After the civil war following the death of Qin Shihuang in 210 BC., China was united under the rule of the Han Dynasty. It was divided into two main periods. These were the Former or Western Han and the Later or Eastern Han. The boundaries made by the Qin and kept by the Han have defined the country up to the present day.
The Western Han capital, Chang’An, is today’s Shaanxi Province. It was a monumental urban spot spread on a north-south axis. The area was surrounded by residential wards, palaces, and bustling market areas. It was also one of the two biggest cities in the ancient world where Rome was the other.Read the full story
The Golden Age of Chinese History
The Han Dynasty was among the longest of China’s main dynasties. When it comes to prestige and power, the Han in the East rivaled the Roman Empire in the West. The period only had minor interruptions. It was able to last over four centuries.
The Han was the golden age in Chinese history. It was most prominent in politics, arts, and technology. Although tainted by deadly drama, the Han promoted Confucianism as the state religion. It opened the Silk Road trading route towards Europe.
Every Chinese dynasty looked back and up to the Han period. It was an encouraging model of a unified empire and measureless government.
Western or Former Han
The Western Han Dynasty was the first united and dynamic empire in Chinese history. It lasted from 206 BC to 24 AD and established by Liu Bang who became the Emperor Gaozu. This followed four years of civil war. It began by the uprising of peasants against the dictatorial Qin Dynasty.
Emperor Liu Bang – Western Han
The first emperor was Liu Bang who later called himself Emperor Gaozu. He initiated effective measures by engaging people for his government. This was all based on their skills and not from birth or their wealth. He took notes from the fall of the Qin and other previous dynasties.
The economy recovered due to the able individuals in his government. The improvements were due to the policies based on his amendments. Gaozu encouraged the arts which flourished during his time. Yet after Gaozu’s death, Liu Ying, his son, took the throne.
Despite taking the position of his father, Liu Ying did not have the power held by his mother, Queen Lu Zhi.
After 16 years of Lu Zhi’s rule, Liu Heng and Liu Qi became the emperors and succeeded the throne. Both of them diminished society’s tax burdens as what Emperor Gaozu did. They encouraged everyone to farm and be frugal in life. Because of their efficiency, life during this stage was stable. The nation’s power and wealth were also enhanced.
Reign of Emperor Wu
During the rule of Emperor Wu, Western Han accomplished its most powerful and wealthy period. He assigned two generals to battle against the Huns of north China. He expanded the territory of the Western Han and ensured safe trade routes. Not only that, but he established the great Silk Road.
Emperor Wu sent trade missions and emissaries to different countries. Thus, establishing foreign trade. In the later years, he supported the development of agriculture. This led to the development of the economy in a speedy manner. The emperor also altered the official state religion – from Taoism to Confucianism.
The concluding decline of the Han began with Wu’s policy to sell land off to private landholders. This resulted in increased taxes on the poor workers and inequality. It also displaced people and made a lot of them become serfs.
The dynasty passed its apex under Emperor Zhao, Xuan, then Yuan. Soon after, he lost power in dealing with state affairs. He went against the idea of advocating people based on skills. Instead, he selected prominent Confucians who relied on fortune telling and astronomy.
He chose them to fill government positions and function as advisers.
Commerce & Trade
Industry in the Han Dynasty
In industry, productivity was enhanced and improved in textile industry and metallurgy. People utilized looms which took the place of manual weaving. Iron-smelting improved on a larger scale, while the creation of steel used coal as fuel. They developed hydraulics via water power to achieve a celestial sphere.
Commerce During the Han Dynasty
The stability of China and the fast growth of the arts proved to be favorable for commerce. It was also with the invention of porcelain and paper that the industry improved. A lot of commercial cities advanced around the heart of Chang’an.
Not only did domestic trade grow, but foreign trade blossomed due to the opening of the Silk Road. Trade and diplomatic missions were built with ancient Rome, India and other countries.
The End of the West Han
The Western Han reached its end with Liu Ying as ruler and the nation left in the revolution. Wang Mang occupied the throne and altered the name of the dynasty to Xin. Yet after a succession of protests, social rebellion became deliberate. Here, Wang Mang’s rule was ousted by a rebellion of peasants.
The uprising was soon suppressed by Liu Xiu. He was a royalty from the Han whom people trusted. In 25 AD, he re-established the Han Dynasty or the Eastern Han. This turned Luo Yang into the capital city.
Eastern or the Later Han
Regarded as an extension of the Western Han, the Eastern Han Dynasty was created by Liu Xiu. He then became Emperor Guangwu. With Luoyang as its capital city, the dynasty reigned with a total of 12 emperors in only 195 years.
Defeat of Wang Mang and Rule of Liu Xiu
In 25 CE, Liu Xiu, a Han royalty, defeated Wang Mang. He took over the throne and created the Eastern Han. During the second year on the throne, Liu Xiu adjusted all the policies that Wang Mang made.
The most successful period of Eastern Han was in the middle period of the 1st century. After the rule of Guangwu, Ming and Zhang, the Han regained its success. Generally, its scientific, economical, and cultural development outweighed that of West Han.
“Didn’t you know that people hide love like a flower too precious to be picked?”
