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Gongsun Hong (公孫弘; Wade–Giles: Kung-sun Hung; 200 – 121
BCE), born Kingdom of Lu,
Zichuan (part of present-day Shandong
province), was a Chinese statesman in the
Western Han dynasty under
Emperor Wu. Together with the more famous
Confucian scholar Dong
Zhongshu, Gongsun was one of the earliest proponents of Confucianism,
setting in motion its emergence under the Han court. The ideals both
promoted, together with Gongsun's decrees, would come to be seen as
values-in-themselves, becoming the "basic elements, or even hallmarks"
of Confucianism. While first proposed and more ardently promoted by
Dong, the national academy (then considered radical) and Imperial
examination did not come into existence until they were supported by
the more successful Gongsun. Their establishment set a precedent that
would last into the twentieth century.
Beginning his political career at age sixty, Gongsun rapidly advanced
from commoner to attain a senior appointment in 130BC when he was
seventy, becoming grand secretary in 126 and chancellor in 124. One
of the Three Dukes, in recognition of canonical mastery he was
probably the first Han
Confucian to be appointed to high office,
the first commoner and first (and only, out of twelve of the time)
Confucian to be made chancellor, as well as the first chancellor to
be made marquis. He set a precedent for
Confucianism as interpreter
Preceding emperors had instituted a policy of general non-interference
with the people, reducing tax and other burdens, promoting government
thrift and reduction in criminal sentences. A major issue however was
the power possessed by princes of collateral lines of the imperial
clan. The princes often built up their own military strengths and
resisted edicts issued by the emperor. Emperor Wen's time saw the Lü
Clan Disturbance, but he did not take any decisive actions on the
overarching issue. His successor Emperor Jing managed to crush a
revolt of the princes who were thereafter denied rights to appoint
ministers for their fiefs, but their power persisted.
Sima Qian states Gongsun's background as that of a prison officer, who
being dismissed, made his living as a farmhand tending pigs. Sima
characterizes Gong (like Dong Zhongshu) as specializing in the Spring
and Autumn Annals, but with a bent toward the Gongyang Zhuan
commentaries as a disciple of Huwu Zidu. However, neither text is
referenced in any of Gongsun's documents, and his actions don't seem
to reflect the Gongyang. His family being poor, he did not learn much
of the Annals until he was forty, and the
Shiji considers his ability
secondary to that of Dong Zhongshu.
Gongsun probably first expressed his views in 134 B.C. after the death
of the Taoistic Empress Dowager, in response to a request by the
Emperor Wu of Han
Emperor Wu of Han for governmental advice. He applied to an advanced
position in government through court examination. His discourse
included ideas from Confucianism, administrative philosophy (Chinese
Legalism) and Mohism; namely, that capable people ought to be employed
in positions that match their talents (
Mohism and Shen Buhai);
secondly, encouraging high standards of morality, harmonious
relationships, and employing moral persons (
Confucianism and Mohism);
and that common people should be allowed opportunity for farming while
discouraging useless articles (
Mohism and Shang Yang).
Referring to a typical golden age of the remote past in which the
populace was naturally good, reminiscent of Lu Jia and
Jia Yi he
derides the practice of the Qin (that is, its penalties) as
inadequate, stressing the
Confucian values of sincerity, humaneness
(ren), righteousness (yi), and moderation (li), but also intellectual
judgement (zhi) as the means of effective authority. In what may have
been the first time in history he evoked the Duke of Zhou (Zhou Gong)
in his argument. As an influence on the basics of Confucianism, his
stress on guidance through music (which Dong also stressed), li, and
the habits of living is notable, while on the other hand he lacked
Following this he gave a thinly veiled discourse on the "fundamentals
of government" drawn seemingly straight from the Han Feizi; referring
to the techniques (Shu) of government (originating in Shen Buhai),
recommending firm personal control of the government, and
"monopolization of the handles which control life" (Han Fei's Two
Handles of reward and punishment). His discourse was rated low by the
Ceremonial Superintendent, but among the top by the Emperor; though it
may have been simple compared with Dong's, Sima writes that it was
still very elegant.
