An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Han Empire Geography

October 30, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安,Shaanxi) the Former Han empire 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) was administrated in regions or "provinces" (zhou 州; in the map in courier type and underlined) and subordinated commanderies (jun 郡) and princedoms (wangguo 王國; in violet letters). The number of princedoms changed during the four centuries of Former and Later Han periods, but it can be observed that the main areas of princely states were the modern provinces Shandong, Jiangsu and Hebei. When Liu Bang 劉邦 became emperor of Han (Han Gaozu 漢高祖, r. 206-195 BCE) he made seven of his followers kings (regional rulers), the so-called non-familiar princes (yixingwang 異姓王; underlined red). In 154 BC seven princes rebelled against Emperor Jing 漢景帝 (r. 157-141 BCE, underlined yellow). The capital region was called Sili 司隸 "Directly administered", and the capital commandery was the Jingzhao gouvernement 京兆尹.

Regions or provinces (zhou 州) of the Han Empire
regionmodern location
Sili 司隸southern Shaanxi
Shuofang 朔方northern Shaanxi
Liangzhou 涼州Gansu
Bingzhou 幷州Shanxi
Jizhou 冀州southern Hebei
Youzhou 幽州northern Hebei, Beijing, Tianjin, Liaoning
Qingzhou 青州Shandong
Yanzhou 兖州northern Anhui, Henan
Xuzhou 徐州northern Jiangsu
Yangzhou 揚州southern Jiangsu, Shanghai, southern Anhui, Zhejiang, Fujian
Jingzhou 荊州Hubei, Hunan, Guangxi, Guangdong, Guizhou
Yizhou 益州Sichuan, Chongqing, Yunnan
Jiaozhi 交趾Hainan, north of modern Vietnam

Under Emperor Wu 漢武帝 the great expansion of the Han empire took place, first by defeating the Xiongnu 匈奴, then by the advance of Chineses armies, and later colonists, into modern Gansu province, Korea (from the commanderies Lelang/Nangnang 樂浪, Canghai/Changhae 蒼海, Lintun/Imdun 臨屯 and Zhenfan/Chinbŏn 真番 only the first was permanent; Xuantu/Hyŏndo 玄菟 was later moved westwards), Yunnan province and Guangzhou province and the north of modern Vietnam (commanderies Jiaozhi/Giao Chỉ 交趾, Jiuzhen/Cửu Chân 九真 and Rinan/Nhật Nam 日南). The commanderies on the island of Hainan were only temporary. The Protectorate of the Western Regions (xiyu duhufu 西域都護府) over the city states of the Silk Road with the seat in Wulei 烏壘 (modern Luntai 輪臺, Xinjiang) was established in 60 BC. A special zone was the Commandery of Wuji 戊己校尉 (modern Turfan 吐魯番, Xinjiang) from where the region of the kingdoms of Cheshi 車師 and Gaochang 高昌 were governed. In all northwestern regions the Han rulers had established military agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田; green dots).
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The northern neighbours of the Former Han empire were the mighty nomad confederations of the Xiongnu, the Wusun 烏孫, Wuhuan 烏桓 and Xianbei 鮮卑. Chinese military campaigns and emissaries were even sent further west into the land of the Yuezhi 月氏 that are sometimes identified with the Skythians. While the Manchurian Basin and the mountain areas of modern North Korea were inhabited by the peoples of Fuyu/Puyŏ 夫余 and Huimo/Yemaek 濊貊, the south of the Korean Peninsula was roamed by the Three Han tribes (Samhan/Sanhan 三韓): Mahan 馬韓, Chinhan/Chenhan 辰韓, Pyŏnhan/Bianhan 弁韓. The southwest that was incorporated into the Han empire in 109 BC the former kingdoms of Dian 滇 and Ailao 哀牢 became tributaries. Rebellions often occured like in 86 BC. The modern province of Fujian was still scarcely populated and did not really belong the the Han empire partially because this territory was too mountainous and less interesting for colonization, and because it was still dominated by the belligerent tribes of the Min-Yue 閩越 and Eastern Ou 東甌.

Apart from some minor changes the governmental structure of the Former Han was perpetuated by the Later Han 後漢 (25-220 CE) government. The three most important innovations or changes are the shifting of the capital to Luoyang 雒陽 (or 洛陽 modern Luoyang, Henan), the new Administration Area of the Western Regions (Xiyu changshifu 西域長史府) with the seat in Qiuci 龜茲, and the installation of dependent non-Chinese kingdoms (shuguo 屬國) in border regions (slim brown arrows).
From the time of the usurper Wang Mang 王莽 (r. 8-25 CE) on China was shaken by rebellions and uprising, beginning with the movement of the "Red Eyebrows" (Chimei 赤眉) and the Lülin 綠林 armies that made an end to the reign of Wang Mang, uprisings of tribes and peoples in the southwest (in the region of Yizhou 益州, modern Yunnan several times, the resistance war of the two Vietnamese sisters "Hai Bà Trưng" Trưng Trắc 徵側 and Trưng Nhị 徵貳), and the numerous rebellions of the proto-Tibetan Qiang 羌 people in Liangzhou 涼州 (modern Gansu and Shaanxi provinces). But the most striking uprisings that contributed to the end of the central government of the Later Han Dynasty were the religious movements of the "Yellow Turbans" 黃巾 that originated in modern Sichuan and Hebei, and the Five-Pecks-of-Grain movement 五斗米道 of Zhang Lu 張魯.
The mighty steppe federation of the Xiongnu was crushed during the end of former Han, and other peoples replaced these warriors of the steppe. But both the Wuhuan and the Xianbei had intensive diplomatic and trade relations with the Han empire and were partially forced to settle down. In Korea the kingdom of Koguryŏ/Gaogouli 高句麗 started to dominate the north of the peninsula. The southeastern area was now brought under control of the Han empire, and the commandery of Yongchang 永昌 should govern the non-Chinese mountain tribes.

Tan Qixiang 譚其驤. ed. (1987). Zhongguo lishi ditu ji 中國歷史地圖集, Vol. 2, Qin, Xihan, Donghan shiqi 秦·西漢·東漢時期 (Beijing: Zhongguo ditu chubanshe).