Han Dynasty Paper

Imagine an empire that is based upon the adoration of history. One that has pieced together its culture, arts, use of logic, and government from a respected and idolized previous society, and stands on the brink of collapse. Would one assume that the empire described could be the Han Dynasty? It would make sense to infer so. However, this paper will be examining the eminent downfall of a modern empire: the United States. Just like the Han Dynasty, the United States was built upon the logic and ideologies of a deeply respected society. In the United States’ case, that society was ancient Rome. Just like the Han Dynasty, the respect and adoration of history will provide no counsel to better withstand their collapse. While the United States and Han Dynasty both enjoyed great gains due to their historical lens, both restricted the thinking of the scholars of their respective ages from looking outside of that ideology for potential solutions to trying times, and though the Han Dynasty and Rome are often compared, the Han Dynasty can be used as a template for the current decline of the United States as well.
The United States was founded and fertilized by the ideas stemming from the Age of Enlightenment. While the use of Roman logic was originally intended for use to better understand Christianity, by the time the United States had begun to emerge, secular reasoning was well established and flourishing. Like the Confucius rejection of the mythological, both empires began to grow within a context of worldly ideologies. Both the Roman and historical Confucian histories provided the necessary bureaucratic infrastructure (Ebrey, 2010, pp. 80). By using history as a blueprint, the two empires were built with goals in mind, and not simply brought to fruition by random consequence. According to Hardy, “by reading history, one could understand society and find appropriate models for the conduct of life” (pp. 9, 1999). Similarly, models of thought from ancient Rome were used by the Unites States “founding fathers” to provide the basis for the new government. But while both empires were established by following the guidance of the past, the Han Dynasty ended because those instructions could not guide them in all things.
The historical schools of thought created a foundation for the success of both empires for a time. However, the weaknesses of both empires were similar. While the Han rulers and Confucian scholars delegitimized mythology within China as even worthy of study (pp. 9, 1999), they also narrowed any other types of thinking from potentially creating solutions to new problems. Similarly, Enlightenment eventually shunned religion, preferring to rely on science. While science is tested and honed, the narrow perspective offers little in the way of counsel for political, social, or humanitarian issues in the modern United States. Additionally, the “Burning of the Books” seen by later Confucian scholars as a tragedy was used to catalyze further adoration of the information from that time period (pp. 10, 1999), just as the Dark Ages became an event to catalyze the Age of Enlightenment. Both were a marked restriction of knowledge among the general populace, and both were used by later scholars to cement their devotion to the histories they were building their empires on. In Han Dynasty China, the “Burning of the Books” created interest in history while the European Dark Ages created interest in sciences and the natural world. Both events further locked in those empires to their respective foundations with little flexibility.
While the Han Dynasty and Rome are often compared, a comparison can be made with the United States as well. Despite Han Dynasty reliance on history to govern its people, there was no guidance to guard against the downfall of the empire. There were no instructions to guide the rulers through the waves of downfall: corruption of government, crumbling tax base, and rebellion (Ebrey, 2010, pp. 84). Remarkably like the Han Dynasty, the decline of the United States is occurring despite strong government based on historical adoration that “expanded geographically, promoted assimilation, and brought centuries of stability to the central regions” (Ebrey, 2010, pp. 85), landowner-employed bureaucracy, the construction of infrastructure, and threats at its borders. These are like the very comparisons made between the Han Dynasty and the ancient Roman Empire by Ebrey.
It is appropriate and beneficial to turn a critical gaze to similar empires to ensure that lessons from the past are learned. However, history cannot teach one all the lessons that are needed. Due to an attentive, adoring gaze by the United States towards Rome, and the Han Dynasty towards early Confucian scholars, neither of these societies has the tools necessary to “think outside the box” regarding new threats to their empires. By limiting the reach of their creativity, they clamp down on the potential of their populations to address their decline. In the Han Dynasty’s case, it is too late. However, the United States would do well to not only look at the logic, democracy, and culture of Rome in their studies, but also to realize that the Han Dynasty provides a clear glimpse into what could happen should the United States cling solely to the ideas of Roman logic and Enlightenment principles to tackle their challenges.

Ebrey, P. B. (2010). The Cambridge illustrated history of china (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hardy, G. R. (1999). Worlds of bronze and bamboo: Sima Qian’s conquest of history. New York: Columbia University Press.


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