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READ: The Fall of the Han Dynasty

Much of China’s identity can be linked to the powerful Han Dynasty two millennia ago, and its eventual collapse has fascinated historians ever since.
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 are some challenges that the Han faced that were outside of their control?
  2. How did Han rulers deal with tribal groups from the border regions?
  3. How did farmers and land-owning elites contribute to the empire’s wealth? How did they relate to one another?
  4. What was the Yellow Turban Revolt? How did it affect the emperor?
  5. What are the three main theories Chinese historians had for why the Han Dynasty collapsed?
  6. What’s one modern theory for why the Han Dynasty collapsed?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. What does the narrative of Han decline and collapse look like through the filter of the production and distribution frame? Use evidence from this article and the accompanying sources to analyze patterns of production and distribution and present a claim.
  2. How does the decline and collapse of the Han Dynasty compare to the collapse of the Roman Empire? Use evidence from this article and other articles and videos in this era to support your claim.
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

The Fall of the Han Dynasty

Photo of partially buried figures, made of terracotta.
By Dennis RM Campbell
Much of China’s identity can be linked to the powerful Han Dynasty two millennia ago, and its eventual collapse has fascinated historians ever since.

The Han Dynasty

The "golden age" of the Han Dynasty was a period of economic, cultural, and scientific growth, and it led to the creation of a Chinese identity. In this imperial dynasty the emperors all belonged to the Liu family. Their rule spread over two periods: the Western Han (206 BCE–9 CE) and the Eastern Han (25 CE–220 CE). Sure, there was a brief interruption between these two periods when Wang Mung managed to take over during a period of imperial decline, but his Xin Dynasty only lasted from 9 to 25 CE. So really it was still all about the Han in this era. At its height the Han emperors controlled approximately 2.5 million square miles of territory and ruled over nearly 60 million people. The emperor, or Huangdi, was more than just a secular ruler. He was seen as closely connected to the divine world and respected by his people as a kind of spiritual being.
Map shows the extent of the Eastern Han dynasty, which covered a large portion of modern-day China.

The collapse of the Han Dynasty

The Eastern Han emperors faced a variety of challenges, including natural disasters outside of their control, such as cattle plagues, locusts, droughts, floods, and earthquakes. The empire was strong enough to withstand the issues that it encountered for almost two hundred years, but over time the expenses became too great to bear. The end result is that by 220 CE the empire was torn apart into three kingdoms by warlords.

The Han and outsiders

Tribal groups living along China's borders had a tense relationship with the Han, who thought that non-Han (Chinese) people were inherently inferior. The Han emperors saw themselves as "enlightened" bringers of peace and order to the tribes, even if it meant fighting them to do so. Problematic tribal groups would be resettled deeper in the empire. But because the Chinese despised these tribal groups, many officials had no problem mistreating and cheating them. Unfortunately for the Han, failing to integrate these tribal peoples meant that they were always a potential source of trouble for the empire.
An emperor rides on horseback. Around him, many people, some on camels, appear to be coming to greet him.
Handscroll supposedly depicting various individuals, including tribal people bringing tribute to the Han emperor. By Walters Art Gallery, public domain
In 89 CE, the Han defeated a large tribal group known as the Xiongnu and drove them away from China (they would become the Huns). What the Han had failed to realize was that the Xiongnu had been serving as a buffer against other dangerous tribes. Removing the Xiongnu opened the flood gates to invasion. Fighting off these tribal threats was a serious drain on Han resources.

