Return of the Han and Prosperity
In the five years following the death of Wang Mang, the founder of the Xin Dynasty, millions died fighting as rival factions vied with each other for power. The most successful of the rival factions was led by the Han prince, Liu Xiu. He surrounded himself with educated men, and he was popular among his troops. His army was the only force that did not loot when capturing towns, and this helped him win hearts and minds. Liu Xiu took control of the ruined capital, Chang'an. He proclaimed himself emperor, restoring the Han dynasty -- to be known as the Later Han, or East Han, dynasty. He moved the capital eastward to Luoyang, which he also controlled. And for eleven more years he had to combat rivals. He absorbed some bands of Red Eyebrow rebels into his army, and his army killed other Red Eyebrows in great numbers.
What had not been accomplished by reforms was accomplished by violence: so many had died in the upheaval that land had become available to anyone who wanted it, and with many money lenders among the dead, many more peasants had become free of debt. Liu Xiu helped the economy by lowering taxes, as much as he thought possible: to a tenth or thirteenth of one's harvest or profits. During his reign of thirty-two years, he attempted improvements by promoting scholarship and by curtailing the influence of eunuchs and some others around the royal family. He defended China's western and northern borders by launching successful military campaigns on these frontiers, pushing back the Xiongnu, enabling him to take control of Xinjiang (the extreme northwest of modern China). Also, he tightened China's grip on the area around the Liao River and northern Korea, and he was able to expand control over all that had been China. The restored Han dynasty appeared to have the won back the Mandate of Heaven.
In CE 57, Liu Xiu died. He took the posthumous title of Guangwu-di (di, as mentioned before, signifying emperor), and he was succeeded by his son Mingdi, who reigned eighteen years, while China's economy continued to recover. Mingdi's rule has been regarded as harsh.He associated himself with Taoism and theological Confucianism, and he declared himself a prophet. He supported growth in what was considered education, and he lectured on history at Luoyang's new imperial university -- a lecture attended by many thousands.
Mingdi was succeeded by Zhangdi, who ruled from CE 75 to 88. Then he was succeeded by Hedi, who ruled from 88 to 106. Despite Hedi's mediocrity, China continued to enjoy a rising prosperity. The university at Luoyang grew to 240 buildings and 30,000 students. China's trade reached a new height. Silk from China was becoming familiar to people as far as the Roman Empire -- which was then in its so-called golden age. And in return, China was receiving glass, jade, horses, precious stones, tortoise shell and fabrics.
With China's prosperity came another attempt at expansion westward. A commander of a Chinese army, Ban Chao, led an army of 60,000 unopposed to the eastern shores the Caspian Sea. He wished to send an envoy to make contact with the Romans. But the Parthians feared an alliance between Rome and China. They discouraged Ban Chao with tales of danger, so he turned back.
Having become more aware of the world beyond China, the Chinese heard more rumors about wonderful places. Taoists -- who still rejected Chinese civilization as corrupt and who idealized nature and wilderness -- helped spread descriptions of far-away places of godliness and paradise. Stories of places of wilderness and paradise appeared at the emperor's court, brought by those who came to demonstrate their magic and to entertain, and the court sometimes responded by sponsoring expeditions to find the wonderful places.
One such story described a paradise along the coast in China's extreme northeast. There the climate was milder than it was inland, and it was said that in this paradise were no diseases, that people never became sick and that people governed themselves. It was said that in this paradise the young and old had equal rights, that people were gentle and had no quarrels, that there was no conflict between humanity and nature, that people received what food they needed from a beneficent river, that drinking the water from this river restored one's body to the tautness and smoothness of youth, and that people lived a hundred years.
Another paradise was rumored to be in the distant mountains of Tibet. There, it was said, a Queen mother ruled who had many servants. In this paradise, cool breezes were said to blow -- as opposed to the humidity and heat of the summers in China's inland plains and valleys. It was said that in this paradise were hanging gardens, with ponds and a beautiful lake, that waters there gave one immortality, that one could climb a mountain peak and become a spirit with the power to control the wind and rain, and that one could climb another nearby peak and ascend to heaven.
The Taoists maintained their belief in harmony and solace in nature. They believed in a destiny beyond the disturbing flux of material life, and they maintained their belief in emotional austerity. A devout Taoist, for example, could still explain his not weeping for his wife who had just died by saying that if he wept for her he would be demonstrating his lack of understanding of destiny. Taoism maintained its paradoxical statements, and it maintained anti-Confucianist notions such as one's sons and daughters are not one's possessions.
Taoism was open to a variety of new ideas, including the search for longevity or eternal life by adopting proper attitude and physical techniques. Some Taoists tried to extend the search for salvation in nature by focusing on the bliss of sexual intercourse, and some Taoist holy men searched for everlasting life though ritual exercises or dietary regimes -- an experiment of sorts that failed each time that one of them died. But, rather than accept that everlasting life could not be achieved by a special program, their followers explained the failures as the result of circumstances other than human mortality.
Taoism absorbed practices of magic that had existed in some of China's rural communities. Some Taoists adopted gods that were ridiculed by the gentry and the Confucianists. Contrary to Taoism's original belief in inaction, some Taoists actively sought converts, and some Taoists became activists for social change and initiated political programs. Taoism had held no clearly defined orthodoxy or tightly knit organization of priests, but here and there organizations led by priests were developing. Taoist priests gathered around them followers who believed they had joined an exclusive group that was concerned with their well-being. This annoyed China's authorities -- Confucianists and gentry-bureaucrats -- who feared that unapproved religious cults might develop into a focal point of opposition to their authority.
Among the Taoist cults was one led by Zhang Daoling, in the province of Sichuan. Zhang Daoling wandered through the countryside promising those who would publicly confess their sins that he would deliver them from illness and misfortune. He claimed that illness was the product of sinful thoughts. Using charms and spells, he acquired a reputation as a healer, and the public confessions that he offered gave peasants the feeling that they were cleansing themselves of sin and joining a community.
In the year 142, Zhang Daoling founded a Taoist church, called "The Way of the Great Masters," moving his Taoism from a prescribed way of life to an organized religion. His church also became known as "The Way of the Five Pecks of Rice," five pecks of rice being the annual dues that church members had to pay. Zhang Daoling promised his followers a long life and immortality, and he earned the gratitude of local common folk by getting done what the emperor's authorities had failed to do: repair roads and bridges, store grain and distribute bread to the starving. Zhang Daoling had created a local government that rivaled the authority of the emperor. Without acknowledging it, Taoists were rejoining the world of power politics.