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Confucian Practices in the Han Dynasty

This Will Come in Han-dy

The Han Dynasty, founded by rebel leader Liu Bang, succeeded the Qin Dynasty in 206BC and lasted for 426 years, disbanding due to the succession of the Three Kingdoms period in 220AD. The dynasty was best known for its technological and economic breakthroughs and the adoption of Confucianism and Buddhism, giving it the status of China’s first Golden Age.

The Han Dynasty - China’s First Golden Age

Boom Goes the Economy

The economic situation back in the Han started off very poorly due to the adverse laws and policies left behind by the Qin, such as ‘heavy taxes and labor corvée on the peasant population’. However, the economy began to pick up when the taxes on small land owners were reduced along with the massive promotion of farming, increasing the output of agricultural goods such as rice and grain. The economy peaked under the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BC) when the Han expanded Silk Road routes which encouraged trade between the Eastern and Western worlds. Great internationally-used inventions such as paper, seismoscopes and Chinese water wheels were also first discovered during the Han Dynasty, which meant that the Han Chinese traded many of these inventions out to other lands.

Everyone’s in Confucian

Although legalism and Daoism beliefs remained present as the afterlight of the Zhou Dynasty, Confucianism was pretty much integral in areas such as Han Dynasty education and court politics. Starting from Emperor Wu’s reign, Confucianism impacted the lives of Han people in many ways, but mainly through the practices such as marital expectations, rituals and inheritance laws. Coupled with the booming economy and technology during the Han Dynasty, the lifestyles of the Han Chinese were nothing like previous dynasties have experienced before. This blog delves further into certain key Confucian practices that the Han Chinese carried out in their times.


Expectations of Marital Life

During the Han dynasty, marriage was viewed as a means of procreation and to continue the family line. Although romantic love between partners was not deterred, marriage was largely based on kinship and assets.

In this patriarchal society, females were expected to maintain their chastity so as to uphold the reputation of their fathers (family as a whole). Principally, this meant guarding one’s virginity before marriage. After marriage, sexual loyalty was demanded;, wives could only move within female-only domains (avoid contact with other men) and they also had to obey their husbands’ families. While it does not seem like women have much social power, it is interesting to note that Han women kept their father’s surname even after marriage, and recognizing her family ties could potentially benefit the husbands. We can see it quite simply as the union of not just two individuals but two families; hence the affluence and connections of both families will help both sides to prosper.

Formalities of Marriage

Firstly, the formal ceremony shows the significance of marriage. According to the “Tuanci”, marriage sets the foundation for the family, and when family matters are well-regulated, society becomes secure. As detailed in the Book of Rites, the man has to show his eagerness for his partner by going to her. The woman’s kin are to receive the groom with a banquet in their home. The groom enters the bride’s ancestral home with the dowry and pays his respects. These gifts are especially crucial as they are given by the parents of the man. The groom then brings his wife to his own home where they will live together from then onwards.

Secondly, it is usually the woman that marries into another family. However, the man does the “woo-ing”, as he has to fetch the bride and offer her gifts. The bride should respond honorably by offering pig’s meat to her in-laws, who will answer in kind, with a banquet for the couple. However, for the sons of impoverished families, the opposite occurs - the men are “pawned” off to the bride’s family, for lack of a bridal dowry. This practice was known as “zhuixu”, which literally translates to “pawned son-in law”.

Thirdly, matchmaking was common. Matchmakers often acted as the go-between for couples. This method also helped to keep the intentions of both sides pure and prevent promiscuous behaviour before marriage.

Lastly, people had a clash of opinions on the optimal age for marriage. Ancient documents state thirty as the best age for men and twenty as the best age for women. However, it seems that people got married a lot earlier. Evidence also suggests that many females were still teenagers when they wedded, and their spouses just a little older than them.

Burying, Burying Everywhere!

Burial practices were of significant importance during the Han era. The Chinese believed that at the point of death, the soul leaves the body to take its place in the spiritual world. This separation of body and soul was believed to bring anxieties to the spirit. As such, proper conduct of the burial ceremony was necessary in order to ease the deceased's passage into the spiritual world. The more elaborate the funeral is, the easier the transition into the other world. Often, one’s social class and wealth is indicated by how elaborate one’s funeral is. Details such as expenditure on coffins, tomb furnishing and fabric used for clothing were indicators that point to the quality of life the deceased enjoyed while alive.

“Well-to-do families built large, multi chambered brick or stone tombs, filled them with precious objects, documents, and jewelry, and protected the body with several layers of clothing and coffins…” (Ebrey, 1991)

It was believed that life after death was similar to the earthly world. The elites believed that the burial of valuable possessions, such as “beautifully crafted bronze vessels for food and drink and models of servants, granaries and even farm animal”, together with the body was a way to retain one’s wealth and status in one’s afterlife.   

