The Heavens are High and the Emperor is Near: An Imperial Power System that is Open to the People

The Interaction and Representation of the Complicated Relationship between the Emperors and the People in Qin and Han Dynasties

In: Journal of Chinese Humanities

Abstract

When we say that “the Emperor is near,” we are referring not to his nearness to the officials below him but rather to the people. It has always been an indispensable element of the emperor’s authority that he is able to establish a clear relationship with the populace and allow them to directly feel his presence in their everyday lives—both materially and morally—and even more importantly, feel the emperor’s concern for the people on a regular basis. Fostering the people’s sense of coexistence with the emperor is essential to solidifying the emperor’s position and maintaining the emperor’s almost holy image. The development of the imperial power structure through the Qin and Han Dynasties can thus be seen as the continuous development of the relationship between the emperor and his subjects. The main agents in the imperial society can be defined as the emperor, his officials, and the people; it can not be limited simply to the political dynamics between the emperor and the officials. Through his autocratic rule, the emperor has the ability to build a personal, transcendent connection with the people. Imperial rule is by definition autocratic, but the entire imperial power structure necessarily includes the people and his personal relationship with them. By citing multiple historical examples, we can begin to see how the emperors established such personal relationships with the people and why they were important to his rule.

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