted a general policy of economic relaxation and reduction of governmental spending. The theory was that government should interfere in the people's lives as little as possible. This was intended to correct the Ch'in policy of working the people so hard in public works and military expeditions that they eventually rebelled. At the same time, the Han Court also initiated various measures for economic recovery in different realms of concern. During the early Former Han, industrial and commercial growth was noticeable. But Han industry and commerce did not begin their full development in the first three reigns, 202-180 B.C., of the new dynasty, since the primary concern of the Han leaders then was full recovery of the agricultural sector. As it was in the Ch'in dynasty, the main economic concern of the Han founders was agriculturalism (nung-pen), with commerce and industry being regarded as "nonessential" economic pursuits (mo-yeh). During the reigns of Emperors Wen and Ching, 180-141 B.C., commerce and industry gradually achieved significant growth, as the empire's agricultural production had reached a very high level, the population had increased by four times, and living standards (consumption of goods) had risen significantly. On the average, the minimum annual rate of business profits was 20 percent and higher. In fact, the profits of certain industries and businesses were so huge that later in the next reign, Han Wu-ti's time, they were channeled into a well-organized new system of government monopolies in order to finance the large-scale military campaigns and eliminate the economic threat to the imperial government posed by the tremendous wealth of the industrialists and merchants.
There were, according to Su-ma Ch'ien (145-86 B.C.), forty-six notable types of commodities of great value-major sources of industrial and commercial wealth-in market towns and commercial metropolises, and twenty-two of these were produced through industrial processes of varying degrees of sophistication. Regional specialization emerged and with it the rise of prosperous interregional trade. Major industrial enterprises were those of iron, salt, and textiles. The centers of the textile and clothing industries (silks, silken fabrics, textiles made of vegetable fibers, and so on) were mainly in Ch'i and Lu (modern Shantung), Ch'en-liu (in modern Honan), and Shu (in modern Szechwan). Lin-tzu (Lin-tse) of Ch'i and Hsiang-i of Ch'en-liu were the two largest centers. Lin-tse was famous for garments and Hsiang-i for fine embroideries. The specialty of Shu was hemp cloth. Information on the size of these industries in early Former Han times is not available. But in 48 B.C. each of the three government garments offices (San-fu) in Ch'i alone generally employed two to three thousand men. Together with the fact that textiles were a major source of industrial and commercial wealth, this leads us to assume that a large pre expansion textile factory could easily have employed over a thousand men.
The iron and salt industries were spread over various regions of the empire, with the largest centers located in what are modern Shantung, Szechwan,' Kiangsu, Chekiang, Anhui, and Hopei. From 120 to 110 B.C., the Han government reorganized its system of salt and iron monopolies. It established special offices for supervision and management in areas where salt and iron production and profits were concentrated. In early Han times, there were forty iron offices in forty chun (provinces) and kuo (feudal kingdoms), and thirty-eight salt offices in thirty chun and kuo. Excluding regions that were acquired during Wu-ti's expansion, forty-five iron offices and thirty-one salt offices were in Han regions of the pre expansion period. These regions most likely were centers-or, in some cases potential centers-of salt and iron production in the pre-expansion period. The chun and kuo where these Han offices were located are listed in table I, together with their modern geographical locations. The wide geographical range of salt and iron production is clearly shown in the table.
Information on the total workforce of salt and iron laborers in the early Former Han period is not available. But certain sources indicate that salt and iron magnates often employed more than a thousand men to manufacture salt and process iron. Kung Yii (123-43 B.C.) observed in 44 B.C. that the various iron offices employed an annual workforce of over one hundred thousand men, mainly slaves, to gather iron and copper. It seems that the salt and iron monopoly implemented in the years 120-110 B.C. was mainly a new attempt to control these businesses, not a rapid expansion of the existing enterprises. Judging from our examination of salt and iron offices, about 88 percent of the production facilities of salt and iron probably existed in the pre expansion period. If this is the case, then very likely the total annual workforce of salt and iron laborers in the early Former Han was around eighty-eight thousand men.
