Why was the emperor so important in Dong Zhongshu’s vision of Han political culture after the fall of the Qin? Was the law code actually made more humane in practice? How does this reading reflect the gender ideology of Han China?
(This first paragraph is more of an aside about why we should be careful when asking questions like this. For the main answer to your question, you can skip this paragraph.) When we try to answer questions like this one about why Dong thought as he did, we have to realize that we are imputing thoughts to him that he might not have had. If you asked Dong why the emperor was so important in his thought he would probably have said something like “because there is no other way for a society to be ordered other than with the emperor at its head.” In other words, he would say that he believed it because it was true. When we try to answer a question like this, by contrast, we say that he must have had some reason to think this even though he himself would not have recognized this reason. This is like saying that Americans who believe in gun rights do so because they are embittered that the country is being “taken away” from them when they themselves would say they believe in gun rights because guns are a fundamental right. In short, we need to realize that we are claiming that we know more about people (in this case, Dong) and their thinking than they themselves do.
If we are going to claim that we know what motivated Dong, we can say that he placed the emperor at the center of his vision of political culture as a reaction to the events of the end of the Qin Dynasty and to events in his own time. At the end of the Qin Dynasty, there was intrigue and chaos as the emperor’s will was thwarted and the chief eunuch Zhao Gao had another emperor killed to put his own choice on the throne. This led to the fall of the dynasty. Around Dong’s own time, there was the Rebellion of the Seven States that shook the stability of the country as well. Dong may have looked at these things and been inspired to believe that it was necessary to have a strong emperor who was revered and placed at the head of the Chinese polity. This strong leader would maintain order and harmony in the kingdom.
Most accounts do say that the law code was more humane in practice under the Han than it was under the Qin. This makes sense because the Qin was such a short-lived dynasty. The Qin were in a position where they had to try to force China to be united. This, arguably, required a much harsher system of justice than was required under the Han since the Han only had to maintain political unity rather than creating it. At any rate, historians typically say that punishments were less harsh under the Han than under the Qin.
This reading reflects the gender ideology of Han China because women are essentially invisible in it. During this period, women’s lives were said to be lives of “three submissions.” Women were supposed to submit to and be ruled by their fathers first, then their husbands, and later (after they were widowed) their sons. In this reading, there is only one mention of women. All other mentions are about fathers and brothers and sons. This reflects the idea that women were not really seen as important in Chinese society at this time.