| After the disastrous period of totalitarian
government during the Ch'in dynasty (221-207 B. C.), the early Han dynasty
(207 B.C.-9 A.D.) returned to older forms of imperial government. However,
they adopted from the Ch'in the idea of an absolutely central government
and spent most of their period in power trying to regain the same level
of centrality that the Ch'in and the Legalists had so ruthlessly
accomplished. This ideology of central government, along with the Legalists'
attempts to standardize Chinese culture and Chinese philosophy, led thinkers
of the Han to attempt to unify all the rival schools of Chinese thought
and philosophy that had developed over the previous three hundred years.
This unification of Chinese into a single coherent system is the most lasting
legacy of the Han dynasty. Earlier, the Legalists attempted to standardize
Chinese thought by burning the books of rival schools and by making it
a capital crime to speak of Confucius, Lao Tzu, or Mo
Tzu. The Han thinkers, who thoroughly despised the Legalists and their
methods while adopting many of their goals, took a different approach.
Rather than reject alternate ways of thinking, they took a syncretic
approach and attempted to fuse all the rival schools of thought into a
single system. This syncretic project of the early Han is known as the
Han synthesis. In many ways it was similar to the larger project
of unifying Chinese government.
| The Han philosophers concentrated specifically
on the Five Classics, attempting to derive from them, particularly the
| The essentials of the Han synthesis are as
follows: the universe is run by a single principle, the Tao, or Great Ultimate.
This principle is divided into two opposite principles, or two principles
which oppose one another in their actions, yin and yang. All the
opposites one perceives in the universe can be reduced to one of the opposite
forces. In general, these forces are distinguished by their role in producing
creation and producing degeneration: yang is the force of creation and
yin the force of completion and degeneration. The yin and yang are further
differentiated into five material agents, or wu hsing , which both
produce one another and overcome one another. All change in the universe
can be explained by the workings of yin and yang and the progress of the
five material agents as they either produce one another or overcome one
another. This is, I need to stress, a universal explanatory principle.
All phenomena can be understood using yin-yang and the five agents: the
movements of the stars, the workings of the body, the nature of foods,
the qualities of music, the ethical qualities of humans, the progress of
time, the operations of government, and even the nature of historical change.
All things follow this order so that all things can be related to one another
in some way: one can use the stars to determine what kind of policy to
pursue in government, for instance.
| Since the Han thinkers had come up with a tool
to explain historical and political events, the writing of history took
off exponentially during the early Han and later. History became more than
a repository of good and bad examples of government, as it had for the
ancient Chinese, it became the working out of the yin-yang or five agents
system as it applied to human affairs. This meant that the writing of history
demanded accuracy, that the facts be laid out with great precision and
indifference so that the workings of yin-yang could be followed precisely.
The Han, then, developed a rigorously factual approach to history at a
very early time in Chinese history. In government, the Han thinkers essentially
adapted the Legalist attitude that human beings fundamentally behave badly,
but they changed the doctrine significantly. The Han thinkers believed
that people behaved in a depraved way because they had no choice; economic
and social conditions forced them to behave badly. For at heart, all human
beings desire only material well-being; in order to make people behave
virtuously, the government should make it possible that the ends of virtue
(the well-being of others) and the pursuit of individual well-being should
be coterminous, that is, material benefits should accrue to virtuous acts
(that's one-half of the Legalist formula). The emperor would bring this
about through two means. First, the emperor and the government is responsible
for setting up conditions in which people can derive material benefit from
productive labor; the stress on productivity, of course, is derived from
the Legalists and Mo Tzu. Second, the emperor can provide an example. It
is the job of the emperor to care for the welfare of his people (Confucianism),
yet at the same time, the Emperor should withdraw from active rule (Taoism).
How did the Emperor rule then? By providing a living example of benevolence.
This model of Chinese government would remain dominant well into the twentieth