Student Protests in Han China

June is the month to blog about student protests in China. There have been a lot of them, and like other types of protesters Chinese students often consciously or unconsciously use scripts. American protesters want to occupy an administration building, French students want to go on strike (or whatever) and they do these things because the students are embedded in a political culture where these are the proper ways for students to protest. This is not to say that new forms of protest are not developed, but  that students, like everyone else, tend to choose a their actions from a set of roles that they are familiar with. Jeffery Wasserstrom’s book on student protest is probably the best source on the patterns of student protest in 20th century China. How far back do Chinese traditions of student protest go? To a certain extent they can’t go back too far, since China did not get its first modern university until 1898. On the other hand there have been students and schools in China for a very long time. The most interesting of the early protests come from the Latter Han dynasty. In the decade of the 160’s, during the reigns of Emperors Huan and Ling, students at the Imperial University (太學) were noted for their political activism. Like most university students, these were in an anomalous position in society. Imperial University students were members of the elite, but not elite enough to get government jobs just based on their family. Like later students they were also frustrated by their prospects. By the Later Han the curriculum at the University was considered hopelessly out of date and attending was no longer a reliable route to office. Students were deeply concerned with the problems of the state, which is not surprising, and they were particularly concerned with the problem of corruption and favoritism in official appointments, which is also not surprising, given that they were the ones most likely to be passed over if jobs were not given on merit. During this period the student’s enemies were not the Communist Party, but the eunuchs and their faction, who were rivals of the great aristocratic families. The emperors tried, without much success in the Later Han, to balance and stay above these factions.

In the first years of Emperor Huan, the fashion of student debate and criticism had taken the form of seven-character slogans, arranged in rhyming couplets, which were chanted in unison, shouted in the streets, and frequently written on walls…Short, pithy opinion combined with a good beat and rhyme made slogans such as these popular and influential. In a comparatively short time, under the name of “pure judgments” (qingyi 清義) they developed into a style of criticism that could be applied to any official or scholar and, as the name would indicate, such assessments were regarded as impartial and accurate summaries of character. Their most [20] effective practitioners, notably the student leader Guo Tai 郭泰, a man of humble birth but considerable intelligence and literary skill, gained immense prestige and a large following.1

So basically they were student-rappers. And, like later Chinese student protesters they looked to reformist officials with rhymes like this

A model for the empire,
Li Yuanli;
Fearless of powerful enemies,
Chen Zhongju

Hmm. I guess it worked better in the Han pronunciation. Of course the students lost, and many of them and many of those they supported in the regular bureaucracy were purged in 169. As became normal in Chinese politics the losers were accused of forming a faction (部黨). This was a serious accusation, since there was no tradition of loyal dissent in China. Just as there was little hope that Zhao Ziyang and the student protesters at Tiananmen would be able to work out a compromise that would preserve both the party and the students’ principles there was not much possibility that that bureaucracy and the eunuchs were going to work out an accommodation. Both were competing to be the exemplars of virtue for the empire, and there could be only one of them.

Also like Tiananmen, the aftermath of the purge was not what you might expect. Although people were in fact fired and executed and exiled, in practice the witch hunt did not and could not go very far. In part this was because the dispute was between two factions of the elite, and the eunuchs could not massacre the entire bureaucracy. In part this was because many government officials were unwilling to hunt people down, and many not connected with the Faction were eager to give them shelter. Sima Guang tells a number of stories of men like Zhang Jian, who managed to escape capture with the help of many people he had never even met. Many members of the local elite were eager to associate themselves with a certified Man of Virtue like Zhang, and many of these helpers suffered severely because of it. Eventually Zhang found his way back into government, becoming Captain of the Guards.

Zhang Jian was crticized for his escape and its costs by Xia Fu, who said “He brought this misfortune upon himself, and then he pointlessly caused the involvement of other good and honest people. In order the one man might escape death, ten thousand households suffered misfortune. How could one live with that?” Xia Fu hid himself on a mountain and became an ironworker, dying before he could return to office.2

Zhang Jian and Xia Fu demonstrated two of the ways that protesters could deal with defeat, and here too the Han figures were part of a developing tradition. Withdrawing from politics (into business in the 1990’s onto a mountaintop in the 170’s) was a standard option. Sima Guang approved

Your servant Sima Guang remarks:

If the empire is following the proper Way, true gentlemen assemble at the court of the ruler to correct the misbehavior by the men of mean spirit, and there on-one who dares not submit. When the empire has lost the Way, gentlemen retire into seclusion and do not speak out, hoping that they may avoid misfortune from the men of mean spirit, and yet still it happens that some of the fail to escape.

The men of Faction lived in a age of confusion and disorder, when all things were out of place and the four seas were in turmoil. They sought to solve problems by the words in their mouths, giving  judgments of good and bad so as to wipe out evil and restore purity. They sought to seize the snakes and vipers by the head, and trample on the tails of the tiger and the wolf. But it was they themselves who were injured and wrongfully punished, and the ill fortune reached their friends. Men of quality were destroyed, and the nation moved on to disaster. The pity of it! Only Guo Tai hand the insight and understanding to preserve his own life, while Shentu Pan (two men who retired from politics) realised what would happen and took appropriate action, not waiting till the final day. This is exceptional wisdom!

Obviously China has changed a lot in 2000 years, but it was odd for me to read some of this stuff and see some of the same roles and scripts being used that far back.

Pretty much all of the information in this post comes from Rafe de Crespigny’s work and translations, which are now available online

  1. from Political Protest in Imperial China: the Great Proscription of Later Han 167-184 Second edition [Internet] 2007. This is a revised version of an article first published in Papers on Far Eastern History, The Australian National University, Canberra, no. 11 [March 1975], pp. 1-36 

  2. see Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling: being the Chronicle of Later Han for the years 157 to 189 AD as recorded in Chapters 54 to 59 of the Zizhi tongjian of Sima Guang, translated and annotated by Rafe de Crespigny. Asian Studies Monographs, New Series No. 12, Faculty of Asian Studies, The Australian National University, Canberra 1989  


  1. Great post! Do you have an online source for the protest chants in the original, by any chance? I don’t see them on de Crespigny’s page.

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