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The Han dynasty, one of the most important dynasties in all Chinese history, ruled Ancient China with only a brief break from 202 BC to AD 221, a period of more than 400 years

The Han dynasty came to power in 202 BC, bringing an end to the chaos that raged throughout China after the fall of the Qin dynasty. The Han emperors ruled China for more than 400 years, except for a brief period between AD 9 and 23, when a powerful minister, Wang Mang, seized the throne.

The four hundred years of unity which the Han brought China gave the Chinese  people a strong identity as a single nation (to this day they call themselves the "Han"). Moreover, during the Han period the Chinese civil service was developed into an organization which could govern the entire country effectively and weld it together into a single state. Connected to this, Confucianisn became the ruling ideology of China under the Han, and would remain so until the 20th century.

 

map of the Han Dynasty of Ancient China

View maps and timeline of The Han Dyansty of Ancient China in the History Atlas

We have seen that the Qin dynasty united China under its rule, but within a generation had been engulfed in rebellion and chaos. By 206, when the last Qin emperor surrendered his capital to one of the rebel leaders and abdicated the throne, many different rebel groups had seized control of their own areas of China. Their leaders had declared themselves kings, and had fallen to fighting each other. After its all too brief period of unity, China was sliding again into being a collection of different states. 

The rise of Liu Bang

One of these rebel leaders was Liu Bang. Like the others he had taken a royal title and now called himself the king of Han (Han had been one of the former states which the Qin had conquered).

 

Liu Bang was a man of peasant origin, with little if any education. He had risen to be a junior official under the Qin, and the story goes that in c. 210 he had been put in charge of some convicts, marching them to where the First Emperor’s mausoleum was being built. They were to join the labour force on the huge project. Some of these convicts escaped, and Liu Bang knew that he would himself be executed for allowing this to happen. So, rather than turn himself in, he became a rebel himself, like many others at this time. 

 

Liu Bang proved to be a first rate rebel leader, and an extremely shrewd judge of men. During the rebellions against the Qin and in the civil wars that followed, he surrounded himself with good generals, who were responsible for winning many battles for him. Later, as emperor, he was to surround himself with very able ministers. 

 

His rebel group was the one that first seized the Qin capital. This gave him great prestige, and he further augmented his reputation by formally abolishing the much-hated Qin law code. He ruled his area well, unlike other rebel leaders, who all too often plundered the people over whom they had set themselves. His fame spread throughout China, which greatly helped him in his campaigns.

 

Emperor Gaozu (Liu Bang) Founder of Han Dynasty
Emperor Gaozu (Liu Bang) Founder of Han Dynasty 

 

As the different rebel groups, under their new “kings”, started fighting amongst themselves, he was able to play off one against the other. The groups rapidly coalesced into two alliances, with Liu Bang as the head of one of them. This alliance was victorious, and Liu Bang proclaimed himself emperor. As he had previously taken the title of “King of Han”, his dynasty was called the Han dynasty.

 

Establishing a dynasty

Although he now had the title of emperor, Liu Bang was at this point far from in complete control of the country: he had only won his position through the powerful aid of his allies. These were other rebel “kings” who still had their followers at their beck and call. So he faced a dilemma: if he made a move to take complete control for himself, his allies would turn against him and the civil war would start again. If on the other hand he recognised his allies as kings in their own territories, he would be left with very little real power himself, even if he did retain the title of emperor.

So, recognising these realities, he compromised. Liu Bang - or Gaozu, which is the reign-name by which he is known to Chinese history - allocated kingdoms to his leading supporters. These were all located in rich eastern parts of China. He himself kept control over the poorer western regions, dividing them into provinces and prefects under his own officials, following the practices of the Qin. Poor though these provinces were, it was here where the most dangerous frontiers were located, and thus where the bulk of the armies were based. This meant that Gaozu kept most of military power under his own control.

 

This arrangement prevented a new round of civil war breaking out. However, it was not a comfortable position for the new emperor to be in – while they were under the control of many different kings he could not benefit from the immense tax revenues produced by the wealthiest parts of his empire. One way or another, therefore, he quickly found reasons to depose all but one of these kings. He give their kingdoms to members of his own family. Not only were the new kings his own relatives, bound to him by ties of blood, but they had more limited powers than their predecessors had had.

 

On becoming emperor, Gaozu took over the old Qin administration. Many officials who had served the Qin now served Gaozu. This enabled him to govern the empire effectively from the start of his reign. However, he was careful to distance himself from many of the Qin ways of doing things. Having abolished the Qin law code, he promulgated a new, milder code, with less cruel punishments. He lightened the tax and labour services burden. 

 

These carefully balanced policies enabled Gaozu to present himself to the people as a ruler who looked after their welfare, and set the Han regime on a much sounder footing than the Qin had had. 

