The Han empire began in 206 B.C. when Liu Bang, prince of Han, defeated the Qin army in the valley of Wei. The defeat was part of a larger rebellion that began after the First Emporer's death. The people were dissatisfied with the tyranny of the Qin leaders and their Legalist form of government. However, while traditional Chinese history portrays the Han as implementing immediate changes in government, evidence shows the Han continued to rule in the tradition of the Qin, and only gradually incorporated Confucian ideals into their Legalist form of government. Economic expansion, changing relationships with the people of the steppes, strengthening of the palace at the expense of the civil service, weakening of the state's hold on the peasantry, and the rise of the families of the rich and the gentry were all factors that led to the adoption of Confucian ideals..
Under this new form of Legalism and Confucianism, rewards and punishments were still used for common people. However, the administrators were judged based on Confucian principles with the justification for these different sets of standards as they were educated. As a last resort, the ruler could use punishment for both the people and the officials. It was believed that force alone was not a sufficient way to rule and so the emperor needed the help of the Confucianists to guide him morally. Evidence of rulers using their power to punish is found in the records of officials who were beheaded.
When Liu Bang conquered the Qin, he created his capital at Ch'ang-an. He kept most of the laws and regulations by the Qin and made many of his friends nobility and gave them fiefs. However, the land was still divided up into commanderies and prefectures. Even the fiefs given out were treated like commanderies. Han power was based on direct control of people by the state.
Like the Qin before them, the main goal of the Han was the unification of China. This goal led to the eventual breakup of the fiefs and the downfall of the imperial nobility. This process was finally complete during Wu Ti's reign (141-87 B.C.) His reign was a period of great military expansion. He expanded the borders into Vietnam and Korea and pushed the Hsiung nu south of the Gobi. Wu Ti transplanted an estimated 2 million people to the northwestern region in order to colonize these areas.
The expansion also led to trade with the people of inner Asia. Thereafter, the Silk Road was developed. The Silk Road actually consisted of more than one possible route through the mountains that the traders followed. Agriculture grew with the development of better tools. Iron tools were made of better quality, and oxen drawn ploughs were commonly used. Irrigation systems were increased to help develop the areas of North China. Crop rotation was also practiced from 85 B.C. onwards. The state attempted to monopolize the production of iron and salt, which were the two biggest sectors of the economy, but succeeded for less than a century. Silk weaving and copper work were also important activities.
Education became more important during this period, as a new class of gentry was introduced. A result of this was the compilation of many encyclopedias. The best known is the Book of the Mountains and Seas, which contained everything known at the time about geography, natural philosophy, the animal and plant world, and popular myths. Sima Qian, considered to be China's greatest historian wrote his famous Records of the Historian (Shiji) during this time. This history book became the model by which all other histories would follow. It was one of the first attempts in China to make a record of the past in a proper form.
The Han Dynasty is actually two separate dynasties. It is considered one dynasty by the Chinese because the second dynasty was founded by a member of the former Han dynasty who declared he had restored the Han Dynasty. The original Han Dynasty was overthrown when the wealthy families gained more power than the emperor. The families became allied with each other through marriages and were responsible for the selection of officials. The widow of the emperor Yüan Ti succeeded in placing all of her relatives in government positions and ruling in place of her son. Her nephew, Wang Mang eventually declared himself emperor of a new dynasty, the Hsing (New). His rise to emperor is unusual because he gained much public support on his rise and he began a ceremony in which a seal of precious stone was passed to the emperor. From then on, whoever held this seal was the official emperor. Wang Mang was overthrown by a secret society of peasants known as the Red Eyebrows, because they painted their eyebrows red. The descendents of the Han dynasty eventually joined in the uprising, and, it was the armies of these nobles, under the leadership of Liu Hsiu, who killed Wang Mang in 22A.D. The fighting continued until 25 A.D., when Liu Hsiu became the emperor. As an emperor he was called Kuang-wu Ti. Millions of people died during the fighting, leaving land for the peasants, and often, the freedom of debt as the lenders had died.
The second Han Dynasty had much success with their foreign policy. Part of this success was due more to luck than to anything the Han did. The Hsiung nu who had previously been one of the most dangerous enemies of the Chinese were defeated by the Hsien-pi and the Wu-huan. Half of the Hsiung nu moved south, and became part of the Chinese empire. The Hsiung nu appeared to be trying to reunite and form a large empire comprising all of Turkestan. Thus, in 73 A.D. the Chinese began a campaign in Turkestan. The whole of Turkestan was quickly conquered which would have ensured a trading monopoly, however, the emperor Ming Ti died and Chang Ti became emperor. He favored an isolationist policy so that much of what was gained in Turkestan was now lost. Pan Ch'ao, the deputy commander who had led the invasion, stayed in Turkestan to try and hold onto what had been won, and eventually in 89 A.D. a new emperor came to power with a renewed interest in holding Turkestan. Despite this military success, economic and political struggles arose within China. Internal struggles for power taxed the peasants, until in 184 A.D. when another peasant uprising occurred. This movement was begun by the Yellow Turbans. This uprising served to unite the factions who had previously been fighting one another because they needed to unite to defeat the Yellow Turbans. Despite conquering them, China did not return to a united state. Rather, three kingdoms emerged and the Han dynasty came to an end.
Dynasties of Early Imperial China
Images of artifacts courtesy of ArGa oriental collections.