The Han Dynasty
When the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC) was defeated, Liu Bang (about 250 BC to 195 BC) declared himself to be the emperor. He ruled over a large territory, but the people were impoverished. Perhaps more than half of the population was killed in a short period of time by the Qin conquests, policies, and subsequent rebellions. It is thought that the population of the region fell to about 18 million people. Liu Bang established policies that were less harsh. He allowed more freedom and lowered taxation, and he didn’t strive for total power. His successors expanded the territory. In a census taken in 2 AD, the population of the empire was 57 million people. The land territory was more than twice the size of the original territory. There was a coup against the dynastic line in 9 AD. An official set up his own dynasty. This divided the Han Dynasty era into three periods called the Western Han Dynasty (206 – 9 BC), the Xia Dynasty (9 – 23 AD), and the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 206 AD). During this time, the region grew in population and technological knowledge, but then the Han Empire ended in natural disasters and rebellions and was divided between three warring kingdoms.
Cultural Relics of the Han Dynasty
Western Han Dynasty Era (206 – 9 BC)
The Western Han Empire was the first large and long-surviving empire in the region. It lasted from 206 BC until 9 AD. When he became emperor, at first Liu Bang emulated the rule of the Qin court, but he allowed more freedoms and drafted fewer peasants for conscript labour. He lowered taxes and tried to win the support of common people by treating them less harshly than did the Qin rulers. Unlike the first Qin emperor, he didn't strive for total power. He allowed other leaders to have kingdoms in the eastern, and they were over most of the territory of the empire, but the imperial court had direct power over the western third of the empire. After him, during Emperor Wudi’s reign, the territory was more than doubled in size. During the reign of his Western Han successors, arts and technology advanced, the empire grew larger and more prosperous, and a direction was set for religion, politics, science and culture.
Liu Bang (250 – 195 BC)
It is said that Liu Bang was from a peasant family, and there are strange tales regarding dragons and visions and the supernatural about his conception, birth and personal life. He was a low-level official in the Qin army, but became an outlaw. The people and leaders in many parts of the country revolted. Liu Bang became the leader of an army, and he defeated his main rivals in war to become emperor.
Liu Bang inherited a large empire and the foundation of imperial rule laid by the Qin court. There was a standardized written language for the whole empire that had been promulgated by Li Si. There was also a common philosophical framework for the empire, since many religions and philosophies were diminished or eradicated in favor of the Legalism philosophy and the sciences favored by the Qin rulers. Mohism, native beliefs like Daoism, and an early form of Buddhism were severely attacked by them. Confucian ideas and Confucian scholars were attacked by the Qin court as well. Later into his rule, Liu Bang had a favorite Confucian teacher who convinced him of the need for that philosophy, and he and his successors promoted this political theory. Along with this, Liu Bang inherited the military technology and tactics that had enabled the Qin Dynasty to form the empire.
The first emperors of the Western Han Dynasty were hard pressed by external threats and internal strife. Though Liu Bang had accepted the administration of kings in the eastern part of the empire, during his long illness before his death, he grew suspicious of some of his top leaders. He regarded them as rivals, and they were killed or demoted. After his death, the ruling clan succeeded in deposing the other kings and putting imperial family members in their places by about the year 157 BC. The imperial clan thereby consolidated their power over the empire.
Both the Qin Dynasty and Liu Bang were hard pressed by the invading Xiongnu tribesmen. The Xiongnu were a group of nomadic herders who had succeeded in defeating the Yuezhi and many other peoples to the north and west of the Han Empire. They also defeated the Han army in 200 BC, and Liu Bang made a treaty and agreed to send silk and other goods.
Emperor Wudi (156-87)
Emperor Wudi was the seventh emperor of the Han Dynasty of China. He ruled from 141 to 87 BC. During his reign, between about 130 and 110 BC, the Han ruling court and the army started winning major battles, and they conquered Xiongnu territory and greatly expanded the empire's territory in the north and west. At the same time, Han armies also defeated armies and navies to the south, and the empire expanded into what are now northern Vietnam, Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong. In this way, by about 100 BC, the size of the Han Empire was more than double what it was at the beginning. During the same time between 130 BC and 100 BC, trade with Western countries brought wealth to the rulers and merchants. Emperor Wudi’s court sent envoys to the west, and a large scale trade developed on the Silk Road routes involving large caravans that travelled between Changan (today’s Xian) that was the capital of the empire and the western countries. In this way, the Han's knowledge of the outside world, philosophy and religion, and technology increased. Technicians made advances in refining iron and making steel weapons and tools during and after his reign. So by the creation of wealth and territorial expansion and strength, the Han Empire initially prospered a lot, but at the end of his life he became despotic.
