Han Dynasty

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  • Dates: 206 BCE - 220 CE
  • Chinese/Japanese: 漢 (Hàn / Kan)

The Han Dynasty was the first of China's Confucianist dynasties and, along with the very short-lived Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) which preceded it, represents the beginning of the period of Imperial China.

Along with the Tang and Ming Dynasties, the Han is commonly seen as representing the "true" Chinese culture and history, and as representing, in some respects, the source or origin of certain aspects of Chinese culture. It was during the Han Dynasty that the Chinese developed the compass, the sternpost rudder, wheelbarrow, paper, seismograph, and various advancements in medicine, music, and astronomy.[1] The significant position of the Han Dynasty in the collective memory in the region is indicated by the fact that the word "Han" is still today often used in Chinese, Japanese, and elsewhere in the region to refer to essential Chinese culture or identity. Some examples include the use of the term "Han people" to refer to the core/majority Chinese ethnicity (in contrast to those of Manchu, Mongol, Tibetan, Hmong, or other ethnic backgrounds), and the terms hànzi (J: kanji, K: hanja, "Chinese characters") and hàn yǔ ("Chinese language").


Early Han

In the early years of the Han Dynasty, the Imperial Court only wielded direct control over the western portions of the empire, which it divided into commanderies (郡, jùn). The eastern portions of the empire were still, initially, controlled by separate lords who had allied themselves with the Han, or submitted to Han authority. This somewhat feudal situation gradually shifted as the Emperor began appointing his brothers, sons, cousins, and uncles to be lords of those domains, thus bringing those territories eventually under the centralized control.

The Han empire at its greatest extent covered all of central and nearly all of southern China, reaching beyond Hanoi in the south, and Lelang (parts of northern Korea) in the east, with a narrow arm running west along the Silk Road, as far as Kashgar. Some of the only major areas controlled by the People's Republic of China today not controlled by the Han Dynasty include a considerable area in the west and southwest (roughly, Qinghai province and Tibet), a portion of the eastern coast around Fujian or Zhejiang province, the island of Hainan, and Manchuria in the northeast.

Though the first emperor of the dynasty, Emperor Gaozu of Han, is said to have despised Confucianism, his successors gradually adopted it. Though overall the Han has traditionally been contrasted strongly with the Qin which came before, historians today point out considerable continuities between the two, in terms of legal codes and political structures, at least initially.[2]

By 135 BCE, however, the Confucian classics became the foundation for the training and guiding political philosophy of all scholar-bureaucrats, with a bureaucratic system of administration gradually coming into place which would serve as the basis for governmental administration of all later dynasties, down into the early 20th century. Concepts such as the Mandate of Heaven were also adopted, and incorporated into the cosmological and political philosophical beliefs of the regime. While much 20th century scholarship on the Han characterizes it as a period of particularly strong intellectual conservatism, some scholars today point out that few, if any, schools of thought were truly coordinated at this time, and so suggest the Han was rather a period of coalescing of the classical tradition.[3]

Under the rule of Emperor Wu of Han, also known as Han Wudi (r. 141-87 BCE), the Han expanded militarily into Vietnam, and into parts of Manchuria and northern Korea. While some parts of these regions eagerly adapted Han agricultural technologies and practices, while resisting to some extent Han political impositions, the nomadic steppe peoples of Manchuria and other northern areas, including most especially the Xiongnu, were not agricultural by tradition, and more powerfully resisted Han control, leading many uprisings, attacks, and raids.

Han armies generally consisted of large numbers of foot soldiers armed with halberds and bows, accompanied by cavalry. Encounters with the Xiongnu and other groups led to the Han military expanding its use of cavalry, using swift raids, technology such as the crossbow, and other efforts as countermeasures against the superior ability of Xiongnu mounted archers. Obtaining horses for this cavalry expansion was difficult, and largely involved obtaining horses from nomadic people's territories.[4]

Wang Mang

The dynasty weakened considerably beginning in the 20s BCE, as the court faced numerous rebellions from without, and factional struggles, nepotism & corruption, and a succession of weak emperors within.

Powerful regional magnates, many of them possibly descended from pre-unification kings, accumulated wealth and power, challenging the power of the imperial government. At the height of this phenomenon, as much as 65% of agricultural land might have been included within such estates. The central government collected taxes not by the individual (a head tax), but by the household, and so it was doubly in their interest to support small landowners over larger landlords who could challenge their power. Yet, most peasant households lived subsistence lives, ever on the verge of bankruptcy, and so they were difficult to support, or rely upon. When a family failed, they sold their land to a landlord, who gained wealth and power in the process. New agricultural technologies might have helped peasant families become more solvent, and more independent, but such equipment was too expensive for them, and when used by wealthier landlords, only exacerbated income disparities. Eventually, struggling with financial and political problems, the Court found itself with no choice but to turn to some of these regional magnates and wealthy landlords to appoint them to government positions, to put their financial expertise to work to help the state. They did that, to a certain extent, but at the same time shaped policy to benefit themselves, and others like them, to the detriment of the masses.[5]

The Imperial regent, Wang Mang, eventually was named to the throne in 8 CE; since he was not related by blood to the Imperial family, this would technically be considered the beginning of a new dynasty, and so the rule of Wang Mang is sometimes referred to as the Xin Dynasty.[6] He launched numerous reforms aimed at improving society, but faced considerable popular opposition as well as natural disasters and Xiongnu invasions. His efforts to create a new dynasty from within a terribly weakened Court, and without additional military support, ultimately failed, succumbing to a rebellion in 23 CE. The rebels took Chang'an, killed Wang Mang, and in 25 CE took the throne for themselves; since their leader was related by blood to the previous Imperial line, this is regarded not as a new dynasty, but as the revival of the Han, which would then go on to last an additional 200 years.

Later Han

In the Later Han, the Imperial capital was moved from Chang'an to Luoyang. Various policies allowed the empire to recover from the chaos and devastation of the preceding decades of difficulties, and by around 100 CE, the empire was as prosperous as it had been at its previous peak.

The Han also managed to achieve a degree of peace, securing alliances with or victories against various steppe tribes. They formed an alliance with certain tribes in 50 CE, and sent an army across the Gobi Desert in 89 CE which defeated certain tribes of Xiongnu, who then fled westward, becoming the "Huns" who then threatened Europe. Han armies also expanded west in this period as far as the shores of the Caspian Sea (in 97 CE); coupled with certain government policies favorable to merchants, this proved a considerable boon to the Silk Road trade.

The dynasty eventually collapsed in 220 CE, however, in the face of numerous rebellions, including those of the Yellow Turbans and the Celestial Masters Rebellion.[7] The realm fell into disunity, being ruled by a number of polities over the course of the roughly 350-year-long Six Dynasties Period (220-589), before being unified once again under the Sui Dynasty.

Preceded by:
Qin Dynasty
Han Dynasty
206 BCE - 220 CE
Succeeded by:
Six Dynasties


  • Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Chinese Civilization, Third Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 34-42.
  • Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 52-73.
  1. Craig, 45.
  2. Schirokauer, et al, 54.
  3. Schirokauer, et al, 57.
  4. Gallery labels, Royal Ontario Museum.[1]
  5. Schirokauer, 65-69.
  6. Schirokauer, et al, 47.
  7. Schirokauer, 72.