's Ancient Civilizations of the World/Imperial Control and Han Expansion


The Han Dynasty in 87 BCE (core provinces in brown).

The Han Dynasty (汉朝) (206 BCE – 220 CE) was an imperial dynasty of China, preceded by the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE) and succeeded by the Three Kingdoms (220–280 CE). It was founded by the rebel leader Liu Bang, known posthumously as Emperor Gaozu of Han. It was briefly interrupted by the Xin Dynasty (9–23 CE). This interregnum separates the Han into two periods: the Western Han (206 BCE – 9 CE) and Eastern Han (25–220 CE). Spanning over four centuries, the period of the Han Dynasty is considered a golden age in Chinese history. To this day, China's majority ethnic group refers to itself as the "Han people" and Chinese characters are referred to as "Han characters".

The Birth of a New DynastyEdit

The Qin Dynasty did not last four years after the death of its founder, Qin Shi Huang. After the first emperor’s death, intrigue at the court and incompetent leadership gave rise to rebellion, which led to the collapse of the dynasty, followed by more rebellion throughout China. One of the rebels was Liu Bang. A man from a peasant background, he achieved a minor provincial rank and was escorting prisoners to work on the tomb of Qin Shi Huang when some of the prisoners escaped. Knowing that his failure to prevent the escapes meant he would be executed by the merciless Qin rulers, Liu Bang became a fugitive and leader of one of the many bands of rebels fighting the Qin. Through luck and victories over Qin soldiers, Liu Bang eventually acquired control over lands; he defeated the last Qin king in battle, and became king of the old state of Han.

Though eighteen separate kingdoms had declared their independence from the Qin, after the fall of the dynasty the states of Han and Chu were the two most powerful, and all the other states formed coalitions around one or the other. In the Chu-Han Contention, a four-year civil war, the state of Han, under the leadership of Liu Bang, fought against Chu for control of China, and in the end Han emerged victorious. Liu Bang reunified China by 202 BCE, and was declared Huangdi, the new emperor of China, founding the Han Dynasty. From that point on he was known as Emperor Gaozu. Though he was born a mere peasant, Gaozu established one of the great empires in history. Unlike Qin Shi Huang’s dynasty, which did not last long after him, Gaozu’s dynasty lived on for over four centuries and saw the height of ancient Chinese power and culture.

The Western HanEdit

Han Dynasty 100 BCE (Chinese)

The Han Dynasty emerged in 206 BCE, with its founder Liu Bang proclaimed emperor in 202 BCE. It was the first dynasty to embrace the philosophy of Confucianism, which became the ideological underpinning of all regimes until the end of imperial China. Under the Han Dynasty, China made great advances in many areas of the arts and sciences. Emperor Wu consolidated and extended the Chinese empire by pushing back the Xiongnu into the steppes of modern Inner Mongolia, wresting from them the modern areas of Gansu, Ningxia and Qinghai. This enabled the first opening of trading connections between China and the West, along the Silk Road. Han Dynasty general Ban Chao expanded his conquests across the Pamirs to the shores of the Caspian Sea. The first of several Roman embassies to China is recorded in Chinese sources, coming from the sea route in 166 CE, and a second one in 284 CE.

The Han Dynasty, under Emperor Gaozu and his successors, established themselves in a new capital, Chang’an, in western China. They largely continued the policies of the Qin, and did not differ significantly from the Qin in how they governed China. Like the Qin, they continued to expand the bureaucracy, and encouraged a centralized state. There were, however, minor differences between the two dynasties,and it was perhaps these differences that allowed the Han to rule so much longer than the Qin. First, the Han were more interested in the lives of the Chinese masses, in the wellbeing of their subjects. The Han promoted Confucianism, which had been persecuted by the Qin, in order to promote harmony among the classes.