Han Wudi (汉武帝, 156-87) inherited newly established imperial power when he was 15. His clan had succeeded in imposing more control in the eastern kingdoms in the empire and had just demoted the eastern kings’ authority in the year 155. He was thought to be an effective governor. His campaigns usually succeeded in expanding the empire. The empire stretched to Central Asia, Korea and Vietnam. He kept the Xiongnu out and established Silk Road trade by sending Zhang Qian to the Yuezhi in 139 BC. He lived for 54 years, and during his long reign he consolidated power in the territory. This is one of the longest reigns in dynastic history.
Almost as soon as he started reigning in the year 141 BC, he presided over an examination of Confucian scholars, and the court put some of those who were successful in the exam in official positions. Then the ruling court started a Confucian academy. In this way, he presided over the establishment of the Confucian Imperial Examination to select people for governmental positions. Those who passed the examination were guaranteed to be literate and knowledgeable about Confucian political philosophy. This was the main way that people were selected for government in most of the big regional dynasties during the next 2,000 years.
In the year 119, he established the northern boundaries and made some peace with the roving Xiongnu by sending several armies against the Xiongnu's leading clans. Two generals named Wei and Huo made direct assaults on Chanyu Yizhixie's forces, destroyed his army, and nearly captured him. Then the Xiongnu wanted peace for a few years.
However, towards the end of the reign, he became corrupt. In response to a bad dream, he accused many people of witchcraft and had them killed. He tried to find magicians who would give him something to prolong his life. Also, he started installing despotic rulers who executed people for no reason. In order to stop any rebellion, he executed people who even criticized him. He started to overspend on palaces and tours and luxuries. To obtain money, the court decreed imperial monopolies on salt and iron. Salt was considered a necessary nutrient, so they could sell it at high prices. Iron was necessary for tools and weapons. He also started too many campaigns for conquest against the Koreans and the kingdoms in the south.
Starting about 100 BC, due to the heavy taxation and military campaigns, there were many peasant revolts throughout the empire. In trying to suppress the rebellions, he decreed that officials presiding over areas in which there were rebellions would be killed. The officials responded by trying to hide news of the revolts from him.
When he was old, his son revolted. It is said that he started a rebellion because some of the court officials hatched a plot against him that his father didn’t know about. It is said that Emperor Wudi was spending a lot of time with concubines instead of presiding as emperor. There was some fighting, and his son was killed by some officials. At the end of his life, he realized that his treatment of the people was too harsh and that he should stop his wars and allow the people to farm in peace without heavy taxation. He also realized that his son was plotted against and that his witchcraft inquisitions were wrong. He apologized to his empire about his past policy mistakes in a public edict known as the Repenting Edict of Luntai. He named Prince Fuling to be the next emperor and died in 87 BC. Crown Prince Fuling ruled under the title Emperor Zhao for the next 13 years.
End of the Western Han Dynasty (86 BC – 9 AD)
The dynastic reign ended under the rule of an empress named Wang Zhengjun (71 BC–13 AD) and successive short-reigning emperors named Yuan (49-33), Cheng (33-7), and Ai (7 BC -1 AD). Then Emperor Ping became emperor for a few years (1 BC – 6 AD). During this time, relatives were regents. The last regent was Yang Mang. He claimed that he had the Mandate of Heaven to rule which means that Heaven picked him to be the next emperor.
Western Han Dynasty Accomplishments
The Western Han Dynasty lasted about 215 years. This was quite long for such a large empire. The Han Empire was successful politically and economically. The population is thought to have grown from about 18 million people to the census record of about 57 million people.
The Western Han Dynasty succeeded in stabilizing the empire, expanding its territory, and beginning a tradition of dynastic government staffed by Confucian scholars. Emperor Wudi presided over the establishment of the Confucian Imperial Examination to select people for governmental positions. This was the main way that people were selected for government in most of the big regional dynasties during the next 2,000 years.
The empire also succeeded economically. During the same time of the Silk Road trade, trade with Western countries brought wealth and information to the rulers and merchants. The Han court sent envoys to the west, and a large scale trade developed on the Silk Road routes involving large caravans that traveled between Changan that was the capital of the empire and the western countries. In this way, the Han's knowledge of the outside world, outside philosophy and religion, and technology increased. Technology also improved. Technicians made advances in refining iron and making steel weapons and tools. Iron plows were used. By the end of the dynasty, some of the cities had grown to be among the largest in the world at that time.
Xin Dynasty (9 – 23 AD)
Wang Mang (45-23 AD) ruled the Xin Dynasty, and then he was killed. He tried to implement far-reaching policies. Wang Mang tried to change the society by abolishing slavery, redistributing the land, and issuing new currency. His reforms seem strikingly modern. But there were natural disasters, and peasants revolted against him. After he was killed in 23 AD, another person became emperor, and the city of Luoyang in the east became the new capital. In this way, the Eastern Han era began.
