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A brief history of the Chinese Han dynasty, which rose from a broken empire to create the first Chinese Golden Age and unified ethnic identity.

Inheritors of a fragmenting nation from the Qin dynasty, the Han dynasty became the second imperial dynasty to reign over China. Throughout their long reign, they were able to make several huge accomplishments. 

The Han Dynasty was the longest-reigning empire in ancient China. They reigned from 206 BCE to 220 CE, During the Han Dynasty, a range of important cultural milestones were achieved, including cementing the Silk Road. This first Chinese Golden Age saw a flourishing economy, a prosperous time for the people, and established the idea of a unified Chinese ethnic identity.

Today, the Han rulers are credited with the creation of important cultural movements. But how was the Han Dynasty able to accomplish so much? This article will examine the culture of the Han rulers, the major events that took place over their reign, and their lasting effects on Chinese history.

Who Are the People of the Han Dynasty?

Following the groundwork laid by Qin Shi Huang, the Han dynasty continued the policies of unification and standardization across China. Because of this, the Han dynasty was the first period of Chinese history in which a unified national ethnic identity emerged: The Han Chinese.

Today, the Han Chinese are considered the largest ethnic group in the world, making up nearly 20% of the world population, both within historic Chinese territories and around the world.

Origins of the Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty emerged from the chaos surrounding the end of the Qin Dynasty. During this time, officials were taking control of provinces and declaring themselves the king. This allowed Liu Bang to seize control of Chang’an along the Wei River. After doing this, he declared himself Emperor and changed his name to the imperial title, Han Gaozu.

Over his lifetime, he would recognize several other kingdoms. As their leaders died, he replaced them with members of his family. This allowed his family to grow their control.

He also worked at undoing some of the damage done by the repressive Qin Dynasty, resulting in Liu Bang further garnering a reputation as a popular figure.

Han Dynasty Name Origins

The Han dynasty takes its name from the Han River (also Hanshui River), a west-east river that flows through Central China and merges with the Yangtze River in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Historically the Han River has been considered a natural dividing line between northern and southern China.

Because the Han Chinese ethnic group took its name from the Han dynasty, the Han River is also indirectly responsible for the name of the collective Chinese majority ethnic identity.

Culture and Beliefs of the Han Dynasty

Han Gaozu (Liu Bang), the dynasty’s founder, continued on many of the successful policies that had allowed their predecessor Qin Shi Huang to unify China. He and his descendants put enormous efforts into standardization and the centralization of authority away from 

Written Records and Literacy in Han China

Another important historical event was the creation of written records. More specifically, two texts are considered vital by modern historians. The first Chinese dictionary was produced. This was made by Xu Shen. Today many scholars use this to interpret the writings found on ancient Chinese buildings.

Another important document was the histories of China composed by Sima Qian. It talks about the first dynasties and the cultural impacts they had.

One of the benefits of the Han Dynasty was their love for keeping records. Because of this, we can learn a lot about their culture and how the people were treated. During this time, it seems that there was a lot of positive cultural change. The population became more literate.

There was also a lot of time spent celebrating important achievements. For example, there was the emergence of dance troops and instruments. During this time, painting and jade carvings started to become more popular.

Social Structure and Law in Han Dynasty China

The societal rankings were complex, with over 20 classes. The ruling class, the Emperor, and his family were at the top. Below them were the city kings, many of which were part of the Emperor’s family. Each rank had its own set of privileges and rights. For example, the noblemen were often given fiefdom. Interestingly, farmers had a similar ranking to scholars and academics.

There were strict penalties for breaking the law. Depending on the severity of the crime, the guilty might have needed to pay a fine. Sometimes, they were expected to undergo hard labor. In extreme cases, there were beheadings. Like the modern justice system, cases were heard and decided at court by a magistrate. If it was a high-profile case, it might be put before the Emperor.

Confucianism and Religion in Han Dynasty China

The Han Empire saw a range of important religious beliefs being expressed. Many people believed in a two-part soul. Chief among these was the re-emergence of Confucian beliefs. The previous Qin Empire had implemented a strict doctrine of Legalism and tried to eliminate many competing philosophies through book burning. However, some scholars hid books to protect this knowledge. In 136 BC, universities began to start teaching the five tenets of Confucius’s beliefs.

This meant that one part of the soul would go to the afterlife. The other part would stay with the body after death. As a result, Emperors built large mausoleums, so they would be able to protect themselves in the afterlife. Because of this, there are records of sacrifice during worship.