 

The Western Han dynasty

The 400 years of Chinese history under the Han is divided into two. The first two hundred years are called the Western Han (206 BC – AD 2), as its capital was the western city of Xian; the last two centuries are called the Eastern Han period (AD 25-220), as the capital was situated in Loyang, further to the east. These two periods are divided by the rule of the non-Han emperor, Wang Mang, which ended in a time of great chaos and suffering.

 

Subordinate kingdoms within the Han empire

 

Gaozu, the founder of the Han empire, had been obliged to leave the provinces divided between his own governors in the west, and various kings in the east (see above) – all but one of whom were members of his own family. 

 

After some of the kings were involved in a dangerous rebellion, in 154 BC, the size and number of kingdoms was reduced, and the power of the kings was greatly restricted even within their kingdoms. As time went by, more and more kingdoms were abolished, and provinces under appointed governors came to cover most of the empire.

 

The founder of the Han empire, Gaozu, had not followed any particular school of thought; he had simply acted according to what seemed best at any particular time. In succeeding generations, however, things changed. The Han crown princes were given the best education possible, under the best teachers – who happened to be Confucian scholars. It was natural that when the princes became emperors themselves, they should favour Confucianism, and soon it was the official philosophy of government.

 

A dual heritage

 

The Han empire thus came to have its roots in two conflicting schools of thought, Legalism and Confucianism. In practical matters, the Han ruled according to Legalist principles. They kept most of the Qin law code, which was based on Legalist principles. Even the Qin idea of group responsibility for crimes was kept. The people were required to obey the law without question, and, they had to pay taxes, work on state projects, and serve in the imperial army.

 

A Western-Han painted ceramic mounted cavalryman from the tomb of a military general
A Western-Han painted ceramic mounted cavalryman from the tomb of a military general 

 

All these obligations had been imposed on the Chinese people by the Legalist regime of the Qin dynasty.

 

Above all, the Han emperors governed their empire through a huge civil service, which had first been created by the Legalist Qin ministers, and had then been taken over and expanded by the Han. This great bureaucracy was staffed by officials who were appointed and promoted on merit (a Legalist idea), regardless of their family backgrounds (although most came from the gentry class, since those lower down the social ladder could not afford the long years of education required to enter an official career). 

 

On the other hand, the Han presented themselves as Confucian rulers, and urged the people to live according to Confucian principles. This was useful, as these stressed the virtue of respect for elders and obedience to rulers. For their part, the Han claimed that, following Confucian precepts, they were governing in the interest of the people as a whole. And this was no idle claim. Following the Han founders lead, the Han law code, though based on that of the Qin, was milder, and the punishments less severe. Although they did not remove the peoples' duties to do labour service, or pay taxes, or serve in the army, the Han made these obligations easier for them to bear than they had been under the Qin. Han officials, while appointed for their efficiency, were trained in the Confucian way, with the underlying idea that governors were there to serve the people. Even most of the Han emperors themselves sincerely followed the Confucian precept of seeking the welfare of the people first.

 

This may seem to us an odd situation – two conflicting philosophies at work in the same regime; but it worked. The Former Han empire was almost certainly the best-governed state in the world at its time. The government machine worked well, bringing a high standard of justice and order to the lands which it controlled. Its officials were capable, well-educated and, for the time, honest. They were appointed for their intelligence, and promoted on the basis of their experience and performance.

 

Agriculture, industry and commerce under the Han

 

Han administrators placed great emphasis on agriculture, as they knew it was this that provided the empire with its primary economic base, and a flourishing agriculture made for a contented peasantry. The officials were intent on alleviating hardship and improving productivity. During Han times there was a marked concentration of the population in the central plains of the Yellow River region, and the general peace and stability of the period saw a sharp rise in numbers. Such was population pressure near the capital that land was a hundred times more expensive there than in border province.

 

From the very earliest years of the Han empire there were calls for the resettlement of farmers to the northern border regions as bulwark against incursions. A policy took shape in which land was provided, houses constructed, medical facilities put in place and tax remitted. In 119 BC, the policy was intensified following serious flooding of the Yellow River. A total of 700,000 people moved north.

 

At the same time there was a steady drift southward, into areas where rice replaced millet as the staple crop.

 

Provincial governments often took the initiative in devising and implementing irrigation schemes. The spread of the use of iron tools – ploughs, sickles, scythes, spades and hoes – was officially encouraged, and this significantly improved productivity.

 

Agriculture: A pair of Eastern-Han iron Scissors
A pair of Eastern-Han iron scissors Reproduced underShare Alike license 

 

The iron industry was nationalised in 119 BC, and forty-nine state-owned foundries, with enormous blast furnaces built of heat-resistant bricks, provided an industrial base upon which the requirements of the agricultural sector could be met. New techniques for creating higher smelting temperatures improved production, enabling more resilient weapons and a greater variety of agricultural items to be manufactured; ploughshares were redesigned and improved.