Emperor Gengshi of Han (24-25 AD)
For two years after he died, he tried to be the emperor, but he was killed by the Red Eyebrows Rebellion.
Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220)
After a member of the clan became emperor again, the Han Dynasty reign continued. The Han Dynasty’s capital was in Changan (today’s Xian) before, but under the Eastern Han Dynasty the capital was moved to Luoyang. Various regions in the empire were in rebellion, and other peoples were attacking and rebelling too. The goal of the first emperor was to conquer the territory and fend off the attacks. After this, towards the end of the Eastern Han era, eunuchs started to try to gain power for themselves. Eunuchs were court officials and were rivals with the Confucian officials, regional rulers, and the imperial clan. There started to be a lot of fighting, and then rebellions and disasters happened. The Eastern Han Dynasty was split between three kingdoms. So during the 195 years of the Eastern Han Dynasty, the empire was first stabilized, but then there started to be court rivalries, and the empire ended in bad rulers, natural disasters and internal rebellion.
The Eastern Han Dynasty began when a member of the Han Dynastic clan came to power. His dynastic name was Emperor Guangwu (5 BC to 57 AD). He reigned from AD 25 to 57. Under his long reign, the Red Eyebrows were defeated, and he consolidated power in the Empire. He defeated Goguryeo attacks in 30 AD and a rebellion in Vietnam in 43 AD. He defeated the Xiongnu in 50 AD. He was known as a clever general who didn’t rule harshly. From 88 AD onwards, the Han armies battled Xiongnu and other peoples who lived in Central Asia. They wanted to capture the area from the Xiongnu who had invaded during the crisis of the rule of the Xia Dynastic court.
Introduction of Buddhism
Silk Road trade caused cultural changes. The Silk Road trade route went through territories where Buddhism was a main religion. Yuezhi people went to Changan and taught about Buddhism around the year 0 BC. It is said that about 68 AD a Han Emperor had a dream of a golden figure, and Cai Yin was sent to Central Asia to learn about the Buddha. He brought back Buddhist scriptures and two Buddhist monks. By this time in 68 AD, the Yuezhi had a religion in which Buddha was one of a pantheon of many deities, and Mahayana Buddhism started in the Han Empire in this way.
End of the Eastern Han Dynasty (166 - 220)
In the last 54 years of the rule of the Eastern Han Dynasty, there were confrontations between revival factions in the imperial court. Eunuchs took power, and the emperors were weaker. Then starting about 180 AD, there were natural disasters and uprisings of common people at the end of the Han era. The ancient idea about the “Mandate of Heaven” was that natural disasters generally mark the end of the rule of a dynastic clan that controls an empire in the region. These events proved to be true at the end of the Han Empire. During the last decades of the Han Empire, the fighting between the regional rulers, the imperial court and the peasant armies and bands killed a lot of people. Many people migrated to search for safety. The empire ended in court rivalries, bad rulers, natural disasters, and then major wars between three emerging kingdoms before the last Eastern Han Dynasty ruler abdicated.
During these last decades, two emperors named Emperor Huan (132-168) and Emperor Ling (156-189) relied on eunuchs to rule. These emperors were said to be particularly bad emperors who spent their time with hundreds of concubines and wasted the empire’s treasury during the time of economic crisis. Emperor Huan reigned from 146 to 168. During this time, he relied on eunuchs to remove a powerful official. The eunuchs increased their power in the court, and then in 166, Confucian students protested about the rule of eunuchs and the corruption of the court. Emperor Ling (156-189) ruled for about twenty years until 189. It is said that the eunuchs auctioned off government offices and ruled in his place. He called one eunuch his “foster father.”
The Yellow Turban Rebellion and the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion around Sichuan started in 184. They were both Daoist-led rebellions. There was a famine in the north that forced large numbers of farmers and military settlers to move to the south. There were also floods of the Yellow River. The peasants were oppressed by high taxes that were imposed partly to fund the construction of fortresses. The court was widely regarded as corrupt and incapable, and the famines and floods were seen as an indication that Emperor Ling was corrupt and had lost the Mandate of Heaven. The rebellion was widespread, and except for Sichuan, the rebellions were defeated in most of the empire. However, generals and rulers in various areas retained their armies and started to rule independently of the court.
In 189, two generals attacked and killed the eunuchs in the royal court. It is said that 2,000 court eunuchs were killed. Then, Luoyang was destroyed by their army. The capital was moved to Changan. After this, there were a lot of assassinations in the imperial court. In the year 194, there was a great famine due to a plague of locusts. In 195, Emperor Xian sought refuge with a regional ruler named Cao Cao. Emperor Xian lived in Xuchang that was one of the cities that were in Cao Cao’s territory. Cao Cao reigned in the emperor’s name and had the title of Chief Commander. Cao Cao gathered an army together that included tens of thousands of Yellow Turbans. There were many battles in many places in this decade.
