Explore the rich tapestry of the Later Han Dynasty, showcasing imperial luxury, scholarly pursuits, and the profound impact of cultural innovations.
Emperor Ming of the Han Dynasty’s mother, Lady Yin, had a dream in which she ate a delicious melon. Consequently, Emperor Ming sent people to various feudal states in search of this sweet melon. At that time, Dunhuang presented a peculiar melon variety, and Hengshan offered a gigantic peach pit. The melon from Dunhuang was named “Qionglong,” measuring three feet in length, with a curved shape and a taste as sweet as candy. An elder mentioned, “In the past, a Taoist on Penglai Mountain obtained this type of melon, claiming it was produced in the Kunlun Mountains. It bears fruit only once every several tens of thousands of years. It is said that this melon variety was left by the Queen Mother of the West on Kunlun Mountain and has endured through countless ages, with its fruits being passed down to this day.” The elder also stated, “The large peaches from Hengshan bloom and bear fruit during severe frost, and they ripen just in time for midsummer. They are believed to be food consumed by immortals.” Emperor Ming ordered the seeds of the sweet melon and giant peach to be planted in the Frosty Grove. Previously, the grove was planted with cold-resistant fruits, and when severe winter ice formed, various fruits would ripen simultaneously. This phenomenon was colloquially referred to as “Xiangling,” a mispronunciation resembling “Frosty Grove.” Lady Yin said, “With the peaches of the Queen Mother of the West and the melons of Lord Dongwang, I have eaten them and can now live for ten thousand years. But where can I cultivate them?” After Lady Yin passed away, attendants in the palace discovered melon seeds and peach pits in her mirror box. Seeing these, the attendants couldn’t help but shed tears, doubting that they were the seeds of those divine melons and the pits of giant peaches.
In the first year of the Yuanhe era (84 CE) during the reign of Emperor Zhang of the Han Dynasty, envoys from the country of Tiaozhi presented unique and auspicious items. Among them was a bird called the “Xuanque,” which stood seven feet tall and could understand human speech. The envoys explained that in the peaceful society of Tiaozhi, Xuanque birds gathered and flew together. During the reign of Emperor Wu of Han, when neighboring regions submitted to his rule, a foreign envoy presented a tamed magpie. This magpie would flap its wings and sing when there was a joyful or happy occasion. This might be the same bird that Zhuangzi mentioned as the “magpie of Diaoling.” The commentator Gao You noted in the “Huainanzi · Fanlun Xun” that magpies could foresee joyful events. Various historical records describe magpies of different sizes and appearances, and their existence spans different time periods. Therefore, this is just a general listing.
Emperor An of the Han Dynasty had a penchant for traveling in disguise and occasionally camping in the outskirts. He ordered the construction of a mobile palace using colorful woven fabrics or silk for its four walls. In the third year of the Yonghe era, when the state finances were insufficient, Emperor An issued a decree allowing officials and commoners who contributed money to supplement the state budget to be promoted or appointed to official positions. In Langya, there was a man named Wang Pu, a descendant of Wang Ji, who had served as the Intendant of Changyi Prince in his early years. After several generations, the family’s fortune had declined. During Emperor An’s reign, Wang Pu’s family fell into even greater poverty and couldn’t afford to purchase an official position. Consequently, Wang Pu took bamboo slips and a pen, and he found employment as a scribe in the markets of Luoyang. Wang Pu was not only handsome but also talented in writing. Those who hired him to transcribe books would often give him clothes and hats, while women would offer him jewelry and precious gems. Sometimes, in a single day, he would return home laden with clothing and valuable items. The rice in Wang Pu’s family’s warehouse also increased over time, and his relatives and friends depended on him for their livelihood. At that time, the people of Luoyang said that Wang Pu had become wealthy through his skill in writing. In his earlier years, Wang Pu’s family had been impoverished. On one occasion, while digging a well, he discovered an iron seal with an inscription that read, “Earning wealth through employment, accumulating riches to reach millions. One plot of land, three fields; appointed as Chief Clerk of the Military Gates.” Later, Wang Pu donated one million coins to the government and obtained the position of Middle Lai Xiaowei. The phrase “three fields, one plot of land” was actually a reference to the character “垒” (lěi), signifying the Middle Lai Xiaowei, who was in charge of the northern army’s gate fortifications. This story illustrates that performing good deeds can bring blessings from heaven, and deities will reward such acts.
