An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Han Dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE)

Western Han 西漢 or Former Han 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE)

Wang Mang's 王莽 Xin Dynasty 新 (8-22 CE)

Eastern Han 東漢 or Later Han 後漢 (25-220 CE)

The Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) was the first long-lasting imperial dynasty of China. It was founded by the adventurer Liu Bang 劉邦 (Emperor Gaozu 漢高祖, r. 206-195 BCE) who took part in the rebellion against the oppressive government of the short-lived Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BCE).

The Han period is divided into the Former Han (Qianhan 前漢, 206 BCE-8 CE) and the Later Han (Houhan 後漢, 25-220 CE) periods, or, in geographical terms, the Western Han (Xihan 西漢) and the Eastern Han (Donghan 東漢). During the Western Han period the court resided in Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi), during the Eastern Han period in Luoyang 洛陽 (modern Luoyang, Henan). This pattern of shifting the capital because of political reasons is very similar to the Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), Jin 晉 (265-420) and Song 宋 (960-1279) dynasties. Yet unlike these three dynasties, the change of place was not caused by military conflict, but was a political and economic decision taken after the usurpation of the throne by the regent Wang Mang 王莽, who had founded the Xin Dynasty 新 (8-22 CE).

After centuries of political turmoil in the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) and under the exploitative Qin rule, Liu Bang and his successors were able to create a stable government with an administrative apparatus taken over from the Qin, but enriched with the state doctrine of Confucianism. Several generations of rulers that were inclined to Daoism and Huang-Lao thought 黃老 and the proposition that the state would go best with a laissez-faire government, achieved peace and economic recovery. Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) began a pro-activist policy of expansion and integrated southern China and the Western Territories 西域 (modern Xinjiang) into the Han empire. At the same time he initiated a stricter control over state finances, and revived the legalist policy of the Qin, with a strict registration of households and a tight control of the local governments through a censorial system (see yushi dafu 御史大夫). Under Emperor Wu's rule a National University (taixue 太學) was founded where Confucian erudites instructed students in the Confucian Classics. At that time, Confucianism was deeply influenced by apocryphal thought and the belief in magic and sorcery.
The reign of Emperor Wu was also a time when the kinsmen of imperial consorts (waiqi 外戚 "maternal relatives [of the emperor]") gained more and more power. Several generations of emperors were deeply influenced by the political power of their uncles. Wang Mang finally dethroned an infant emperor and proclaimed his own dynasty, called Xin "New".

Wang Mang tried to restructure the administrative system according to precedents of antiquity, but he bitterly failed. His rule ended in a large-scale peasant uprising, the first of its kind, called the rebellion of the Red Eyebrows (chimei 赤眉).

The restoration of the Han empire under Emperor Guangwu 漢光武帝 (r. 25-57 CE) suffered under the influence not only of consort clans, but more under their contest with the court eunuch cliques (huanguan 宦官). In the provinces, large landowners were able to restrain the central government's control over the tax revenue. Two large peasant uprisings shook the foundations of the Later Han empire, namely the Yellow Turbans (huangjin 黃巾) and the Five-Pecks-of-Grain Sect (wudoumi dao 五斗米道). The suppression of these uprisings was only possible with the help of mighty warlords that eventually took over control of China's provinces. One of them, Dong Zhuo 董卓, seized the infant emperor and thus dominated the imperial court. He was eliminated by the warlord Cao Cao 曹操, but the latter was not able to reunite the empire. His son Cao Pi 曹丕 finally decided to found the Wei dynasty 曹魏 (220-265), as one of the Three Empires 三國 (220-280) that ruled over China.

The foreign relations of the Han empire were foremost characterized by their relations with Central Asian tribes and states. The nomad federation of the Xiongnu 匈奴 was first appeased by presenting tributes and princesses (heqin 和親 "marriage for peace"), but Emperor Wu began to fight the Xiongnu. Their power was waning in the 1st century CE. Chinese settlers colonized the Western Territories, where formerly numerous different peoples had lived, among them the Tokharians, who spoke an Indo-European language. The many city states of the Western Territories were important trade posts on the so-called "Silk Road", along which Chinese silk was sold to Persia and the Near East. During the first century CE, Buddhism arrived in China along this Inner Asian trade route, but also from the south, where Persian merchants landed in Canton. For many decades the Chinese had occupied the north of what is today northern Vietnam, and also some parts of the Korean Peninsula.

This chapter of the encyclopaedia gives an overview of the political history of the Han period, the geography of the empire and its surroundings, provides a list of its rulers, describes the administration and political structure of the empire, and gives insight into the religion and beliefs of the time, as well as the fine arts (if one may use this term in that historical stage), the economy, literature and philosophy, and the history of technology and inventions.