In the year 200, a northern territorial ruler named Yuan Shao led an army of about 100,000 troops to attack Xuchang. Cao Cao met him with an army of 20,000 troops at the Yellow River. The two armies deadlocked for a while, and then Cao Cao’s army won when they attacked Yuan Shao’s supplies. By 207, Cao Cao had control of the area north of the Yangtze River. Liu Bei was the leader in the territory of Shu Han in the southwest around Sichuan, and Sun Quan was the leader in the region of Dong Wu in the southeast. These three regions of the empire became kingdoms.
Battle of Red Cliffs (Year 208)
Cao Cao was successful in expanding his territory and defeating rivals until the Battle of Red Cliffs. In the year 208, he marched south with a big army. His main rivals Sun Quan in Dong Wu and Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang in Shu Han made an alliance. Cao Cao’s army was said to number about 200,000 troops. But he was defeated by about 50,000 troops of his rivals. Cao Cao’s fleet was set on fire.
End of the Han Empire (Year 220)
Cao Cao died at the age of 64 or 65. Then his son named Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian who lived in their territory to abdicate. He named himself the new emperor of the Wei Empire. There is evidence that Cao Cao and Cao Pi planned for Cao Pi to depose the emperor after he died. By trying to conquer the whole empire, he and his son played the main role in ending the Han Empire.
The Eastern Han Empire (AD 25-220) ended when the empire was divided between three rival regional leaders named Cao Cao (155–220 CE) who controlled the area north of the Yangtze River, Liu Bei (161-223) who controlled an inland area including Sichuan in the southwest, and Sun Quan (182-252) who controlled the southeast. The north was called Cao Wei (曹魏), the southwest was called Shu Han (蜀漢), and the southeast was called Dong Wu (東吳) that means Eastern Wu.
Han Dynasty Achievements in Science
The Han era, both Western Han and Eastern Han, is known as one of the two greatest eras of scientific and technological advances in the region. In 1983, an ancient mathematical book was found that gives an idea of the state of mathematical knowledge of the Western Han Dynastic era. This text was written on bamboo and was found in a tomb. The text dates to about 200 BC. It is called the Suan Shu Shu (筭數書, Computation and Numbers Book). It shows how to solve arithmetic problems that officials or people doing business face.
A more advanced book called the Jiuzhang Suanshu (Nine Chapter Computation Book) is thought to have been written later. The book features basic algebra such as finding cube roots and square roots. Negative numbers are also used. Another mathematical text compiled during the Han era was The Arithmetical Classic of the Gnomon and the Circular Paths of Heaven (Zhoubi Suan Jing) about astronomical problems. It is said text has a mathematical proof for the "Gougu Theorem" (勾股定理; a2 + b2 = c2) that is known as the Pythagorean Theorem in the West. A method of determining the distance of the sun from the earth by using a right angled triangle is described.
Legacy of Religion and Philosophy
The religious legacy of the 400 year Han era was the development of Confucianism and Daoism, and the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism. During the Western Han era, a religion developed that is called Daoism that was China's major indigenous religion. The main texts were the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi. Along with these texts, there was a mixture of native regional beliefs in various gods, rites, geomancy and immortals. The two books were believed to predate the Qin book burning era. Confucianism revived and was mixed with Legalism ideas to form a long enduring political philosophy and religion. Daoism and Confucianism are the Western Han era's indigenous religious and philosophical influence on later eras.
During the Western Han era, an early form of Buddhism developed into what is called Mahayana Buddhism in the Yuezhi controlled territory in northern India and Central Asia. The Yuezhi from the Tarim Basin region and the land bordering the northern Han Empire had conquered Hellenized regions of the former Greek Empire after they were defeated by the Xiongnu. The Yuezhi religion, the Hellenized peoples' Greek religion, and Buddhism were mixed together. When the Silk Road trade opened, the Han Empire people learned about this new religion. A third religious legacy of the Han Dynasty was the acceptance of the Mahayana Buddhism of the western peoples along the Silk Road. This form of Mahayana Buddhism became popular during the Eastern Han era.
- Chinese Dynasties
- The Xia Dynasty
- The Shang Dynasty
- The Zhou Dynasty
- Spring and Autumn Period
- Warring States Period
- The Qin Dynasty
- The Han Dynasty
- Three Kingdoms
- The Jin Dynasty
- The Sui Dynasty
- The Tang Dynasty
- The Western Xia Dynasty
- The Song Dynasty
- The Yuan Dynasty
- The Ming Dynasty
- The Qing Dynasty
- The Kingdom of Dali