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Presenting a concise illustrated History of the Middle Kingdom

Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD)

Xiang Yu (232 BC – 202 BC) was a prominent military leader and political figure during the late Qin Dynasty
Xiang Yu (232 BC – 202 BC) was a prominent military leader and political figure during the late Qin Dynasty

After the overthrow of the Qin, a number of individuals began to contend among themselves for the leadership of China. Two principal contenders emerged in this power struggle. The first one was Xiang Yu (233 BC - 202 BC), who was a former general of the state of Chu before the annexation by the Qin.

The second one was Liu Bang (259 BC - 195 BC), who was originally a low ranking official under the Qin as a jailer. When a number of his prisoners escaped during an overnight transport, he - fearing harsh punishment by the Qin - offered to set the remaining prisoners free, if they pledged their allegiance to him. From then on, Liu Bang was the leader of this new rebel army that subsequently started to fight against the Qin. He mobilised more and more troops over time, so that he became a serious challenger by the time the Qin were overthrown.

Liu Bang, emperor Gaozu of the Han dynasty
Liu Bang, emperor Gaozu of the Han dynasty

In the year 204 BC, the two contenders fought a battle in which Liu Bang's army was decisively defeated. Instead of giving up his ambitions though, he organized a strategic withdrawal of his remaining forces and continued to rebuild his army with new recruits. He paid them with grain out of the reserves of the seized Ao granary (near Xingyang, Henan province).

Liu Bang resumed to confront Xiang Yu in battles and was finally able to besiege him and his forces two years later at Gaixia (nowadays part of Lingbi County, Anhui province). Xiang Yu realized that his cause was lost, when he heard the besieging army sing folk songs from his own former state of Chu.

Consort Yu, concubine of Xiang Yu
Consort Yu, concubine of Xiang Yu (image is scanned from a Chinese book which was published during the Qing Dynasty, named 'Bai mei xin yong tu zhuan')

He proceeded to spend the evening drinking wine with his favourite concubine Consort Yu. After she had committed suicide out of desperation, he led 800 men of his cavalry on an escape attempt that ended with his capture and death. As a result, Liu Bang controlled the battlefield and empire and shortly afterward proclaimed the start of a new dynasty - the Han dynasty (202 BC - 220 CE) - named after Liu Bang's home district.

Liu Bang subsequently established his capital at Chang'an (Chinese for: eternal tranquility or eternal peace) near modern day Xi'an. He at first continued the administrative system of the Qin dynasty, but later basically adopted two different systems for the eastern and western part of his empire. He appointed officials to rule and control the western part of his empire for limited periods of time (known as commanderies), before recalling them to court or moving them to a different location. This centralized system ensured that the western part firmly remained within control of the Han rulers.

However, Liu Bang awarded the territories in the eastern part of his empire as semi-autonomous kingdoms to his former loyal generals, that were instrumental in securing these territories. The realm of these kings later passed on to their sons. With each new generation, the personal ties and loyalty to the faraway emperor weakened. Therefore, Liu Bang's decision to let the eastern part of his empire be ruled by kings contained the same potential for later conflict that had led to the downfall of the Zhou empire.

historic site of the Weiyang Palace near Xi'an
historic site of the Weiyang Palace near Xi'an

After Liu Bang's death, the empire passed on to his son, which started a series of peaceful successions to the throne (with the exception of the succession in the year 180 BC when the family of empress Lu unsuccessfully tried to exert undue influence). Eventually, trouble began to arise in the east when some of the descendants of the original military rulers started the Revolt of the Seven Kingdoms in 154 BC.

Empress Lu, Liu Bang's wife
Empress Lu, Liu Bang's wife

The Han rulers of the Liu family then proved very adept at creating dissent among the ranks of these local strongmen and managed to successfully weaken and then take over some of the smaller autonomous areas. They continued to use these territories as bastions from which they launched further raids into the areas of the remaining troublesome warlords. By the year 150 BC, the entire east was pacified and brought under direct control of the Liu family, creating a truly unified Han state.

Traditional portrait of Emperor Wu of Han from an ancient Chinese book
Traditional portrait of Emperor Wu of Han from an ancient Chinese book

In 141 BC, the ascension to the throne of the new Han emperor Wu, who reigned until his death in 87 BC, marks the start of a period named the "Han synthesis". During that period, the Han state's foundation was solidified by propagating and implementing an administrative (a system of law based upon the ideas of legalism, a less strict system of reward and punishment) and ideological (Confucianism) order, whose core ideas remained the basis for the imperial order for the next 2000 years, even though its exact provisions understandably underwent a series of changes and adaptations during this period.

