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Han Dynasty 206BCE - 220 CE

Han Dynasty

When the Qin dynasty rapidly collapsed China might have reverted to a set of small ancient kingdoms had it not been for Liu Bang who founded the Han dynasty.

Liu Bang, born of peasant stock, led the rebellion against the vestiges of Qin rule and became the first Han Emperor in 206BCE. On the fall of the Qin, the massive imperial palace at Xianyang (seven times larger than the Forbidden City, Beijing and including a huge library) was burnt down and it blazed for three months. A few leaders of the original kingdoms of the Warring States attempted to rebuild their own kingdoms. To avoid further warfare a pact was signed that split up the Qin empire into many small kingdoms. Liu Bang was given Sichuan and Southern Shaanxi, he took the name of ‘King of Han’ after the Han river that flows through this area. His chief opponent was Xiang Yu 项羽 who controlled the eastern kingdoms including Chu. War nevertheless continued and after a further five years, long remembered in stories, Liu Bang emerged triumphant. On accession he took the name Gaodi high emperor (or Gaozu high ancestor) and began a reign which is still widely admired. The Han dynasty went on to last 400 years.

Western Han dynasty

Gaodi () founded his new capital close by the Wei River at Chang'an, on the site of the modern day city of Xi'an. It became the eastern terminus of the Silk Road into China and the largest city in the world at the time. The Chinese population grew rapidly; by 1CE it was over 57 million, more people than in the entire, contemporary Roman Empire.

Many of the reforms brought in by Qin Shihuangdi were retained. Government continued to be split into three departments: administration; military and supervision of administration each with three Grand Secretaries. The fragmented nature of China up to this point of small kingdoms with strong local loyalty survived into the Han dynasty. It was initially administered as 10 kingdoms and 15 commanderies, by 1CE this had expanded into 20 kingdoms and 83 commanderies. A regime of lighter central control with lower taxation pleased the people. With the introduction of an examination system, admission to the Civil Service now depended on merit rather than patronage. However, court officials continued to try to get their sons appointed to lucrative jobs. Officials were not paid from a centralized Treasury with a fixed salary, rather they took a proportion of the tax and other revenues they collected, passing the remaining revenue to the next tier of government who in turn took their cut. Corrupt officials were free to extort as much as they felt they could get away with. There was strong central control over commerce and merchants were rather despised; a situation that was to last into the modern era.

The prohibition of the works of ancient philosophers was ended. Initially Daoism took over from Legalism as the ruling doctrine for wise rule but gradually Confucianism took hold. What emerged can be best thought of as a mixture of Legalism and Confucianism. The emperor ruled with the consent of the people rather than by imposition of his will, fulfilling the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven. The power of local land owners was weakened and strong centralized power became prevalent. The merchant class was despised and distrusted by Gaodi, preferring to work with his own class who worked the soil. The Chinese empire was rooted in trust and freedom, citizens were able to travel freely, to relocate to a new area without the need of identification papers. Agricultural production was given a high priority.

The doctrine of wén (cultured debate) and wǔ (military force) became central. Among friends and citizens people were persuaded by intellectual debate (soft power), foreigners and rebels on the other hand should be treated with military force (hard power). It was considered counterproductive to use force against intellectuals and foreigners would not respond to rational arguments. Achieving the correct balance of wén and wǔ was central to policy for the rest of imperial history. In 138 BCE General Zhang Qian explored the region to the north-west and came back with news of civilizations in modern day Iran and India. During the expeditions to the west, China for the first time came across settled urban populations in Parthia with advanced technology and links to the Indian, Roman and Greek worlds. Han armies raided and traded with the north-eastern tribes, bringing back horses to strengthen the cavalry. After fierce battles (the largest the world had ever seen) leading to the loss of 100,000 men, the gateway area of Gansu to the Silk Route was subjugated and the Great Wall strengthened. With a sense of cultural unity, China looked further afield and expanded its borders to double its previous size, taking in Yunnan; Hainan; Manchuria and North Korea. Only Tibet and Fujian resisted conquest. On Gaodi's death the Empress Lu, one of the first powerful women in Chinese history, became the effective ruler for seven years. She brutally killed and maimed her former rivals to Gaodi's affections so she remained in power. By convention the sons of the Emperors were sent to outlying provinces so they could not become involved in intrigues at court. A few notable women used this situation to promote their own and their family's interests. The rule that an Emperor must marry outside his clan was a continued cause of instability as the Empress and her extended family only remained powerful while the Emperor lived. On his death power moved to the Emperor's heir and the new Empress's family.