In the third year of the Zhongping era during the reign of Emperor Ling of the Han Dynasty (186 CE), Emperor Ling often visited the Western Garden. There, he constructed a thousand-room Naked Bathing Pavilion and covered the steps with green moss. He arranged for canal water to flow around the steps, creating clear and transparent streams around the Naked Bathing Pavilion. Emperor Ling would row a boat on the water, with beautiful concubines and palace maids sitting on board. Among them, the most attractive and slender women were chosen to pole and row the boat, gliding through the water channels. The water in this place was so clear that during the peak of summer, Emperor Ling would order the boat to be capsized and submerged in the water to admire the beauty of the concubines and palace maids underwater. Emperor Ling also instructed a music ensemble to perform the song “Zhao Shang” to summon the cool breeze. The lyrics of the song said, “A cool breeze blows, the sun shines on the canal waters. Green lotus leaves curl in the day and unfurl at night. Time is short, but the joy is boundless. Plucking strings and playing flutes, singing about the beautiful women in the water. Such joy is hard to surpass for thousands and thousands of years.” In the water channels, lotus flowers were planted, and their leaves were as large as cart covers, reaching a height of one zhang (approximately 3.3 meters). These lotus leaves would unfurl at night and curl up during the day. On a single stem, four flowers would bloom together, earning them the name “Night-Unfurling Lotus.” It was also said that these lotus leaves would only unfurl when the moon came out, leading to their other name, “Moon-Unfurling Lotus.”
During the height of summer, Emperor Ling of the Han Dynasty sought relief from the heat at the Naked Bathing Pavilion. He would often spend entire nights drinking and reveling with his concubines. Emperor Ling once exclaimed, “If one could live like this for a lifetime, it would be the life of heavenly immortals.” He ordered that all palace women aged fourteen and above but under eighteen should wear heavy makeup, remove their upper garments, leaving only their undergarments, and some even went fully nude. They would bathe together in the canal. A type of fragrant herb called “Yinchi” from the Western Regions was used to boil water, filling the air with its fragrance. After bathing and washing their clothes with water scented with this herb, the remaining water was poured into the canal. As a result, the canal became known as the “Fragrant Flowing Canal.” Emperor Ling also ordered eunuchs to imitate the braying of donkeys. In addition, he built a Chicken Crowing Hall to the north of the Naked Bathing Pavilion, where many chickens were raised. When dawn approached and Emperor Ling was in a drunken stupor, the eunuchs would compete to imitate the crowing of chickens, creating a cacophony that mixed with the actual sounds of the birds. At times, the eunuchs would throw lit candles in front of the main hall to wake Emperor Ling from his stupor. It wasn’t until Dong Zhuo’s forces attacked the capital that the palace women were dispersed, and the palaces and Naked Bathing Pavilion were set ablaze. During the Xianxi era of the Three Kingdoms period under Emperor Yuan of Wei, where candles had been thrown by the eunuchs, there continued to be bright lights resembling stars every evening. People of later generations believed these were divine lights and constructed a small shrine called the “Shrine of Lingering Light” (余光祠) to pray for blessings. However, by the end of the Wei Dynasty, the rituals and offerings at the Shrine of Lingering Light gradually diminished.