Furthermore, this new order entailed a cosmological element that attempted to place the known realm of human relations within the larger context of the universe with all its unseen (and spiritual) elements.

the philosopher Dong Zhongshu
the philosopher Dong Zhongshu

The philosopher Dong Zhongshu (c. 2nd century BC) developed the theory of correlative cosmology that attempted to correlate events in the natural world (eclipses, floods, earthquakes, meteor showers etc.) with that of human society (sometimes called the interpretation of omens). These often disastrous natural events were interpreted by the imperial advisors as signs (from the universe or gods) of bad things to come and due to the lack of scientific understanding at that time, they were thought to be caused by human misbehaviour and therefore the disturbance of the appropriate order of human relations (e.g. due to the unsuitable laws passed by the ruler).

During emperor Wu's reign, the Han state continued to expand its territory militarily and eventually amassed such a vast territory during the later Han dynasty (including the northern part of contemporary Korea and Vietnam) that was even larger than its more famous contemporary Roman empire.

Map of the Han Dynasty empire 87 BC
Map of the Han Dynasty empire in the year 87 BC (Click on the image to see it larger)

Emperor Wu's inner policy was characterized by a desire to use the power of the state to do good and help to solve the people's problems. His government began to control the commodity markets of salt, iron, alcohol and a few others from production to distribution, thereby preventing private businessmen from enriching themselves. That kept the prices of these commodities low and affordable and contributed to a peaceful society where people's livelihoods continued to improve.

Brick relief depicting a market scene from the Eastern Han Dynasty
Brick relief depicting a market scene from the Eastern Han Dynasty (Click on the image to see it larger)

Emperor Wu also began the practice of holding imperial examinations at court, where educated scholars could obtain coveted government positions by passing written examinations. Most government positions were still filled by the recommendation of suitable candidates, but the practice of imperial examinations expanded over time and eventually became indispensable in future dynasties.

After emperor Wu's death, some of his policies were questioned and in the year 81 BC there was a great "debate on salt and iron" at court (one of the great rhetorical debates in Chinese history that is preserved in written texts). In this debate, scholars were arguing whether it was proper for the government to become involved in economic activities. One side was arguing in favour of government intervention in economic affairs for the common good.

rubbing of an ancient stone relief depicting a salt well, Eastern Han
rubbing of an ancient stone relief depicting a salt well, Eastern Han

The other side argued that it was the government's job to merely serve as a role model for its citizens by its fair governance and that it shouldn't enrich itself through its participation in economic activities, but earn its revenue solely through the collection of taxes. Setting a good example was thought as sufficient to discourage such behaviours as dishonesty or greed among the population. Following this debate, most of the state's monopolies were abolished and free trade allowed, tempered with minimal government intervention.

The Liu family continued to maintain control over the Han empire with a number of peaceful successions of emperors after emperor Wu's death. However, the successive emperors were less and less engaged with the affairs of governance and became preoccupied with their lavish lifestyles and entertainment at court. Matters of governance were from then on mostly handled by court-appointed officials, who used the lack of oversight to enrich themselves in more and more corrupt ways and began to disregard administrative affairs of governance, taxation, military affairs and so on.

picture of the Han emperor Cheng
picture of the Han emperor Cheng

The power of the central government was further undermined by the efforts of in-law families (related to the emperor's wives) who tried to manipulate the affairs of state to their advantage. In the year 7 BC, the Han emperor Cheng (who ruled from 33 BC - 7 BC) died without an heir, which allowed the court official Wang Mang (45 BC - 23 AD) to amass more and more power and control in the succeeding years. In the year 9 AD, he seized power for himself and established the Xin dynasty. That moment marks the end of the Western Han dynasty . Wang Mang ruled until his death in 23 AD (the short-lived Xin dynasty is also referred to as the Wang Mang Interregnum).

the Han court official and later Xin dynasty emperor Wang Mang
the Han court official and later Xin dynasty emperor Wang Mang

However, Wang Mang died without an heir as well, so another branch of the Liu family took back control and ushered the country into the later Han dynasty (sometimes also referred to as the Eastern Han since the imperial capital was moved from Western Chang'an to Luoyang) that lasted for another 200 years or so.