Silk Road
Europe and Asia at the time of the Roman and Han dynasties


miàn chǔ gē
On all four sides hear Chu kingdom songs.
Ambushed from all sides. Hopeless situation. In the battle of Gaixia troops surrounding the enemy sang songs of home, breaking their spirit. From the classic Shi Ji from 2,200 years ago. After the end of the Qin dynasty the Han general used this tactic against of the Chu kingdom. The Chu songs persuaded the surrounded Chu forces that the Han must have overrun much of the Chu kingdom already.
Han dynasty, Xian
Han dynasty golden bowl at the Shaanxi Museum, Xian

Cultural entrenchment

The Han dynasty consolidated the concept of a Qin empire, and Chinese people still consider themselves ‘Han’ people to this day, underlining the importance of this early dynasty. Cultural developments proceeded including the arrival of Buddhist thought and the blossoming of literature and history. Sima Qian wrote his history of previous dynasties in China while Ban Gu wrote about the early part of the Han dynasty. One of the great Han emperors was Emperor Wudi who ruled for 54 years (141BCE-87BCE) and expanded the empire to its greatest extent. However the Imperial obsession with conquest weakened the state by imposition of high taxation and internal power struggles. An unwise move to liberalize the minting of coins led to inflation which was not controlled until the coins were replaced with a new issue based on the intrinsic value of the metal.

The growth of an exploitative land owner class led to the dynasty suffering an 'inter regnum' when Wang Mang led a revolt and founded the one man ‘Xin dynasty’ (9-23CE). His reforms failed to ease the situation and further revolts by the Green Woodsmen and Red Eyebrow rebels brought about his downfall. The Han rulers continued to wrestle with management of taxation, establishing at times state monopolies on the sale of iron, salt and alcohol; these monopolies allowed for the supply to be controlled and price regulated. The merchant class, rather despised as selfish, became subject to heavy taxation.


The administrative system set up during the Han dynasty lasted into all the following dynasties. In the Han the empire was divided into 15 commanderies and 10 kingdoms. These were administered by 'Grand Administrators' appointed by the Emperor. These are further divided into 1,587 prefectures ( zhōu) about the size of a 'county'. Prefectures are further divided into districts and then wards. Local officials, often appointed at the provincial level were responsible for selecting people to work on Imperial projects; collecting taxes; administering justice; maintaining communication links through the area. A complex system of 'post' horses ensured communication from the Emperor to the whole nation was rapid. At the Imperial center the edicts of the Emperor were implemented by a Premier and a Head of the Civil Service. Beneath the emperor and these two high officials were nine ministries: ceremonial rites (including astronomy); Imperial court administration; Security; Transport; Criminal justice; Foreign affairs; Imperial record keeping; Tax collection (including Imperial projects) and Imperial expenditure. In addition there were military generals at the same seniority level as heads of the ministries.