Salt and iron businesses were evidently the most profitable enterprises in early Former Han times. They produced such wealthy and powerful families as the Cho and Cheng of Shu, the K'ung of Wan (in modern Honan), and the Ping of Ts'ao (in modern Shantung), all in the iron enterprise; and the Tiao Hsien of Ch'i in the salt enterprise. The Chos and Chengs grew so rich that they each owned a thousand young slaves. Their pleasures in possessing lands and in fishing, archery, and hunting were comparable to those of great feudal lords. The K'ung family's fortune reached several thousand catties of gold, and its head resembled the young men of princely rank in his behavior, disposition, and activities. The wealth of the Ping family amounted to 100 million in cash. The Tiao Hsien's wealth grew to several tens of millions in cash. Needless to say, all of these families engaged in diverse trading and other commercial activities and employed every possible means-including lending money, skillful use of slaves, and political contacts with feudal lords, provincial governors, and prime ministers of feudal kingdoms-to increase their fortunes. Their wealth and power exerted great influence on the lifestyles and thinking of people in various walks of life. The traders in Nan-yang (modem Hopei) all imitated the K'ung family's lordly and openhanded ways. In Tsou and Lu (in modem Shantung), many people abandoned scholarly pursuits and, following the model of the Ping family, turned to the quest for profits. Various feudal states, particularly Wu in the south and Chao (in Hopei) in the north, engaged in the production of iron and salt for huge profits and at times became the largest producers of these commodities. In fact, the tremendous financial strength derived from iron and salt production enabled these states to threaten the central government and invited it to take them over.
Copper, the source of coins, was another profitable industry. It usually went with the iron manufacture. A considerable number of the iron manufacturers also engaged in copper mining and casting. Shu and Tan-yang (in modern Anhui) and part of the Wu kingdom (the lower Yangtze Valley), among others, were the well-known copper-producing regions. At the time of the emperors Wen and Ching (180-141 B.C.), the two most productive copper mines were located in mountains in Yen-tao of Shu (modem lung-ching of Szechwan) and Ch'angshan of Yii-chang (modem An-chi of Chekiang). The former was granted to the high official Teng Tung by Emperor Wen; the latter was in the territory of the king of Wu (Uu P'i, 213-154 B.C.). Both Teng and the king of Wu minted coins from copper mined from the two mountains by tremendous numbers of workers. The result was that the coins of Wu and of Teng spread all over the empire. Teng accumulated wealth that exceeded that of a vassal king. For the king of Wu, the mintage of coins, together with his salt enterprise, produced so much revenue that he not only dispensed with taxation but was economically confident enough to start a rebellion against the imperial government.
But Han expansionism would also become their downfall, because the Han needed nomads to join the army, yet they were never fully incorporated into the military hierarchy. Instead, the Han government relied on the standing frontier commands to keep them under control. As more and more tribes moved inside the frontiers, this burden proved too great for the relatively small armies in the frontier camps. Loyalty was also weak among the convicts and professionals who spent their lives at the frontier and were linked to the Han state only through the person of their commander. Another reason for the failure of the Eastern Han army in the second century was its success in the first. Just as the armies of the Warring States and early Western Han had been designed to fight Sinitic rivals, so those of the Eastern Han had been aimed at the northern Xiongnu. With their defeat, many of the "inner barbarians" who had helped the Han in the first century turned against it. The Southern Xiongnu, Wuhuan, and Xianbei lost their chief motive for submission to the Han, as well as their chief source of bonuses for military service. So the Wuhuan and Southern Xiongnu turned increasingly to internal pillage for income, while the Xianbei replaced the Xiongnu as the chief external threat. To the west, the problem was even more severe, for this area suffered through the disastrous Qiang wars.
Every army is intended to fight a certain type of war or counter a particular kind of threat. The entire Eastern Han defense faced north, providing a screen against small-scale raids and a warning in case of invasions. Its large cavalry forces were assembled for offensive expeditions against a united foe with substantial armies. Such dispositions were of little use against the Qiang, located to the west beyond the Han's border defenses. These nomads lacked any overarching political order and did not form large confederacies. The consequences of any defeat were thus limited, and victories, however small, soon led to major rebellions as scattered groups assembled under a successful leader. For the same reasons, peace agreements with the Qiang could not last for long. Moreover, scattered groups of Qiang lived throughout the western and northwestern territories, as well as beyond the frontier. There was no clear geographic boundary between the Qiang and the Han, and under the Eastern Han the Qiang were resettled in the old capital region. The only defense against such an adversary was to move Han farmers and soldiers into the provinces so that no settlements were left exposed to low-level attacks and the Qiang could be absorbed into the Han economy and polity.
But whenever the Han attempted such a policy, it ended in failure. In 61 B.C. Zhao Chongguo propose founding military colonies in the west (Honan), Ho-nei (Honan), Chi-nan (Shantung), T'ai-shan (Shantung), and Shu and Kuang-Han (Szechwan). In addition, shipbuilding, weaponry, and lumber were profitable industries, particularly in regions such as Lu-chiang, Nan (Hupei), and Shu. Animal husbandry was an important enterprise in northern and northwestern border territories. Pottery and lacquerware also were prosperous industries in certain regions.