Already during the Early Han dynasty (or Western Han dynasty), it became common for officials to be rewarded for their services through individual grants of land, that they later passed on to their next generation. During earlier dynasties, peasants had to work the lands of their military overlords as virtual slaves. That began to change and a class of individual private landowners emerged, even though nominally the emperor remained the owner at first.

This societal change set up the right conditions for the development of an agricultural market economy. More and more private agricultural estates of varying sizes produced a considerable surplus that was then sold for profit, at first locally and regionally and later even nationwide. Over time, even the Han legal system began to recognize the rights of ownership of individual grantees (recognizing them as deeds).

Two gentlemen engrossed in conversation while two others look on, a Chinese painting on a ceramic tile from a tomb near Luoyang, Henan province, dated to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 AD)
Two gentlemen engrossed in conversation while two others look on, a Chinese painting on a ceramic tile from a tomb near Luoyang, Henan province, dated to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 AD) (Click on the image to see it larger)

Whereas during the Early Han dynasty, these landowners were still closely tied to the emperor through their services or relationship, their successive generations later developed into an independent (retaining their power and land even though not serving the emperor any longer) quasi aristocratic class. By the end of the Later Han period, this new aristocratic elite was firmly established in society. Due to their wealth, this new elite had the opportunity to enjoy a leisurely lifestyle. Whereas during the Warring States period, tales of military battles and heroism were in vogue, now a more sophisticated culture developed that valued individual learning, the reading and writing of prose and poetry, sophisticated oral conversations and dialogue and so on.

The later Han dynasty was also the period when Buddhism first arrived in China. The first Buddhist monks that came to China from northern India along the Silk Road were welcomed by the Han emperor at his capital of Luoyang. They were given quarters at the Han court and were allowed to spread their teachings, but their initial popularity and impact on society was negligible compared with the theories of Confucianism or Daoism. Buddhism at first was seen as an odd/exotic philosophy from foreign lands.

8th century fresco at Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, Gansu Province. Depiction of the Han Emperor Wu worshiping statues of the Buddha
8th century fresco at Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, Gansu Province. Depiction of the Han Emperor Wu worshiping statues of the Buddha (Click on the image to see it larger)

In imperial administration and government, rivaling factions (military leaders, the in-laws of empresses and other noble families, eunuchs) increasingly tried to influence the imperial court in their favour, enriching themselves and trying to obtain certain coveted positions for members of their group.

During the later Han dynasty, many new emperors ascended the throne at a very young age, where they still had to rely heavily on tutors (often eunuchs) and advisors and exerted very little if any control on matters of governance.

Reprint of Description of the Arrival of Buddhism in China, 66 AD, in: Chronicle of the Later Han Dynasty. Östasiatiska Museet, Stockholm
Reprint of Description of the Arrival of Buddhism in China, 66 AD, in: Chronicle of the Later Han Dynasty. Östasiatiska Museet, Stockholm

In these periods, many members of the newly powerful class of local landowners benefited greatly from the lack of administrative control by abusing and exploiting the increasingly miserable and destitute peasant class (e.g. through excessive rents and taxation etc.) to such a degree, that insurrections against imperial rule and/or local landowners such as the Yellow Turban Rebellion and the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion began to break out all over the country. The rebellions were squashed by military force and military leaders became more powerful and influential.

Qing Dynasty era picture, depicting the characters in Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Consort Dong, Emperor Xian and Empress Fu Shou
Qing Dynasty era picture, depicting the characters in "Romance of the Three Kingdoms": Consort Dong, Emperor Xian and Empress Fu Shou

These developments had a profound impact on the spread of Buddhism in China. As the Han dynasty began its descent into chaos and turmoil, that plunged many parts of society into misery, there was suddenly a greater demand for a philosophy/religion that was concerned with the liberation from suffering and Buddhism began to spread all around China among the salvation-seeking population. Buddhist monks began to roam the country, passing on their knowledge orally or through written texts, that were brought along from India and that were later translated into Chinese.

By the late 2nd century AD, the imperial Han dynasty was hanging on to power by a thread, barely continuing to function. Local warlords once more in Chinese history gained control of some parts of the territory, conflicting factions at the imperial court continued their strive for influence and power in more and more extreme ways and the country weakened to such a degree amid all this chaos, that the last Han emperor Xian was forced to abdicate the throne in the year 220 AD, which brought the Han dynasty to its end.

Chinese History Digest's summary of China's history continues in the next section with the period of the Six dynasties, a period of division and disunity.