Han Dynasty (206 bc-ad 220), Chinese imperial dynasty that reunited China after the fall of the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty (221-206 bc). The Han dynasty is known as the golden age of Chinese philosophy.
During their 426 year history, the Han created many of the institutions that made China distinctive. They expanded the boundaries of the state by making them similar to those of China today. Confucianism was elevated to the official state philosophical-religious system. Buddhism arrived from India and became an important religion. Literature and the arts flourished. Agriculture expanded, and with it the size of the population. The basic system of a strong central government whose policies were implemented by a complex and efficient bureaucracy, which continued until the 20th century, had its beginnings under the Han. Many of the harsh laws of the Qin period were rescinded, taxes were reduced, and almost all the Han territory was placed under direct imperial rule. To this day the term Han is used to differentiate the ethnic Chinese from other racial and cultural groups within China.
|II||POLITICAL HISTORY OF THE HAN|
As the Qin dynasty collapsed under the weight of military revolts and peasant rebellions, a minor official, Liu Bang (Liu Pang) became the head of a small band of soldiers and gradually began acquiring territory. Over time his forces swelled to an army, and more victories followed. In 206 bc, Liu named himself the wang (king) of Han, one of the states within the Qin empire. By 202 bc the last rulers of Qin were dead, and Liu had eliminated all his rivals; he declared himself emperor and adopted the imperial title, Gaozu. His dynasty is dated from the time he became king of Han, the state that gave the dynasty its name.
Liu Bang had conquered a highly centralized empire. He relaxed the system somewhat, dividing the realm into principalities ruled by members of his family or military commanders who had provided him outstanding service. This laid the foundations for a return to feudalism, in which land was divided between minor lords and was worked by tenant farmers in exchange for rent. For a time, however, Gaozu and the rulers who followed him were able to keep feudalism in check by sending counselors, responsible to the emperor alone, to oversee each province. They thus preserved the authority of the central government during much of the dynasty.
Gaozu established his capital on the plain of the Wei River at Chang'an (Ch'ang-an, “Eternal Peace”), near the site of what is now the city of Xi’an (Sian, “Western Peace”). Many of the harsh laws of Qin were rescinded. Taxes were lowered. Executions became infrequent. Gaozu accepted the Confucian principles that the purpose of government was to benefit those being governed, and that the emperor should rule by good example rather than harsh decrees.
When Gaozu died in 195 bc, his throne passed peacefully to his heirs. The most notable of these was Wudi (Wu-ti), who reigned from 141 to 87 bc. His reign is one of the most celebrated in Chinese history. Wudi paid particular attention to the art of governing. The power of local princes had grown over the years, but Wudi worked to recentralize government. In staffing the administrative hierarchy inherited from the Qin, the Han emperors followed the Confucian principle of appointing men on the basis of merit rather than birth. Written examinations were adopted as a means of determining the best qualified people, although use of the examinations in actually making appointments was limited. A school was established at the capital for training government officials. The administrative bureaucracy was systematized, and a career civil service was created and extended through much of the empire.
Although personally interested in the magical side of Daoism, Wudi made a descendent of Confucius the superintendent of public instruction, encouraged the study of the five Confucian classics (the Shu jing, or Book of History; the Shi jing, or Book of Songs; the I Ching or Yi jing, or Book of Changes; the Li ji, or Book of Rites; and the Chun qiu, or the Spring and Autumn Annals) on which Confucian education was based, and appointed those adept in Confucian knowledge to senior administrative posts. In an attempt to provide an all-inclusive ideology for the empire, however, the Han incorporated ideas from many other philosophical schools into Confucianism, and employed popular superstitions to augment and elaborate the spare teachings of Confucius and of his principal disciple, Mencius. These beliefs became part of popular folklore.
Commerce flourished under Wudi. Internal trade expanded with the long period of domestic peace, lower taxes, and the reduction of the power of local princes. Wudi's ministers kept prices steady by buying grain and cooking oil when prices were low and placing them on the market when commodities became scarce due to drought or poor harvest. Canals and irrigation works were dug and roads constructed. The country grew richer and stronger, the farms became prosperous, and the cities increased in size.