 

In 85 BC an official introduced a seed drill (1800 years before one was developed in the west), so that ploughing and seeding could be undertaken simultaneously.

 

A manual on field techniques compiled in c. 30 BC, covering the cultivation of a wide range of plants, including wheat, millet, soya beans, hemp, and mulberry trees, reveals the rapid advances of farming methods under the Western Han.

 

Dykes and canals were built to irrigate farmland and prevent flooding. One canal was 125 km long, and linked the Yellow River to the capital, Changan; it was used to transport food to the huge urban population.

 

The Han period also witnessed other vital innovations in productivity, such as water-powered bellows used in the production of iron, and the application of waterpower to milling grain. Above all, paper was invented in the 1st century BC, bamboo having proved not ideal as a material for making documents and books with.

 

The centuries of peace which the Han period brought stimulated trade. Internal trade within the empire flourished, and exports became a major factor for the first time. The expansion of agriculture and trade led to the further proliferation of towns and cities within China. 


The main Chinese export item during  the period was silk, traded overland through Central Asia along the Silk Road. Silk reached as far afield as Rome in the 1st century BC.

 

The capital

 

The Han capital, Xian, was probably largest city in the world at this time - and would be until the coming of the Roman Empire, when the city of Rome reached its maximum extent. Interestingly, in some ways Xian was more like the Shang and early Zhou cities than those of the later pahses of ancient Chinese history, in that it was primarily an administrative centre. This, however, was due to the sheer scale of the administrative task required to keep the huge empire governed. The palace complexes housed an enormous imperial court, and covered two-thirds of the city area inside the great walls. There were also two markets, as well as residential areas, and the streets were laid out in a grid pattern. Outside the walls were parks, pavilions, hunting grounds and further housing.

 

The Han army

 

The Han maintained a strong army. Military forces were deployed to take new territory, especially in the north-west, where huge tracts were occupied. To the south, the empire was extended as far as rich the Red River basin in northern Vietnam, and into the modern province of Yunnan; and to the east, parts of the Korean peninsula were occupied. The Han extended the Great Wall, which became the central element in the frontier defence system against the Xiongnu, who remained a constant threat. The army was also used to deal with problems of security within the empire itself.

 

The ranks of the army were filled by an empire-wide system of conscription, which was compulsory for the bulk of population. There was also the so-called Northern Army, made up of some 3500 full-time, professional soldiers, under the command of five colonels. The role of this formation was to guard the capital

 

An Eastern-Han pottery soldier, with a now-faded coating of paint, is missing a weapon.
An Eastern-Han pottery soldier, with a now-faded coating of paint, is missing a weapon.

 

Expanding the Han empire

 

The Han dynasty gave the people of China peace. With peace came prosperity. In due course, this prosperity gave the state the power to expand its borders in all directions. The reign of the emperor Wudi (140-87 BC ) is especially noted for its conquests. 

 

Growing tensions between the Han empire and some powerful chieftains in Korea led to emperor Wudi invading the peninsula and setting up four provinces there.  The Han presence here would be of great importance in the rise of Koran civilization, which would ever after look to China as its main inspiration.

 

The Han empire took up the task of conquering the south from the Qin, and Wudi completed it by a joint land and sea campaign involving four armies.

 

This huge region of China was never really fully absorbed into Han society, remaining very much a colonial area in which Han troops and administrators lived in some Chinese fortified towns, whilst the general population continued their lives much as before.

 

By 100 BC, the Han empire was the largest (in terms of population, at least) and wealthiest state that the world had seen up to that point.

 

Central Asia

 

In 209 BC, with the Qin were beginning their dramatic slide into oblivion and China falling into chaos, the various Xiongnu tribes had become united under the leadership of a dynamic leader called Modon. This new unity greatly increased their strength, and they had soon regained the territory lost to them under the Qin. The Xiongnu confederation expanded in all directions (and in doing so dislodged a powerful tribe called the Yuezhi, to their west, who then migrated south-westward, where they were to later play a major role in Indian and Afghan history as the Kushans).

 

The Xiongnu confederacy now posed a dangerous threat to the Chinese. The founder of the Han dynasty, the Gaozu emperor, tried to deal with this threat by going to war against them. In 200 BC, however, his armies were heavily defeated. Ever the realist, Gaozu then changed tack and negotiated with them. The Great Wall was decided upon as the border between the two powers, and the relationship was cemented by marriage alliances between the Chinese and Xiongnu ruling families. The Chinese also agreed to give the Xiongnu periodic gifts in the form of silks and rice.

