The Han Dynasty


It is amazing that Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor achieved so much so quickly. In only 10 years he established himself as First Emperor and carried out the fundamental reforms that set China on the path it was to follow for another two millennia. One major failure however was his succession plans. Admittedly he did not expect to die at the age of 50 – he was on a journey to find the secret of eternal life. But on his unexpected death, his Prime minister, Li Si, and his Chief Eunuch Zhuo Guo concealed his death for long enough to enable them to place a young, incompetent and pliant puppet on the throne – the historian Sima Qian tells the story in all its scandalous details. The puppet was super-incompetent and revolts soon broke out and there was chaos for three years until a rebel leader Liu Bang – a peasant who had revolted, been declared an outlaw, but eventually gathered a band of outlaws round him which defeated an aristocratic rival and went on to become emperor, the emperor Gaozu. And thus the Han dynasty was born, the greatest of all the dynasties, but whose founder was a peasant.

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This earthenware figure of a horse is in the Shaanxi History Museum in Xian.

The Han Dynasty lasted for 400 Years from A.D. from 206 BC to AD 220. It is often compared to the Roman Empire, for during this time, China and Rome enjoyed a similar success. We in the West claim that the Roman Empire was slightly bigger, and that Rome itself was larger than the biggest Chinese town, Chang’An. Both had a population approaching a million – and both flourished.

The main task of the Han dynasty – and its greatest success- was to consolidate the achievements of Qin while avoiding his failings. The concept of a single emperor for the whole of China still needed to be established and the emperor had to be made into a semi-divine figure, who had received the ‘Mandate of Heaven’. At first only half the new Empire was ruled directly from Chang ‘An, in the commandery system and a large part was still remained as ‘feudatory kingdoms’; but following a rebellion in 154 BC, centralised control was established almost everywhere. In addition, when Qin unified the warring states, he took over states based on war with huge armies, where every peasant had to serve as a soldier. It was possible to bring this national service to an end so that the peasants stayed on their farms, while a professional army was established to fight the barbarians to the north.

When Gaozu took over as Emperor, he saw that the main task was that of consolidation: he parcelled out nearly half of China to his family relatives and kept the commanderie system for the other half. It has been called a laissez-faire approach and certainly in the first 50 years, the Han dynasty flourished: peace and stability enabled the countryside to prosper, and the land tax was reduced first  to 1/15th of the annual harvest and then to a 30th. However this approach was to a considerable extent reversed by the Emperor Wu (or Wudi) who became Emperor in 141 BC at the age of 15 and ruled for 54 years to 87 BC – the longest rule of any Emperor until the 18th century.

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The so-called gold monster in the Shaanxi History Museum.

He proved to be a very successful warrior, expanding the empire in all directions, especially to the North, where he repelled the nomadic Xiongnu  (who may or may not be the same as the Huns) and pushed his influence into Central Asia, leaving China with the greatest Empire it ever achieved in the early days. He preached Confucianism but practised Legalism: however his military successes were financially very expensive, so to raise money he nationalised salt, iron and alcohol production and took over the distribution of surplus grain, all which proved very profitable for the emperor but bad for the industrial progress of the country; though the nationalisations were later reversed, they were reintroduced frequently in later dynasties. He also tried to stop the habit of granting fiefdoms to princes which tended to divide the country, by banning primogeniture, so the fiefdoms had to be subdivided on the death of the ruler, which made them easier to control from the centre.

The Wang Mang interlude

In the middle of the Han dynasty there was an interlude. The emperor died childless, and his guardian Wang Mang usurped power and tried to establish himself as a new dynasty. He was vilified by subsequent historians as a usurper, but he may have been quite a good thing. He tried to end slavery and to carry out a land division in favour of the peasants – he has been called a proto-socialist. But his reforms were incompetently carried through, so in AD 23 was assassinated, ironically by a peasant gang. His reputation was not helped when the Yellow River broke its banks and forged a new stream that entered the sea 100 miles to the north. This appalling accident was attributed to imperial incompetence. A new member of the Han dynasty was found and put on the throne, and the capital was transferred from Xian  250 miles to the east to the new capital at Luoyang – the dynasties have a habit of moving capitals.