With these commercial and industrial developments, the cities rapidly expanded. In Wu-ti's time, there were twenty Han cities with populations ranging from 50,000 to 650,000 people, and sixty cities of 20,000 to 56,000. The two largest cities in the population were Ch'ang-an, the imperial capital built only in Hui-ti's reign (especially in 192-189 B.C.), and Lin-tzu (in Shantung); the former had a population over 500,000 in a walled city of 13.5 square miles, and the latter had 650,000 in a walled city of 9.31 square miles. The next five largest were Yuan (in Nan-yang, Honan), with 400,000; Ch'eng-tu (in Chengtu, Szechwan), with 380,000; Han-tan (Han-tan, Hopei), with 270,000; La-yang (Loyang, Honan), with 260,000; and Lu (Ch'ii-fu, southern Shantung), with 230,000. These seven cities were the major Han commercial and industrial hubs and were located in the key economic regions in the west, central, northeast, east, and southwest. They were the distribution centers of special regional products such as iron, gold, copper, textiles, lacquerware, and agricultural goods. In essence, they were the nerve centers of the Han economic and business world. The cities were naturally the centers of political command and economic and military mobilization to support longtime war efforts. Considering the fact that at the beginning of the Han dynasty these major urban centers had only 20 to 30 percent of the surviving Ch'in population, their tremendous growth and size certainly informed the stupendous increase of the Han population in the sixty some years before Wu-ti's reign. At the same time, it was also recorded that all earlier Han reigns had made special and aggressive efforts to promote population growth. Emperor Kao, for example, decreed in 200 B.C. that all taxes be forgiven for a family with a newborn baby. Under Emperor Hui, the court even ordered that a woman's whole family be levied taxes five times higher than normal if she was not married by the age of twenty-nine (thirty sui). Under these aggressive population policies and favorable economic conditions, it is reasonable to assume that the population would have increased over time. In fact, the Han population is estimated, in different primary sources and later references, to have reached the range of 40 to 50 million before 150 B.C. and increased to the range of 50 million by Wu-ti's early reign, almost five times the early Han total.
Throughout the Eastern Han, particularly in the second century the population of Guanzhong and the old capital region wa under the continuous pressure of Qiang onslaughts . Even in the early decades of the first century, the northwest regions had been seriously depopulated. The policies of resetting barbarians inside China and sending convicts to the frontier may have been in part an attempt to repopulate these regions. However, these measures did little to check the demographic decline of the frontier. Census evidence shows that, with one exception, all commanderies in the west and northwest suffered significant losses, many of them more than 80 or 90 percent. While the figures are unreliable, a change of this magnitude, especially when contrasted with the relative stability and even some increases in inner provinces, probably indicates an actual decline in the Han population in the border regions.
Contemporary observations support these statistics. Wang Fu (ca. 90-165 A.D.) noted: "Now in the border commanderies for every thousand li there are two districts, and these have only a few hundred households. The Grand Administrator travels about for ten thousand li, and it is empty. Fine soil is abandoned and not cultivated. In the central provinces and inner commanderies cultivated landfills the borders to bursting and one cannot be alone. The population is in the millions and the land is completely used. People are numerous and land scarce, and there is not even room to set down one's foot." Writing several decades later, Cui Shi described a situation that was virtually identical.
The Eastern Han government made futile attempts to prevent people from leaving the frontier regions and to encourage those who had left to return. The Book of the Later Han (Hou Han shu) states, "Under the old system [under the Han] frontier people were not allowed to move inward." In 62 A.D. Emperor Ming offered a payment of twenty thousand cash to any refugee from the frontier who returned to his old home. As clear evidence for this ban on inward movement, Zhang Huan, who came from Dunhuang in the far northwest, was allowed to move to an inner commandery in 67 A.D. only as a special reward for meritorious service.
But these attempts to stabilize the frontier population failed. Between 92 and 94 A.D., Emperor He proclaimed geographic quotas to correlate the number of people recommended as "filially pious and incorrupt" (the primary route to office) with the population of a region. For every twenty thousand registered people, a commandery would be allowed to recommend one man per year. For a population between ten thousand and twenty thousand, a commandery was granted one recommendation every three years. But frontier commanderies with a population of between ten thousand and twenty thousand were allowed to recommend one man every year. Those with a population of between five thousand and ten thousand could recommend one every other year. And those with fewer than five thousand were granted one every three years. This change shows that the populations of frontier districts were low and declining. Even the reduced limits were too high for many commanderies. Wang Fu observed that because of low population, the commanderies in his region had been unable to recommend even a single man for more than a decade. An examination of the geographic origins of the "filially pious and incorrupt" recorded in the Book of the Later Han and on stone inscriptions bears out his complaint.