How Inheritance Worked in the Han Dynasty

During the Han dynasty, most families were patrilineal and sons were highly favoured over daughters. A male heir was needed to guard and manage the family’s property. For families without a son, the responsibility falls on the daughter; upon marriage however, her husband would be sent to live with his wife’s family. This was done so that the daughter could inherit and retain her maiden household assets. Sons-in-law coming from a poor family were often looked down upon for marrying into their wives’ families.

The Han Divorce

Han women in general were not allowed to initiate divorce, except in the case of marital abuse. This was due to the strict patrilineal principles that prevailed in society. A Han woman separated from her husband would be “stripped of any rights to associate with her ex-husband’s family”. When she left for a new husband, dowries were taken back for fear of depleting the patrilineal household's wealth and her son would not be allowed to mourn her passing when she died.

However, as compared to women in other dynasties, the married woman in the Han dynasty appeared to have more legal protection. This includes protection from physical abuse by their husbands and having the rights to end the abusive marriage. Since women could initiate divorce on these grounds, husbands would think twice before committing domestic violence.

Quick question: If a man divorces his wife in the Han Dynasty, does that make him Han Solo? (sorry)

Family Life

Taking Care of the Yang

Greater significance towards childbirth led to prudent methods for maternity care. Introduced and dated back during the Han period, the Chinese practice of “sitting the month” known as “Zuo Yuezi (坐月子)”, restricts mothers to certain diet and activities for approximately a month after delivery. This famous wives’ tale during Han China is still practiced in today’s world by families who believe in this method to allow the women’s body to restore their health, strength and prevent illnesses post-delivery.

Additionally, the Han physicians often based their diagnosis on the flow of energy in the human body known as “Qi”. Since Qi must be balanced between having cold (yin) and hot (yang), the Chinese were careful in determining what was the yin and yang in their diets and activity. During pregnancy, the women is filled with yang energy, and after the child is born, the women’s body is deprived of the yang due to the loss of blood and hence the yin energy overpowers. Traditional diet included consuming hot element foods such as herbal chicken soup, bird’s nest soup or avoiding yin food (green vegetable and fruits). Activities comprised not showering or washing one’s hair, and avoiding the outside, as contact with the cold air will create more yin in the body. As most women also breastfed their children, the importance of having a yin yang body is to allow the proper flow of nutrients from the mother to the baby.

The Han Chinese were relatively superstitious as well. Norms such as avoiding the consumption of lamb, also called “yang” links with the name of an epilepsy-related disease called “Yang Dian Feng”. Thus, mothers would avoid even associating with the unfortunate word, as they were afraid that their newborns would suffer from seizures during the breastfeeding process.

How to Raise Children the Confucian Way

Confucius once said, “It is the virtue of a woman to be without talent”. Since Confucian practices were commonly practiced in the Han period, women were discriminately entrusted with the upbringing of children in the family. Males were mostly desired back then and it is still the status quo in China today. Han boys grew up learning about men’s duties from women, especially from their mothers. This was to equip them with sufficient knowledge for the time when they would be old enough to understand their fathers’ roles. Thereafter, they seek advanced experience from their fathers, so as to act accordingly as the head of the family.
Girls were taught to take care of the household necessities and to obey the males in the family. Mothers and daughters were treated accordingly based on the three submissions under the Confucius Principle. Firstly, a daughter must submit to her father at an early age. Secondly, females were treated as assets, as way of forming alliances with other families through marriage. As a spouse, a woman’s submission would be to her husband. Thirdly, if the woman becomes a widow, she will submit to her son.

“Bitter it is to have a woman’s shape!
It would be hard to name a thing more base.
If it’s a son born to the hearth and home
He comes to earth as if he’s heaven sent,
Heroic heart and will, like the Four Seas,
To face ten thousand leagues of wind and dust!
To breed a girl is something no one wants,
She’s not a treasure to her family.”

(3rd century CE poem by Fu Hsuan, in Dawson, 272)

Nonetheless, there was a value that both genders of children had to uphold. This was treating of their elders with obedience and respect. They were also taught to treat their ancestors the same way and to do so by offering sacrifices to them. These practices were to be passed down through the generations.

Moving On With the Times

Seeing how most of these traditions have already dissolved in today’s times, we are able to see how fast modernity is slowly engulfing worldly practices. However, these Confucian practices are still known today as an integral part of the Chinese culture and Confucius’ teachings are still widely discussed by philosophers and Chinese grandparents, showing just how much impact he has on the world, especially in the Chinese culture.

Now that you know a thing or two about Han-Confucian practices, share them with your friends and educate them on how the people of Han Dynasty lived!



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