I The era of the Han dynasty (Former or Western Han, 202 B.C.E.–2 C.E.; Wang Mang interregnum, 2-25 C.E.; Later or Eastern Han, 25-220 C.E.) poses some perplexing problems for students of Chinese thought and philosophy. (In this essay, Han thought and thinkers, Han Confucian thought and scholars, and Han Confucianism and Confucians are referred to somewhat interchangeably, depending on the context. The reason for this will become clear as the discussion unfolds.)
On the one hand, the Han era is no doubt one of the most important periods in the history of China. It was during this era that many of the political, social, economic, and other cultural developments of the preceding millennium came to fruition and became crystallized in the high civilization of the Han Chinese. In fact, the names of many “schools” of thought of the classical age (sixth to third centuries B.C.E.)—such as Daoism and legalism-were coined by scholars of the Han era; the definitive texts ascribed to these schools were also recompiled or edited by Han scholars. The classification of ancient Chinese thought into “schools” was itself devised by the Han scholars in an effort to define the issues and tenets of diverse ancient traditions and to reorganize them into a unified intellectual legacy. Long after the end of the Han dynasty, the cultural tradition formed during the Han era continues to mold the civilization of China, so much so that the very name Han has become synonymous with “culturally Chinese,” and “Han learning” (Hanxue) has come to mean Chinese studies or sinology.