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The Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) was the second imperial dynasty, preceded by the intense Qin Dynasty and succeeded by the fractured Three Kingdoms Period. During the longest imperial dynasty, China expanded its territory and trade, and Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism developed.
The Western Han Empire was the first large and long-surviving empire in the region. It lasted from 206 BC until 9 AD.
Liu Bang was the first emperor of the Han Dynasty. At first, Liu Bang emulated the rule of the Qin court, but he allowed more freedoms and drafted fewer peasants for conscript labor. Then he did start acting more tyrannical later.
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 then he became an outlaw. When the people and leaders in many parts of the Qin Empire revolted, Liu Bang became the leader of an army, and he defeated his main rivals in war to become emperor.
His first policies as an emperor was to lower taxes and try to win the support of common people by treating them less harshly than did the Qin rulers before him. Unlike the first Qin emperor, he didn't strive for total power.
He allowed other leaders to have kingdoms in the eastern part of the empire, and they were over most of the territory of the empire. The imperial court had direct power over the western third of the empire.
An empire requires land, subjects, a hierarchical system of rule, and a method of communication. Liu Bang inherited a large empire and the foundation of imperial rule laid by the Qin court. He utilized 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 useful sciences favored by the Qin rulers. Perhaps this made maintaining hegemony easier.
However, 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 imperial framework, Liu Bang inherited the military technology and tactics that had enabled the Qin Dynasty to form their empire.
Liu Bang was hard pressed by external threats and internal strife. Both the Qin Dynasty and the Liu Bang faced 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 defeated the Han army in 200 BC, and Liu Bang made a treaty with them and agreed to send silk and other goods.
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.
He died in 195 after reigning 11 years.
Emperor Wudi (Han Wudi 汉武帝, 156–87) came to power at the age of 15 just at the same time that his clan had gained greater imperial power by having demoted or killed the eastern territorial rulers in the period 157 to 155. He ruled from 141 to 87 BC, and the time of his long rule is thought of as the zenith of the Western Han Dynasty.
Wudi was the seventh Han emperor. He reigned for 54 years. This is one of the longest reigns in two thousand years of dynastic history. His reign was a time of prosperity, but he became despotic at the end of this life. Then he repented before he died.
He was thought to be an effective governor. He concentrated on conquest, trade with the West, instituting administrative policies and concentrating power to himself.
During the same time between 130 BC and 100 BC, trade with Western countries brought wealth to the rulers and merchants. Partly as a way to deal with the Xiongnu threat, Emperor Wudi’s court sent envoys to the Yuezhi in the west, and a large scale trade developed on the Silk Road routes.
The trade usually involved large caravans that traveled between Chang'an (today’s Xi'an) that was the capital of the empire and the western countries.
It must have been exciting in Xi'an when caravans of foreigners brought wealth and new technologies and ideas. 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.
He instituted policies that were retained by later empires. 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 established the Confucian Imperial Examination as a way to select officials 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.
He initiated a lot of wars. His campaigns usually succeeded, and he expanded the empire so that it stretched to Central Asia, Korea and Vietnam.
Against the Xiongnu
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 Yizhixie Chanyu's forces, destroyed his Xiongnu army, and nearly captured him. Then the Xiongnu wanted peace for a few years. In this way he was able to keep the Xiongnu out.
Against the South
At the same time, Han armies also defeated armies and navies to the south, and the empire expanded into the areas of 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.
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 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 order 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 the 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. He was buried in the Mao Mausoleum outside of Xi'an. Crown Prince Fuling ruled under the title Emperor Zhao for the next 13 years.
The Western Han 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.
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 Western Han Dynasty succeeded in stabilizing the empire, expanding its territory, increasing trade, and beginning a tradition of dynastic government staffed by Confucian scholars.
The population is thought to have grown from about 18 million people to the census record of about 57 million people. By the end of the dynasty, some of the cities had grown to be among the largest in the world at that time.
Wang Mang (45 BC – 23 AD), the official who claimed he had the Mandate of Heaven, 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 the city of Luoyang in the east became the new capital. In this way, the Eastern Han era began.
For two years after Wang Mang died, he tried to be the emperor, but he was killed by the Red Eyebrows Rebellion.
After a member of the old imperial clan became emperor again, the Han Dynasty reign continued in the new capital at Luoyang. The first emperor faced lots of enemies, and like the Western Han Dynasty, during the course of 195 years the empire stabilized and then ended in corruption, natural disasters and internal rebellions.
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. When he reached maturity, 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.
During his long reign, the Red Eyebrows were defeated, and he consolidated power in the Empire. He defeated Goguryeo attacks in 30 AD on the northeast border 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.
Two major events had to do with the Silk Road. 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.
The other event had to do with the coming of Buddhist philosophy and religion.
The Silk Road trade caused cultural changes. The Silk Road trade route went through territories where Buddhism was a main religion. A type of Buddhism was already believed by a portion of the population centuries earlier at the end of the Warring States Period of the Zhou Dynasty centuries earlier.
But the Yuezhi people introduced a new version called Mahayana Buddhism to the northern part of the empire when they went to Chang'an and taught about Buddhism around the year 1 BC.
After being defeated by the Xiongnu, the Yuezhi from the Tarim Basin region and the land bordering the northern Han Empire had conquered Hellenized regions of the former Greek Empire. There in northern India and Central Asia, the Yuezhi religion, the Hellenized peoples' Greek religion, and Buddhism were mixed together.
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 became popular in the Han Empire in this way.
The demise of the empire somewhat resembled the end of the Western Han Empire and the Qin Empire. In the last 54 years of the rule of the Eastern Han Dynasty, there were confrontations between revival factions in the imperial court, natural disasters, and loss of life.
In the last decades, eunuchs took power, and the emperors were weaker. Eunuchs were men who were castrated, and their rivals for power were the Confucian officials, regional rulers, and the imperial clan. Assassinations and fighting became common.During these last decades, two emperors named Emperor Huan (132–168) and Emperor Ling (156–189) relied on eunuchs to rule. They were said to live decadent lives, and they let eunuchs take control.
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 common people rebelled at the end of the Han era. 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 Yellow Turban Rebellion and the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion around Sichuan started in 184. They were both Daoist-led rebellions. Famine in the north and flooding along the Yellow River forced large numbers of farmers and military settlers to move to the south.
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 in Sichuan, they were defeated in most of the empire. However, generals and rulers in various areas retained their armies and started to rule independently of the imperial 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 Chang'an.
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.
The Battle of Red Cliffs between Cao Cao, Dong Wu and Shu Han is famous for determining the division of the empire. 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 were Sun Quan in Dong Wu and Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang in Shu Han. His rivals 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.
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 regions ruled by 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.
Read more about these kingdoms of the Three Kingdoms Period.
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.
The religious legacy of the 400 year Han era was the development of Confucianism and Daoism, and the acceptance of Mahayana Buddhism.
During the Western Han era, the religion of Daoism developed that became China's major indigenous religion. The main texts were the Dao De Jing and the Zhuangzi. Along with these texts, the people practiced 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.