Problems from within

The challenges were not all external. The Han also experienced internal struggles to maintain its rule. Taxation became an increasing problem by 100 CE. While the small farmers were the most stable tax base, local elites, who owned large estates, contributed less of their wealth and energy to the empire. Many small farmers gave up their land to work for local elites on their estates either willingly as tenants, or unwillingly as debt slaves. The wealthy were able to increase their productivity while the smaller farmers were able to avoid paying taxes. The empire, however, had less and less money to deal with new problems.
A drawing depicts one person killing another with a spear. Both people are on horseback. Surrounding the drawing is text.
Drawing depicting the likely fictional account of general Guan Yu chasing and then killing the Yellow Turban warrior Guan Hai. Guan Yu would go on to play an important role in the battles between the warlords in the last decades of the Han empire. Public domain.
Throughout the first and second centuries CE, imperial eunuchs became a powerful group. The elites, who had previously benefited from being close to the emperor, felt threatened by this. Because eunuchs, men who have been castrated, had no children or wives, they could give all their loyalty to the empire. The elites were closely tied to their individual families, but the eunuchs' power only came from their connection to the emperor. This powerful resource could be targeted. For example, when Emperor Huan died in 168 CE, a young boy (11 or 12 years old) from the ruling dynasty was made Emperor Ling. With that transition, a small group of elites hatched a plan to kill hundreds of eunuchs. They failed spectacularly—of the 3 leaders, one was thrown in prison and killed there and the other 2 committed suicide after losing to the eunuchs, and their severed heads were put on display. The eunuchs became even more powerful by attaching themselves tighter to the boy Emperor Ling. As for Emperor Ling, he was seen as a weak and corrupt ruler, and his reign was marked by rebellions and protests. One of the most dangerous was the Yellow Turban Revolt of 184 CE.
The Yellow Turban Revolt was a peasant rebellion, sparked by numerous outbreaks of a lethal plague throughout the 170s and 180s. As people died, they began to blame the emperor, believing he had the power to stop their suffering. But he was unable to provide a cure for the plague, and to make matters worse he also placed heavy taxes on his people. So instead, peasants believed they might find magical cures by turning to faith healers. One of these faith healers, Zhang Jue, was very successful and gained a huge following. By 184, Zhang Jue turned his movement into a violent uprising and led his followers to revolt against the Han. The army was able to defeat the rebels, but peasant rebellions continued to flare up over the next decade.
Map shows how the Han Dynasty was divided into nearly twenty different territories ruled by different warlords.
Map showing the breakdown of the Han empire as warlords carved out their own territories. Cao Cao (upper center) would try to reform the Han, but ultimately failed. By SY, CC BY-SA 4.0.
In 189 CE, Emperor Ling died without an heir. His thirteen-year-old son Liu Bian was proclaimed Emperor Shao by the dowager empress He. The dowager empress was the widowed wife of the dead emperor. Her family would select the next emperor and then the dowager would help rule if the new emperor was just a child. The dowager empress He's brother, He Jin, immediately moved against the eunuchs. However the eunuchs lured He Jin into the palace and assassinated him. In a swift retaliation, some two thousand eunuchs were then killed in the palace by troops. This disruption allowed General Dong Zhou to seize control of the capital city of Luoyang. He overthrew the young emperor (and later forced him to commit suicide by drinking poison) and sat the eight-year-old Liu Xie on the throne as Emperor Xian. The general tried to control the government through this puppet emperor, but Dong Zhou was not well liked, and he was eventually killed in 192 CE by his bodyguard. The Han Empire quickly broke down as a series of warlords fought each other for control. One, Cao Cao, who had possession of the young emperor Xian, tried to unify China, but ultimately failed. After Cao Cao died in 220 CE, the emperor Xian was forced to give up his position, officially ending the Han Dynasty.

Theories of collapse

Chinese historians have spent well over a thousand years trying to understand why the Han Dynasty collapsed. Over time they developed three main theories: 1) bad rulers; 2) the influence of empresses and court eunuchs over child emperors too young to rule by themselves; and 3) the Yellow Turban Revolt. The first simply proposes that the Han fell because too many individual rulers were poor at their jobs. The second is based off the fact that most of the Eastern Han emperors died young, sometimes without clear heirs. It would be the dowager empresses (and their families) who would select the new emperor. These new emperors were typically young, requiring the dowager empresses to rule for them with the help of the eunuchs. For many Chinese, this went against the belief that power must come from a male. The third idea attributes the collapse to peasant rebellion directed against bad emperors.
Panting of four men in a discussion. Two are facing each other, one man has his back turned to the others.
This painting on paper shows gentlemen involved in a discussion. Men like these would play an important role in running the empire, public domain
Modern scholars offer many more theories. One argument says that the Han victory over Xiongnu was the beginning of the end. Some believe that only warfare could keep the generals loyal to the empire. When the Han forced the Xiongnu people to abandon the frontier, there were no more strong enemies to fight. The generals, like Dong Zhou, may have felt like lions at a vegetarian barbeque, and so turned their appetites on the empire. Others argue that a split emerged between the emperor and the scholars (literati) who actually ran the administration, and at the same time the peripheral areas of the empire became too strong for the emperor to control. Yet another theory suggests a divide between the empire and the wealthy, land-owning elites. Without the support and money of these elites, the emperors could not continue to respond to crises such as invasion, rebellion, and natural disasters.
Author bio
Dennis RM Campbell is an associate professor of History at San Francisco State University. He primarily conducts research on esoteric topics in ancient history and writes about ancient language, religions, and societies.

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