Another important development was the Silk Road. This made free trade easier. The traders who used the Silk Road brought new religious ideas. This is how the Han Dynasty was introduced to the idea of Buddhism. These ideas first started to appear around 65 CE. Though they came to be closely linked with Daoism.

History of the Han Dynasty

Establishment of the Silk Road

One of the most important achievements of the Han Empire was the establishment of the Silk Road. This brought great prosperity to the region. This came about because of increasing trade between China and Greece.

The name came out because China was considered “The Land of Silk”. However, there was a range of other things that were transported along this route. For example, fruits and vegetables were popular exports. Paper, which was created during the Han Empire, was another popular trading item. Gunpowder was also one of the most heavily traded items.

At the time, the road consisted of various signposted routes. There were marketplaces along the way. This was designed to make it easier for traders to move along the road with their goods. This route would end up stretching across the Syrian Desert into Iraq it went into Iran through China and ended in ports on the Persian Gulf.

This also allowed explorers to travel more broadly. This allowed religions and cultural practices to spread throughout the world. As we mentioned, this resulted in the introduction of Buddhism to China, a development that would make an unmistakable mark on the future of China and, by extent, the rest of East Asia.

The Han-Xiongnu War

One of the greatest challenges faced by the fledgling Chinese kingdoms and lasting through the unification carried out by the Qin and Han dynasties were the nomadic tribes to the north, collectively known as the Xiongnu. This ethnic group, who occupied the lands of modern Mongolia and far west of China, would later become the Huns who famously subdued empires further west, including the Romans in Europe.

During their time along the Chinese border, the Xiongnu were not always a unified force. However, their leadership during the Han dynasty was marked by a position named “Chanyu”, a title that would eventually evolve into “Khan” of the later Uyghur and Mongol Empires. 

After several campaigns, Liu Bang struck a deal with the Chanyu and Xiongnu to pay a tribute in order for a peace between them. This arrangement was essentially a sign of surrender and did not sit well with many in the royal court. However, it did ensure peace for the time to come.

This did not last, and Xiongnu eventually resumed their raids on the frontier towns of China. During the reign of Han Wudi, this reached a breaking point prompting the emperor to go to war against the Xiongnu once again. Although prolonged, the Han armies finally defeated the Xiongnu and drove them from China.

In this process, the tribes of the Xiongnu themselves separated. One tribe stayed in China, allied with the imperial court, and eventually settled as the later Northern Liang dynasty. Meanwhile, the others left the region, eventually absorbing other tribes in their move westward toward Europe.

Rise of the Xin Dynasty

One of the most pivotal events in the Han Dynasty’s history was the rise and fall of the Qin Dynasty. This occurred when official Wang Mang seized control of the government. This followed a period of instability where many future Emperors had died young.

However, mismanagement led to an uprising. During this time, Liu Xiu, a descendant of Han Gaozu, retook control of the kingdom. This led to the re-establishment of the Han Empire. Because of this, some historians will divide the Han Dynasty into two parts, Eastern and Western Han.

Geography of Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty in the Hexi Corridor

While the Qin dynasty laid the groundwork, the Han dynasty continued the move forward into the western frontier. The Qin building projects like the Great Wall, would be extended by the Han and further fortified to safeguard travellers through the Hexi Corridor, marking the beginning of trade by way of the legendary Silk Road.

During the time that the Han had secured the Hexi Corridor, they established 4 central regions: Zhangye, Jiuquan, Wuwei, and Dunhuang. The last of these would serve as the farthest frontier of ancient China, the Jade Gate (Yumen Pass) welcoming Silk Road travellers into the Middle Kingdom.

The Han Dynasty in Southern China

Liu Bang’s new Han Dynasty was centered on the territories formerly controlled by Qin, which was primarily in the north of modern-day China. However, Liu Bang’s sudden rise to power has a notable effect on the region. Soon, the Han armies were involved in the politics and wars of its southern neighbors, which eventually drew them into the Han domain, further cementing the unification of China.

What Happened to the Han Dynasty?

The end of the Han dynasty is often attributed to rising amounts of corruption in the courts. Assassinations were common, as the powerful feared losing their jobs or their lives if someone from the rival faction was allowed to take control. As the infighting grew, the government started to become weaker. This led to further corruption, spreading from the court around the Empire.

This created an environment where a group of religious extremists known as the Yellow Turbans tried to seize control. They were trying to establish their own dynasty. They had support from the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion, which was upset with rising levels of inequality and the unfair treatment of civilians. What followed was a period of fighting and rebellion. Eventually, this led to the three-way battle of Red Cliff. After this, the Han Dynasty ended and the empire was split into three parts.

