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The Han Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 漢朝, Simplified Chinese: 汉朝, Pinyin: Hàncháo; 202 BC - AD 220) followed the Qin Dynasty and preceded the Three Kingdoms in China.
During the Han Dynasty, China officially became a Confucian state and prospered domestically: agriculture, handicrafts and commerce flourished, and the population reached 50 million. Meanwhile, the empire extended its political and cultural influence over Vietnam, Central Asia, Mongolia, and Korea before it finally collapsed under a combination of domestic and external pressures.
The first of the two periods of the dynasty, namely the Former Han Dynasty (Qian Han 前漢) or the Western Han Dynasty (Xi Han 西漢) 206 BC - AD 9 seated at Chang'an. The Later Han Dynasty (Hou Han 後漢) or the Eastern Han Dynasty (Dong Han 東漢) 25 - 220 seated at Luoyang. The western-eastern Han convention is used nowadays to avoid confusion with the Later Han Dynasty of the Period of the Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms although the former-later nomenclature was used in history texts including Sima Guang's Zizhi Tongjian. The dynasty was founded by the Liu family.
Intellectual, literary, and artistic endeavors revived and flourished during the Han Dynasty. The Han period produced China's most famous historian, Sima Qian (145 -87 BC?), whose Records of the Grand Historian provides a detailed chronicle from the time of legendary Xia emperor to that of the Emperor Wu ( 141- 87 BC). Technological advances also marked this period. One of the great Chinese inventions, paper, dates from Han times.
It is fair enough to state that contemporary empires of the Han Dynasty and the Roman Empire were the two superpowers of the known world. Several Roman embassies to China are recounted in Chinese history, starting with a Hou Hanshu (History of the Later Han) account of a Roman convoy set out by emperor Antoninus Pius that reached the Chinese capital Luoyang in 166 and was greeted by Emperor Huan.
The Han dynasty, after which the members of the ethnic majority in China, the "people of Han," are named, was notable also for its military prowess. The empire expanded westward as far as the rim of the Tarim Basin (in modern Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region), making possible relatively secure caravan traffic across Central Asia. The paths of caravan traffic are often called the "Silk Road" because the route was used to export Chinese silk. Chinese armies also invaded and annexed parts of northern Vietnam and northern Korea (Wiman Joseon) toward the end of the second century BC. Han control of peripheral regions was generally insecure, however. To ensure peace with non-Chinese local powers, the Han court developed a mutually beneficial "tributary system." Non-Chinese states were allowed to remain autonomous in exchange for symbolic acceptance of Han overlordship. Tributary ties were confirmed and strengthened through intermarriages at the ruling level and periodic exchanges of gifts and goods.
Within the first three months after Qin Dynasty emperor Qin Shi Huang's death at Shaqiu , widespread revolts by peasants, prisoners, soldiers and descendants of the nobles of the Six Warring States sprang up all over China. Chen Sheng and Wu Guang, two in a group of about 900 soldiers assigned to defend against the Xiangyu , were the leaders of the first rebellion. Continuous insurgence finally toppled the Qin dynasty in 206 BC. The leader of insurgents was Xiang Yu, an outstanding military commander without political expertise, who divided the country into 18 feudal states to his own satisfaction. The ensuing war among those states signified the 5 years of Chu Han Contention with Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, as the eventual winner. The beginning of the Han Dynasty can be dated either from 206 BC when the Qin dynasty crumbled or 202 BC when Xiang Yu committed suicide.
Taoism and Feudal System
The new empire retained much of the Qin administrative structure but retreated a bit from centralized rule by establishing vassal principalities in some areas for the sake of political convenience. After the establishment of the Han Dynasty, Emperor Gao (Liu Bang) divided the country into several "feudal states" to satisfy some of his wartime allies - but planned to get rid of them once he had consolidated his power.
After his death, his successors from Emperor Hui to Emperor Jing tried to rule China combining Legalist methods with the Taoist philosophic ideals. During this "pseudo-Taoism era", a stable centralized government over China was established through revival of the agriculture sectors and fragmentations of "feudal states" after the suppression of the Rebellion of the seven states.