The conduct of the Eastern Han government in the Qiang wars demonstrates a fundamental weakness of the regime: its single-minded focus on the Guandong region. The scale of the Qiang disasters and the collapse of Han civilization in the west and northwest were direct consequences of the eastern government's ultimate decision to leave the frontier commanderies defenseless and to remove population from the region. This lack of interest in the security of the west and northwest, which can be observed throughout the Eastern Han, stems from the shift of power to the new capital in the east.
When the Western Han capital was based in Guanzhong, the government pursued a policy of forcibly resettling population into new towns for the maintenance of imperial tombs. Through resettlement, powerful provincial families lost their local basis of influence and fell under the sway of the imperial court. Grain and other foodstuffs were eventually imported from the more productive Guandong region to maintain the demographic and economic well-being of Guanzhong.
The Western court regarded the area "east of the passes" with a mixture of suspicion and contempt. Jia Yi (201-169 B.C.) observed to the emperor: "The reason for which you have established the Wu, Hangu, and Jin passes is largely to guard against the enfeoffed nobles east of the mountains." In the Discourses on Salt and Iron (Yan tie lun) Sang Hongyang (executed 80 B.C.) remarked: "People have a saying, 'A provincial pedant is not as good as a capital official.' These literati all come from east of the mountains and seldom participate in the great discussions of state affairs." Although men from Guandong played a larger role in Western Han government after Emperor Wu's death, only when the capital moved to Luoyang did the situation truly change.
The Eastern Han founder Guangwu and most of his followers came from just south of Luoyang, and the rest of his closest adherents came from the great families of Guandong. Moving the capital from Guanzhong to Guandong transferred political power to their region.~ This break with the past was made self-consciously and deliberately, without regard to strategic considerations, particularly the fact that the newly reunited Xiongnu were drawing near Luoyang. Throughout the Eastern Han the court entertained many proposals to abandon territory in the north or west, leaving the old capital region vulnerable. In 35 A.D. officials urged that everything to the west of the Gansu corridor be abandoned, but this was blocked by Ma Yuan, a man from the northwest. In 11O A.D., in the wake of the Qiang uprisings, a proposal called for the abandonment of all of Liang province (from the western end of the Gansu corridor at Dunhuang east to the borders of the capital region around Chang'ang and even some of the old imperial tombs. Opponents of this idea argued that the warrior traditions of the western people were essential to the security of the empire, and that moving them toward the interior would incite rebellion. By the end of the Western Han the office of provincial governor has grown from a mere inspector into the chief local administrator.
As the governors' power increased under the Eastern Han, they were able to appoint and dismiss officials within their provinces without the approval of the court. Holders of the office thus became autonomous regional lords who, though subject to dismissal, held sway within their own jurisdiction. Their powers included military duties, and in the second century A.D., when barbarian incursions and banditry led to constant combat, the governor replaced the grand administrator as the person in command of the state's emergency levies. As civil order decayed and provincial forces spent more time in the field, they took on the characteristics of semiprivate standing armies.
This development was a major change in Han local administration and an important step in the fall of the Eastern Han. The Han dynasty had based its administration on the commandery and the district-a two-tier structure that fragmented local power into small units to avoid threats to the central government. The provincial governor, however, became a third tier, with command of large populations, great wealth, and significantly armed forces-resources that could challenge the authority of the imperial government. In the second half of the second century A.D., governors became semi-independent warlords. When Liu Yan took office as governor of Yi province, he massacred important local families, gave his own sons major positions, recruited personal followers from among refugees, and defied imperial commands. In similar fashion, Liu Yu established his own little kingdom as governor of You province. He pacified local barbarians, sheltered refugees, encouraged crafts, and gathered armies. Liu Biao pursued an identical course of action in Jing province.
By the late Eastern Han, governors had obtained the power to recruit troops on their own initiative. This in effect recognized their right to command private armies. In 178 A.D. when the provinces of Jiaozhi and Nanhai (in southern Guangdong and Vietnam) rebelled, Zhu Jun was sent out as governor and empowered to recruit "household troops" (one of the earliest uses of the term) to form an army. The commentary identifies these troops as his servants and slaves. In 189 A.D. He Jin sent Bao Xin to his home near Mount Tai to recruit troops for the purge of the eunuchs. By the time Bao Xin returned, He Jin had been slain. Bao Xin went back to Mount Tai, recruited twenty thousand men, and joined forces with Cao Cao, the warlord who ultimately conquered the Yellow River Valley and whose son formally brought the Han dynasty to an end. The delegation of individuals of the power to recruit private armies in their home regions shows that the central government had lost its ability to rule the population. Only through the personal networks of eminent families in their home regions could the state mobilize a military force.