Nonetheless, the Han faced many challenges. After his victory over Chu, Emperor Gaozu rewarded his prominent supporters with grants of land to be ruled as fiefs. This started the same danger that brought down the Zhou Dynasty: powerful local lords controlling their own petty kingdoms. Gaozu soon replaced these lords with members of his family, in hopes that his family would be loyal and govern these far flung territories in the name of the emperor. Still, these local kings began minting their own coins, making their own laws, levying their own taxes, maintaining their own armies, and soon they saw little need to listen to the emperors in Chang’an. Several rebellions broke out against the Han dynasty, the most serious being the Rebellion of the Seven States. Nonetheless, the Han emperors were able to put down these rebellions; they defeated the most prominent warrior-landlords, and they gradually reduced the power of the small kingdoms (though they never abolished them).Besides these internal threats, another major danger to the Han was the external threat of the barbarians. The most dangerous barbarians in this period were the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu), or Huns, a nomadic-pastoralist warrior people from the Eurasian steppe.The Han Dynasty was able to face these threats and survive because of a strong centralized state. The state was funded primarily by a poll tax (a set tax on every individual) and land taxes (a portion of the harvest). This meant that the prosperity of the agricultural estates determined the prosperity of the Han government. It was in the Han period that the Chinese system of class hierarchy became well developed (though Han scholars claimed that it dated back to the Zhou period). This hierarchy, called the “four occupations,” gave aristocratic scholars (called shi) the highest status, followed by farmers (who were precious to the state, both because they produced food and paid the land tax), followed by craftsmen and artisans, and finally merchants at the bottom of society (because, according to the thinking of the time, they did not produce anything, they merely sold what others produced).

Perhaps the most important early Han emperor was Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141–87 BCE), the seventh emperor of the Han Dynasty. During his fifty-four year reign, the Han Dynasty reached its height. The Xiongnu were driven back and the borders were pushed farther than ever before, roughly doubling the size of the empire. As the Chinese pushed farther west, trade contacts were established with Persia, India, and the Roman Empire. At home, Emperor Wu attempted to weaken the authority of the regional aristocracy by giving more authority to handpicked governors drawn from the shi class.

Emperor Wu centered the state on Confucian teachings. Although the first few Han emperors promoted Confucianism along with Daoism and Legalism, Emperor Wu promoted Confucianism exclusively, abandoning state support for other philosophies. The Confucian ideals that order and harmony were the result of good government and that social harmony depended on each person accepting his social position helped legitimize the state and make people more willing to accept state power over them. At the same time, these ideals encouraged the state to act justly toward its people. From the time of Emperor Wu on, the Han Dynasty accepted Confucianism as the state philosophy.

In another important move, Emperor Wu created civil-service examinations, in which potential government officials were tested on their knowledge of the Confucian classics. The exams were designed to ensure that bureaucrats would be chosen for their intelligence, instead of their birth or connections. While the civil-service exams would not be the most important factor in selecting officials until after the Han Dynasty, Emperor Wu’s program was an important first step. In addition, by making the Confucian classics the subject of the exams, Emperor Wu ensured that these texts would remain the most important Chinese texts for centuries to come. Finally, Emperor Wu reformed the Chinese economy. Although merchants had the lowest status in classical China, some had grown exceedingly rich by selling salt and iron, which were produced by peasants who would otherwise farm and thus be subject to the land tax. Emperor Wu nationalized the salt and iron industries, but avoided unrest and inefficiency by employing the former businessmen as government officials in charge of the industries. Emperor Wu also promoted officials who were experts in agriculture, and initiated reforms that made farming more efficient.

The Xin Dynasty (9-23 CE) and The Eastern Han (25-220 CE)Edit

Rebellion and political chaos briefly brought down the Han Dynasty from 9 to 25 CE. Wang Mang, who ruled as regent because the emperor was too young, overthrew the child emperor and claimed that the Han Dynasty had lost the divine support of the Mandate of Heaven. He proclaimed his own new dynasty, the Xin Dynasty. Wang Mang attempted a number of radical reforms, such as introducing new forms of currency, outlawing slavery, and a return to old models of land distribution. A series of major floods on the Yellow River, during which silt buildup caused it to split into two channels, displaced large numbers of farmers and caused massive unrest. The instability of power brought about chaos, uprisings, and loss of territories. A rebel army called the Chimei (“Red Eyebrows”) developed out of the peasantry, and they defeated Wang Mang’s armies, and stormed the capital of Chang’an. They killed Wang Mang and put their own puppet ruler on the throne.