Almost from the beginning of his reign, Wudi set about expanding his empire. In the northwest, the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu), a seminomadic tribe of mounted warriors, had been raiding areas of northwestern China for some time. Wudi sent several expeditions against them, formed alliances with central Asian tribes, and broke the power of the Xiongnu. With his northwest frontier secured, Wudi expanded into the northeast, conquering Manchuria and much of what is now Korea. He added territories south of the Yangtze River as far as Annam, in northern Vietnam. The conquest of what is now Yunnan province opened a route into Burma and India.
Perhaps the most interesting of Wudi's conquests were those in central Asia. By taking control of territories in Ferghana (in what is now Uzbekistan) and the valley of the Jaxartes River (also called Syr Darya River, in what is now Kazakhstan), far west of China's present boundary, Wudi's troops were able to open the Silk Road, a 6500 km (4000-mi) trade route linking Chang'an and Rome. The Silk Road allowed China to trade with the states of the Persian Gulf and even of the eastern Mediterranean. By the time of his death in 87 bc, Wudi's empire was as large as the Roman empire was to become a few decades later under Julius Caesar.
However, Wudi's expansionist policies also had the effect of draining the imperial treasury, necessitating sharp increases in taxes and increased government control of the economy. Although these policies were effective for a short time, in the long term they weakened the dynasty substantially.
Wudi's immediate successors maintained the empire for a time, but three consecutive weak rulers allowed imperial regent Wang Mang (45 bc-ad 23) to concentrate power almost entirely in his own hands. Wang Mang was a senior member of a family that had married into the imperial clan. His power grew until finally, in ad 9, he declared himself emperor of the short-lived Xin (Hsin, “New”) dynasty (ad 9-23).
Although Wang Mang had seized power through murder and intrigue, he was a reformer who wanted better, less corrupt government. He wanted to remedy the abuses resulting from the growing strength of feudalism. Much of the land was now held in large estates, rented out in small plots to farmers at exorbitant prices. In the first year of his reign, Wang Mang seized all of the land, striking at the power base of the barons and gentry. The land was divided into equal tracts and given to the farmers who actually cultivated it. He then proceeded to abolish slavery, made no-interest loans to farmers, and became a patron of Confucian learning.
However, these reforms faced serious opposition. The feudal barons formed an alliance and rebelled against Wang Mang. They were joined by members of the Liu family, who were descended from Jingdi (Ching-ti), a former Han emperor, and a civil war followed. As the empire fell into disorder, militant secret societies formed armed bands and attacked villages and towns. Wang Mang had believed that proper institutions would eventually bring peace to China, but in ad 23, an army led by the Liu clan breached the gates of Chang'an, murdered Wang Mang, and restored the Han dynasty.
|D||The Eastern Han|
During the civil war, the old capital of Chang'an was largely destroyed, and the victorious Liu family moved the capital eastward to Luoyang (Lo-yang), in what is now Henan province. The name Han was again used, but Chinese historians refer to the dynasty after Wang Mang as the Eastern, or Later, Han. Its first ruler, Guangwudi (Kuang-wu-ti, 5 bc-ad 57), was vigorous and assertive. The borderlands were reoccupied, the Xiongnu were again defeated, and tribute was again collected in Korea and Annam. Like others of his ancestors, Guangwudi became a patron of Confucian learning and worked toward government reform.
His successors were different. Many took the throne in their teens, and the empire was actually controlled by ministers who encouraged the young emperors to lead a life of dissipation. This usually led to an early death, another child emperor, and a continuation of rule from behind the scenes. Once again, peasant revolts and military insurrections became frequent. An armed Daoist cult, the Huangjin (Yellow Turbans), spearheaded a revolt that spread through much of the empire. Generals and ministers plotted coups and counter-coups, with the child emperors as little more than pawns. One such general, Dong Zhuo (Tung Cho), burned Luoyang in ad 190.
Although the dynasty continued in name, the confused power struggle virtually eliminated any real Han authority. Finally, in 220, the last Han emperor, Xiandi (Hsien-ti), who had been placed on the throne at age eight, formally abdicated in favor of Cao Pi (Ts'ao P'i), the son of his chief minister. Cao Pi proclaimed himself the first emperor of the new Wei dynasty. This date marks the beginning of the so-called Period of Disunity, which lasted from 220 to 589.