~ Emperor Wu of Han
Yellow Turbans Uprising
After the middle stage of East Han, most of the emperors were young. Here, the real royal power was grasped by eunuchs and distant relatives. It caused corruption and chaos during the later period. It was when farmers all over the country rebelled against their current rulers.
In 184, the Yellow Turbans Uprising began, led by a Hebei farmer named Zhang Jiao. In the later stage of this era, all power fell into the hands of the eunuchs, putting the entire court into chaos.
Emperor Xi’an was the last emperor of Eastern Han. During this time, royalty was under tight control by the treacherous Dong Zhuo. Finally, a minor warlord named Cao Cao seized power. Here, Cao Pi, the second son of Cao Cao, forced Emperor Xi’an to abdicate. Thus, the Eastern Han Dynasty soon came to an end.
The Economy in the Later Han
In the early period, the government paid lots of attention to irrigation works. During the reign of Emperor Ming, many flooded fields were changed into lush lands.
At the same time, the industry’s productivity improved. This time, a special tool ‘Shui Pai’ appeared. Made by a local Nanyang viceroy, it used water power, applying it for air-blast during smelting. It boosted productivity in the industry of metallurgical.
Under Emperor He, extraction of copper, bronze-ware production, and silk-making were developed. Commerce also flourished and Luoyang became the country’s national business center.
Science and Culture During The Han DynastyProgress & Achievements
Vital changes in culture and science took place during this era. In 105, a court official Cai Lun enhanced the older process of paper-making. This improvement ended the usage of carved bamboo strips.
Meanwhile, progress appeared in astronomy. Zhang Heng, a famous astronomer, made special equipment claimed as the earliest seismograph. It offered superb methods for testing earthquakes.
Also, achievements in medicine took place. These were by the well-known surgeon named Hua Tuo. He introduced the use of anesthetic processes in operations.
In Eastern Han, the arts gained some status. Painting and calligraphy were no longer used as letter symbols. Instead, it emerged as a kind of art form. What’s more, with ceramic’s development, pottery became widespread among commoners.
The Han was a literate culture but enthusiastic record keepers as well. Thus, the cultural environment of the dynasty was well documented. The Yuefu or Music Bureau collected detailed descriptions of music for the day. They recorded its techniques, instruments, and songs in the process.
In the Confucian temples and the court, music fell into two categories. These classifications included ritual music and music accompanying banquets. For rituals, dance was a crucial element. Also, an item that resembled a system of dance notation recorded movements. This was often used to note movements, musicians and dancers during performances.
There also were casual dances that were part of private entertainment. These had much body movements with a few footwork. Several types of plucked string instruments were used during the Han. India influenced Buddhism during the dynasty and came with booming bronze bells.
A kind of drama appeared in this stage in Chinese history. Performers would act out heroic accomplishments of celebrated warriors.
Confucianism became popular among the royalty around 135 BC. This was during the early reign of Emperor Wu. Confucianism stayed alive in the country due to the efforts of some intellectuals. One of them was Fu Sheng, who kept Confucian literature during the Qin Dynasty.
Confiscated Confucian texts were abundant during the Qin Dynasty. These were completely lost when the imperial library was burnt down in the 210 BC civil war. Fu Sheng had saved “The Book of Documents”. With that, the Han attempted to collect the remaining documents.
Some of these were in the hands of kings, while others were hidden in the walls of Confucius’ home. In 136 BC, a program for teaching the five books of the Confucian progressed.
The books were then translated into contemporary script. By the 2nd century AD, the imperial university had 30,000 people studying this.
Invention of Paper
The court eunuchs were good for power plays but one of them also developed paper. The eunuch named Cai Lun created this vital piece around the year 105 AD.
He pounded ingredients like hemp, bamboo, fishing nets, rag, and mulberry tree bark to a pulp. He then combined water and laid it out on a flat surface. The use of paper spread throughout the empire.
At the same time, a man named Xu Shen assembled the first Chinese dictionary. He included the Han period characters and those from the Shang and Zhou eras. The dictionary became an invaluable tool until the 20th century. It was used for deciphering various archaeological inscriptions.
The time also featured a growth in the work of historians. Sima Qian established the first history of China. This was done through the dynasties and named this The Grand Scribe’s Records. It contained a total of 130 chapters. It was another book that is still in use as a reference for contemporary historians.
The Silk Road
In 138 BC., Emperor Wu sent a man named Zhang Qian on a mission to make contact with the Western tribes. He and his party were seized by the Xiognu tribe, but Zhang Qian escaped and headed west. He later reached Bactria, Afghanistan, a place that was under the control of the Greeks.
In Bactria, he saw textiles and bamboo from China and asked how they reached the place. People told him that these items came from an Afghanistan kingdom named Shendu. 13 years after, Zhan Qian returned to his Emperor and told him of his findings.
Soon, they mapped out a way to send back an expedition to the area. This map became a favored reference. It later developed into an international trade route which became known as the Silk Road.
The End of the Han Dynasty
The Han’s predilection for court intrigue got the best of them. In the year 189 AD., an insignificant war in the palace occurred. This was between the family of Empress Dowager and the young emperor’s eunuch allies. It also involved a religious cult called the Yellow Turbans.
This group attempted to start a civil war and ushered their dynasty. As this deteriorated, the military entered to take control. This conflict lasted until 220 AD, when the last emperor of the Han was dethroned came the end of the dynasty.