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READ: Han Dynasty

For hundreds of years, the Han Dynasty was the eastern pillar of the great silk route across Eurasia. This dynasty’s achievements provided a lasting legacy for China both as a society and a state.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What types of state and communal structure existed prior to the formation of the Han Dynasty in China?
  2. What types of philosophies did the Han rulers adopt and why was it an advantage to incorporate multiple philosophies instead of just one?
  3. What innovations in farming and trade developed during Han rule?
  4. Who were the Xiongnu and how did the Han attempt to deal with this group?
  5. How are the Wang Interregnum and the Mandate of Heaven interconnected?
  6. What issues eventually led to the fall of the Han Dynasty?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. How did the Han Dynasty create stability and prosperity in China? How did this new stability affect people inside China? What impacts did it have on people living outside of China, in other communities?
  2. What type of factors do you think were most important in making the Han period a golden age for China? Were changes in religious and political communities, changes in trade networks, or changes in Chinese production and distribution more important?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Han Dynasty China

A sculpture of a horse. It is standing, balanced on one hoof, on the back of a bird.
By Trevor R. Getz
For hundreds of years, the Han dynasty was the eastern pillar of the great silk route across Eurasia. This dynasty's achievements provided a lasting legacy for China both as a society and a state.

Transformative dynasty

The Han dynasty is one of the great dynasties in Chinese history, encompassing nearly 400 years of expansion and consolidation. A dynasty is, essentially, a period of rule of a kingdom or empire by a single family—although, in China, the size and makeup of an imperial "family" can be quite flexible.
In Chinese history, there have been nine major dynasties. Most of them were created by royal families who emerged from within China, although two were created by leaders from central Asia—the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) and the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644-1912).
The Han dynasty was created by leaders from Han, one of the regions of China, hence the name of the dynasty. It coincided with the period of the Roman Republic and Empire in western Afro-Eurasia. Politically, it established the imperial system that many later dynasties used, although technically it was not the first Chinese dynasty. Philosophically, it fostered the development of a landscape of communal ideas and beliefs. Together, these changes had the effect of creating a widespread sense of a shared Chinese culture and identity for the first time.
The period is usually broken down into three stages:
  • Western Han (206 BCE–9 CE), with its capital at Chang'an
  • Wang Mang (9–23 CE), also called Xin dynasty or Wang interregnum (pause between wars)
  • Eastern Han (25–220 CE), with its capital at Luoyang

Qin origins of the Han imperial system

Prior to the third century, the region of China was broken into many smaller states. At the core were a set of small kingdoms—including Han—that roughly shared their language, values, and form of political organization. Farther away, the states looked a bit different, becoming more pastoral and speaking languages associated more with the people of central Asia. The most significant of these people on the periphery were the Xiongnu, a confederation of pastoral people who saw the growing populations of central China as a threat. In turn, those residing in the Chinese communities or in states to the east also found the Xiongnu to be threatening.
Around the middle of the third century, one Chinese state, the northwest kingdom of Qin, managed to briefly dominate the others and create a single administrative structure under a powerful ruler, Qin Shi Huangdi (r. 221– 210 BCE), literally "First Emperor of Qin." He created a military structure of administration and appointed people to govern the different states. The Qin state also adopted and spread philosophies that helped it to rule—especially Legalism, which emphasized obedience to the state. As a result, it was also able to extend Qin's rule beyond the core Chinese states to some neighboring societies, threatening the Xiongnu and other neighbors.
Following the death of its founder, the Qin dynasty crumbled. There was just too much outside opposition with people unwilling to be ruled in such an authoritarian manner. Two Qin officials then fought to take control. One, Liu Bang, later known as Emperor Gaozu, was in charge of the state of Han after 206 BCE, making that the date of the start of the Han dynasty. He fought and won a civil war, and four years later was firmly in control of all of the central kingdoms of China, creating a single empire.


How did this new dynasty eventually come to be so influential in Chinese history?
Well, first of all, the Han rulers–beginning with Emperor Gaozu–figured out how to mix the harsh but effective Legalism of the Qin dynasty with the softer ideology of Confucianism. Obedience was still demanded, but the blended philosophy also recognized that rulers and the state had an obligation to provide for their people. Even Daoist ideas crept into this philosophy. For example, the Han emperors generally embraced the idea that humans were part of the natural world and that agriculture and nature could only thrive if they were good rulers. All of this came together in the central idea of Han rule—known as the Mandate of Heaven. It said that the emperors ruled because they had fulfilled their ren, meaning "benevolent duty," to the community. But it also said that if they ruled badly, heaven would let them know it with crop failures or natural disasters. Under the Mandate of Heaven, if these disasters came to be seen as the result of poor governance, then these rulers could be replaced.
The Mandate of Heaven philosophy was supported by a government led by Confucian scholars who were literate and effective. They put in place systems to communicate with each other to collect data, and to report on problems. The result was a period of peaceful conditions and relative wealth. Peasants could safely work the land, producing more food. Trade within the state expanded, and the millet-growing regions of the north and rice-growing regions of the south could send food to each other. That was especially important if one crop or the other failed. Han emperors, in many cases, expanded the state, and there is evidence that some people outside of central China welcomed their rule. Populations exploded as a result of this stability and reliable food production.
Map of Han Dynasty China shows the vast number of cities ruled.
Han Dynasty China at its greatest extent, with its “commanderies and kingdoms”, the administrative units through which its efficient bureaucrats ruled.
Various economic measures were taken to expand state control, including (in 119 BCE) a state monopoly of iron and silk production. Forty-nine foundries (metal factories) produced large numbers of agricultural implements. Experimentation with irons of different carbon contents and the alloys they could make led to the production of steel. Many farms were involved in silk production, a fabric so valuable it could be used to pay taxes and buy horses. The Romans, 7,000 miles away, were such high-volume customers that the Silk Road trade networks were formed. During the Eastern Han, a form of paper made from boiled remnants of fabric, bark, and hemp was produced and came into wide use. The first Chinese dictionary (Shuowen jiezi) was compiled around 100 CE, listing more than 9,000 characters and their meanings.

