Local authority in the Han dynasty : focus on the Sanlao

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This thesis examines the social structure and culture of the Han dynasty, with a focus on a type of local authority that played a supplementary role in the Han administrative structure and a vital role in cultural construction: the Sanlao. The social position of the Sanlao originated in the Zhou dynasty, and gradually became the title for local non-official leaders during the Spring and Autumn period. The rescript issued in the second year of the reign of the Emperor Gaozu of the Han dynasty shows that local people were appointed by the government as Sanlao at county and township levels. This means that the Sanlao were recognised in their appointment by the imperial court and participated in the bureaucratic system as semi-officials. During the reign of the Emperors Gaozu, Wen, and Jing, the essential function of the Sanlao in local areas was to maintain social stability, mentor local officials and mediate conflicts among commoners. The Sanlao first played a role as advisors, where they provided vital information for the decision-making process throughout the government hierarchy. Case studies show that they acted as remonstrators, persuaders and critics by providing information directly to emperors. Secondly, they mentored local officials with local knowledge to assist with governing affairs. This was based on their experience in local areas and they worked with the Upright and Elder officials to change the governing practice of the Han dynasty. Thirdly, they acted as mediators to resolve conflicts between people and helped local officials in legal affairs. Sanlao also worked as local leaders involved in witnessing wills and appealing to filial piety and fraternal duty to settle lawsuits. Seen from these perspectives, Sanlao can be viewed as providing an important assistant role in governance. Sanlao first emerged spontaneously as folk leaders during the Spring and Autumn Period and then gradually became the intermediary popular authority of local societies bridging the gap between the state bureaucracy and the population. The institutionalised Sanlao system played a vital role in keeping society stable during the Han dynasty.
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