Han Dynasty

From New World Encyclopedia

Han commanderies and kingdoms 2 C.E.

The Han Dynasty 206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.) followed the Qin Dynasty and preceded the Three Kingdoms in China. The Han Dynasty was founded by the prominent family known as the Liu clan. The history of this dynasty divides into two periods, the Western or early Han (206 B.C.E. - 9 C.E.) and the Eastern or later Han (25 - 220 C.E.). The interim period was the short-lived Hsin dynasty following the Wang Mang's usurpation of power in 9 C.E. Han rule was restored in 25 C.E.

The reign of the Han Dynasty, which lasted for 400 years, is commonly considered within China to be one of the greatest periods in the entire history of China. As a result, the members of the ethnic majority of Chinese people to this day still call themselves "People of Han," in honor of the Liu family and the dynasty they created.

During the Han Dynasty, China officially became a Confucian state and prospered domestically: agriculture, handicrafts and commerce flourished, and the population reached 50 million. Meanwhile, the empire extended its political and cultural influence over Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Central Asia before it finally collapsed under a combination of domestic and external pressures. The foundations of the Civil Service as a meritocracy were established. The Han gave the Chinese a sense of unity and bequeathed an efficient administrative system. Their philosophy stressed charity and responsible governance. Generally, the Han ruled justly and did not misuse their power.

The Emergence

Within the first three months after Qin Dynasty Emperor Qin Shi Huang's death at Shaqiu, widespread revolts by peasants, prisoners, soldiers and descendants of the nobles of the six Warring States sprang up all over China. Chen Sheng and Wu Guang, two in a group of about 900 soldiers assigned to defend against the Xiongnu, were the leaders of the first rebellion. Continuous insurgence finally toppled the Qin dynasty in 206 B.C.E. The leader of the insurgents was Xiang Yu, an outstanding military commander without political expertise, who divided the country into 19 feudal states to his own satisfaction.

The ensuing war among those states signified the five years of Chu Han Contention with Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, as the eventual winner. Initially, "Han" (the principality as created by Xiang Yu's division) consisted merely of modern Sichuan, Chongqing, and southern Shaanxi and was a minor humble principality, but eventually grew into an empire; the Han Dynasty was named after the principality, which was itself named after Hanzhong—modern southern Shaanxi, the region centering the modern city of Hanzhong. The beginning of the Han Dynasty can be dated either from 206 B.C.E. when the Qin dynasty crumbled and the Principality of Han was established or 202 B.C.E. when Xiang Yu committed suicide. The Han always justified their seizure of power by accusing the Qin of tyranny.

Daoism and feudal system

The new empire retained much of the Qin administrative structure but retreated a bit from centralized rule by establishing vassal principalities in some areas for the sake of political convenience. After the establishment of the Han Dynasty, Emperor Gao (Liu Bang) divided the country into several "feudal states" to satisfy some of his wartime allies, though he planned to get rid of them once he had consolidated his power.

After his death, his successors from Emperor Hui to Emperor Jing tried to rule China combining Legalist methods with the Daoist philosophic ideals. During this "pseudo-Taoism era," a stable centralized government over China was established through revival of the agriculture sectors and fragmentations of "feudal states" after the suppression of the Rebellion of the seven states. Chinese legalism flourished from near the end of the Zhou dynasty until about the third century B.C.E. It stressed that the needs and will of the state took priority over individualism. Laws, though, had to be published and everyone treated equally before the law.

Emperor Wu and Confucianism

During the "Daoism era," China was able to maintain peace with Xiongnu by paying tribute and marrying princesses to them. During this time, the dynasty's goal was to relieve the society of harsh laws, wars, and conditions from both the Qin Dynasty, external threats from nomads, and early internal conflicts within the Han court. The government reduced taxation and assumed a subservient status to neighboring nomadic tribes. This policy of the government's reduced role over civilian lives started a period of stability, which was called the "Rule of Wen and Jing," named after the two Emperors of this particular era. However, under Emperor Han Wudi's leadership, the most prosperous period (140 B.C.E.–87 B.C.E.) of the Han Dynasty, the Empire was able to fight back. At its height, China incorporated the present day Qinghai, Gansu, and northern Vietnam into its territories.

