The period of the Han dynasty formed the final phase of Ancient China. During it, key developments which had roots in previous dynasties – most notably the rise of the Confucian state – were consolidated. This allowed them to be passed down to future periods of China’s history and to become central features of Chinese civilization.
Considered in the perspective of world history, the Han dynasty ruled over one of the greatest empire’s of antiquity. In durability, population size, quality of government and level of cultural sophistication, it was at least the equal to any of other great states of the ancient world, including the Roman, Persian and Mauryan empires. Furthermore, it can boast a more direct influence on today’s world than any of these others. This is best illustrated in the fact that modern Chinese designate themselves “the Han” after this ancient dynasty, which was the first to truly knit them together into a unified and enduring nation.
The Han dynasty came to power in 202 BCE, bringing an end to the chaos accompanying the fall of the Qin dynasty. The Han emperors ruled China for more than 400 years, except for a brief period between 9 and 23 CE, when a powerful minister, Wang Mang, seized the throne.
The long period of unity which the Han dynasty brought China gave the Chinese people a strong sense of themselves as a single nation (to this day they call themselves the “Han”). Moreover, during the Han period the Chinese civil service developed into an organization which could govern an enormous country effectively, and weld it together into a single state. Connected with this, Confucianism became the ruling ideology of China under the Han, and would remain so until the 20th century.
The Qin dynasty had 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 many states.
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 labor 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 increased 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
Divide and rule
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 a leader called Xiang Yu as the head of one, and Liu Bang head of the other.
After a series of battles, in which Liu Bang was by no means always successful, his alliance was at last victorious. Xiang Yu committed suicide, and shortly after, Liu Bang had himself proclaimed emperor.
As he had previously taken the title of “King of Han”, his dynasty took the name Han dynasty.
Although he now had the title of emperor, Liu Bang was at this point still not in complete control of the country. He had only won his position through the powerful aid of his allies, other rebel leaders, or “kings”, who still had their followers at their beck and call.
Liu Bang thus faced a dilemma: if he attempted 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 recognized 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.
…and the solution
So, recognizing these realities, he compromised. Liu Bang – or Gaozu, the reign-name by which he is known to Chinese history – allocated to his leading supporters kingdoms located in rich eastern parts of China.
He himself kept control over the poorer western regions, which, following the practices of the Qin, he divided into provinces and prefects under his own officials. Poor though these provinces were, it was here that the most dangerous frontiers were located, and therefore where the bulk of the armies were based. This meant that Gaozu kept most military power under his own control.
Gradual moves to consolidate power
This arrangement prevented a new round of civil war breaking out. It was not a comfortable position for the new emperor to be in, however. While the richest territories were under the these kings, he could not benefit from the immense tax revenues they produced. One way or another, therefore, Gaozu found reasons to depose all but one of them. He then 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.
Distancing the Han regime from the Qin
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 Han code, with less cruel punishments. He also lightened the tax and labor 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 400 years of Chinese history under the Han is divided into two. The first two hundred years are called the Western Han (206 BCE – 2 CE), as its capital was the western city of Chang’an; the last two centuries are called the Eastern Han period (25-220 CE), as the capital was situated in Louyang, further 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.
Gaozu, the founder of the Han dynasty, had been obliged to leave the territory of the empire divided between his own governors, generally in the west, and various kings, mostly in the east – all but one of whom were members of his own family.
A major rebellion
After some of the kings were involved in a dangerous rebellion, in 154 BCE, the size and number of kingdoms was reduced, and the power of the kings was greatly restricted even within their kingdoms. Kings no longer even had the power to appoint their own chancellors (prime ministers), and their kingdoms were effectively absorbed in to the Han provincial system.
In any case, as time went by, more and more kingdoms were abolished, and provinces under governors appointed by the central government came to cover most of the empire.
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 favor Confucianism. Under the emperor Han Wudi (reigned 141 BCE to 87 BCE), it became the official philosophy of government.
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 retained. 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
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. This 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, regardless of their family backgrounds (a Legalist idea – although most in fact came from the gentry landowning class).
