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Confucian Practices in the Han Dynasty

Ancient Chinese artist. Paragons of Filial Piety. 1st or 2nd century CE.

Everyone’s in Confucian

The Han Dynasty, founded by rebel leader Liu Bang, succeeded the Qin Dynasty in 206 BCE. It lasted for 426 years, disbanding due to the succession of the Three Kingdoms period in 220 CE. The dynasty, also considered as China’s first Golden Age, spearheaded inventions such as paper and seismoscopes, and also saw the reduction of heavy taxes imposed on small land owners by the preceding Qin Dynasty. Under Emperor Wu’s reign (r. 141-87 BCE), the Silk Road routes were further expanded, encouraging trade between the Eastern and Western worlds.

Also, do check out our peers’ blog “Han Dynasty China: Science & Technology” to learn more about Han Dynasty technologies and aspects of their economic breakthroughs!

The Han Dynasty - China’s First Golden Age


Although the economic boom saw a golden age in ancient China, the prosperity of the Hans was largely attributed to Confucianism, which was gaining popularity in those times. Confucianism was definitely prevalent in the Han Dynasty, with its evidence found in Han Dynasty education and court politics. The Confucian way of life aims to “inculcate ren (humanity) through li (normative behaviors)” in order to expand one’s dao (way), which in turn brings happiness to individuals. Such a concept was massively popular in those times possibly due to the ban of Confucianism in the previous Qin Dynasty, which would cause people to become interested in it again. The influence of Confucianism is demonstrated in many aspects of the lives of the Han people, especially in marital practice, death rituals, inheritance laws and family-oriented practices. We will explore marital practices in the areas of expectations of marriage, marriage formalities and divorce, and in the area of family-oriented practices - post-pregnancy procedures and child-rearing norms.


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 (and, by extension, their family as a whole). Principally, this meant guarding one’s virginity before marriage. After marriage, sexual loyalty was demanded. Wives had to obey their husbands’ families, and could only move within female-only domains (avoiding contact with other men). While it does not seem like women had much social power, it is interesting to note that Han women kept their father’s surname even after marriage. By recognizing the wife’s family ties, the husband could potentially benefit from these relations. 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

Just as there were expectations for marriage life, there were certain traditions to be followed for the marital ceremonies. As marriage was the precursor to starting a family, people took marriage rituals very seriously. Through these rites, we see a heavy Confucian emphasis on family, namely through Confucian classics like the Book of Rites and the Book of Change.

Anonymous artists of the Eastern Han period. Marriage banquet scene. Late 2nd or early 3rd century CE.

Firstly, we look at the ceremony itself. 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 hold a banquet for the couple, in return. 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, people had a clash of opinions on the optimal age for marriage. As the Han Dynasty spanned over 400 years, opinions change, and practices as well. Moreover, Confucianism was not formally recognized until Emperor Wu’s time, thus marriage practices may have been carried out differently at different periods of time, and even in different regions. The age for marriage could not be properly determined or agreed upon by people. Although ceremonial specialists state thirty as the best age for men and twenty as the best age for women, scholar “Wang Chong” asserted that these conditions were untrue. In reality, it seemed that people got married a lot earlier, as early as in their teens.

Burying, Burying Everywhere!

Just like marriage rituals, burial practices were also of significant importance during the Han era. According to Confucius, one should demonstrate xiao (filial piety) to his ancestors as well. Conducting funeral rites and memorial services to one’s ancestors were ways of paying respect to them. As mentioned in the The Classic of Filial Piety, “When alive, serve him with love and respect; when dead, serve him with grief and sorrow. The people’s duty is fulfilled, the obligations both during life and after death are fulfilled.”

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 was, the easier the transition into the other world. One’s social class and wealth was indicated by how elaborate one’s funeral was. Details such as expenditure on coffins, tomb furnishings, 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 even in the afterlife.  

How Inheritance Worked in the Han Dynasty

After the head of the household passes on, a major issue to be addressed is the inheritance. During the Han dynasty, most families favoured sons over daughters. An heir was necessary to guard and manage the family’s property. For families without a son, the responsibility fell 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. Such prejudice could have formed under the influence of Confucius’ teachings - a man should serve his parents at home and “while (one’s) parents are alive, it is better not to travel far away.” For Confucius, loyalty to one’s own parent is extremely important. Hence, a man would be frowned upon when he moved away from his parents to live with his wife’s family.

The Han Divorce

As marriage was regarded as a sacred union, breaking it would have been improper. Men were usually the initiator of divorce. Han women were generally not allowed to initiate divorce, except in the case of marital abuse. As noted in The Analects of Confucius:

"The woman follows the man. In her youth she follows her father and elder brother; when married, she follows her husband; when her husband is dead, she follows her son."

Han women after marriage had to submit to the males in the family and hence, had little rights on the grounds of divorce. A 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 wealth of the husband’s household and her son would not be allowed to mourn her passing.

However, married women in the Han dynasty had legal protection from physical abuse by their husbands, and 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


Chinese lithograph Huitu Shajing Hebi, Specialised text representing acupuncture points  to cure postpartum illness. 1644-1911 CE.

The Han people also followed various family practices, which they took seriously. A related principle that was widely believed in was Yin and Yang. This principle, found in the two-thousand year old “Book of Changes”, was influenced by Confucianism and Daoism; an important factor in traditional Chinese medicine. It was also perceived to be the foundation of a balanced life. Yin and Yang became a prevalent factor in people’s lives, especially for women who just delivered their offspring.

Han women in the stage of post-delivery, practice “sitting the month”, also known as “Zuo Yuezi (坐月子)” (p.23), which restricted new mothers to certain diets and activities for approximately a month after delivery. This is still being practiced today, by families who believe in Yin and Yang, in order to restore a mother’s health to prevent post-delivery illnesses.

Additionally, Han physicians often base 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) elements, the Chinese were careful in determining what was the yin and yang in their diets and activity. During pregnancy, the mother is filled with yang, and after delivery, her body is deprived of the yang, due to loss of blood and hence the yin overpowers. Traditional diet included yang element foods such as herbal chicken soup, bird’s nest soup or avoiding yin element foods (green vegetable and fruits). Activities comprised not showering and avoiding cold temperatures (creates more yin in the body). An yin yang body was essential for breastfeeding; to allow a proper flow of nutrients from mother to baby.


How to Raise Children the Confucian Way

Han males and females had different roles. Influenced by Confucian values, the Han people developed a belief that “a boy’s future social worth depended not only on pedigree alone but on the gradual accumulation of virtue and learning”. Therefore, boys were given opportunities to acquire a holistic education. Since young, they were equipped with vital skills (like writing) that would prepare them for their future as government officials. As they grew older, boys were also trained in ceremonial acts (music and dance) and sports (archery and chariot-riding).

On the other hand, girls were taught to follow the Confucian rules of 3 Obedience” and “4 Virtues”. The rule of “3 Obedience” states that a daughter must submit to her father from an early age. As she grows into a woman, she becomes a wife, and then her submission would be to her husband. Lastly, a widow will submit to her son instead.

The “4 Virtues” stated that a woman’s “virtue”, “speech”, “appearance”, and “task” were essential for them to develop maidenly qualities. Sericulture (culture of rearing silkworms) was an example of how these beliefs were practiced. This activity embraces calm and gentle movements which cultivated femininity in women. Additionally, daily household chores gave women a higher status in the family. It was also especially significant for women to arrange celebratory meals during ancestral sacrifices.

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 Chinese culture. Confucius’ teachings are still widely discussed by philosophers and generations of Chinese, showing just how much impact he has on the world.

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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