The new dynasty is thus called the Eastern Han and continued for a further 200 mostly glorious years: the barbarians to the north were defeated, the Silk Road to the west was reopened, and science and technology bloomed with the invention of paper making. But eventually the dynasty faltered and failure came in a fashion that was to become traditional: the local landlords became too powerful and the peasants paid their dues to the landlord rather than to the emperor so the emperor became impoverished. The governors sent out by the emperor lost their powers, the barbarians to the north were breaking through (shades of the Roman empire!) and eventually the Han dynasty came to an end, and for 300 years there was no single ruler over the whole of China.


The Age of Disunity

The age of disunity that followed was in many ways the crucial period in Chinese history: would the concept of a united Chinese Empire survive – or would China revert to a number of warring kingdoms? The concept of a united Empire had only been established by a single dynasty, and this intermediate period was indeed the longest of all the intermediate periods at over 300 years. Would the Chinese Empire ever be revived?

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This funeral banner was excavated in 1972 from a tomb at Mawangdui, just outside Changsha, and it dated to 168 BC. Its interpretation has been much discussed (double click on it to see details). At the top is day and night, at the centre is the occupant of the tomb shown as an old woman leaning on her staff and surrounded by servants. At the very bottom is the underworld. See ‘Art in China’ by Craig Clunas.

It was an age of warlords: it began with the Age of the Three Kingdoms (AD 265-316), when three states tried to gain predominance. It was followed – even worse – by the Age of the Sixteen Kingdoms, when China was fatally divided between north and south. Some of the nobility fled to the South, to the fertile valley of the Yangtze, which had so far been under-occupied, and the new capital sprang up at Nanjing. However the most interesting development came in the North, with a dynasty which was not Chinese at all. These were the Northern Wei, who were barbarians from the north, in fact, the Xianbei, a confederation of Mongols that had been growing in importance. But though Mongols, they secretly admired the Chinese and the later ones at any rate tried to speak the Chinese language and to enjoy the benefits of Chinese luxury. They became what is called ‘sinified’.

Their most important contribution lay in the adoption of the ‘equal field’ system. This meant that all land was owned by the state, and it was parcelled out to individual families, just over a hectare per person – though wives got slightly less. On the death of the head of the family, the land reverted to the state and was parcelled out again. The system sounds horrendous and is quite contrary to our ideas of inheritance and land ownership, but it was a vast improvement on the alternative which was the system of landlord and tenant farmer. Part of the idea of the equal-field system was to ensure that all land was farmed, and as a result taxes could be paid kept low, generally much lower than in the landlord and tenant system

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The Vairocaina Buddha at Yungang. Note the second figure to the right.

To the modern tourist the Northern Wei are particularly important in that this is the time when Buddhism was rising to its heights, and the finest surviving monuments of Chinese Buddhism belonged to the period of the Northern Wei. Their first capital was at Datong in the north, where they erected some huge Buddha statues at the nearby Yungang. But later they moved their capital 500 miles south east to Luoyang, where again they carved some huge statues at Longmen.

Buddhism had begun to establish itself in China in the later Han dynasty and from then on it was a constant rival to the official belief in the teachings of Confucius. Buddhism and Confucianism tended to see-saw: when the central authority was weakened, Buddhism flourished and when the central authority re-established itself, Confucianism was once again favoured. Buddhism is in many ways like Christianity – a foreign religion permeating an alien culture, but Buddhism is a nicer religion than Christianity: it never claimed that there was only one god, and was happy to coexist with other religions. Thus the core of Chinese belief always remained in the background ready to spring back.


On to the Tang Dynasty


Created: 18th April 2015