Han dynasty gets its name from the city of Hanzhong, which is named after Han River, the biggest tributary of Yangtze River. Han dynasty was the second imperial dynasty of China. It was preceded by the Qin dynasty (221 – 206 BC) and succeeded by the Three Kingdoms period (220 – 280 AD). Founded by Liu Bang in 202 BC, the Han Dynasty went on the rule over China for a period of more than 400 years, making it the longest reigning imperial dynasty of China. The greatest emperor during their reign was Emperor Wu, who made China into one of the most powerful nations in the world. Han dynasty’s long period of stability and prosperity consolidated the foundation of China as a unified state. The governmental, cultural and technological accomplishments during the Han era laid the benchmark for future dynasties. Here are 10 interesting facts about the formation, reign and downfall of Han dynasty as well as their state ideology, government structure and more.
#1 Han dynasty was founded by Liu Bang who belonged to the peasant class
Qin Shi Huangdi of the Qin dynasty unified China for the first time in 221 BC. However, the Qin dynasty collapsed after a period of only 15 years. After its collapse, there was a war to take control of China between two former rebel leaders, Xiang Yu of Chu and Liu Bang of Han. Known as the Chu–Han Contention, the struggle ended with Liu Bang’s decisive victory at the Battle of Gaixia in 202 BC. The Han dynasty was thus established in 202 BC and Chang’an was chosen as the new capital of the reunified empire under Han. Liu Bang assumed the title of emperor and was posthumously known as Emperor Gaozu of Han. Gaozu was one of the few dynasty founders in Chinese history who originated from the peasant class.
#2 Emperor Wu is considered the greatest emperor of Han dynasty
Emperor Wu was the 7th emperor of the Han dynasty. His reign lasted for 54 years from 141 BC to 87 BC making him the longest reigning emperor of the Han dynasty. The length of his reign was a record for any Chinese emperor until the 61 years reign of the Kangxi Emperor more than 1,800 years later. Emperor Wu led many successful military expeditions and brought the Han Empire to its zenith. It spanned from modern Kyrgyzstan in the west, to Korea in the east, and to northern Vietnam in the south. The effective governance of Emperor Wu made China into one of the most powerful nations in the world. As a reformer, he is known for his religious innovations and patronage of the poetic and musical arts. His reign was thus a period of religious and cultural prosperity. Emperor Wu is considered one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history.
#3 The Han dynasty was interrupted by the short lived Xin dynasty
Wang Zhengjun was an important empress during the Han dynasty. Emperor Ai, her step-grandson, died childless in 1 BC and the throne was passed to his cousin Emperor Ping, a child of only nine years. To help administer the kingdom, Empress Wang appointed her nephew Wang Mang as regent. Emperor Ping was allegedly poisoned by Wang Mang after reigning less than six years. Wang Mang then became acting emperor for the toddler crown prince Ruzi Ying. In 9 AD, he officially seized the throne ending the Han dynasty and founding his own Xin dynasty. He then initiated a series of major reforms that proved to be unsuccessful. Liu Xiu, one of the many descendants of the Han imperial family, ultimately restored the Han dynasty in 25 AD.
#4 The Han era is divided by historians into Western Han and Eastern Han
Liu Xiu became Emperor Guangwu of Han on August 5, 25 AD. He shifted the capital city of the Han empire from Chang’an to Luoyang. Scholars have divided the reign of Han dynasty into two periods. The period before the Xin interruption when the capital was in the western city of Chang’an (now Xi’an) is known as Western Han or Former Han (206 BC – 9 AD) while the period after the Xin interruption when the capital was moved eastward to Luoyang is known as Eastern Han or Latter Han (25 – 220 AD). Emperor Xian was the last emperor of the Han dynasty. Cao Pi, son of the great general and warlord Cao Cao, forced Emperor Xian to abdicate the throne to him in 220 AD thus ending the Han dynasty. The Han era was followed by the Three Kingdoms period (220 – 280 AD).