206BCE Qin dynasty ended; 202BCE Emperor Gaozu became ruler; 195BCE Emperor Gaozu no longer ruler
165BCE Examination System started ; 156BCE Emperor Wudi born; 141BCE Emperor Wudi became ruler
135BCE Sima Qian born
87BCE Emperor Wudi no longer ruler; 86BCE Sima Qian died
45BCE Wang Mang born
9 Wang Mang became ruler; 18 Red Eyebrow Rebellion began; 22 Red Eyebrow Rebellion ended; 23 Wang Mang no longer ruler; 32 Ban Gu born
92 Ban Gu died; 101 Shuowen Jiezi dictionary written
155 Cao Cao born
184 Yellow Turbans Rebellion began
205 Yellow Turbans Rebellion ended; 220 Period of Disunity began; Cao Cao died
Han dynasty key dates

Wang Mang [45 BCE - 6 Oct 23]

Wang Mang, Han dynasty
莽像 Emperor Wang Mang. Image available under a Creative Commons license .

The brief break in the middle of the Han dynasty was the reign of the one man Xin dynasty. As the Han dynasty saw the foundation of Chinese institutions that lasted two thousand years historians have shown great interest in the brief 'interlude'.

The background to this significant break in Han rule was the growth in power of a few ruling families who grew wealthy and self-indulgent, neglecting the welfare of the people of China. Eunuchs who formed the senior Civil service around the emperor had grown in power and numbers. The conflict between those in position by birth and patronage and those on merit (by passing the Imperial examinations) grew in intensity. Among the ranks of the powerful Wang clan, one representative Wang Mang sought to root himself in Confucian doctrine. As a frugal scholar he gathered a powerful power base among many scholar-officials disaffected by the corruption of the Imperial court. Taxation had continued to rise and at one point it is said that 50% of crop yield was taken in tax. At the dawn of the Christian Era (1CE) Wang Mang was Regent (the effective emperor) as the Emperor Pingdi was only 7 years old. He had already married into the Imperial family, and so two of his uncles had been emperors.

Ambitious Reforms

Wang Mang was formally installed as Emperor in 9CE, he took the title ‘Xin’ which means new in Chinese but may also reflect his title as Marquis of Xin. He immediately embarked on ambitious reforms to re-invigorate the economy. China's population had grown substantially to about 57 million which added to pressures on food and taxation. He took back land ownership from the rich families. Slave trade was prohibited and the well field system was re-introduced (a method of dividing land so the government took a fixed (ninth) proportion of produce). Loans were made more affordable for ordinary peasants. He introduced a bronze coinage to replace that of gold and silver. The reform program disadvantaged the wealthy families and officials and so it is no surprise that it was not properly implemented by them and had to be abandoned. Most of the reforms were not new and had been previously tried by Emperor Wudi. He then launched a disastrous war against the Xiongnu people to the West which added to the economic pressures on the already bankrupt financial system. Wang Mang stimulated scientific inquiry, he called together the first ever assembly of scientists in 4CE.

Natural disasters took their toll too; the ever perilous Yellow River changed its course (twice) to reach the sea to the south of Shandong. The diversion led to famine and floods and perhaps more importantly the event left many questioning whether Wang Mang had lost the all important 'Mandate of Heaven'. Unrest and revolts broke out, most notably with the rise of the Daoist Red Eyebrow and Green Woodsmen movements. The powerful, Imperial Liu family turned against Wang Mang. By 23CE he had lost most of his support and died trying to defend the capital at Chang'an. There followed years of conflict with the Red Eyebrow rebels. Liu Xiu, ostensibly a supporter of the rebels, was proclaimed the new emperor Guang Wudi in 25CE and the Eastern Han dynasty was founded at the new location of Luoyang. The official imperial color changed from yellow to red reflecting the Daoist principle of transformation.

Ever since Wang Mang, historians and revolutionaries have taken to heart the lessons of his wise but ill-fated attempts at reform.

