With the successful completion of the Qin conquest (221 B.C.E.) and gradual development of imperial rule under the Han by the time of the emperor Wudi (141–86 B.C.E.) came another shift in political and cosmological discourse within the ruling class. The unique title of the emperor (august lord; huangdi) placed him above the warriors, scholars, magistrates, and economic managers who ran the state, and also above the complex array of magicians, shamans, and religious cults that made up the spiritual landscape. The ruler now occupied the position of cosmic pivot. The cosmos was explained as constantly changing, its primordial energy, or the psychophysical stuff of which all things are made (qi), being differentiated by the complementary interaction of bipolar valences (yin and yang). Every part of the cosmos resonated with the changes occurring in the others. Small changes in climate, ecology, production, and administrative policy were related to a larger process that moved in grand cycles through five phases. Scholars gathered at the imperial academy and many lesser academies across the realm to improve their understanding of heaven, earth, and human sciences based on this cosmology. Dong Zhongshu (c. 179–c. 104) is credited with the revival of early Confucian textual studies and the Mencian idea of "moral mind" within this context.
What modern scholars have called "Han Confucianism" comprised a broad spectrum of beliefs, social practices, and textual scholarship. The Five Classics on which imperial academy scholars based their interpretations were the Changes, Documents, Odes, and Rites—all purported to be Zhou classics—and Spring and Autumn Annals of Lu, an extremely spare text attributed to Confucius. Dong Zhongshu used the Spring and Autumn Annals as a prophetic text, giving it more power in imperial academic discussions. One commentary on this text, the Gongyang zhuan, imagined in it cryptic references to a past and future age of "great peace," which readily fit into the discussions of continuous cycles of change and cosmic resonance. Dong advocated studying the past to prepare for the future. He interpreted specific natural disasters that damaged symbolic imperial structures as warnings to the emperor that corruption and dishonesty at court were moving the human world away from the "great peace" and toward cosmic disorder. Although contemporary scholars increasingly conclude that this version of "Han Confucianism" never subsumed the larger cosmology of which these moral arguments were a part, the image of Confucius as a sage continued and the idea of a Confucian vision of a utopian future reappeared in the nineteenth century. The radical reformer Kang Youwei (1858–1927) applied it to the modern world.
As the male educated elite of the Later Han period (25–220 C.E.) found themselves dependent more on large landed estates, inherited titles, and marriage ties than on official positions with the Han state, they found other uses for the texts. The families of the titled elite used the Rites as their guide to social relations. Confucius had become something like a patron saint of scholars (ru), and education in the classics had become a necessary part of elite status. An early Han text called Filial Piety preached devotion to parents and ancestors. If education for men had carried with it the obligation to serve both one's parents and the public good, education for women entailed the obligation to serve both the family of one's birth and the family of one's marriage in their roles as daughters, wives, and mothers. The rituals of ancestor worship distinguished elite male lines of descent, while the rituals of marriage and childbirth defined the passage of women from one line to another. Ban Zhao (c. 48–c. 119), an educated woman of the highest status during this period, has been celebrated for her literary talents and exemplary role in further propagating these family values in her essays Admonitions to Women. With this text also begins a discussion of gender using Confucian concepts, as the author reminds her male readers that if a "gentleman" owes his status not to conditions of birth but to "Confucian" learning, then the same must be true of the exemplary woman.