Meanwhile, in the east a member of the Han royal family, Liu Xiu, later known as Emperor Guangwu (r. 25–57 CE), was declared emperor and ruled from Luoyang. He defeated the Chimei rebels with the support of landholding and merchant families at Luoyang, and then went on to defeat rival warlords, thus reunifying China under the Han Dynasty. Since Emperor Guangwu and his successors kept the capital at Luoyang, his reign is considered the beginning of the Eastern Han period. Under Emperor Guagwu, the empire was strengthened and reunified. Areas that had fallen away from Chinese control (such as Korea and Vietnam) were reconquered, and the Xiongnu Confederation, which had grown strong during China’s period of instability, was pacified. The natural disasters that plagued the Xin Dynasty receded and both agriculture and the population recovered and grew. The first emperors of the restored Han Dynasty rebuilt roads and asserted their military strength. Emperor Guangwu was succeeded by Emperor Ming and then Emperor Zhang. The Rule of Ming and Zhang, as it is called, is remembered for being an era of prosperity. Taxes were reduced, relieving pressure on farmers, Confucian ideals were encouraged, and the emperors appointed able administrators. It was also in this period that paper—one of China’s most important inventions—emerged. Though early forms of paper had existed for centuries, around 100 CE the Chinese eunuch Cai Lun perfected the papermaking process. With paper, Chinese texts could circulate on a durable and relatively inexpensive medium, instead of on clay, silk, or bamboo, as before. This allowed Chinese texts to become more readily available and encouraged learning. Another important invention of this time was porcelain, which also had existed in previous forms for centuries but was perfected in the Eastern Han period, allowing for durable, high quality, and attractive ceramic ware.


The Han Empire was divided into areas directly controlled by the central government, known as commanderies, and a number of semi-autonomous kingdoms. These kingdoms gradually lost all vestiges of their independence, particularly following the Rebellion of the Seven States. The Xiongnu, a nomadic confederation which dominated the eastern Eurasian Steppe, defeated the Han army in battle in 200 BCE. Following the defeat, a political marriage alliance was negotiated in which the Han became the de facto inferior partner. When, despite the treaty, the Xiongnu continued to raid Han borders, Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141–87 BCE) launched several military campaigns against them. The ultimate Han victory in these wars eventually forced the Xiongnu to accept vassal status as Han tributaries. These campaigns expanded Han sovereignty into the Tarim Basin of Central Asia and helped establish the vast trade network known as the Silk Road, which reached as far as the Mediterranean world. Han forces managed to divide the Xiongnu into two competing nations, the Southern and Northern Xiongnu, and forced the Northern Xiongnu across the Ili River. Despite these victories, the territories north of Han's borders were quickly overrun by the nomadic Xianbei Confederation. After 92 CE, the palace eunuchs increasingly involved themselves in court politics, engaging in violent power struggles between the various consort clans of the empresses and empress dowagers, causing the Han's ultimate downfall. Imperial authority was also seriously challenged by large Daoist religious societies which instigated the Yellow Turban Rebellion and the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion. Following the death of Emperor Ling (r. 168–189 CE), the palace eunuchs suffered wholesale massacre by military officers, allowing members of the aristocracy and military governors to become warlords and divide the empire. When Cao Pi, King of Wei, usurped the throne from Emperor Xian, the Han Dynasty ceased to exist.


The Han Dynasty was an age of economic prosperity and saw a significant growth of the money economy first established during the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1050–256 BCE). The coinage issued by the central government mint in 119 BCE remained the standard coinage of China until the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE). To pay for its military campaigns and the settlement of newly conquered frontier territories, the government nationalized the private salt and iron industries in 117 BCE. These government monopolies were repealed during the Eastern Han period, and the lost revenue was recouped through heavily taxing private entrepreneurs.


The emperor was at the pinnacle of Han society. He presided over the Han government but shared power with both the nobility and appointed ministers who came largely from the scholarly gentry class. From the reign of Emperor Wu onward, the Chinese court officially sponsored Confucianism in education and court politics, synthesized with the cosmology of later scholars such as Dong Zhongshu. This policy endured until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 CE.


Science and technology during the Han period saw significant advances, including paper-making, the nautical steering rudder, the use of negative numbers in mathematics, the raised-relief map, the hydraulic-powered armillary sphere for astronomy, and a seismometer employing an inverted pendulum.


"The Han Dynasty" (Saylor)

Last modified on 27 May 2013, at 15:39