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Social education fostered national stability in Han era

HAO JIANPING | 2023-01-12 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A statue of Dong Zhongshu in Dezhou, Shandong Province Photo: CFP

Compared to the preceding Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE), the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE) made notable progress in social education regarding content, channels, approaches, and theoretical discussions, setting a powerful example for later dynasties. The aim of social education was to instill feudal ethics into each member of society, guiding people to foster good moral habits and voluntarily abide by rules and regulations as well as codes of conduct prescribed by the central court, thereby prolonging the stability of the dynasty. To this aim, Han rulers implemented a range of social education measures and achieved their desired results. 

Rich content

Social education content was rich in the Han era, comprised of official political doctrines and a wide array of knowledge, skills, and customary norms essential to life and social production. Among others, the Three Cardinal Guides [ruler guides subject, father guides son, and husband guides wife] and the Five Constant Virtues [benevolence, righteousness, propriety, knowledge, and sincerity] were predominant.   

Renowned scholars Dong Zhongshu and Ban Gu integrated the theories of Tianren Heyi, “Unity of Heaven and Humanity,” and “Yin-Yang and Five Elements” [gold, wood, water, fire, and earth] to theologize Confucian ethics centered on the Three Cardinal Guides and the Five Constant Virtues, endowing feudal morals with paramount divine characteristics. In so doing, they further systemized feudal ethics, moral standards, and rules of etiquette that had been established since the pre-Qin era. 

Thereafter, the feudal code of ethics was enshrined and disseminated extensively across society. The code not only served as the overall guiding principle for education of Chinese feudal society but was also the main content of social education. On one hand, these feudal rules inhibited individual behavior, subtly fettering human development and leading to social alienation. On the other hand, parts of the code still have contemporary value, such as the emphases on benevolence and righteousness, leading by example, and moral self-discipline, all of which were instrumental in cultivating the spirit and virtues of the Chinese nation throughout history. 

Diverse measures

In the Han Dynasty, social education was carried out by the central authority or local officials as well as by civil forces through various approaches. 

First, social education commissioners were appointed, who were required to actively give moral direction to the public. The education work was institutionalized. 

Second, virtuous elders appointed for providing moral leadeship and discipline, filial exemplars, and outstanding farmers were made role models and given considerable material and non-material rewards, so as to exert their influence on people of lower strata and form good social customs. In particular, Han rulers governed the country by filial piety and vigorously promoted a filial culture. They not only rewarded filial exemplars, but also recommended them as officials. Meanwhile, filial piety was incorporated into the legal system. Those behaving in an unfilial manner would be penalized. Through rewards and penalties, the concept of filial piety gradually took root in the public mind, as performing filial duties increasingly became a conscious act of the people. 

Third, in the Han Dynasty, especially during the Eastern Han period (25–220), rulers strongly advocated moral integrity, highly favoring and hiring those who cared about their reputation and strictly observed feudal morality to serve as good examples for the general public to follow. Under such circumstances, the social climate in which scholar-officials attached importance to integrity and women valued chastity was brought into being.  

Fourth, paintings and inscriptions were harnessed to teach the public moral and ethical codes like loyalty, filial piety, chastity, and righteousness. These forms were vivid, concrete, and easy to imitate, and thus played an important role in infusing core Confucian values into primary-level society.  

Fifth, efforts were made to reinforce the notion of filial piety by espousing respect to and care for elders. Han rulers attached great importance to elderly care. Since the reign of Emperor Wen (r. 180–157 BCE), elderly care had been legalized and institutionalized. Seniors enjoyed various benefits such as bestowments of certain allotments of millet, drinks, meat, textiles, and other daily necessities, lower tax burdens or exemptions from certain taxes and levies, and preferential treatment for retired officials. Furthermore, elderly care was specified as an obligation for local top leaders. As such, revering and supporting seniors gradually became a moral requirement, contributing to an orderly society at the time. 

Sixth, rulers themselves served as role models. In the Han Dynasty, from the emperor to primary-level functionaries, it was widely acknowledged that rulers’ words and deeds had important exemplary and educational effects on the general public. Therefore, the rulers regulated their speech and behaviors based on Confucian ethics, earnestly practicing what they preached in performing filial duties and frugality. 