#5 Court eunuchs played a part in the downfall of the Han dynasty
There were several reasons for the decline of the Han dynasty. Politically, the palace eunuchs increasingly involved themselves in court politics, engaging in violent power struggles that even led to wholesale massacres within the palace. These political struggles weakened the Han ruling class leading to its ultimate downfall. Economically, by the latter part of the Eastern Han, the government experienced sharply decreasing tax revenue, limiting their ability to fund the court and to support the armies. An important event leading to the collapse of the Han dynasty was unrest and rebellions, the most prominent of which was the Yellow Turban Rebellion of 184 – 185 AD. Other reasons for the collapse of the Han dynasty include corruption, poor leadership and decadence of the ruling elite.
#6 Han dynasty was the longest reigning imperial dynasty of China
Zhou dynasty (1046 BC – 256 BC) lasted longer than any other dynasty in Chinese history. However from the unification of China by Qin Shi Huang of the Qin dynasty till the end of dynastic rule in China, Han dynasty reigned over China for the longest period. It ruled for a period of more than 400 years from 202 BC to 220 AD with a brief interruption by the Xin dynasty (9 – 23 AD). The Han era was defined by significant population growth; increased urbanization; and unprecedented growth of industry and trade. The imperial capitals of both Western Han (Chang’an) and Eastern Han (Luoyang) were among the largest cities in the world at the time, in both population and area.
#7 Confucianism was the official state ideology of the Han
Qin dynasty ruled with a single philosophy, Legalism and all other non-legalist philosophies including Confucianism were suppressed during their reign. During the early Han period, teachings of Legalism and Confucianism were both accepted. However, the Han court under Emperor Wu gave Confucianism exclusive patronage and from then on Confucianism became the official state ideology of the Han. Also, the Five Classics of Confucianism became part of the state sponsored curriculum. Confucianism eventually became one of the most prominent philosophies in China and it continues to have a deep influence on Chinese society to this day.
#8 The Han government consisted of 3 Councillors of State and 9 Ministers
In the Han government, the emperor was the supreme judge and lawgiver; and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Theoretically, there were no limits to his power. However, there was a system of court conference in which ministers reached a majority consensus on an issue. The emperor could reject the decision of the court conference but if he did so, he risked alienating his high ministers. Below the emperor were his cabinet members known as the Three Councillors of State. These were the Imperial Chancellor, who was chiefly responsible for drafting the government budget; the Imperial Counselor, whose chief duty was to conduct disciplinary procedures for officials; and the Grand Marshal, who was the commander of the military. Below the Three Councillors were the Nine Ministers, who each headed a specialized ministry.
#9 The famous Silk Road was established during their reign
Diplomat Zhang Qian, who served Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, traveled and brought back information about surrounding civilizations. Thus the Han dynasty was able to establish embassies in several countries. These connections led to the establishment of the Silk Road trade network, that refers to both the terrestrial and the maritime routes connecting Asia with the Middle East and southern Europe. Deriving its name from Chinese silk, which was the major trade item, the Silk Road was instrumental in the development of civilizations of China, India, Persia, Europe and Arabia through economic and political interactions between them. Apart from silk and other commodities, religions, philosophies, scientific knowledge and technologies were exchanged though the Silk Road.
#10 Han era is considered a golden age in Chinese history
Han dynasty’s long period of stability and prosperity consolidated the foundation of China as a unified state. Apart from being an age of economic prosperity, art and culture advanced to unprecedented heights. It was also one of the most prolific eras of science and technology in ancient China. Among the achievements of the Han dynasty are the invention of the first known papermaking process and the world’s first seismoscope; and major innovations in ship design, map making, metallurgy and agriculture. Such is the impact of Han dynasty that to this day, China’s majority ethnic group refers to itself as the “Han people” and the Chinese script is referred to as “Han characters”. The Han period is thus considered a golden age in Chinese history.