November 10, 2012

How the Han dynasty shaped China today

Over 1790 years since the Han Dynasty fell, today’s China still covers much the same landmass that was established during the Han, over 3.6 million square miles.

It is now the world’s most populated country with over 1.3 million people and is the world’s fastest growing economy.  It is a country undergoing constant change: having to balance its economic growth with the core ideals of the Communist state; facing the challenge of growing environment and energy needs (China is the world’s leading investor in renewable energy technologies); and responding to the shift from an agriculturally based population, to vast expansion and migration to its cities.

Despite all this change, and the tremendous differences between today’s China and the Han period politically, ideologically and demographically, the influences of the Han period are still very clearly felt in China.

In today’s China ‘Han’ is often used interchangeably with ‘Chinese’: the language is referred to as the Han language – ‘Hanyu’; Chinese script as Han writing – ‘Hanzi’; and over 90% of Chinese nationals regard themselves as Han Chinese – ‘Hanren’.

Many of the folk customs started in the Han period are still present now.  Jade is still one of the most popular stones for jewellery and is still associated with semi-mythic properties and mysticism.  The custom of providing material comforts for the deceased is still popular, family and friends providing paper representations of luxury items for their dead, such as cars, houses and money.

Most importantly, much of the Confucian ideology which provided the framework for governance in the Han period is still present.  These ideals stated the need for personal advancement and government through learning and individual merit.

In Confucius’ book The Great Learning the core ideal for the need of self-improvement is outlined:  ‘From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything.’

This led to great social mobility in the Han period; whether you were a farmer’s son or a rich aristocrat, if you could prove yourself and pass the necessary exams you could rise to the highest levels of government.  Nothing within the state administration was given by right of birth, selection being based on ability to do the role rather than status.  This is still true in China today, and even the system of examination to achieve administrative posts in the state still bears some similarity to the structures present in the Han.

In China’s area of greatest growth, trade and commerce, Confucian ideals on ritual etiquette and diplomacy are still being practiced.  The culture of gift exchange to create trade and cultural links is still a core part of business in China.

These ideals have lasted over 2000 years and form much of the structure at the heart of Chinese society today.  Their simplicity has provided a solid framework for Chinese governance whilst allowing room for change and growth in society.

Lucy Theobald

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