Thus, the epic era of the Three Kingdoms began.

“The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been” 

话说天下大势. 分久必合,合久必分

– Luo Guanzhong, Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Cities of the Han Dynasty

Chang’an (Xi’an)
Province, Country
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Luoyang
Province, Country
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Dunhuang
Province, Country
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Monuments of the Han Dynasty

Maoling Mausoleum
Shanxi, China
GPS:

Yumen Gate
Gansu, China
GPS:

Tomb of the Jibei King
Shandong, China
GPS:

Ganquan Palace
Shaanxi, China
GPS:

Tong Pass
Shaanxi, China
GPS: 34.606, 110.286

Weiyang Palace
Shaanxi, China
GPS: 34.304444, 108.857222

Han Yang Ling Mausoleum
Shaanxi, China
GPS: 34.443797, 108.940711

Mawangdui Tombs
Hunan, China
GPS: 28.208611, 113.021667

Dabaotai Western Han Mausoleum
Beijing, China
GPS: 39.805, 116.290556

Monument Name
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Fast Facts

Name: Han Dynasty
Origin: Founded during the chaos and political vacuum resulting from the disintegration of the Qin dynasty.
Language: Various Chinese dialects, standardized writing system
Religion: Confucianism
Era: 206 BCE to 220 CE
Location: Mainland China
Capital: Chang’an (modern Xi’an), later Luoyang
Decline: Internal power struggles gave way to corruption and the downfall of royal power.

Glossary

Han dynasty 汉朝
The ruling dynasty of China from 202 BCE – 220 CE. Han doctrine was characterized by economic prosperity through outside trade via the Silk Road creating the earliest sense of a single Chinese “Han” identity.

Hexi Corridor 河西走廊
A narrow geographic region between the Gobi Desert and the Tibetan Plateau in western China that was an important path on the Chinese end of the Silk Road. The Han dynasty secured and fortified the Hexi Corridor, allowing trade caravans to become more common.

Legalism
A philosophy from ancient China centered on the belief that people are inherently bad and that harsh laws must be put in place to ensure society runs properly. It was adopted by the Qin dynasty as their driving philosophy.

Mandate of Heaven 天命
The Chinese belief that the rulers are chosen by Heaven due to their righteousness. If a ruler becomes unworthy, Heaven would show signs through natural disasters and the rulers would be overthrown. 

Mongols
Nomadic ethnic group native to the steppe north of China

Qin dynasty 秦朝
Chinese dynasty established in 221 BCE by Qin Shi Huang after conquering and united all rival Chinese states. Modern China derives its name from this dynasty, which is significant for being the first unified Chinese state. The Qin dynasty lasted until 206 BCE and was soon succeeded by the Han dynasty.

Qin Shi Huang 秦始皇
The “First Emperor” of China who created the Qin dynasty by conquering all rival Chinese states and unifying China for the first time in 221 BCE.

Silk Road
A vast trade network connecting China to India, the Middle East, and Europe through Central Asia that was responsible for the intercultural spread of goods and ideas. Although trade began along these routes prior to the Qin dynasty, it began flourishing during the Han dynasty when they secured the Hexi Corridor.

Xiongnu
Nomadic ethnic group originating from the steppes along the northwestern border of China, and presumed to be the ancestors of the Huns. The Xiongnu raided the Chinese borders and trade routes along the early Silk Soad.

Sources

· Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Han dynasty”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 Nov. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Han-dynasty

· “Battle of Red Cliffs”, Joshua J. Mark, World History Encyclopedia, https://www.worldhistory.org/Battle_of_Red_Cliffs/

· “Han Dynasty”, Joshua J. Mark, World History Encyclopedia, https://www.worldhistory.org/Han_Dynasty/?visitCount=1&lastVisitDate=2021-4-7&pageViewCount=2

· “Buddhism”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism

· “Han Dynasty”, History.com, https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-china/han-dynasty

· “Confucius”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confucius

· “The Han Dynasty – Longest Imperial Dynasty”, Fercility Jiang, Mar. 18, 2021, China Highlights, https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/china-history/the-han-dynasty.htm

· “Silk Road”, History.com, https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-middle-east/silk-road#section_2

· “The Han Dynasty of Ancient China”, TimeMaps, https://www.timemaps.com/civilizations/the-han-dynasty-of-ancient-china/

· “The Art of the Han Dynasty”, Mark Cartwright, World History Encyclopedia, https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1128/the-art-of-the-han-dynasty/?visitCount=1&lastVisitDate=2021-4-7&pageViewCount=2

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

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