Xiao Qilu said, “Emperors Han Mingdi and Han Zhangdi, these two emperors, continued the legacy of their ancestors exceptionally well. Their achievements spread across the country like the wind, and their virtues were known throughout the land. People from distant lands came to the court, and auspicious events abounded, just like spokes converging at the hub of a wheel. However, Emperors Han An and Han Ling were rulers of corrupt character. Throughout history, emperors who pursued beauty and pleasure were often ensnared by the allure of women. They couldn’t take ancient rise and fall as a lesson, so how could they influence the common people? These emperors were mediocre in their abilities and shallow in their knowledge. They indulged in the pleasures of food, drink, and beauty, silenced their advisors, employed wicked sycophants, and were engrossed in decadence. As for rulers in history who led their countries to ruin, none did so without abusing their authority. None escaped the consequences of their unrestrained pursuit of luxury and desire for beauty. There are numerous records in ancient texts and countless instances in historical accounts. Selling titles and official positions deviated from the fundamental principles of setting up offices and responsibilities. Leaving the palace in disguise for secret excursions and spending the night in the outskirts went against the original purpose of touring the four directions. Emperors Han Chengdi and Han Andi, despite their relatively long reigns, presided over similar political chaos. Examining historical records and consulting the writings of past scholars, we find that these emperors, indulging in excesses, favored extravagant lifestyles, raising dragons and cranes while neglecting state affairs. There has never been mention of such actions by wise emperors. Only rulers who indulged in debauchery within the court and indulged in hunting beasts and birds outside the court, abandoning state affairs and reveling in sensuality, would leave behind a lasting foul legacy. Thus, emperors infatuated with seductive women bring calamity upon themselves, and Emperor Han Ling’s favoring of eunuchs led to the decline of the imperial lineage. His lewdness in making palace women chase each other naked in a wine pool and having eunuchs mimic the crowing of roosters, thus confusing them with real roosters, was reminiscent of King Zhou of Shang or emulating Crown Prince Dan of Yan. The recurrence of similar events in different eras is indeed lamentable.”
Empress Dowager Fu, the consort of Emperor Xian of the Han Dynasty, was known for her intelligence, wisdom, compassion, and keen discernment. She was also renowned for her strict adherence to the norms and etiquette outlined in the “Li Ji – Nei Ze” chapter. When Emperor Xian was defeated by Li Jue and forced to flee day and night, the palace concubines and court ladies were also scattered and fleeing in distress, with none among the thousands surviving. When they reached the banks of the Yellow River, there were no boats to cross. Empress Dowager Fu carried Emperor Xian on her back to help him cross the turbulent river. She felt as if she had stepped on something unusual underfoot, and it turned out to be a divine being aiding them. As Li Jue’s army approached the riverbank, Empress Dowager Fu shielded Emperor Xian behind her. Emperor Xian’s toes were injured, and Empress Dowager Fu used her embroidered clothes to wipe away the blood and scraped bits of jade from her hairpin to cover the wound, which miraculously healed instantly. She also used her tears to cleanse Emperor Xian’s face and clothes, leaving him as clean as if he had just been washed with water. The accompanying soldiers praised and admired her, acknowledging that even in such chaotic circumstances, there was a woman so sensible and far-sighted. It was truly a case of sincerity moving the heavens and the spirits being touched.
