Han Dynasty — Golden Era of Legendary Civilians

Front Hall of Weiyang Palace

Front Hall of Imperial Palace of the Han Dynasty (Weiyang Palace), based on Architectural Historian Yang Hongxun's Restored Model.

 

What Is Han Dynasty?

 

Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) was the second centralized empire in the ancient history of China, also a golden era when the economy, agriculture, science, politics, and culture all developed to an advanced level. 

 

It was the first dynasty that was established by a civilian, which opened up a chapter for people to shine for their talents rather than their family origins. 

 

Han was divided into two periods, the Western Han (202 BC — 8 AD) and the Eastern Han (25 AD — 220 AD). 

 

A regent named Wang Mang snatched the throne and built Xin Dynasty (8 AD — 23 AD) in the middle of the Han, and published a series of radical, controversial policies.

 

The Han Dynasty lasted for 405 years and had been reigned by 29 emperors. 

Jade Box of the Western Han Dynasty Mausoleum of the Nanyue King

Jade Box of Han — Museum of the Western Han Mausoleum of the Nanyue King (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Facts About the Han Dynasty

 

  • The major ethnic group in China, the Han People, is named after this dynasty. 

 

Chinese Character is named after this empire too, the Han Zi. 

  • Han had many civilian or slave-born emperors, queens, generals, and ministers. They gained everything through their extraordinary ability, not their family origin.

  • The largest city of the Han Dynasty was its capital city Chang An, which was three times bigger than the Contemporaneous ancient city of Rome.

 

  • Han was divided into two periods, the Western Han (202 BC — 8 AD) and the Eastern Han (25 AD — 220 AD), its twice ends were caused by the internal disorders that were initiated by the powerful clans of the queens. 

Imperial Jade Seal of Queens of the Han Dynasty

Imperial Jade Seal of Queens of Han —  Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

  • Taoism Religion was formed, and Buddhism was imported to China, both during the Han era.

  • The 12 Chinese Zodiac Animals were officially set and widely used. 

  • Smaller cities began to specialize in the division of labor, such as handicraft centers, commercial centers, etc.

Unearthed Potteries Reproducing People's Daily Lives of Han  (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • The first specialized public school in the history of China was built to teach talented people. 

  • A department was set in the government to manage prices and supplies of products in the market, which made a profit out of it.

  • Professional historians were set to accurately record the daily activities of the emperors, including whom they met, what they said, with whom they had slept, etc. 

Unearthed Brocade Barcer of the Han Dynasty

Unearthed Brocade Barcer of Han —  Xinjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • Women’s social status was quite high in the Han Empire; their rights started to decrease after Tang Dynasty, until down to the lowest point in the Qing Dynasty

 

       In the Han Era:

Women have the inheritance right to noble title and property;

 

Children could use their mother’s family name;

 

Women could divorce and remarry as they wish, commoner or royal;

 

Princesses could also have toy boys. 

 

  • Many emperors of Han were believed to be bisexual, the most famous one was Emperor Liu Ao

Unearthed Exquisite Accessories and Cosmetic of Women in the Han  (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the Han Dynasty

 

 

Legendary Liu Bang and the Establishment of the Han Empire

As a civilian-born commoner, Liu Bang joined the uprising when he was already 47 years old. 

 

Among many uprising armies in the late Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), Liu Bang’s army was not quite famous in the beginning. 

However, 7 years later, Liu Bang and his troop overthrew the powerful Qin, defeated other strong opponents, and built Han, the second unified imperial dynasty of China. 

His legendary experience set a good precedent for capable people.

 

After him, there were many civilian or slave-originated queens, generals, and ministers, who were talented and influential, and haven’t been suppressed by their origins. 

The next three emperors were diligent and kind. They followed Emperor Liu Bang’s governance ideas, and further flourished the empire. 

Seven feudal states allied together and initiated a big rebellion war, but were conquered soon. 

Bronze Light that can Channel Smoke and Disposal Gas into the Water in the Belly of the Wild Goose

Bronze Painted Light of Han, Burnt Smoke Gas can be Channeled Through the Neck of the Wild Goose into Its Belly ​— National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Expansion Under Reign of Emperor Wu 

Then, Liu Che, one of the most accomplished monarchs in the history of China, the Emperor Wu of Han, ascended to the throne. 

He married a slave-born singer named Wei Zifu as his queen, and nominated her brother, a slave-born hostler, as the leading general to fight against Xiongnu the strongest long-term enemy of the Han. 

 

This general Wei Qing, together with his nephew Huo Qubing, successfully defeated Xiongnu and largely expanded the territory of the Han Empire. 

 

Princess Jieyou and the first female diplomat Feng Liao also contributed significantly to pacifying Han's borders and increasing Han's influence. 

Emperor Wu also took advice from philosopher Dong Zhongshu and made Confucianism the dominant ideology. 

During his reign period, the Silk Road was opened up by great explorer Zhang Qian.

Ruins of Yumen Pass or Jade Gate of the Han Dynasty, An Important Gateway in the Silk Road that Connected Middle Kingdom and West Regions

Ruins of Yumen Pass or Jade Gate Constructed in Emperor Wu's Reign, An Important Gateway in the Silk Road that Connected the Middle Kingdom and West Regions — Dunhuang City, Gansu Province

Prime and Decline of the Han Empire

But in the late years of Emperor Wu, he initiated many invasive wars and trusted the wrong people.

 

His crown prince and queen encountered a big political conspiracy and committed suicide after an intense but failed fight. His great-grandson Liu Xun, who was still a baby boy, ended up in a prison.

However, this boy Liu Xun, who was raised in prison and then lived in the civilian world, turned out to be a great emperor. The Han Empire reached its peak under his reign. 