Emperor Wu and Confucianism
During the "Taoism era", China was able to maintain peace with Xiongnu by paying tribute and marrying princesses to them. During this time, the dynasty's goal was to relieve the society of harsh laws, wars, and conditions from both the Qin, external threats from nomads, and early internal conflicts within the Han court. The government reduced taxation and assumed a subservient status to neighboring nomadic tribes. This policy of the government's reduced role over civilian lives (與民休息) started a period of stability, which was called the reign of Wen and Jing (文景之治), named after the two emperors of this particular era. However, Under Emperor Wu's leadership, the most prosperous period ( 140 - 87 BC)of the Han Dynasty, the Empire was able to fight back. At its height, China incorporated the present-day Qinghai, Gansu, and Vietnam into its territories.
Emperor Wu decided that Taoism was no longer suitable for China, and officially declared China to be a Confucian state; however, like the emperors before him, he combined Legalist methods with the Confucian ideal. This official adoption of Confucianism led to not only a civil service nomination system, but also the compulsory knowledge of Confucian classics of candidates for the imperial bureaucracy, a requirement that lasted up to the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912. Confucian scholars gained prominent status as the core of the civil service.
Beginning of the Silk Road
From 138 BC, Emperor Wu also dispatched Zhang Qian twice as his envoy to the Western Regions, and in the process pioneered the route known as the Silk Road from Chang'an (today's Xi'an, Shaanxi Province), through Xinjiang and Central Asia, and on to the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
Following Zhang Qian' embassy and report, commercial relations between China and Central as well as Western Asia flourished, as many Chinese missions were sent throughout the 1st century BC, initiating the development of the Silk Road:
"The largest of these embassies to foreing states numbered several hundred persons, while even the smaller parties included over 100 members... In the course of one year anywhere from five to six to over ten parties would be sent out." (Shiji, trans. Burton Watson).
China also sent missions to Parthia, which were followed up by reciprocal missions from Parthian envoys around 100 BC:
"When the Han envoy first visited the kingdom of Anxi (Parthia), the king of Anxi dispatched a party of 20,000 horsemen to meet them on the eastern border of the kingdom... When the Han envoys set out again to return to China, the king of Anxi dispatched envoys of his own to accompany them... The emperor was delighted at this." (Shiji, 123, trans. Burton Watson).
The Roman historian Florus describes the visit of numerous envoys, included Seres (Chinese), to the first Roman Emperor Augustus, who reigned between 27 BC and 14 AD:
"Even the rest of the nations of the world which were not subject to the imperial sway were sensible of its grandeur, and looked with reverence to the Roman people, the great conqueror of nations. Thus even Scythians and Sarmatians sent envoys to seek the friendship of Rome. Nay, the Seres came likewise, and the Indians who dwelt beneath the vertical sun, bringing presents of precious stones and pearls and elephants, but thinking all of less moment than the vastness of the journey which they had undertaken, and which they said had occupied four years. In truth it needed but to look at their complexion to see that they were people of another world than ours." ("Cathey and the way thither", Henry Yule).
In 97 AD the Chinese general Ban Chao went as far west as the Caspian Sea with 70,000 men and established direct military contacts with the Parthian Empire, also dispatching an envoy to Rome in the person of Gan Ying.
Several Roman embassies to China soon followed from 166 AD, and are officially recorded in Chinese historical chronicles.
Good exchanges such as Chinese silk, African ivory, and Roman incense increase the contacts between the East and West.
Contacts with the Kushan Empire led to the introduction of Buddhism to China from India in the first century.