|E||The Period of Disunity|
Chinese unity was fractured, and three rival states—Wu, Wei, and Shu—contended for power in the territory of what had been the Han empire, waging incessant warfare against one another. In 265 Sima Yan (Ssu-ma Yen), a general of the Wei dynasty, took over the throne and established the Western Jin (Chin) dynasty (265-316) in northern China. By 280 he had reunited the north and south under his rule. Soon after his death in 290, however, the empire began to crumble. The non-Chinese tribes of the north seized the opportunity to attack. Invasions began in 304, and by 317 the tribes had taken northern China from the Jin. For almost three centuries northern China was ruled by non-Chinese dynasties, while the south was ruled by a sequence of four Chinese dynasties, all of which were centered in Jiankang (Chien-k'ang), in the area of what is now Nanjing (Nanking). In 589 Yang Jian (Yang Chien), from the non-Chinese Northern Zhou state, succeeded in conquering all the other states and reuniting China under what became known as the Sui dynasty (581-618).
During the Han empire, the Chinese were an agricultural people. Wheat and millet were grown in northern China, as they had been for centuries. Rice, which can produce more calories per hectare than other grains, continued to be grown wherever farmers could get enough water to do so. Chinese farmers drained swamps, dammed streams, and built irrigation canals. During the reign of the early Han emperors, a long period of peace and a strong, centralized government allowed irrigation works to expand. More and better crops were grown, and the population increased. During the waning days of the Western Han, central control weakened and feudal armies ranged over the land. Then irrigation works fell into disrepair or were destroyed altogether, causing local and regional famines.
During the long peace of the Han period, many cities grew in size, particularly Luoyang. Merchants and craftsmen organized themselves into guilds, and, in fact, membership in the appropriate guild became necessary to engage in most lines of business. The guilds fixed minimum prices and regulated wages and working hours of guild members and their employees. Each guild had a patron god that was enshrined in the guild hall. The guilds also served as social protection units, and often would call a strike or shop closure as a way to object to potentially restrictive laws.
Under the Han, some of the natural and political barriers that had separated China from the rest of the world were overcome. Greater commerce and territorial expansion brought the Chinese into contact with new states and peoples. Merchants passed from China through central Asia to the Parthian kingdom in Persia and the Greek cities on the shores of the Black Sea—even to Roman colonies on the eastern Mediterranean. Han traders and foreign merchants crossed Yunnan and over the rivers of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), and returned with goods from as far away as India and Sri Lanka. According to Chinese history, in 166 merchants from Daqin (Ta Ch'in), the Chinese name for Rome, reached Luoyang and announced they had been sent by their ruler, supposedly Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The claims may be false, but there can be no doubt that Chinese goods, chiefly silks and furs, reached the cities of the Mediterranean via the Silk Road. In return, the Han received horses from central Asia, glass, ivory, precious stones, and fine woolens.
|IV||RELIGION AND PHILOSOPHY|
The teachings of Confucius (Kongfuzi, 551-479 bc), became the principal school of thought during the Han dynasty. The basis of Confucian ethics is the concept of jen, meaning “love” or “goodness.” The ideas of Confucianism can be summed up by the phrase, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” Other important Confucian virtues include righteousness, propriety, integrity, and filial piety. Politically, Confucius advocated a government in which the ruler is benevolent and the subjects obedient. He believed that the monarch should cultivate moral standards in order to set a good example to the people. Confucius was well known for his ideas on education, which he believed to be valuable for all people, regardless of class.
The historical Buddha lived in northern India around the 5th century bc, about the same time as Confucius lived in China. The Buddha taught that life and suffering are inseparable, that suffering is due to desire and the thirst for material things, and that the only way to escape from suffering is to be free of desire. To be free of desire one must forget oneself and serve others, meditate, and above all live without passionate attachments to worldly things. Then one can reach the Buddhist paradise, nirvana.
Buddhism arrived in China via missionaries who followed the trade routes from India just as the Han era was beginning. The Han Shu (Han Chronicles) mention that, by the first century ad, Buddhist monks had established temples in Luoyang under the patronage of members of the imperial family. But it was during the long period of disunity at the end of the Han era that Buddhism really took hold among the Chinese people. It is not difficult to understand why. Confucianism held that human nature was essentially good; it emphasized the network of mutual duties and obligations between ruler and ruled, father and family, elder and younger, husband and wife. At the end of Han, the law of survival seemed to have replaced Confucian relationships and Confucian theories of human goodness. Buddhist pessimism seemed more in keeping with the times than Confucian optimism.
