How and Why Do We Praise the Emperor? Debating and Depicting a Late Western Han Court Audience

In: Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient
Luke Habberstad University of Oregon

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In 51 bce, a powerful foreign leader attended the annual court audience with the Western Han emperor. Modern scholarship has understood the audience primarily as an important event in the history of early Chinese foreign relations. This article shifts focus inward, comparing three different accounts of the audience in order to show that the event is perhaps even more important as an index of changing social and institutional patterns at the capital as well as normative understandings of imperial power. Long after 51 bce, the audience was rewritten in historical accounts not as the apex of Han power over foreign lands but as a beginning of efforts to refashion the imperial court according to principles associated with the Five Classics.

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