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Han Dynasty

Duration: 206 BC ~ 220 CE, with a short interregnum (9 ~ 23 CE) when Wang Mang usurped the throne and founded his own Xin Dynasty

Capital: Chang’an, Luoyang

Given the shortness of the preceding Qin Dynasty (221 ~ 206 BC), the Han Dynasty was the first dynasty in Imperial China to put China under centralized rule for a considerably long time span. The significance of the Han Dynasty to the Chinese nation is obvious: the majority ethnic group of China today refers to itself as 汉族 han zu (the Han ethnicity), and the Chinese language as 汉语 han yu with 汉字 han zi (Chinese characters).

The Han Dynasty gave a collective name to the majority of the Chinese nation: 汉族 han zu (Han ethnicity).

History of Han Dynasty

The Qin Empire collapsed amid full-scale peasant uprisings against the autocratic use of power of the Qin regime. Liu Bang, leader of one of the rebel groups, laughed last in the wars, reunified China, and assumed the title of emperor in 202 BC. The first emperor of Han Dynasty, Liu Bang was to be known posthumously as Emperor Han Gao Zu.

The Han Dynasty inherited much of the political institution of its predecessor, Qin Dynasty. However, a dual political system of centralized government and enfeoffment was installed in the beginning. While the Emperor controlled thirteen commanderies (known as 郡 jun) plus the region surrounding capital Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) – accounting for one third of the empire, the rest two-thirds in the east was divided into ten kingdoms as awards for a few prominent generals. These kings were later to be replaced by the Emperor with members of the royal family. The imperial court introduced further reforms, especially following insurrections by some of the kings, to curb the size and autonomy of these kingdoms, dividing them into smaller ones. Kings became nominal heads only, with staff being appointed by the central government. Power became more centralized as a result.
Power became centralized in Han Dynasty, as the territory and autonomy of the kingdoms under the empire were curbed and divided. The left sketch shows the territory under direct imperial control (in dark yellow) as against those of the kingdoms in the beginning of Han Dynasty. In the right sketch, the shadowed patches signify the territories of the kingdoms by the end of Western Han Dynasty.

The Han Dynasty was interrupted for some one and a half decade in the middle. Wang Mang, regent for Emperor Ping (r. 1BCE ~ 6 CE), usurped the throne and founded his own dynasty: the Xin Dynasty. The Xin Dynasty did not last long, however. Flood of the Yellow River dislodged thousands of peasants, turning them into bandit and rebel groups. Wang Mang failed to put down the uprisings, and was killed by the mobs, leaving China in a state of disunity in the hands of a few warlords. Liu Xiu, a descendant of Emperor Jing Di (r. 157 ~ 141 BC), rose to fame in the ensuing civil war and took the throne in 25 CE. This marked the beginning of the second half of the Han Dynasty – Eastern Han Dynasty (so named because its capital was now Luoyang, east of the former Chang’an, capital of Western Han Dynasty).
The twilight years of Eastern Han Dynasty saw a destructive massive rebellion called the Yellow Turban Rebellion, and complex, bloody court politics between the eunuchs and the clansmen of the empresses or empress dowagers. The Rebellion was crashed, but the generals refused to disband their forces assembled during the crisis, and became powerful regional warlords. Amid political and military chaos, one of them, Cao Cao (155 ~ 220 CE) got control of the emperor finally, and moved the capital to Xuchang. Cao Cao’s went on to reunify China through wars, but saw his attempts of southern expedition thwarted upon his defeat at the Battle of Red Cliffs (208 CE), and China was divided into three spheres of influence: Cao Cao dominating the north, Sun Quan (182 ~ 252 CE) the south, and Liu Bei (161~223 CE) the southwest. Cao Pi (187~226 CE), son of Cao Cao, forced the emperor to relinquish the throne in his favor in 220 CE. This marked the official ending of the Han Dynasty, and China stepped into the Three Kingdoms Period.

A Glorious Age in Chinese History

The Han Dynasty is remembered as a golden age in Chinese history and a source of reverance to later generations. Ancient Chinese literati would constantly allude to remarkable personalities of Han Dynasty for their accomplishments, especially regarding military successes.

International prestige and political influence is a popular measure of an empire’s success. The first decades after its founding saw the Han Empire suffering constant invasions from the nomadic confederation of the Xiongnu people who dominated the eastern Eurasian Steppe in the north. Emperor Liu Bang was even once besieged in a battle in 200 BCE. Foreign policies based on heqin (和亲, marriage alliance) and tributary system were adopted to appease the Xiongnu, putting the Han Empire into a de facto inferior position. Emperor Wu of Han (156 ~ 87 CE) acceded to the throne in 141 BC, and began to take more aggressive actions. Several major military campaigns were launched against the Xiongnu. Decisive victories were won by Han generals Wei Qing and Huo Qubing, forcing the Xiongnu to flee north of the Gobi Desert. Han sovereignty was expanded to the Tarim Basin of Central Asia, establishing the Protectorate of the Western Regions (西域都护府 xi yu du hu fu), where the vital link of the famous Silk Road network was to be opened by diplomat Zhang Qian. Though there were further conflicts with the Xiongnu in the following century and more, the Han Empire was able to prevail against them. In the south, the Han Empire expanded its realm into today’s Yunnan, Guangdong, Guangxi and part of Vietnam, followed by parts of the Korean Peninsula in the northeast.

Territory of Eastern Han Empire at its zenith.


Beside its victories on the battlefield, the Han Dynasty is also worth remembering with regard to achievements in cultural aspects. Confucianism was established as state ideology by Emperor Wu. Dong Zhongshu (179 ~ 104 CE) integrated Yin-Yang cosmology into the Confucian ethical framework, making it an ideal theoretical basis for imperial rule. Sciences and technology developed further. Cai Lun (50~121 CE) invented the standard papermaking process and which was to help popularize greatly the manufacture of paper. Metallurgic advances saw the processing of wrought iron using furnaces, and the use of wrought iron in manufacturing weapons, culinary tools, carpenter’s tools, and most importantly, agricultural tools. Metal ores were extracted via underground mine shafts, some reaching as deep as 100 meters. Waterwheel appeared in Han Dynasty records to turn gears that lifted iron trip hammers, pound and polish grain, and drive chain pumps (lifting water to elevated ditches). In mathematics, besides achievements in solving problems with right-angle triangle, square roots, cube roots, and matrix methods, negative numbers were used by Han Dynasty mathematicians, which was the world’s first use. And in the respect of medicine, regulated diets were prescribed to curb specific illnesses, acupuncture was used, and physician Hua Tuo used anesthesia to numb the patient’s pain.

A Han Dynasty mold for bronze gear wheels

Huo Tuo, Han Dynasty physician who used anesthesia to numb pains.



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