The Chinese adopted Buddhism and introduced Buddha into the Chinese pantheon of gods. This pantheon consisted of a godly court in heaven, which was a close analogy to what the common people thought of as their emperor's court on earth. It was ruled by the Jade Emperor (Yudi), his ministers, and his various consorts. There were gods of the guilds; gods of the planets, elements, earth, and sky; war and rain gods; and, of course, the Buddha, his disciples, and those remarkable people who had lived on earth such as emperors, or individuals who had been particularly virtuous. There was a god of literature, a god of grain, even a god for each of the several mountain ranges within the empire.
Daoism (Taoism) had begun as a philosophical system that emphasized individual personality and objected strongly to ritual and governmental ordering of life. A truly wise ruler, said the Daoist (Taoist)s, simply leaves things alone. But by Han times the personal quest for a true understanding of nature and the world, a characteristic of original Daoism, had degenerated into a search for the elixir of immortality and the pantheon of gods noted above.
|V||LITERATURE AND ART|
In literature, the great figure of the age was Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Ch'ien), who lived from about 145 to 90 bc. He inherited his father's position as court historian during the reign of Wudi, and his great work is called Shi ji (Records of the Historian). This work, a compilation of excerpts from original sources together with Sima's commentaries, set the standard for Chinese history and historians from that time forth. His history is the source of most of our knowledge about the Qin and early Han periods.
It was also during the Han that the Four Books of Confucian learning—the Lunyu (Confucian Analects), the Daxue (Great Learning), the Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean), and the Mengzi (Book of Mencius)—were edited into their final form. This was facilitated by the invention of paper making around ad 100. Paper was made from the bark of the mulberry tree, from hemp, and from rags. Brush pens came into use to write on the new material, and Chinese characters changed into something very near their modern form.
Little in the way of graphic art has survived from Han times, and much of what is known of Han painting therefore comes from written commentaries. From these sources it appears that painting was seen as a kind of magic. Cures for illness might be obtained by placing the correct type of painting over the bed of the sick. Often painting was intended to demonstrate—and therefore keep potent—the magical powers of gods and cultural heroes.
While Han painting has largely disappeared, archaeological finds, mostly from excavated tombs, have yielded pottery and terra-cotta models of houses, temples, gentry, and even entire villages. These objects were used as substitutes for valuable possessions and were usually glazed or colorfully painted. A typical grave contained miniatures of favorite pets and servants, as well as an assortment of objects from daily life.
Although the strengthening of the central government essentially did away with feudalism for a time, one of the most powerful classes in Han China remained the large landowning family. This became even more pronounced as trade within China and with other areas grew. In addition to land, wealthy families often owned factories or production facilities, which increased their local influence as well as their wealth. The merchant class also grew in importance during this period, despite government efforts to contain it, and the buying and selling of goods and services gradually came to offer a certain social mobility not previously available to the merchants, who for decades had been the lowest class in the Chinese social order. Also, the influence of the new Confucian bureaucracy, organized by talent more than background, allowed a potentially large increase in social status for most anyone who had time to study for the exams. Although very few peasants or farmers actually had that sort of time, this opportunity had never existed before for anyone not in the scholar-official class.
The basic unit of Chinese society in Han times, as before and since, was the family. Chinese saw the family as a kind of immortal entity, stretching back in time to some ancestral figure and extending far into the future of the most remote descendant. The head of the family, which could be a woman if she were the oldest living member, had autocratic power, at times even the power to put other members of the family to death if they had brought dishonor. Because a family was considered responsible for the conduct of its members, it could be punished as a unit by the authorities for the crimes of any one member. Each member of the family had an obligation to both ancestors and descendants to increase family honor and, if possible, wealth, and to avoid bringing shame or dishonor to the family. Traditionally, families were supposed to take care of their own members, providing the equivalent of medical insurance, old age pensions, hospital care, and so on, in a society where civil institutions of that kind were unknown. While this required a degree of family wealth that usually was not available to most Chinese people, it remained the societal ideal.
|VII||LEGACY OF THE HAN|
The Han was a period of prosperity that would not be seen again in China until the rise of the Tang (T’ang) dynasty in 618. Chinese Buddhism flourished, and Confucianism was adopted as the state's official doctrine. In addition, many of the governmental standards in use until the 20th century, such as a strong central government that ruled with the help of a large, efficient bureaucracy, flowered in Han China. Although its eventual collapse was followed by almost three centuries of disunity and war, the Han dynasty managed to set a standard that would be adopted by almost all of the later imperial Chinese dynasties.