Xiao Qilu said: Cinnabar and stones can be ground, but they cannot change their solid nature and deep red color. Magnolia and cassia branches can be broken, but they cannot conceal their sweet fragrance. Empress Dowager Fu upheld a simple and virtuous demeanor, harboring qualities of loyalty and steadfastness. In times of danger, she placed life and death beyond consideration, displaying a heroism that even valiant warriors couldn’t surpass. She faced certain death without flinching, resembling individuals like Feng Yuan in her fearlessness. When examining virtuous women and heroines throughout history, few can be found who match Empress Dowager Fu’s caliber. From the founding of the Han Dynasty to the reigns of Emperors Ai, Ping, Yuan, and Cheng, there was a focus on constructing palaces and expanding gardens. While the Western capital of Chang’an already boasted numerous luxurious palaces, the Eastern capital of Luoyang continued in this extravagant trend. This approach not only contradicted the frugal policies of Yao and Shun’s era, where they abstained from cutting oak trees, but also deviated from the simplicity advocated during King Wen’s construction of platforms and ponds. Examining royal records and searching through folk accounts, the excessive number of palaces and the widespread distribution of pavilions, towers, and city walls during the Han Dynasty exceeded the extravagance of any previous emperors. Emperor Ai constructed palaces for each of the four seasons, and Emperor Ling built the Naked Bathing Pavilion. Such extravagant projects, which drained the people’s resources and harmed their well-being, would be resented even if constructed by ghosts and spirits. When skilled craftsmen were forced to build these for the common people, it was an act of cruelty. With the nation ruined and families destroyed, it is indeed a cause for sorrow! As for those supernatural phenomena or sights, beautiful birds, gorgeous flowers, and peculiar trees that did not naturally grow in the region and whose colors changed and names were distorted, they could not adapt to the climate changes of the Han Dynasty, and there were no records about them in various books. However, some of them thrived and, through the virtue and achievements of the emperors, produced auspicious signs like the coming of the phoenix. Others adapted to the customs and climate of the Han Dynasty, acquiring new qualities, and all of these phenomena can be comprehensively explained. When examining various scriptures and perusing different classics, there are none that describe such grandeur.
Guo Kuang was the younger brother of Empress Dowager of Emperor Guangwu in the Eastern Han Dynasty. His family possessed hundreds of millions of taels of accumulated gold and more than four hundred slaves. Guo Kuang used the gold to cast various tools, and the sounds of artisans forging metal tools resonated throughout the capital city and border towns. People at the time used to say, “It only thunders at Guo’s residence,” referring to the loud sounds of their metalworking. In his courtyard, Guo Kuang constructed a tall pavilion with long corridors on either side. At the top of the pavilion, there was a scale used to weigh pearls and precious jade. Below the pavilion, there was a hidden treasury guarded by warriors. Guo Kuang also decorated pavilions and towers with various treasures, and bright pearls adorned the four corners of the eaves. These pearls sparkled like stars during the day and resembled a gleaming moon when viewed from afar at night. There was a saying among the common people, “In Luoyang, the Guo family’s home is filled with money, and day and night they are richer than the stars.” People in Luoyang also described Guo’s house as “the kitchen of beautiful jade and the cave of golden treasures.” Guo Kuang was cautious in his dealings with others. Despite his wealth and influence, he often kept his doors closed to visitors and led a leisurely and carefree life, never interfering in politics. He can be considered a wise individual of that era.
Xiao Qilu said: The families of imperial consorts relied on the power of the consorts to assert dominance, and they exploited their close connections to the consorts’ allies and favored individuals to act recklessly throughout the realm. Consorts who gained favor with the emperor often meddled in political affairs, and the families of consorts, based on their status as in-laws, acted with unchecked authority. During the Warring States period, the in-law Wei Ran’s wealth surpassed that of the Qin state, while in the Han Dynasty, in-law Wang Feng bestowed noble titles upon all five of his brothers in a single day. Their residences exceeded the grandeur of the imperial palaces, and their concubines were even more beautiful than the emperor’s consorts. Treasures from the provinces of Jing and Yang filled their estates for their enjoyment. Red silk, embroidered fabrics, and decorative patterns covered their buildings. Grand and spacious corridors, profound gateways, all showcased the magnificence of their towering residences. Horses of fine fur and carriages painted in red exemplified the extravagance of their transportation and attire. Throughout history, there had been no precedents for individuals who acted with such arrogance and dominance, not even among those who constructed the Three Return Pavilion in Guanzhong or the Eight Yi Dance in the Ji Sun’s courtyard. Guo Kuang, although he depended on his elder sister’s favor within the court and pursued fame and fortune outside it, amassed wealth equivalent to that of Fan Li and Cheng Zheng by mining in the distant Shandan region. Can it not be said that he was wealthy? However, Guo Kuang never flaunted his wealth and power based on his in-law status. Instead, he adhered to a gentle, respectful, and thrifty demeanor, followed the ways of a gentleman, understood when to advance and when to retreat, and conducted himself with prudent caution. One could say that his wisdom approached that of a deity!
