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Seminar unravels cultural landscape of Han Dynasty


2023-08-30 02:41

Zhang Qingli
Chinese Social Sciences Today



The First Nanyang Seminar on Han Cultural Research was held in late July in Nanyang, Henan Province. Scholars at the seminar presented the rich historical and cultural landscape of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220) from political, ideological, and artistic perspectives.

History of Nanyang

Nanyang, situated in the Han River basin, holds a significant place as one of the birthplaces of the Chinese civilization. According to Bu Xianqun, president of the China Qin-Han History Association and director of the Institute of History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), the development of the Chinese civilization has always been influenced by distinct regional cultures. Nanyang boasted a developed economy, splendid culture, and outstanding talent during Han. Particularly, in the fields of science and technology, medicine, literature, and art, Nanyang held a leading position in the country. Abundant historical relics and unearthed artistic treasures, such as Han stone and brick reliefs, serve as a testament to the prosperity of Nanyang at the time. The diverse and inclusive regional culture of Nanyang exemplifies a remarkable level of cultural development in Han.

Liu Rui, a research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at CASS, discovered through an examination of the historical records of territorial governance during the Qin (221–207 BCE) and Han dynasties, that Nanyang had experienced a prolonged period of stable governance prior to the unification of China by the Qin empire. After the unification, Qin brought about a period of even more stability in the region. After Emperor Wu of Han, Nanyang made non-negligible contributions to the stability and development of the southern areas of Han.

Intellectual and institutional development

The Han Dynasty marked a significant era in the emergence and evolution of traditional Chinese ideology and culture, as well as the establishment of ancient Chinese political foundations. It is generally accepted within academic circles that “Han inherited Qin systems.” However, in the view of Li Zhenhong, a professor from the School of History and Culture at Henan University, Han not only inherited the imperial autocracy established by Qin, but also drew lessons from its collapse. At the outset, Han began constructing a corresponding system of ruling ideology. The process took shape throughout Lu Jia’s Xinyu [New Discourses], Jia Yi’s Xinshu [New Writings], Dong Zhongshu’s Chunqiu Fanlu [Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals], until Baihu Tongyi [Symposium in the White Tiger Hall] during the reign (75–88) of Emperor Zhang of Eastern Han (25–220).

According to Zang Zhifei, vice president of the China Qin-Han History Association and a professor at Soochow University, scholars have devoted considerably more attention to the Western Han period (202 BCE–8) than the Eastern Han period. Founder of Eastern Han, Emperor Guangwu’s emphasis on Confucianism truly lead to a synthesis of systems, ideologies, and cultures since the pre-Qin era (prior to 221 BCE). Confucianism was integrated into the employment system of primary-level administrative operations and guided Confucian scholars in establishing public service value systems.

Since Qin and Han, China has established a unified national system and concept, regarded by many scholars as an embodiment of “precocious” national development. In 2020, Xu Yong, a professor with Central China Normal University, published an article discussing the “precocity theory” of China’s state growth. According to Xu, the inherent conditions of Chinese civilization and the country itself have contributed to the relatively early emergence of administrative bureaucracy, a phenomenon that did not appear in Western countries until the 19th century.

Liu Taixiang, a professor from the School of History at Nanyang Normal University (NYNU), meticulously investigated the administrative execution system of Qin and Han by examining ancient records on bamboo slips. Back then, execution by laws and decrees was already commonplace. The quality and efficiency of administrative execution were held to high standards and served as an important criterion for assessing officials. Qin and Han formed an administrative execution mechanism featuring relatively standardized behavioral norms and rules, clear obligations, and a commitment to high-quality and efficient execution.

Han stone reliefs

Stone reliefs, as a distinctive cultural artifact of the Han Dynasty, offer valuable insights into the comprehensive understanding of ancestors regarding their way of life and belief systems. Consequently, they have become instrumental for the study of Han historical culture. According to Zhu Cunming, director of the Institute of Han Dynasty Culture at Jiangsu Normal University, the abundance of sun and moon elements found in Han stone reliefs serve as historical reflections of sun and moon myths and legends during and before Han, demonstrating the wisdom derived from ancient observations of the sky and earth amid the formation of the ethnic Han identity. As mythological expressions of the Chinese people’s concept of time, these mythic images provide profound insight into pre-Qin mythological thought and the archetypal connotation of Chinese culture.

According to Gao Erwang, dean of the School of History at NYNU, Han stone reliefs can be likened to “fossil specimens” of the social life during that time. They depict various scenes, including multiple perspectives of ritual sacrifices—sacrificial objects, offerings, venues, and ceremonies. The sacrificial rites revealed in the reliefs offer a valuable glimpse of the material and inner world of the Han people, supplementing the limited available literature from the period, and confirm the continuity of these practices of rituals. By preserving and passing down many pre-Qin rites and customs, Han sacrificial activities became an integral part of the lifestyle of that era.

Since the turn of the century, the rise of image-based historical studies has provided theoretical and methodological support for research on Han stone reliefs. Liu Zhongyu, director of the cultural history research office of the Institute of History at CASS, suggested that the study of Han stone reliefs should extend beyond artistic aesthetics. It should be situated within the cultural context at that time and investigated from the perspective of social and cultural history, deriving modern value from the evolution and development of traditional Chinese culture.





2023-08-30 10:41
Xi Liao River Seminar