The Han Dynasty ruled China from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D. and was the second imperial dynasty of China. Though tainted by deadly dramas within the royal court, it is also known for its promotion of Confucianism as the state religion and opening the Silk Road trade route to Europe, permanently altering the course of Chinese history. Han Dynasty art and inventions like paper still influence the world today.

Emperor Gaozu and the Start of the Han Empire

Following a mass revolt in the Qin Empire in 210 B.C. and brief control by warlord Xiang Yu, Liu Bang seized the title of emperor of the Han Dynasty in 202 B.C.

He established the Han capital of Chang’an along the Wei River in one of the few surviving palaces of the Qin Dynasty and took the name Emperor Gaozu. The period of time where Chang’an served as the capital of the empire is known as the Western Han. It would last until around 23 A.D.

Gaozu immediately recognized a number of kingdoms in Ancient China but systematically replaced many of the kings with members of his own Liu family before his death in 195 B.C. The idea was to prevent rebellions, but the Liu family kings often tested the stamina of the empire in favor of their own ambitions.

Empress Lu Zhi

Following Gaozu’s death, the Empress Lu Zhi made an attempt to take control by murdering a few of Gaozu’s sons. Lu Zhi also personally mutilated and murdered her mother and Gaozu’s preferred mistress, Lady Qi, before throwing her body into a privy and showing it off to visitors.

The power struggle lasted for 15 years, ending when Gaozu’s son, Emperor Wan, slaughtered Lu Zhi’s family and became emperor.

Confucian Revival

Confucianism gained popularity among Han royalty around 135 B.C. during the early reign of Emperor Wu. Confucianism had stayed alive in China thanks to the efforts of intellectuals like Fu Sheng, who managed to keep some Confucian literature during the Qin Dynasty and beyond.

Many Confucian texts had been confiscated by the Qin Dynasty and then permanently lost when the imperial library was burned down in a civil war in 210 B.C.

Fu Sheng had saved The Book of Documents, and the Han Dynasty put forth a forceful effort to round-up remaining Confucian documents. Some were in the possession of kings, while others were found in the walls of Confucius’ home.

In 136 B.C., a program in the imperial university was created for teaching the Five Classics of Confucianism—five books called the Book of Changes, the Book of Documents, the Book of Odes, the Book of Rites and the Spring and Autumn Annals— translated into modern script. By the year second century A.D., the university had 30,000 students studying Confucianism.

Silk Road

In 138 B.C., a man named Zhang Qian was sent on a mission by Emperor Wu to make contact with tribes to the west. He and his party were captured by the Xiognu tribe, but Zhang Qian escaped and continued west. He reached Afghanistan, in an area known as Bactria, which was under Greek control.

In Bactria, Zhang Qian saw bamboo and textiles brought from China and asked how they had gotten there. He was told that the items came from a kingdom in Afghanistan called Shendu.

Thirteen years after he had left, Zhang Qian made his way back to the Emperor, told him of what he had seen and mapped out a route to send an expedition back there. The map and this route was used more and more, and developed into the international trade route known as the Silk Road.

Han Dynasty expansion
SY/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0
Map showing the expansion of Han dynasty in 2nd century BC. The orange line marks Zhang Qians travels.

Han Dynasty Art

Most knowledge of Han Dynasty art comes from the tombs of ruling families. The Wu Family site in Jiaxiang is one of the most famous. With two underground chambers beneath four shrines, the tomb features 70 carved stones and painted ceilings and walls depicting historical figures.

The site contained about 3,000 examples of Han Dynasty art figures, utilizing silver, bronze, gold, jade, silk and pottery. Two suits with 2,000 pieces of jade in each were discovered in the tomb.

Found often in Han Dynasty tombs are models of houses in pottery form, with varying degrees of sophistication.

The tomb are believed to have survived with their treasures intact because their outside areas were not adorned in any special way, but marked only by a large pile of dirt.

Wang Mang and the New Dynasty

The Western Han ended in 9 A.D. when government official Wang Mang took advantage of long-term internal disarray to seize the throne and try to stabilize the empire. The last several emperors had died young and their power had consistently transferred to their maternal uncles in the role of commander in chief.

Wang Mang took power through this method, but broke with tradition by declaring “the New Dynasty.”

Wang Mang broke apart the aristocratic estates and redistributed them among the peasants. The peasant class became frustrated by massive flooding and by 23 A.D., their anger manifested in rebels called the Red Eyebrows.

An uprising ensued, resulting in the destruction of Chang’an and the beheading of Wang Mang.

Liu Xiu, a descendent of Gaozu, took advantage of the moment and grabbed control, establishing a new capital in Luoyang and the new dynasty known as the Eastern Han.

Eastern Han Palace Wars

Following the death of Emperor Zhang in 88 A.D., the Han Empire was almost exclusively ruled by boys in their early teens, a circumstance that set up palace intrigue and directly led to its fall.

During the emperor’s early years of rule, the power was in the hand of his mother, who leaned on her own family to keep control.

The young emperors were kept isolated with eunuchs, who became their closest allies and often co-conspirators. This dynamic lead to several instances of eunuchs slaughtering families to help the emperor maintain control.

Invention of Paper

Paper was invented in China during the Han Dynasty. The court eunuchs were good for more than power plays; one of them, Cai Lun, is credited with developing paper as around 105 A.D.

Cai Lun pounded ingredients like bamboo, hemp, rags, fishing nets and mulberry tree bark into a pulp, mixing in water and spreading it flat. The use of paper is said to have spread quickly through the empire.

Innovations in Writing

Around the same time, Xu Shen compiled the first Chinese dictionary, which included Han era characters as well as those from the Zhou and Shang periods. This dictionary continued to be an invaluable tool into the 20th Century in deciphering archaeological inscriptions.

This same era also featured a boom in the work of historians. Sima Qian created the ambitious first history of China through the dynasties, “The Grand Scribe’s Records.” Containing 130 chapters, it is another book that is still used as a source for modern historians.

Han Dynasty Ends

The Han Dynasty’s predilection for court intrigue eventually got the best of it. In 189 A.D., a minor war in the palace broke out between the Empress Dowager’s family and the eunuch allies of the young emperor.

Also involved was a religious cult called the Yellow Turbans who had tried to start a civil war and usher in their own dynasty.

As the situation deteriorated, the military marched in to take control in a conflict that would last until 220 A.D., when the last Han emperor was dethroned and the dynasty finished.

The Six Dynasties Period (220 AD-589) followed the Han Period, bringing with it a rise in Daoism and Buddhism that would transform China.

Han Dynasty Timeline:

206 B.C. – Han Dynasty founded

206-24 A.D. – Western Han Dynasty rules China

202 B.C. – Liu Bang seizes the title of emperor of the Han Dynasty

195 B.C. – Liu Band dies and Empress Lu Zhi, tries to take power in a struggle that will last 15 years.

141 B.C.-87 B.C. – Reign of Emperor Wu, breaking records for the longest reign at 54 years.

141-86 B.C. – Emperor Wu adopts Confucianism

9 A.D. – Wang Mang declares the “New Dynasty.” It will last until 25 A.D.

25-220 A.D. – Eastern Han Dynasty rules China

100 A.D. – Xu Shen completes first Chinese dictionary

105 A.D. – Cai Lun invents paper in China

130 B.C. – The Han Dynasty opens up trade with the West

184 A.D. – The Yellow Turban Rebellion breaks out

220 A.D. – Fall of Han Dynasty


The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han. Mark Edward Lewis.
The Dynasties of China. Bamber Gascoigne.
Early China: A Social and Cultural History. Li Feng.


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