In the early years of Emperor Cheng’s reign during the Han Dynasty, Liu Xiang was tasked with reviewing ancient texts at the Tianlu Pavilion. He dedicated himself to this task every day, striving for perfection. One evening, an old man dressed in yellow attire and leaning on a green cane ascended the steps and entered the Tianlu Pavilion. Seeing Liu Xiang engrossed in reading under dim lighting, the old man used his mouth to blow on one end of the cane, instantly brightening the light. In the presence of the illuminated light, the old man began to recount events from before the creation of the world to Liu Xiang. It was during this encounter that Liu Xiang heard about the contents of the “Hong Fan Wuxing.” Fearing that the intricate and extensive content might be forgotten, Liu Xiang tore a piece of clothing and removed his belt to record what the old man was saying. The old man didn’t leave until dawn, and before departing, Liu Xiang asked for his name. The old man replied, “I am the Taiyi Star. The Heavenly Emperor heard of a knowledgeable scholar among the Liu family and sent me to the mortal realm to observe.” From his pocket, the old man took out a bamboo scroll with astronomical and geographical texts, saying, “I have briefly imparted some of this knowledge to you.” It wasn’t until Liu Xiang’s son, Liu Xin, followed his father’s method of studying and organizing classical texts that Liu Xiang himself truly comprehended the knowledge the old man had imparted.
When Jia Kui was five years old, he was already remarkably intelligent. His sister was married to Han Yao but had not been able to bear children and was sent back home, praised for her steadfast chastity. When Jia Kui was a child, his sister would hear the sounds of someone reading from the neighboring house’s books, and she would carry Jia Kui to listen through the fence, regardless of whether it was morning or evening. At such times, Jia Kui would always listen quietly without saying a word. His sister was delighted. By the time Jia Kui turned ten, he could recite the “Six Classics” by heart. His sister asked him, “Our family has had a difficult life, and no teacher has ever come to our house. How do you know about books like the ‘Three Tombs’ and the ‘Five Classics’ and be able to recite them word for word?” Jia Kui replied, “I remember when you used to hold me by the fence to listen to the neighbor’s reading. I kept those words in my heart, and that’s why I can recite them all today without missing a single one.” So, Jia Kui peeled the bark from mulberry trees in the courtyard to make booklets and sometimes wrote on doors and screens. He would recite while writing. After a year, he had memorized and copied all the scriptures. People from the neighborhood would often come to see Jia Kui reciting and copying books, and they praised his knowledge as unparalleled throughout history. People who wanted to study under Jia Kui came from afar, some even carrying their sons and grandsons, settling down next to Jia Kui’s house, and he personally taught them the scriptures. The warehouse was filled with the food they had brought as gifts. Some said, “Jia Kui did not obtain food through hard labor in the fields but instead exhausted his tongue through reciting scriptures. This is the origin of the term ‘tongue farming’ in later generations.”
Although He Xiu was not skilled in speaking, he had a sharp mind. He had a thorough knowledge of the “Three Tombs,” “Five Classics,” Yin-Yang, divination, the Hetu, the Luoshu, the study of prophecies, ancient proverbs, and the books and writings of past generations. There was nothing he couldn’t recite. When his disciples came to him with questions, he would write his responses because he couldn’t express himself verbally. He authored three works: “Zuo’s Gao Huang,” “Gongyang Moshou,” and “Guliang Feiji,” which people referred to as the “Three Que.” This was because the profound and intricate principles expounded in these three works were beyond the understanding of ordinary scholars who couldn’t discern subtle signs of change in things or retain past knowledge in their minds. When Zheng Xuan and his disciples rose to challenge He Xiu’s scholarship, seekers of knowledge traveled from far and wide, carrying provisions, to learn from him. They likened it to small streams converging into the great sea. People in the capital referred to Zheng Xuan as the “god of Confucianism” and He Xiu as the “ocean of knowledge.”