Emperor Wu (156-87 B.C.E.) decided that Taoism was no longer suitable for China, and officially declared China to be a Confucian state; however, like the Emperors of China before him, he combined Legalist methods with the Confucian ideal. This official adoption of Confucianism led to not only a civil service nomination system, but also the compulsory knowledge of Confucian classics of candidates for the imperial bureaucracy, a requirement that lasted up to the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911. Confucian scholars gained prominent status as the core of the civil service. Emperor Wu's rule saw the greatest territorial expansion. His 54-year reign was the longest in Chinese history until the seventeenth century. His administrative reforms remained influential throughout Chinese history, arguably reaching into the Communist era. According to Han philosophy of governance, first, the emperor and the government are responsible for setting up conditions in which people can derive material benefit from productive labor; the stress on productivity is derived from the Legalists and Mo Tzu. Second, the emperor can provide an example. It is the job of the emperor to care for the welfare of his people (Confucianism), yet at the same time, the Emperor should withdraw from active rule (Daoism). How then did the Emperor rule? By providing a living example of benevolence (Hooker, 1996).

Beginning of the Silk Road

The 138 B.C.E.–126 B.C.E. travels of Zhang Qian to the West, Mogao Caves, 618–712 C.E. mural.

From 138 B.C.E., Emperor Wu also dispatched Zhang Qian twice as his envoy to the Western Regions, and in the process pioneered the route known as the Silk Road from Chang'an (today's Xi'an, Shaanxi Province), through Xinjiang and Central Asia, and on to the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

Following Zhang Qian' embassy and report, commercial relations between China and Central as well as Western Asia flourished, as many Chinese missions were sent throughout the 1st century B.C.E., initiating the development of the Silk Road:

"The largest of these embassies to foreign states numbered several hundred persons, while even the smaller parties included over 100 members… In the course of one year anywhere from five to six to over ten parties would be sent out." (Shiji, trans. Burton Watson).

China also sent missions to Parthia, which were followed up by reciprocal missions from Parthian envoys around 100 B.C.E.:

"When the Han envoy first visited the kingdom of Anxi (Parthia), the king of Anxi dispatched a party of 20,000 horsemen to meet them on the eastern border of the kingdom... When the Han envoys set out again to return to China, the king of Anxi dispatched envoys of his own to accompany them… The emperor was delighted at this." (Shiji, 123, trans. Burton Watson).

Han foreign relations 2C.E.

The Roman historian Florus describes the visit of numerous envoys, included Seres (Chinese), to the first Roman Emperor Augustus, who reigned between 27 B.C.E. and 14 C.E.

In 97 C.E. the Chinese general Ban Chao went as far west as the Caspian Sea with 70,000 men and established direct military contacts with the Parthian Empire, also dispatching an envoy to Rome in the person of Gan Ying.

Several Roman embassies to China soon followed from 166 C.E., and are officially recorded in Chinese historical chronicles. Good exchanges such as Chinese silk, African ivory, and Roman incense increased the contacts between the East and West.

Contacts with the Kushan Empire led to the introduction of Buddhism to China from India in the first century.

Rise of landholding class

To draw a lot of funds for his triumphant campaigns against the Xiongnu, Emperor Wu relinquished land control to merchants and the riches, and in effect legalized the privatization of lands. Land taxes were based on the sizes of fields instead of on income. The harvest could not always pay the taxes completely as incomes from selling harvest were often market-driven and a stable amount could not be guaranteed, especially not after harvest-reducing natural disasters. Merchants and prominent families then lured peasants to sell their lands since land accumulation guaranteed living standards of theirs and their descendants' in the agricultural society of China. Lands were hence accumulating into a new class of landholding families. The Han government in turn imposed more taxes on the remaining independent servants in order to make up the tax losses, therefore encouraging more peasants to come under the landholding elite or the landlords.

A bronze coin of the Han Dynasty—ca. first century B.C.E.

Ideally the peasants pay the landlords certain periodic (usually annual) amount of income, who in turn provide protection against crimes and other hazards. In fact an increasing number of peasant population in the prosperous Han society and limited amount of lands provided the elite to elevate their standards for any new subordinate peasants. The inadequate education and often complete illiteracy of peasants forced them into a living of providing physical services, which were mostly farming in an agricultural society. The peasants, without other professions for their better living, compromised to the lowered standard and sold their harvest to pay their landlords. In fact they often had to delay the payment or borrow money from their landlords in the aftermath of natural disasters that reduced harvests. To make the situation worse, some Han rulers double-taxed the peasants. Eventually the living conditions of the peasants worsened as they solely depended on the harvest of the land they once owned.