Eastern Han dynasty

After Wang Mang, Civil War broke out, and the great city of Chang'an was sacked and destroyed. Guang Wudi moved the capital to a new site east to Luoyang (hence the name ‘Eastern Han’ to differentiate it from the preceding ‘Western Han’). The Eastern Han consolidated the empire and continued work on irrigation and flood control of the Yellow River. It was in this period that many people moved south to colonize the Yangzi to escape the rigors of Han rule, but at the same time taking Han culture along with them. The Han regime chose to pay for peace by showering expensive gifts of silk on neighboring barbarian states rather than engaging in expensive military expeditions. Silk manufacture became more sophisticated and this precious fabric started to be traded as far away as Rome (Rome was known in China as Da Qin ). In science, the Chinese scientist Zhang Heng invented the seismograph and calculated pi (π) to five decimal places. During this time Chinese traditional medicine's basic principles were established and paper replaced bamboo as the writing material of choice.

Han dynasty, watchtower
Ancient carving on a Han dynasty watch tower

Han China had extensive contact with neighboring countries. The power of the eunuch officials at the Imperial court grew, and the emperor at times became subject to them. Tax revenues declined due to increased wealth and power of local land owners. The Yellow Turban rebellion of 184 marked another period of revolt and instability. Local armies were created to combat them, but then Civil War broke out amongst the warring factions. Eventually the mighty Han empire broke up into Three Kingdoms (Wei; Shu Han and Wu) heralding a long period of disunity.

Sima Qian [135 BCE - 86 BCE] or Szu-ma Ch'ien WG

Sima Qian, historian
Image available under a Creative Commons license .

Sima Qian is famous as the father of Chinese history. He wrote his ‘Records of the historian’ Shǐjì in 91BCE. The work documents the period from 2600BCE to 91BCE covering the Yellow Emperor to his own time in the Han dynasty. He chose the most reliable and accessible records to chronicle mainly the events at the Imperial court. It is a general history and the epic work had been started by his father (Sima Tian) who was a court historian and an astrologer. His family were aristocrats from the Qin Kingdom.

Masterpiece of scholarship

He traveled widely through China, including the newly integrated provinces of Sichuan and Zhejiang as well as Confucius' shrine at Qufu. In 99BCE he acted as legal defender of a General who was facing trial on a trumped up charge of treason, this move offended the Emperor and as a result he was ordered to either commit suicide or be castrated. Choosing the latter option, Sima Qian retired from court life and concentrated on writing his history. It is amazingly modern in style considering it is over 2000 years old; he avoided vivid descriptions and stuck to authoritative sources in a succinct, factual style. However he did invent 'conversations' to animate key events in history. Where there were conflicting reports of events he included all the alternatives rather than choosing just one of them. The Shiji consists of 110 chapters with a total of 700,000 characters. Emphasis is on documenting historical figures (and not always the obvious Imperial leaders) but there are also sections on music; geography; astronomy; calendars; irrigation and customs. To avoid the possibility of a hostile Imperial reception which could have led to his execution, the book was not read by anyone else during his lifetime, his grandson produced a copy 20 years after his death. The earliest surviving hand-written copy is from 420-589CE by which time some chapters had been lost and new ones added. Sima Qian has provided us with a great deal of detail on the founding days of the Chinese nation, it was the template for historians writing about all the dynasties that followed. Each dynasty produced a 'Standard History' based on his template. One government department busied itself writing the history of the previous dynasty while another department kept notes of current events ready for the next; the history of the last Qing dynasty was completed in Taiwan in 1961. Sima Qian was one of the earliest and best writers of histories anywhere in the world.

Red Eyebrow Rebellion

The ‘Red Eyebrow’ movement was a peasant led rebellion. It began when famine ravished Eastern China along the lower Yellow River. They took their name because the adherents painted their eyebrows (and/or) foreheads red. They were poorly organized but caused sufficient disruption to bring the brief reign of Wang Mang to an end. Fan Chong was their leader which had its base at the sacred Mount Taishan in Shandong and were followers of Daoism. They invaded and pillaged the capital Chang'an and it was for this reason that the Eastern Han dynasty moved their capital to Luoyang. Although the Red Eyebrows defeated Wang Mang's army they were unable to enforce effective control over the whole country. They are remembered primarily as the first people-led rebellion in China.

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