As a perfect monarch, Liu Xun left his prosperous kingdom to a less perfect heir. The next emperor Liu Shi, as a monarch, was very soft and weak, and then lost some power to the eunuch group. 

Meanwhile, an even more ridiculous monarch, Emperor Liu Ao, inherited the throne.

 

He spent many of his adult lives having fun with his male lover, then the beautiful dancer queen Zhao Feiyan and other imperial concubines. 

 

At the same time, his mother’s clan, the House of Wang, obtained more and more power. 

Bronze Artifact with Inlaying Gold and Silver that used to Press Sitting Mat

Bronze Artifact of Han with Inlaying Gold and Silver that used to Press Sitting Mat — Hebei Museum  (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Ending of Western Han by the Controversial Wang Mang

 

In the year 8 AD, only a decade after Emperor Liu Ao passed away in his favorite concubine’s bed, Han's regent Wang Mang, an excellent politician from the House of Wang, snatched the throne and established a new empire, which put an end to the Western Han Dynasty. 

Emperor Wang Mang was widely suspected of a time traveler, because of a series of radical policies that he had implemented.

 

But his reform didn’t bring people wealthy and happy lives as he had promised; therefore, many uprising armies started to rebel. 

Unearthed Clogs of the Han Dynasty

Unearthed Clogs of Han — Chengdu Museum  (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Reestablishing and Flourishing the Eastern Han

 

Among many uprising armies, one of them was led by Liu Xiu, a descendant of Emperor Liu Bang, a member of the royal family.

 

He successfully defeated other forces and reestablished the Han Dynasty in the year 25 AD, which was called the Eastern Han Dynasty.

Emperor Liu Xiu inherited all of Han’s policies and systems, except for a few adjustments.

This new Han Empire, like other unified kingdoms, experienced exceptional developments and witnessed many brilliant heroes and their remarkable accomplishments,  such as General Geng Gong and Diplomat Ban Chao.

Unearthed Dragon Shaped Golden Belt Buckle of the Han Dynasty Decorated with Turquoises

Dragon Shaped Golden Belt Buckle of Han Decorated with Turquoises — Shouxian Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Seizing of Power by Eunuch Groups and the Queens' Clans

 

Decades later, Emperor Liu Zhao ascended to the throne when he was still a kid, which allowed the current empress dowager and her clan to obtain paramount power.

When he was older, he gained the power back, with the assistance of the eunuch group. For the second time, he brought back and empowered the eunuch group, which was believed as a turning point for the Eastern Han. 

Emperor Liu Zhao also passed away young and left the empire to a toddler heir and his talented queen Deng Sui

Deng Sui was an extremely beautiful queen, also the last excellent female politician, who managed the empire well, while restraining the power of her clan. 

After Empress Deng Sui passed away, in the next decades, strong clans of empress dowagers' and the eunuch group started to manipulate politics and kept fighting against each other to obtain power.

Unearthed Embroidery of the Han Dynasty

Unearthed Embroidery of Han — Hunan Museum  (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Fall and Disintegration of the Han Empire 

 

What’s worse, Emperors Liu Zhi and Liu Hong even started to sell political positions and noble titles for money.

Incapable emperors, intense struggles, corruption, merger, and severe acquisitions of land, together caused the appearance of some powerful warlords that have large numbers of private forces.

When Emperor Liu Xie ascended to the throne as an 8-year-old, he had been controlled by eunuchs and then powerful overlords. He tried his best to fight against those forces but had never succeeded. 

After his final counterattack failed, he was forced to abdicate the throne to the strongest warlord. 

He then lived the rest of his life as a successful doctor, while his big empire, the Han Dynasty officially ended, and the whole country then stepped into the divided Three Kingdoms (220 — 280) era.

Unearthed Glass Bowl of the Han Dynasty

Glass Bowl of Han — Nanyang Cultural Relic and Archeology Research Institute  (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Political Structure and Social Systems of the Han Dynasty

Population:

 

13 million — 65 million — 23 million (beginning — peak — ending)

Political System: Three Councillors and Nine Ministers System 

 

  • The emperor has the most paramount power; officers who were in charge of the military, administration, and supervision (Three Councillors) directly answer to the emperor. 

 

  • The other nine departments (Nine Ministers) that managed finance, judiciary, ceremony, security, etc, were independent of each other and only listen to the emperor. 

 

  • Vassal states and counties co-existed at the beginning of the Han Dynasty. Decades later, Emperor Liu Che published a policy that gradually abrogated vassal states.

 

  • The counties whose governors were assigned, monitored, and assessed by the central government replaced those half independent vassal states, and were directly controlled by the emperor. 

Unearthed Lacquer Plate of the Han Dynasty

Lacquer Plate of Han — Hunan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Official Selection System: 

 

  • Emperor and the powerful minister could directly assign officers.

 

  • The governors of each county should recommend certain numbers (based on the numbers of the local population) of talented people to the central government. But they had to pass certain exams to get the positions. 

 

  • Graduate students from the National Confucianism College would be assigned proper positions as well.

Tax:

 

1/30 of farmland products; capitation taxes; one month of labor each year (people between 21 to 56 years old).

Currency of the Han Dynasty "Wu Zhu Qian"

Currency of Han "Wu Zhu Qian" — Shanghai Museum

Military Service:

Every man between 21 to 56 years old was required to serve in the army for two years; one year in their local province, one year in the capital city, or the border. 

 

Land System:

 

Private Ownership of Land, in which civilians can own, cultivate, and sell their farmland while paying taxes to their country. 

Unearthed Daily Necessities of Han  (Photo by Dongmaiying)