See also: Silk Road, Silk Road transmission of Buddhism
Rise of landholding class
To draw funds for his triumphant campaigns against the Xiongnu, Emperor Wu relinquished land control to merchants and the riches, and in effect legalized the privatization of lands. Land taxes were then drawn based on the sizes of fields. It was no longer on their income(harvest), which could not guarantee to pay their taxes completely. Incomes from selling harvest were often market-driven - a stable amount could not be guaranteed especially after harvest-reducing natural disasters. Merchant and prominent families then lured peasants to sell their lands since land accumulation guaranteed living standards of theirs and their descendants' in the agricultural society of China. Lands were hence accumulating into a new class of landholding families. The Han government in turn imposed more taxes on the remaining independent servants in order to make up the tax losses, therefore encouraging more peasants to come under the landholding elite or the landlords.
Ideally the peasants pay the landlords certain periodic (usually annual) amount of income, who in turn provide protection against crimes and other hazards. In fact an increasing number of peasant population in the prosperous Han society and limited amount of lands provided the elite to elevate their standards for any new subordinate peasants. The inadequate education and often complete illiteracy of peasants forced them into a living of providing physical services, which were mostly farming in an agricultural society. The peasants, without other professions for their better living, compromised to the lowered standard and sold their harvest to pay their landlords. In fact they often had to delay the payment or borrow money from their landlords in the aftermath of natural disasters that reduced harvests. To make the situation worse, some Han rulers double-taxed the peasants. Eventually the living conditions of the peasants worsened as they solely depended on the harvest of the land they once owned.
The landholding elite and landlords, for their part, provided inaccurate information of subordinate peasants and lands to avoid paying taxes; to this very end corruption and incompetence of the Confucian scholar gentry on economics would play a vital part. Han court officials who attempted to strip lands out of the landlords faced such enormous resistance that their policies would never be put in to place. In fact only a member of the landholding families, for instance Wang Mang, was able to put his reforming ideals into effect despite failures of his "turning the clock back" policies.
Interruption of Han rule
After 200 years, Han rule was interrupted briefly during AD 9-24 by Wang Mang, a reformer and a member of the landholding families. The economic situation deteriorated at the end of Western Han Dynasty. Wang Mang, believing the Liu family had lost the Mandate of Heaven took power, turning the clock back with vigorous monetary and land reforms, which damaged the economy even further.
Rise and Fall of Eastern Han Dynasty
A distant relative of Liu royalty, Liu Xiu, led the revolt against Wang Mang with the support of the landholding families and merchants. He "re-established" the Han Dynasty at Luoyang, which would rule for another 200 years, and became Emperor Guangwu of Han China.
In 105, During Eastern Han Dynasty, an official and inventor named Cai Lun invented the technique for making fine paper. The invention of paper is considered a revolution in communication and learning, dramatically lowering the cost of education.
Nevertheless the Eastern Han emperors failed to put forward any groundbreaking land reforms after the failure of its precedent dynasty. Rife bureaucratic corruption and bribery contributed into lingering adverse consequences of land privatizations throughout the dynasty. Prestige of a newly founded dynasty during the reigns of the first three emperors were barely able to hinder the corruption; however Confucian scholar gentry turned on eunuchs for their corrupted authorities when consort clans and eunuchs struggled for power in subsequent reigns. None of these three parties was able to improve the harsh livelihood of peasants under the landholding families. Land privatizations and accumulations on the hands of the elite affected the societies of the Three Kingdoms and the Southern and Northern Dynasties that the landholding elite held the actual driving and ruling power of the country. Successful ruling entities worked with these families, and consequently their policies favored the elite. Adverse effects of the Nine grade controller system or the Nine rank system were brilliant examples.
Taiping Taoist ideals of equal rights and equal land distribution quickly spread throughout the peasantry. As a result, the peasant insurgents of the Yellow Turban Rebellion swarmed the North China Plain, the main agricultural sector of the country. Power of the Liu royalty then fell into the hands of local governors and warlords, despite suppression of the main upraising of Zhang Jiao and his brothers. Three overlords eventually succeeded in control of the whole of China proper, ushering in the period of the Three Kingdoms. The figurehead Emperor Xian reigned until 220 when Cao Pi forced his abdication.
In 311, around one hundred years after the fall of the Eastern Han, its capital Luoyang was sacked by barbarians.
Sovereigns of Han Dynasty
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Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04