At the age of fourteen, Ren Mo did not have a fixed teacher for his studies. He carried a book box and traveled to learn, unafraid of long and arduous journeys. He often said, “If people don’t study, how can they succeed?” Sometimes, he would stay in the woods, weaving thatched huts with straw and crafting pens from branches of the jujube tree, using tree sap as ink. At night, he would read under the illumination of the stars and moon. If the light was too dim, he would tie together a bunch of Artemisia to create a makeshift torch. When he had insights or thoughts he wanted to express while reading, he would write them on his clothes to remember them. His disciples greatly admired his diligence in learning, and they would exchange clean clothes for the ones with writings on them. He only read works by sages and wise men. On his deathbed, he advised his disciples, saying, “A person who loves learning is like someone who is alive even after death, while someone who dislikes learning is like a walking corpse even when alive!” The profound and hidden teachings of the “Hetu” and “Luoshu” were not recorded in orthodox classics. Ren Mo wrote down his own insights and understanding on the pillars, walls of buildings, and trees in the garden. Those who admired his thirst for knowledge came to copy them down. In his time, people referred to Ren Mo as the “Garden of Classics.”
Cao Zeng, originally named Ping, was from the region of Lu. He admired the character of Zeng Shen so much that he changed his name to Zeng. Cao Zeng had immense wealth in his family and was exceptionally filial and respectful to his parents. He daily provided his parents with pork, beef, and mutton, ensuring they never lacked in this regard. Cao Zeng would never taste fresh foods that his parents hadn’t tried first. When visiting others, if he was offered something his parents hadn’t tasted, he would discreetly take some and bring it back for his parents to try. In Cao Zeng’s household, there were no chickens or dogs because he believed their crowing and barking would disturb his parents. During a year of severe drought when wells and ponds dried up, Cao Zeng’s mother wished for cool, sweet spring water to drink. Cao Zeng knelt down with a bottle, and miraculously, cool and sweet spring water gushed from the ground, even more refreshing than ordinary spring water. Cao Zeng provided food for his disciples, especially those from impoverished families. He meticulously corrected errors and omissions in precious books from ancient times to the present. More than ten thousand volumes of books were corrected by him. After Emperor Guangwu of Han unified the country, he ordered the collection of books from all over the country to Cao Zeng’s home. They were transported in a continuous stream of vehicles to the imperial treasury. Cao Zeng’s disciples built a shrine outside his home, named the Cao Shi Shrine. During a time of great chaos in the country when many homes were destroyed, Cao Zeng was concerned about the loss and dispersal of the wisdom of the ancients. He gathered stones and constructed a warehouse for books, earning his family the nickname “Book Warehouse.”
Xiao Qilu said: When examining Liu Xiang’s teachings during the reign of Emperor Cheng of the Han Dynasty, we can see that his knowledge encompassed the classics of the ancient three dynasties. His talent covered the sages of all ages. Since the illumination of the sun and moon on this earth, there have been very few individuals of such talent. By the Eastern Han period, scholars like Jia Kui, He Xiu, Ren Mo, and Cao Zeng could all be considered sages. From the dawn of humanity to the present day, there have been perhaps only these few great scholars. People like Yan Hui may approach the status of virtuous individuals, but can Guan Mei and Zhang Ba be considered truly knowledgeable scholars? As for the disciples of these five scholars, apart from Confucius’ disciples, there are none comparable, but when compared to Confucius’ direct disciples, they still feel a sense of shame. Jia Kui’s sister, the knowledgeable and courteous woman, serves as an exemplary figure, with her words and actions reflecting the guidance of the sages.