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 virtues 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.
This was no idle claim. Following the Han founder’s lead, the Han law code, though based on that of the Qin, was milder, and the punishments less severe. And although they did not remove the peoples’ duties to do labor 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.
One concrete fruit of this attitude to government was the creation of a network of “ever-normal granaries” throughout China to help the peasants survive times of poor harvest and famine.
An odd situation?
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 (in pre-modern terms) of justice and order to the lands which it controlled. Its officials were capable, well-educated and, for the time, honest. While in all other states in the world officials were selected on the basis of their status and connections, in the Han empire they were selected on merit.
Indeed, the Han period saw the beginnings of the famous examination system which was to become such a central feature of Chinese government under later dynasties.
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, the majority of the population was concentrated 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.
Migration and settlement
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 BCE, 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.
A pair of Eastern-Han iron scissors
Reproduced under Share Alike license
In 85 BCE 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 BCE, 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 salt and iron industries were nationalized in 119 BCE, due to their key importance to the Chinese economy. In the iron industry, forty-nine state-owned foundries were built. They had enormous blast furnaces, and were constructed using heat-resistant bricks.
They provided an industrial base upon which the expanding 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; plowshares were redesigned and improved.
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. Famously, paper was invented in the 1st century BCE, 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 (see below, Central Asia). Silk reached as far afield as there Roman Empire in the 1st century BCE.
The early Han capital, Chang’an (modern 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 Chang’an was more like the Shang and early Zhou cities than those of the later phases of ancient Chinese history, in that it was primarily an administrative center. 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.
A census in mid-Han times shows that there were twelve cities of more than 50,000 inhabitants. This was a very large number in the context of the world at that time.
These larger cities were both important administrative centers – almost all were provincial capitals – and commercial hubs. Most of them, for example Chengdu, Changsha and Suzhou, are still major metropolises today.
The Han extended the series of defenses which they had inherited from the Qin and which were early versions of the Great Wall, which became the central element in the frontier defense system against the Xiongnu, who remained a constant threat. The army was also used to deal with problems of security within the empire itself, when they arose.
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, whose role was to guard the capital. It was made up of some 3500 full-time, professional soldiers, under the command of five colonels.
An Eastern-Han pottery soldier, with a now-faded
coating of paint, is missing a weapon.
The Han dynasty gave the people of China a high level of internal 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 Han Wudi (140-87 BCE ) is especially noted for its conquests.
Growing tensions between the Han empire and some powerful chieftains in Korea led to Wudi invading the peninsula and setting up four provinces there. The Han presence would be of great importance in the rise of Korean civilization, which would ever after look to China for inspiration.
The Han empire took up the task of conquering what is today southern China from the Qin, and Wudi completed it by a joint land and sea campaign involving four armies. This pushed the empire’s borders as far south as the rich Red River basin in northern Vietnam, and into the modern province of Yunnan.
This huge region of China was never really fully absorbed into Han society. It remained very much a colonial area in which Han troops and administrators lived in some Chinese fortified towns, whilst the general population continued their ways of life much as before.
In 209 BCE, with the Qin 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, Gaozu, tried to deal with this threat by going to war against them. In 200 BCE, 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 regular 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 submitted to the Han. Others migrated west towards western Asia. In due course, according to many scholars, 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.
By 100 BCE, the Han empire was the largest (in terms of population, at least) and wealthiest state that the world had seen up to that point. In the next century, no more major conquests were made, and faction-dominated court politics meant that the Han government lost much of its direction. Lacking strong leadership, the Western Han regime became weak and ineffective.
In fact, Han court politics was notable for a particular form of factionalism, linked to imperial wives. Most emperors had more than one wife, as well as numerous concubines in the palace harem. Concubines were often given as presents to the emperor by senior court officials wishing to curry favor with him. Such officials also offered their daughters in marriage to the emperor, and such ladies joined the ranks of his wives.
Once an official had one of his daughters planted near the center of power in this way, he could usually hope for high office, both for himself, his relatives and his supporters.