The landholding elite and landlords, for their part, provided inaccurate information of subordinate peasants and lands to avoid paying taxes; to this very end corruption and incompetence of the Confucian scholar gentry on economics would play a vital part. Han court officials who attempted to strip lands out of the landlords faced such enormous resistance that their policies would never be put in to place. In fact only a member of the landholding families, for instance Wang Mang, was able to put his reforming ideals into effect despite failures of his "turning the clock back" policies.

Interruption of Han rule

After 200 years, Han rule was interrupted briefly during 9–24 C.E. by Wang Mang, a reformer and a member of the landholding families. The economic situation deteriorated at the end of Western Han Dynasty. Wang Mang, believing the Liu family had lost the Mandate of Heaven, took power and turned the clock back with vigorous monetary and land reforms, which damaged the economy even further. Chinese believe that rebellion is justified if an Emperor ceases to enjoy Heaven's mandate, which is usually thought to be lost if a ruler acts unjustly.

Rise and fall of Eastern Han Dynasty

A distant relative of Liu royalty, Liu Xiu, after a number of agrarian rebellions, overthrew Wang Mang's dynasty, and reestablished the Han Dynasty (commonly referred to as the Eastern Han Dynasty, as his capital was at Luoyang, east of the old Han Dynasty capital at Chang'an). He and his son Ming of Han and grandson Zhang of Han were generally considered able emperors whose reigns were the prime of the Eastern Han Dynasty. After Emperor Zhang, however, the dynasty fell into states of corruption and political infighting among three groups of powerful individuals - eunuchs, empresses' clans, and Confucian scholar-officials. None of these three parties was able to improve the harsh livelihood of peasants under the landholding families. Land privatizations and accumulations in the hands of the elite affected the societies of the Three Kingdoms and the Southern and Northern Dynasties that the landholding elite held the actual driving and ruling power of the country. Successful ruling entities worked with these families, and consequently their policies favored the elite.

Daoist ideals of equal rights and equal land distribution quickly spread throughout the peasantry. As a result, the peasant insurgents of the Yellow Turban Rebellion swarmed the North China Plain, the main agricultural sector of the country. Although the Han dynasty continued to claim the imperial title, effective power devolved to regional war-lords, who later assumed royal titles as rulers of a series of separate states. Thus was the start of the period of the Three Kingdoms of Wei, Wu and Han. The figurehead Emperor Xian reigned until 220 C.E. when Cao Pi of Wei (187-226 C.E.) forced his abdication. The king of each kingdom claimed to be the legitimate successor to the Hans.

In 311 C.E., around one hundred years after the fall of the Eastern Han, its capital Luoyang was sacked by the Huns.


Intellectual, literary, and artistic endeavors revived and flourished during the Han Dynasty. The Han period produced China's most famous historian, Sima Qian (145 B.C.E.–87 B.C.E.), whose Records of the Grand Historian provides a detailed chronicle from the time of legendary Xia emperor to that of the Emperor Wu (141 B.C.E.–87 B.C.E.). Technological advances also marked this period. One of the great Chinese inventions, paper, dates from the Han Dynasty.

Several Roman embassies to China are recounted in Chinese history, starting with a Hou Hanshu (History of the Later Han) account of a Roman convoy set out by emperor Antoninus Pius that reached the Chinese capital Luoyang in 166 and was greeted by Emperor Huan.

The Han Dynasty was notable also for its military prowess. The empire expanded westward as far as the rim of the Tarim Basin (in modern Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region), making possible relatively secure caravan traffic across Central Asia. The paths of caravan traffic are often called the "Silk Road" because the route was used to export Chinese silk. Chinese armies also invaded and annexed parts of northern Vietnam and northern Korea (Wiman Joseon) toward the end of the second century B.C.E. Han control of peripheral regions was generally insecure, however. To ensure peace with non-Chinese local powers, the Han court developed a mutually beneficial "tributary system." Non-Chinese states were allowed to remain autonomous in exchange for symbolic acceptance of Han overlordship. This included land occupied by the Mongols. Tributary ties were confirmed and strengthened through intermarriages at the ruling level and periodic exchanges of gifts and goods.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Pirazzoli-T'Serstevens, Michele. The Han Civilization of China. Oxford: Phaidon, 1982. ISBN 0714822132
  • Pirazzoli-T'Serstevens, Michele. The Han Dynasty. NY: Rizzoli Intl. Pubn. 1982. ISBN 0847804380
  • Watson, Burton. (Ssu-ma Ch'ien: Grand Historian of China. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958. ASIN B000E8OJU0


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