Gongsun thereby attained the title of academician, leading Dong to
claims that he attained high office from the autocratic Emperor
through flattery (while Dong did not attain high office). The Han shu
records that Dong's career was distinguished through the same call to
service. Gongsun tried hard to sideline Dong, and would ultimately see
his banishing, probably between 126-121BC. Making the him chancellor
of Weifang, Gongsun effectively promoted Dong's partial retirement
from political life, probably paving the way for Gongsun's eclipse
over and usage of some of his proposals (namely the imperial
examination) with more elaborate ones. However, Gongsun still
apparently preferred Dong's teachings to that of the Scholar Jiang of
According to Sima Qian, beginning his career at age sixty, Gongsun
would later end up sent as an envoy to the
Xiongnu (northern nomadic
confederation). He resigned ("because of illness") when his opinion on
the matter differed from the Emperor's (Emperor Wu), but was brought
back on general consensus despite Gongsun's reluctance. Thereafter he
rarely disagreed with the emperor openly. At first arguing against it,
he argues for Zhufu Yan's proposal for the development of the Shuofang
commandery (a defensive position against the Xiongnu) at the expense
of efforts to the south, only eventually succeeding.
In more legal policy, having began his career as a scholar appointed
for his knowledge of the Five Classics, and only later arriving at the
legal, Gongsun would embellish the later with the former, greatly
pleasing the emperor. Often mentioned together in the Shiji, Gongsun
sang the praises of legal clerk Zhang Tang, whose policies needed
legitimisation, thereby strengthening each other's positions.
Professor Griet Vankeerberghen refer to both him and Zhang as
"quasi-Legalist bureaucrats". They instituted a law along the
lines of Shang Yang, present during the Qin dynasty, that punished
those with knowledge of a crime that failed to report it, or slandered
prosecutors. According to the Taiping Yulan, Gongsun also wrote a
highly valuable book on
Xing-Ming (personnel selection), the doctrine
of Shen Buhai, that may have been extant as late as the tenth
Servicing the emperor's wishes, they brought the government under
tight central control, promoting an autocratic style of government.
Eliminating their enemies through execution or transfer, they began
what may be termed a political revolution putting a temporary end to
group interests in the court, consolidating it with the death of Liu
An in Huainan. The demotion of their enemy Ji An is notable, as a
powerful representative of the
Huang-Lao tradition favouring rich
families. Drawing them as infringing on the Emperor's prerogatives and
authority, Gongsun implies a comparison between the luxurious
indulgence of Ji An's ilk to that of
Guan Zhong as usurping the
prerogatives of his lord - and is approved. In connection with this
Gongsun wore plain clothes and ate plain food, as if to place himself
on footing with minor officials or the people.
Other cases include Gongsun recommending the corrupt
Zhufu Yan for
execution (though Gongsun may have been covetous of his favour with
the Emperor), and that the harsh official
Ning Cheng not be appointed
to government office, with the emperor making the latter
commandant. Gongsun died of natural causes only a year after the
Huainan trials. His son inherited his rank, becoming Grand
Zhejiang but lost it in a trial.
Sima Qian states
that he was replaced by Li Ts'ai.
Contrary to Zhang Tang, who promoted his subordinates, Gongsun made no
use of his position to advance other Confucians, and likely did not
identify with the
Confucian community, not hesitating to drive them
Michael Loewe states that, though regarded as one of
the most respected statesmen, he was actually considered somewhat
old-fashioned. Despite his political orientation, because he
insisted on the value of trust over either law, rewards or penalties,
Vankeerberghen considers Gongsun still reminiscent of Huang-Lao
ideology like that of the Taoistic Huainanzi, the book of his
Professor Griet Vankeerberghen considers Gongsun to have promoted the
virtues of frugality, modesty and incorruptibility, which might be
said to have faded into the background. Pledging allegiance to the
Emperor, he was innovative in defining absolutism in moral terms,
espousing a conception of loyalty at odds with the times, and new
standards of conduct to go with it. Following Gongsun scholars
"took to supporting monarchical power", he and Zhang Tang
achieving "nothing less than a tilting of the axis of the conventional
moral compass toward a more legal-centric orientation."
Before Gongsun the selection of officials depended mainly on the
judgment of senior officials, and the injunctions of the Emperor,
though still referencing character. Only seven percent of
officials at the time were Confucian. Gongsun's rapid rise would be
celebrated as its success, but apart from attracting opportunists
to Confucianism, also saw the ideas of "Chinese Legalism" work their
way into Confucianism, and those espousing "Legalist" policies counted
among their ranks.
Many were willing to follow Gongsun, while notable contemporaries like
Dong Zhongshu, Ji An and historiographer
Sima Qian called him and
Zhang Tang flatterers and deceitful hypocrites, Gongsun receiving high
salary while wearing simple clothes, and appearing lenient while
inwardly uncompromising ("a suspicious man, outwardly magnanimous but
inwardly scheming... he pretended to be friendly but repaid all
wrongs" -Sima Qian), and accused him of subverting Confucianism. If
nothing else, Gongsun could easily be said to have manipulated the
legal system, and generally, did not openly state his own opinion in
court (though these could hardly be considered particular to him).