This was not the end game, however. Most emperors had one wife who was officially regarded as his chief wife. Such a woman was usually the mother of the crown prince, the heir to the throne. On the death of a reigning emperor, her son would become emperor and she would become the dowager empress.
This was a position of great status and influence, and if the new emperor was a young child, she could have virtually supreme power in the state. In many cases she acted as the official regent, ruling on the emperor’s behalf. In such circumstances, her relatives could expect to dominate government, and hold the lion’s share of powerful and lucrative offices of state.
Unsurprisingly, with such a prize in sight, this situation led to intense power-struggles between prominent court families and their allies. These formed the nuclei of court factions, competing for nothing less than control of the state. For much of the time, court politics was dominated by factional competition as the leading families strove to have their daughters chosen as the emperor’s chief wife.
The dominance of these factions, and the power-struggles in which they engaged, had a baleful influence on the state.The consort’s – and more so, the dowager empress’s – family stood to gain a huge degree of power over the imperial court. They could have their rivals demoted or executed, and their own members (who might well be totally unfit for high office) appointed to the top positions in government.
Woe betide that family when it fell from power. This often happened when the queen mother died, or when the emperor came of age and married a wife from a different family-grouping. He would of course want to favor his new wife’s relatives by promoting her family, and the fall-out from these events could end with the complete elimination of the former ruling family, including distant relatives far from court.
Wang Mang was a well-respected official who, because of disgust at the factionalism at court, was prevailed upon to seize the throne in 9 CE.
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 antagonized both the bureaucrats and the peasantry, and a series of poor harvests and destructive floods 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 25 CE by the emperor Guangwu (reigned 25 CE to 57 CE).
The capital was moved to Louyang, 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, which had been lost in the last days of the Western Han, was reimposed.
Under the Eastern Han dynasty, there were marked moves towards decentralization. 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. This was made up of the families of top officials and rich merchants.
This class had greatly aided the founder of the Eastern Han in gaining the throne and restoring 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 with alleviating the condition of the peasants. Indeed, the upper classes as a whole grew increasingly rich and powerful. Many peasants were forced into tenancy or even serfdom.
The rise of great estates affected the heartlands of the empire in the Yellow River region more than elsewhere. To escape from their deteriorating conditions, many peasants left their ancestral homes and migrated southward to the Yangtze region and southern China.
Peasant discontent was a rising phenomenon throughout the later Han empire, however. Popular 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 the Middle East, India and the Roman empire. Most notably, Buddhism spread along the Silk Road, from India into Central Asia and China, and would become a major cultural force in the next period of Chinese civilization.
In their turn, Chinese merchants and travelers influenced the art styles of countries in Central Asia and northern India.
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.
Modern Woven Carpet illustrating camel caravan on Silk Road.
The court factionalism noted above for the Western Han period again became a problem under the Eastern Han. Indeed it became more intense. Power struggles between the families of imperial wives and mothers reached a new peak, and linked to this, the power and influence of the palace eunuchs grew.
The moment when an emperor reached adulthood was always a dangerous time for a dominant faction. As a grown man he would likely have a mind of his own, and wish to choose his own wife. Not only might the current power-holders lose office and influence, but their lives as well.
Towards the end of the Han dynasty, few emperors were allowed to attain adulthood – they were disposed of before they did so. From 180 CE a succession of child emperors sat on the Han throne. This created a situation which allowed violent factionalism to go unchecked at court and stable government to be utterly undermined.
Weak government, corrupt government
These problems at court had their effect on the empire at large. Weak government allowed corruption to spread through the whole administration. The power of rich landowners grew 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 northern 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).
The Yellow Turban rebellion
Unsurprisingly, peasant unrest grew. In 184 a movement known as the Yellow Turbans rose in revolt.
The generals ordered to suppress this rebellion turned themselves into regional warlords. One of them seized the capital (190 CE) 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 kings, and China was fragmented between three kingdoms.
To view maps charting the rise and fall of Ancient Chinese dynasties, go to our TimeMap of World History pages on Ancient China