The rule of Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) is considered the golden age of ancient China. With its taking over the mantle through a popular revolution, Chinese history entered a new phase. Their pragmatic reforms, practical statecraft, cultural achievements and economic endeavors shaped China into a distinct political, social and military entity.
The lasting legacies of the dynasty lay in national unification, opening of the Silk Road, official adoption of Confucianism, patronage to education and literature, cultural progress and great innovations in science and technology. The Han rulers epitomized a nationalistic orientation that was followed by all dynasties subsequently and even draws scholarly interest today.
The Han Dynasty came into power following the collapse of authoritarian Qin Dynasty, the first in the line of imperial rulers. Founder Liu Bang, known as Emperor Gaozu in the Han annals, led peasant revolution against the Qin rulers.
He also defeated Xiang Yu, another rebel leader, united the country and anointed himself as emperor at Chang'an, the modern Xi’an. The Dynasty ruled for 400 years divided into two parts by an interregnum. The period from 206 BC to 9 AD is known as the domination of the Western Han with capital at Chang'an and 25 AD to 220 AD as that of the Eastern Han with capital at Luoyang.
Court intrigues followed by rebellions ended the Han Dynasty in 226 AD with abdication of nominal emperor Xian and China was divided into three kingdoms.
The Han Dynasty led westward expansion of China and extended their domination up to Central Asia. Liu Bang subjugated 18 feudatories to reunite China. During the reign of Emperor Wu, their army defeated Xiongnu tribe and advanced up to Kazakhstan incorporating Xinjiang-Uyghur region under their rule. Southward conquests led to expansion as far as Thailand and Vietnam borders. The Han rulers had a well-oiled military that included cavalry and naval forces and they also established Chinese colonies in Korea and Vietnam. They received embassies from Rome, India, Persia, Parthia, and many southeast countries.
The Han rulers introduced a number of administrative reforms, including merit-based civil services. Elaborate governance system at the court and local levels run by well-trained bureaucrats was introduced by the rulers. Confucianism was adopted as the base of state craft and a centralized tax system was enforced.
Opening of the Silk Road was the biggest economic achievement of the dynasty. In 130 BC, Zhang Qian, envoy of Emperor Hu, set out on a diplomatic mission to various Central Asian rulers. It led exploration of trade routes that linked Xian up to the Levant coast on the Mediterranean and opened up new avenues for merchants. The route helped increase the trade and economic prosperity and confluence of various cultures. New southward conquests led to opening up trade routes to Thailand, Vietnam, Tibet, and the Indo-Gangetic plain.
The Han rule took China to new cultural heights with immense progress in art, craft, painting, literature, philosophy and religion. Confucianism reached its peak glory following state encouragement while increased contacts with the West resulted in inflow of new system, ideas, art forms and religion. Rulers employed artists for portrait making and beautification of palace and temples. The Chinese philosophical system based on Confucian credentials took a concrete form.
Education received new fillip and calligraphy was further enriched with use of silk and paper for writing. A large number of literary works, mostly about philosophy, medicine, history, and politics, appeared. Emergence of social stratification and wealthy merchant classes led to new forms of food, clothing and jewelry that lasted until the modern age. Buddhism entered through the Silk Road and soon become a dominant religion in China.
Encouragement by the Han rulers and economic prosperity led to a series of innovations in medicine, science and technology. Paper invented by Cai Lun and introduction of the printing technology were the greatest contributions of this period. The era saw innovation of iron smelting technology using blast furnaces. The agriculture sector saw introduction of new cropping and irrigation techniques.
New structural engineering was used for building palaces, large tombs housing thousands of statues, towers, gateways and bridges. The Great Wall was further extended. Acupuncture, an alternative treatment method, also emerged during the Han Dynasty. Other inventions during the Han period includes loom, scientific weaving, stirrups, wheelbarrow and the seismograph.
The Chinese nationalism has been invariably identified with the glory of this Dynasty. The present territorial claims made by China are based, to many extent, on the Han imperial records. The deep-rooted centralized system introduced during the period continues to influence the Chinese political system even today. The central role of the military and the rigid bureaucratic structure in present-day China are legacy of the Han Dynasty.
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