Whatever the case, both lived frugal, if not charitable lives and
established new standards of conduct. Though utilizing his virtues to
further his career, Gongsun was said to be proficient, meticulous,
yielding and filial. He was praised for giving away, at times, most of
his salary to fellow scholars, to the point of having little left over
for his family, only revealing this to the court at the charge of Ji
An. After failing to suppress the rebellion in
Huainan due to illness
he accepted Ji An's criticism of hypocrisy.
While Sima states that Gongsun considered himself to have died without
achieving merit, the historian
Ban Gu considered him to have
outstanding ability. More recently,
Homer H. Dubs calls
him "admirable in personal conduct, able in disputation, capable in
legal matters, and an ornament to scholarship", while Tu Weiming
calls him and Dong the heirs of Shusun Tong.
^ Creel 1949, pp. 239-241; Creel 1960, pp. 239-241; Creel
1970, pp. 86-87; Dillon 1998, p. 79; Vankeerberghen 2001,
pp. 20,173; Loewe, p. 145-148; Xinzhong, p. 218,231.
^ Queen 1996, p. 30,31; Loewe 2011, p. 103; Xinzhong 2015,
p. 14; Liang 2015.
^ Vankeerberghen 2001, p. 26.
^ Roy & Tsien 1978, p. 225; Gentz 2015, p. 107.
^ Hsiung 1985, p. 8; Gentz 2015, p. 107; Liang 2015,
^ Creel 1949, pp. 239-241; Vankeerberghen 2001, p. 176.
^ Dillon 1998, p. 349.
^ Mayers 1874, p. 90; Loewe 2011, pp. 55,149; Gentz 2015,
p. 107; Ssu-ma 2010, p. 363; Redfield 1953, p. 54.
^ Liang 2015, p. 14; Morrison 1815, p. 899.
^ Queen 1996, p. 244; Loewe 2011, p. 149-150; Gentz 2015,
^ Creel 1949, pp. 239-241; Creel 1960, pp. 239-241; Hsy
1986, p. 316; Xinzhong 2015, pp. 230-231; Xinzhong 2015,
p. 230; Loewe 2011, p. 55,148.
^ a b Wei-ming Tu 1993, p. 22.
^ Creel 1949, pp. 239-241; Creel 1960, pp. 239-241; Ssu-ma
2010, p. 107; Loewe 2011, p. 55.
^ Loewe 1994, p. 122; Queen 1996, p. 30,63; Loewe 2011,
^ Liang 2015, p. 371.
^ Creel 1949, pp. 239-241; Creel 1960, pp. 239-241.
^ Ssu-ma 2010, p. 364,396; Gentz 2015, p. 107.
^ Creel 1949, pp. 239-241; Watson 1958, p. 310; Creel 1960,
pp. 239-241; Vankeerberghen 2001, pp. 18-21,27-28; Liang
2015, p. 14.
^ a b Wyatt 2002, p. 564.
^ Vankeerberghen 2001, p. 28.
^ Creel 1970, p. 87.
^ Vankeerberghen 2001, pp. 14-36; Rimer & Chaves 1997,
p. 202; Ssu-ma 2010, p. 368,390.
^ Ssu-ma 2010, p. 364,396; Watson 1958, p. 319; Liang 2015,
^ Vankeerberghen 2001, p. 27.
^ Ssu-ma 2010, p. 390.
^ Watson 1958, p. 268.
^ Liang 2015, p. 14.
^ Ssu-ma 2010, p. 370.
^ Vankeerberghen 2001, p. 176.
^ Vankeerberghen 2001, pp. 24,26-27.
^ a b Redfield 1953, p. 56.
^ Loewe 2011, p. 145-146.
^ Liang 2015; Wei-ming Tu, p. 22.
^ Xinzhong 2015, p. 508.
^ Creel 1949, pp. 239-241; Creel 1960, pp. 239-241; Hsy
1986, p. 316; Yates 1988, p. 34; Tu 1993, p. 195;
Vankeerberghen 2001, pp. 20-25; Ssu-ma 2010, p. 370,390;
Gentz 2015, p. 107; Wei-ming Tu 1993, p. 23; Eisenstadt
1986, p. 369.
^ Ssu-ma 2010, p. 391.
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