Recruits in the provinces developed strong ties to those who recruited them. In 88 A.D. a certain Deng Xun had recruited Xiongnu soldiers to act as guards against the Qiang. Contrary to normal practice, he allowed these tribesmen and their families to live in his fortress, and he even let them into his own garden. They swore personal loyalty to Deng Xun and allowed him to raise several hundred of their children as his personal followers. This was an exceptional case at the time, but by the end of the dynasty, such ties between recruits and their commanders were common.
In 189 A.D., when Dong Zhuo declined to leave his army at the northwestern frontier and take up an appointment at court, he wrote: "The righteous followers from Huangzhong and the Han and barbarian troops under my command all came to me and said, 'Our rations and wages have not yet been completely paid, and now our provisions will be cut off, and our wives and children will die of hunger and cold.' Pulling back my carriage, they would not let me go." When the court attempted to have him yield his command to Huangfu Song, he replied: "Though I have no skill in planning and no great strength, I have without cause received your divine favor and for ten years have commanded the army. My soldiers both great and small have grown familiar with me over a long time, and cherishing my sustaining bounty they will lay down their lives for me. I ask to lead them to Beizhou, that I may render service at the frontier."
This second passage points out another feature of the Eastern Han's collapse: the proliferation of long-term commands in the field. In the Western Han, generals had been appointed to command an expedition, after which the army was disbanded and the general returned to his regular post. The "Monograph on Officials" of the Book of the Later Han states, "Generals are not permanently established." However, the Eastern Han created permanent armies stationed at fixed camps. Although in the first century A.D. the size of armies was kept small and commanders were regularly rotated, prolonged crises on the frontier required generals to remain with their armies in the field for years. These armies-which now were composed of barbarians, convicts, and long-term recruits-became the loyal creatures of their commanders. Such men had no place in Han society and no home or family to which they could return. Instead, they formed families at the frontier, and their lives centered on the person who was, as Dong Zhuo observed, the source of their livelihood. TheHan court never acknowledged this shift. In Dong Zhuo's biography, his title changed frequently in the ten years prior to 189 A.D., but his own testimony shows that he and his army stayed together for the entire period.
Another path leading to private armies was the development of a dependent tenantry. The absorption of the old category of "clients" into this new servile group meant that labor and military service were largely transferred from the state to great families. In the early Eastern Han, Ma Yuan commanded the services of several hundred families attached to him as clients. Military service was probably included in these obligations. Drawing from these service-providing dependents, the great families were able to assemble armies of hundreds or thousands of men. Such armies of tenants had overthrown Wang Mang at the end of the Western Han, and the military capacity of dependent populations existed, as a latent possibility, right up to the Eastern Han dynasty's collapse. Like the government's commandery troops, they could be raised in times of emergency. With the decay of internal order and the outbreak of civil war, these dependents began to form full-time private armies recruited from what was becoming a hereditary soldiery. At the same time the dwellings of the great families became fortified compounds with walls and watchtowers.
The Eastern Han government gave up all attempts to restrict the rise of a dependent tenantry, and in so doing abandoned direct administration of the countryside. Furthermore, as power shifted to the inner court of affines and eunuchs, the imperial house became separated from the great families who controlled the outer court. This steady implosion" of imperial power ruptured the ties that bound the court to the countryside. As social order steadily deteriorated in the second century A.D., the court discovered that it had lost the ability to mobilize armies and enforce its own rule.
To counter the threat of rebellious "inner barbarians" and ultimately the millenarian rebel movements, the imperial government required military resources that only those who had developed personal ties to the soldiery could muster: provincial governors, generals on the frontier, resettled tribal chieftains, great landlords, and, in a few cases, leaders of religious rebels. While each type of commander had secured support in a different way, all of them had one thing in common: in an age of general social breakdown, they could call upon their own armed followers for security. These various warlords were key political actors in the long centuries of disunion that would follow the demise of the Han.
As the Chinese are quick to point out, the Han leadership has almost exclusively focused on defense on the international front (even while it suppresses ethnic minorities in the buffer zones). When China did reach out, aside from during the time of Mongol domination, it was largely along the Silk Road through Central Asia and into the Middle East, where China sought to acquire luxury goods more than vital resources. Even the famed treasure fleets of Zeng He in the early 15th century were more an expression of China's confidence in its own defensive position and its desire for frivolities than a strategic imperative -- and as threats of invasion from the north increased, China quickly abandoned its oceangoing enterprises, considering them expensive and distracting from real priorities.