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A portrait painting of Emperor Gao of Han (Liu Bang), from an 18th-century Qing Dynasty album of Chinese emperors' portraits. (Public Domain) Background: A tomb painting of a late Eastern-Han period lively banquet.

A Golden Age of China, Part I: Early Han Dynasty Emperors

The Han Dynasty was the second imperial dynasty in Chinese history. This dynasty was a long one – it was established during the 3rd century BC and lasted all the way until the 3rd century AD. It was a golden age in Chinese history and its influence can still be felt even today. Members of China’s majority ethnic group even refer to themselves as the Han, and Chinese script is known as ‘Han characters’.

The Han Dynasty is divided into two periods – the Western or Former Han, and the Eastern or Later Han, as a result of Wang Mang’s usurpation of the throne and the establishment of the Xin Dynasty.

Mi Fu's Chinese calligraphy, Song Dynasty, Jiangsu province. (Public Domain)

Mi Fu's Chinese calligraphy, Song Dynasty, Jiangsu province. ( Public Domain )

Rising from Rebellion

The Han Dynasty succeeded the Qin Dynasty, the first imperial dynasty of China. Although the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, Qin Shi Huang, was a formidable ruler, the empire he had established did not last long after his death, as he had a weak successor and there was in-fighting amongst his officials. The last days of the rule of the Qin Dynasty were so unbearable that many rebellions broke out across the empire.

These rebels were under the nominal leadership of Xiang Yu, a warlord from the state of Chu. Another important rebel leader was Liu Bang, a minor Qin official who was also from the Chu state. Following the death of Qin Shi Huang, Liu Bang resigned from his post, raised an army, and rebelled against Qin rule.

Although Liu Bang initially served under Xiang Yu during the rebellion against the Qin Dynasty, the two men would later become rivals, as each desired to become the Emperor of China. The struggle for supremacy between Xiang Yu and Liu Bang is known as the Chu-Han Contention, which lasted from 206 BC to 202 BC. At the Battle of Gaixia, the Han forces under Liu Bang won a decisive victory over Xiang Yu, who committed suicide after this defeat. Liu Bang proclaimed himself the Emperor of China and the Han Dynasty was established.

Scene of the Battle of Gaixia. ( Weapons and Warfare )

Scene of the Battle of Gaixia. ( Weapons and Warfare )

Early Han Dynasty Emperors

Liu Bang (also known by his temple name as Emperor Gaozu of Han) is remembered as a benevolent ruler. For example, he reduced the taxes and the corvée that were imposed on the peasants, which had been very high during the Qin Dynasty.

Liu Bang is also regarded as a pragmatic ruler, as he recognized the importance of having educated men at his court, even though he himself was a rough man who disdained education. This pragmatism also allowed Liu Bang to deal with civil matters in a humane way, but in a harsh manner when it involved handling threats to his authority.

It was also during Liu Bang’s reign that Confucianism was promoted. This was a philosophy which emphasized moderation, virtue, and filial piety, values that enabled the regime’s authoritarian policies to be softened in the eyes of the population. This promotion of Confucianism would have a lasting impact on subsequent periods of Chinese history.

Paragons of filial piety, Chinese painted artwork on a lacquered basketwork box. It was excavated from an Eastern Han tomb of what was the Chinese Lelang Commandery in what is now North Korea. (Public Domain)

Paragons of filial piety, Chinese painted artwork on a lacquered basketwork box. It was excavated from an Eastern Han tomb of what was the Chinese Lelang Commandery in what is now North Korea. ( Public Domain )

Liu Bang was succeeded by his second son, Emperor Hui of Han, though it was his mother, Empress Dowager Lu, who dominated the court. Liu Ying had a weak character and after his short reign he was succeeded by Emperor Qianshao of Han, and then Emperor Houshao of Han, both of whom were sons of Emperor Hui. During the reign of these emperors, Empress Dowager Lu (now Grand Empress Dowager Lu) continued to dominate the political scene, and the court was only released from her grip after her death in 180 BC.

Jade Seal with Characters "Huang Hou Zhi Xi" Western Han Dyansty. Excavated from Langjiagou village Xianyang City. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Jade Seal with Characters "Huang Hou Zhi Xi" Western Han Dyansty. Excavated from Langjiagou village Xianyang City. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Pinnacle of the Han Dynasty

The Han dynasty reached its pinnacle during the reign of its seventh emperor, Emperor Wu of Han, who is considered one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history. During his 54-year reign, Emperor Wu expanded the borders of China to the north of Vietnam in the south, to the Korean Peninsula in the east, and to eastern Kazakhstan in the west. There was a flourishing in the arts and culture as well during the reign of Emperor Wu.

Traditional portrait of Emperor Wu of Han from an ancient Chinese book. (Public Domain)

Traditional portrait of Emperor Wu of Han from an ancient Chinese book. ( Public Domain )

It was during this period that the Records of the Grand Historian , a monumental work that set the standard for all subsequent government-sponsored histories. Furthermore, it was during this time that the development of the Silk Road was initiated, thanks to the missions sent by the emperor to the west.

The First Fall of the Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty continued to prosper after Emperor Wu’s death, though it eventually began to deteriorate. Eventually, the Han Dynasty came to a temporary end when its last emperor, a child who ascended the throne as Emperor Ruzi of Han, was deposed by a court official named Wang Mang. A new dynasty, the Xin Dynasty, was established, though this came to an end when Wang Mang was killed.

Western Han Dynasty painted figure of a cavalryman. (Editor at Large/CC BY SA 2.5)

Western Han Dynasty painted figure of a cavalryman. (Editor at Large/ CC BY SA 2.5 )

(READ PART II )

Top Image: A portrait painting of Emperor Gao of Han (Liu Bang), from an 18th-century Qing Dynasty album of Chinese emperors' portraits. ( Public Domain ) Background: A tomb painting of a late Eastern-Han period lively banquet. ( Public Domain )

By Wu Mingren

References

Dhwty, 2017. The Impressive Battle of Gaixia: Chinese Reunification Emerges from Chaos. Online]
Available at: http://www.ancient-origins.net/history-important-events/impressive-battle-gaixia-chinese-reunification-emerges-chaos-007991

New World Encyclopedia, 2014. Han Dynasty. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Han_Dynasty

Staff, H., 2017. Han Dynasty. [Online]
Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/han-dynasty

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012. Gaozu. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gaozu-emperor-of-Han-dynasty

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017. Han Dynasty. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Han-dynasty

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.). [Online]
Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hand/hd_hand.htm

Theobald, U., 2011. Emperor Han Gaozu 漢高祖 Liu Bang 劉邦. [Online]
Available at: http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Han/personshangaozu.html

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