A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE HAN DYNASTY
Trying to write a brief history of the Han Dynasty suitable for a website is like trying to describe a long car trip. There are so many twists and turns in the journey that it is impossible to do it full justice. Instead this is a VERY brief history of the Han Dynasty
If you want to know more than is here, go to www.fsmitha.com which is one of the best sites on the internet for Ancient Chinese History.
Following the collapse of the Qin Dynasty Liu Bang, who became the first Western Han Emperor, faced not only civil war in China but the threat of the Xiongnu-led (sometimes called the Huns) federation of tribes on China's northern border with Mongolia. He paid them off by giving their leader a Chinese "princess" for a wife and by supplying them with food and clothing.
To break from the connection with the Qin dynasty Liu Bang moved his capital from Xianyang to Chang'an (now part of the modern city of Xian) and started building a new capital there. From here he was able to control his empire through the appointment of his brothers, uncles and cousins into positions of power in the provinces. He also used Qin administrators who had given him their loyalty and was, therefore, able to make sure proper administration continued.
Two maps are provided here. The first is a simple, hand drawn sketch map of China showing all the places mentioned on this website.. The second is a detailed map of the Han Territory from http://www.fsmitha.com/h1/map15ch.htm
He brought the peasants on side by lowering their taxes, protecting them from the local lords who were trying to get their land back and by leaving them alone to farm instead of working for the emperor.
He also created a new class of people, the gentry, who came from the landowning class but who could rise to positions of power and status by working for the Emperor in his administration.
His son who followed him, Wen Di, proved to be a good emperor who cared about his people. He brought in ideas and laws which we consider "modern" changes such as
- famine relief
- old age pensions
- manumission (freedom) of slaves
- the removal of the more violent methods of execution
- he lightened the tax load on miners and the peasantry
- he spent less money on developing his capital
- he encouraged migration and the development of untouched farming land
- he admired Confucianism and incorporated many of those teachings into the Empire's structures such as respect for authority and proper behaviour
- he encouraged the serious study of economics and brought in many laws which contributed to a better empire and which brought more wealth to more people
Wen Di's grandson, Wu Di, is the next emperor who had any major impact of Han History.. He came to the throne at 16 and was very much an outdoors person who enjoyed hunting big game. Wu Di encouraged the development of trade and part of that interest was the expedition he organised under Zhang Qian which travelled as far as Parthia (probably to the modern day western Afghanistani border) and which helped to eventually consolidate the 4000 mile Silk Road trade route across central and western Asia from China. Wu Di also brought in taxes and tariffs on imported goods to protect Chinese made items and to get more revenue for his wars.
Wu Di also expanded the Empire by pushing the Xiongnu back from his northern border and settling Chinese farmers onto the newly claimed land so that the trade routes would be protected. Wu Di also conquered territory in today's northern Korea and northern Vietnam. Both conquests were to be short term and this was all achieved at great cost. As more and more men were needed for the armies and greater taxation was demanded to pay the cost, the general economy suffered.
Many peasants left the land unable to continue to live on their farms particularly as the Gentry were buying up and consolidating smaller farms. This was leading to a collapse in the economy and the Han period's most renowned Confucian scholar, Dong Zhongshu, tried to get the emperor to introduce reforms but with no success.
However, Wu Di also made Confucianism China's official political philosophy which made it very difficult for the promotion of people on merit and relied totally on passing the examinations on ideology, ancient writings and rule of social behaviour.
Wu Di reigned for 54 years, one of the longest reigns in the entire history of China.
The above mound is Wu Di's tomb mound - one of many dozens in the valleys around Xian, Xianyang and Mount Li. It is the largest of the Han tombs at almost 47 metres high. It used to be surrounded by a gated wall but only remnants of the gates remain, as shown above. According to local stories Wu Di was buried with great wealth - jade, jewellery and even live animals. As far as anyone knows it has never been disturbed. Chinese archaeologists have added it to the great long list of tombs to be excavated - some time!
On Wu Di's death in 91 BC civil war erupted and, although they struggled on, the dynasty was in trouble. Young, inexperienced emperors under the control of Dowager Empresses, eunuchs or powerful military officers, followed one after another until finally, in 9 AD, a new dynasty was formed under Wang Mang.
Wang Mang immediately introduced a series of reforms, supposedly based on Confucianism. They included
- land for all, including the redistribution of land from the wealthy to the poor
- a reduction in taxation on poor peasants
- the establishment of state banks to lend money at a set interest rate
- the establishment of state granaries (places where grain is stored) to make the price of grain more even and less subject to change
- the establishment of a price fixing department to stop inflation (prices increasing too fast and too out of control)
However, he relied on his local officials to carry out his reforms and as they had an interest in NOT doing so, they prevented the changes. When famine hit China following severe flooding of the Yellow River in 11 AD, Wang Mang came under a wide range of attacks from peasant groups, such as the Red Eyebrows, landlords with their own armies, and threats from the legitimate Han rulers.
It was one of the Han Princes, Liu Xiu, who emerged from the time of troubles to re-establish the Han Dynasty - now called the Eastern Han Dynasty. He moved the capital to Louyang but it took him more than 11 years to gain full control over China. His reforms included
- land for anyone who wanted it - this was easy because so many people had died during the civil wars that there was plenty of land to go around
- the lowering of taxes to a set amount
- promoting education and scholarship
- limiting the power of the palace servants
- the successful defeat of the Xiongnu (the Huns)
Liu Xiu was to be the last Han emperor of any real importance. The men and women who followed him were, too often, weak willed and under the control of others. Despite this the later Han period was a period of great prosperity for China with the Silk trade going as far as the Roman Empire and representatives of the emperor getting to the Caspian Sea.
Because it was a peaceful time despite the weakness of the emperors, and China was becoming wealthier, the Han period also brought about the development of art in all its forms whether Science and Technology, Literature, the fine arts and Medicine.