Seventh, imperial edicts were enacted to intensify social education. Edicts from Han-Dynasty emperors covered wide-ranging content, including much about social education, such as filial piety, respect for teachers, attention to virtues, care for elders, physiocracy, light punishment, and light taxation. Targeting people throughout the country, these edicts were conducive to shaping values with Confucian ethics at the core across society. 

Eighth, the emperor would, from time to time, make inspection tours or send emissaries to investigate public needs and folk customs, spot virtuous and capable talent, and trumpet morality. During the tours, inspectors actively promoted social education and countermanded outdated customs, while supervising local officials and recommending first-rate talent to the imperial court. These actions were essential in winning support among the people. 

As local officials were increasingly “Confucianized,” most of them tended to place social education high on their political agenda, leverage the administrative resources at hand to moralize the people within their jurisdiction, or influence the public with their own moral charisma. This to some extent spread core values and civilized the people. 

Fundamentally, central and local authorities were the main force of social education in the Han Dynasty. At the same time, some civil forces, such as wanderers, hermits, and religious organizations, also played an important role in their own ways. Their activities made up for certain gaps in official social education. 

Fostering social stability

As a key component of the education system, social education is different from schooling and family education, but undoubtedly as significant to social development and progress as the other two forms. In the Han Dynasty, it was also the case that social education was inseparable from maintaining stability in society and improving customs. 

Since the rule of Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BCE), Confucian thoughts transformed by Dong Zhongshu became the official state ideology, while social education was regarded a crucial tool for disseminating and popularizing Confucianism. Upheld by Han rulers and with the popularization of social education, Confucianism’s basic social norms and codes of conduct were accepted by all members of society, constituting their inner beliefs and life goals. The emphasis on propriety and pursuit of filial piety became the universally recognized social ethos and fostered social stability. 

In the early years of the Western Han era (202 BCE–8 CE), disrupted social production and turmoil across society, due to tyranny of the Qin court and destruction caused by the war between the Chu and Han states, pushed society and the economy to the verge of collapse. To stabilize the ruling order, the Han regime had to address the problem of restoring and developing the ruined society and economy. 

In search of a solution, Western Han Dynasty rulers resorted to the theories of the Yellow Emperor and Laozi, which advocate for allowing nature to take its course, taking them as the guiding thought for state governance and focusing on treating the trauma of war. At that time, the Western Han court had no time to consider changing old traditions, so it held a laissez-faire attitude toward local customs without any administrative invention or transformation. Although some progressive thinkers proposed abandoning undesirable traditions left over from the Qin Dynasty, their proposals didn’t receive much attention from Western Han rulers. 

After the Western Han Dynasty entered the mid-stage, with socioeconomic recovery and development, Confucian teachings were established as the ruling philosophy to strengthen the centralization of power. To align with broad political unity, Han rulers began to underline the congruence of customs and tried to alter local traditions with Confucian moral codes, thereby stabilizing and consolidating social order. 

Many local officials, who were subject to profound Confucian influences, capitalized on the administrative resources under their control to actively educate the public. They rectified old-fashioned customs that were unfavorable to maintaining the ruling order in a sweeping manner, striving to guide the people to recognize the customs’ potential harms and abandon them, and gradually approach the customary culture favored by the central court.  

Some folk scholars, who championed the Confucian tradition of valuing customs, paid much attention to local customs and cultures, and took the initiative to join the cause of transforming old traditions. Among these intellectuals, some proactively took action to moralize the public, while some tried to influence those around them with their lofty moral character. 

With joint efforts by officials at all levels and non-official scholars, the primary-level society gradually embraced Confucian values, resulting in improvements in local social customs. After the later period of the Western Han Dynasty, customs in northern China were progressively unified. In the Eastern Han era, with the promotion of Confucianism across society, changes also took place in southern China and border prefectures, where the “barbarian” atmosphere was gradually civilized. Diverse cultural forms in the Western Han era were replaced by convergent local customs. The convergence helped cement the political unity of the Han Dynasty. 

Hao Jianping is a professor from the School of History and Culture at Baotou Teachers’ College.