"Convicts as Officials in the Western Han (202 BC–9 AD): Disparities between Philosophical Ideal and Realpolitik"

Professor Cai Liang, University of Notre Dame
- | A Zoom Event

This talk examines the convict politics in central court. Former convicts were entrusted with  power, serving as important officials or even chancellors. Approximately one third of recorded high officials throughout the two centuries of the Western Han were once condemned; some of them even received the death penalty but they managed to re-ascend to the center of politics. At the same time, officials easily fell into the law and became convicts themselves. As a high-risk job, approximately 40% of the high officials during their tenures were accused of violating the law and received punishments ranging from hard labor to the death penalty. Severe tension emerged between the nature of the law and the status of convicts, between the lawful and the guilty, and between the philosophical elaboration on the treatment of criminals and the actual practice.

Dr. Liang Cai has specialized in Chinese political and intellectual history. Focusing on Qin-Han dynasties(221 BCE -23 CE), the fountainhead of Chinese civilization, Dr. Cai’s publications cover Confucianism, bureaucracy, law, social networks, and archaeologically excavated manuscripts. Collaborating with computer scientists, Dr. Cai has been engaged in a digital humanities project that aims to create a structured biographical data and social network analysis of early Chinese empires.

Among Dr. Cai’s other areas of research and teaching expertise are classical Chinese thought, China in world history, early imperial China, and legacy of Chinese empires in contemporary China and global communities.

Dr. Cai’s first book Witchcraft and the Rise of the First Confucian Empire contests long-standing claims that Confucianism came to prominence with the promotion of Emperor Wu in the Han dynasty. It was a witchcraft scandal in 91–87 BCE, she argues, that created a political vacuum and permitted Confucians to rise to power and transform China into a Confucian regime. Her book won the 2014 Academic Award for Excellence presented by Chinese Historians in the United States and was a finalist of 2015 Best First Book in the History of Religions presented by the American Academy of Religion. Dr. Cai is finishing her second book entitled Convict Politics in Early China: Confucian Virtue and the Emperor's Law, 221 BCE – 23 CE, which is under contract with Cambridge University press.  In the light of great divergence between East and West, this book attempts to answer a fundamental question in the formative age of Chinese bureaucratic empires (221 BCE -23 CE): could law or morality be sources of power independent from the government and thereby compete with political authority?