 

As time went by this treaty was violated by the Xiongnu on a number of occasions. In any case, it was seen as humiliating by the Chinese, who had to pay a egular tribute in silks and rice. Finally, under the emperor Wudi, the Chinese decided to return to a military policy, and this time launched a series of successful campaigns which took their armies far into central Asia. The Xiongu were defeated repeatedly. Some Xiongu therefore submitted to the Han. Others migrated west towards western Asia. In due course, they would reappear in history as the fearsome Huns who helped bring about the fall of the Roman empire. 

 

The peace which the Han imposed on the wild tribes of the region encouraged trade with the west, and it was at this time that the famous Silk Road became established, along which flowed trade between China, the Middle East and Europe.

 

The Han imperial court

 

Within the imperial court, the emperor was surrounded by ministers and bureaucrats. However, during the reigns of child emperors (and there were a succession of these in the later 1st century BC), dowager empresses wielded much power. Behind these stood their relatives, who often came to dominate the senior positions in court and administration. Some of these families attracting such envy that, on their inevitable fall from power they suffered virtual extermination. 

 

The emperor’s personal needs were catered for by eunuchs, and by a royal harem. Some of these eunuchs became very powerful, playing a full role in the increasingly violent power-struggles at court. Lacking strong leadership, the Western Han regime became weak and inneffective.


Wang Mang

Wang Mang was a well-respected official who, because of disgust at the factionalism at court, was prevailed upon to seize the throne in AD 9.

 

His reign was a disaster. A Confucian idealist, he tried to turn the clock back to pre-imperial days, for example by vesting a new nobility with feudal powers. His policies antagonised both the bureaucrats and the peasantry, and a series of poor harvests and destructive flooding only made things worse. A massive peasant revolt gathered force, ending in the sacking of the capital and the murder of Yang Mang. Order was eventually reestablished by a member of Han imperial family, and the Han dynasty was reestablished in power in AD 25. 

 

The Eastern Han dynasty

The capital was moved to Loyang, to the east of Chang'an (hence the designation Eastern Han). Peace was reestablished, and the economy of China soon revived under the firm leadership of the new regime. Chinese dominance over the Xiongnu was also reimposed. 

 

Under the later (or Eastern) Han, there were marked moves towards decentralisation. The state monopolies in iron and salt were relaxed and ownership passed into private hands; this was a period in which some merchants grew enormously wealthy and became landowners on a large scale. They joined a new class of big landowners which had been forming before Wang Mang's time, made up of the families of top officials and rich merchants. This class had greatly aided the founder of the Eastern Han gain the throne and restore order in the empire. As a result the later Han government became increasingly subservient to the interests of the upper classes, and less concerned than in former times about alleviating the condition of the peasants. Indeed, the upper classes as a whole grew increasingly rich and powerful. Many peasants were forced back into tenancy or even serfdom.

 

The rise of great estates was one feature of the period, and this affected the heartlands of the empire in the Yellow River region more than elsewhere. As a result, the movement of peasants towards the south continued under the later Han, but peasant discontent was a rising phenomenon throughout the later Han empire. Peasant uprisings became increasingly common.

 

Trade along the Silk Road resumed its former volume. Western influences were brought in to China along this great trade route by merchants from Persians, India and the Roman empire; most notably, Buddhism spread along the Silk Road, from India into Central Asia and China. In their turn, Chinese merchants and travellers influenced the art styles of countries in Central Asia and northern India.

 

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 Modern Woven Carpet illustrating camel caravan on Silk Road. 


At this time, the volume of sea-borne trade from southern China also expanded. Han-period shipyards found at Canton show that it was an important port. Goods arriving here by ship were then transported to the north by river and canal. 

 

The Fall of the Han dynasty

The court factionalism noted above for the Western Han period continued under the Eastern Han, and became more intense. Power struggles between the families of imperial wives and mothers reached a new peak, and eunuch power and influence grew. From 180 AD a succession of child emperors sat on the Han throne, which made the situation even worse. It allowed violent factionalism to go unchecked at court. Stable government was utterly undermined, the administration became increasingly corrupt and oppressive.

 

These problems at court had their effect on the empire at large. Weak government allowed the power of rich landowners to grow to such a level that they were able to raise private armies from amongst their retainers. The poor rural population fell increasingly under their control. Natural disasters added to the people's woes. In 175 floods devastated nothern China, and in 173 and 179 major epidemics swept the empire (perhaps an eastern spread of the plague - possibly smallpox - affecting the Roman empire at about the same time). 

 

Unsurprisingly, peasant unrest grew. In 184 a movement known as the Yellow Turbans rose in revolt. The generals ordered to surpress it turned themselves into regional warlords. One of them seized the capital (190) and gained control of the emperor's person. This was the signal for the other warlords to establish their power on a more permanent basis, and the Han empire was dead in all but name. The Han dynasty came to an official end when the last emperor was forced to abdicate (220). The regional warlords now proclaimed themselves to be independent regimes, and China was fragmented between three kingdoms.


 

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