My first book project examines the inner court in the politics of the Han dynasty from the angles of space, gender and family, social networks, institution, and the comparative study of empires. In traditional historiography, the inner court —including the palace women, imperial affines, eunuchs, and the emperor’s favorites—are often depicted as the cause of political decay and blamed for the fall of dynasties. I argue that this narrative was written from the standpoint of the bureaucracy, who desired more political power but repeatedly failed and thus were in constant tension with the inner court. I offer a revision of the current paradigm that highlights the bureaucracy and downgrades the inner court, presenting a picture of competing ideas of legitimacy and dynamic interactions of different social groups at the Han court.
The inner court emerged not as an institution, but rather as a space and a group of people empowered by the inner quarter which was then repeatedly institutionalized. Since spatial and emotional proximity to the emperor generated power, space was not merely a reflection of power structures but also a drive for historical change. Gender and family relations were crucial to the inner court as well as to the empire, which was sustained largely through legitimate reproduction and alliances among great families. A social network analysis based on structured data and software reveals that the composition of the inner court was dynamic and the relations between the inner and the outer were fluid. The persistent negative views on the inner court stemmed not only from the tensions between the inner court and the bureaucracy but also the unequal power relations in the production and reproduction of historical narratives. The power of the inner court, as well as the denigration of it, was a common phenomenon in premodern empires including the Roman Empire, the Byzantine, the Ottoman, and the Qing, due to the emperors’ vulnerability in imperial power structures vis-à-vis the bureaucracy.