The Xiongnu and the Zhang Qiang mission

The main problem facing the Han for much of this period was those nomadic people of the central Asian interior, the Xiongnu. Likewise, the Xiongnu saw the expansion of China into their territory as a problem. At first, the Han emperors tried to be friendly, even sending a princess to marry the Xiongnu leader and calling him an equal to the emperor. Making nice with these dangerous enemies seemed to be smarter than fighting them, and the Xiongnu were important partners in the trading route that was the Silk Road. However, the two states just had interests that were too different, and their leaders argued about territory, trade, and border raids.
In 138 BCE, the Emperor Wudi (r. 141–87 BCE) sent a diplomat named Zhang Qiang to the Greek-ruled central Asian state of Bactria to get horses and allies for fighting the Xiongnu. He was captured by the Xiongnu and eventually escaped. Meanwhile, Wudi warred against the Xiongnu effectively enough to capture a lot of territory, then went back to using diplomacy. Wudi also led an expansion of Chinese influence (and to some degree territory) into parts of Korea and Southeast Asia.
A painting depicts a man on horseback waving to a group of people. Several others are following behind him. He appears to be walking toward a tapestry, or door, containing text.
An image of Zhang Qian departing for Central Asia on his expedition. From a mural in the Chinese city of Dunhuang.

Mang and Eastern Han

However, Wudi's expansion basically emptied the treasury of the state. That created a lot of problems for the government, which had to raise taxes. This created problems for many of the people of China, who could not pay those taxes and still feed their families. At the same time, Wudi's reign saw the growing power of court eunuchs over the professional Confucian-trained scholars. The eunuchs were men who were thought to be specifically loyal to the emperor, and they began to control the imperial court, isolating the emperor from the people, who were increasingly unhappy.
A Confucian-trained imperial minister named Wang Mang saw that this was the time to play the "Mandate of Heaven" card, and took the throne. Mang mainly wanted to address the suffering of the people when he seized power in 9 CE. He took power partly with the support of large numbers of angry, hungry peasants.
Mang tried to reform the state, but without great success. As a result, a Han successor to Wudi named Liu Xiu (the Emperor Guang Wudi) managed to retake the throne in 23 CE. He established his capital in Luoyang, to the east of the old capital. That's why the second period of Han history, about two centuries long, is called the Eastern Han. It was culturally a very rich period, but it suffered from a series of political challenges. In particular, the dynasty faced conflicts within the imperial court. Often, these were fights between the long-standing administrators, the court eunuchs, and the families of empresses. Empresses were usually the daughters of powerful lords who married into the imperial family. They brought their own people with them, who wanted some authority as well, and so they clashed with the eunuchs. Sometimes this led to actual fighting, but more often it fostered scheming and corruption.
A painting of four men. Two are conversing, one has his back turned to the others.
Four gentlemen in debate, Eastern Han Dynasty period. While this was a culturally rich period, it was also one in which disagreements at court and politics created a lot of problems.
The corruption angered the trained Confucian administrators in the provinces, who were just trying to govern, but who found it impossible to work with imperial court obsessed with in-fighting. It got harder to address local problems, so peasants suffered. Ultimately, the Han dynasty simply could not serve its people effectively. The imperial court's chaos also prevented effective responses to natural disasters such as floods and droughts that came along. And that was a pretty big no-no if your dynasty was trying to hold onto the Mandate of Heaven–and the Han no longer could.
Despite its problems–the results of which we'll see in a later era–the Han dynasty had an enormous legacy. It created an economic powerhouse that played a key role in the growth of trade across Afro-Eurasia. It established the larger borders of China and created a shared (if still somewhat limited) sense of Chinese identity for tens of millions of people.
Equally, even today, many Chinese refer to themselves as Han rem, or Han people. In terms of legacy, that's not bad for a dynasty that ended 1,800 years ago.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African History at San Francisco State University. He has written eleven books on African and World History, including Abina and the Important Men. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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