Chinese - Han Dynasty - Several Emperors- Pan Liang:
Bronze 1 Wu Chu 23mm (2.57 grams)
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The Han Dynasty (simplified
pinyin: Hàn Cháo;
Wade–Giles: Han Ch'ao; IPA:
(206 BCE – 220 CE) was the second
imperial dynasty of China, preceded by the
Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE) and succeeded by the
Three Kingdoms (220–280 CE). It was founded by
the rebel leader Liu Bang,
known posthumously as
Emperor Gaozu of Han. It was briefly
interrupted by the
Xin Dynasty (9–23 CE) of the former regent
Wang Mang. This interregnum separates the Han
into two periods: the Western Han (206 BCE – 9 CE) and Eastern Han (25–220 CE).
Spanning over four centuries, the period of the Han Dynasty is considered a
golden age in Chinese history.
To this day, China's
majority ethnic group refers to itself as the
"Han people" and Chinese characters are referred to as "Han
The Han Empire was divided into areas directly controlled by the central
government, known as
commanderies, and a number of
semi-autonomous kingdoms. These kingdoms
gradually lost all vestiges of their independence, particularly following the
Rebellion of the Seven States. The
Xiongnu, a nomadic confederation which
dominated the eastern
defeated the Han army in battle in 200 BCE. Following the defeat, a
political marriage alliance was negotiated in
which the Han became the de facto inferior partner. When, despite the
treaty, the Xiongnu continued to raid Han borders,
Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141–87 BCE) launched
several military campaigns against them. The
ultimate Han victory in these wars eventually forced the Xiongnu to accept
vassal status as
Han tributaries. These campaigns expanded Han
sovereignty into the
Tarim Basin of
Central Asia and helped establish the vast
trade network known as the
Silk Road, which reached as far as the
Mediterranean world. Han forces managed to
divide the Xiongnu into two competing nations, the Southern and Northern Xiongnu,
and forced the Northern Xiongnu across the
Ili River. Despite these victories, the
territories north of Han's borders were quickly overrun by the nomadic
After 92 CE, the palace
eunuchs increasingly involved themselves in
court politics, engaging in violent power struggles between the various
consort clans of the empresses and
empress dowagers, causing the Han's ultimate
downfall. Imperial authority was also seriously challenged by large
Daoist religious societies which instigated the
Yellow Turban Rebellion and the
Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion. Following the
Emperor Ling (r. 168–189 CE), the palace
eunuchs suffered wholesale massacre by
military officers, allowing members of the
aristocracy and military governors to become warlords and divide the empire.
Cao Pi, King of Wei, usurped the throne from
Emperor Xian, the Han Dynasty ceased to exist.
The Han Dynasty was an
age of economic prosperity and saw a
significant growth of the
money economy first established during the
Zhou Dynasty (c. 1050–256 BCE).
The coinage issued by the central government
mint in 119 BCE remained the standard coinage
of China until the
Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE). To pay for its
military campaigns and the settlement of newly conquered frontier territories,
nationalized the private salt and iron
industries in 117 BCE. These government monopolies were repealed during the
Eastern Han period, and the lost revenue was recouped through heavily taxing
The emperor was at the pinnacle of
Han society. He presided over the
Han government but shared power with both
the nobility and appointed ministers who came
largely from the scholarly
gentry class. From the reign of Emperor Wu
onward, the Chinese court officially sponsored
Confucianism in education and court politics,
synthesized with the
cosmology of later scholars such as
Dong Zhongshu. This policy endured until the
fall of the
Qing Dynasty in 1911 CE.
Science and technology during the Han period
saw significant advances, including
papermaking, the nautical steering
rudder, the use of
negative numbers in
raised-relief map, the
armillary sphere for
astronomy, and a
seismometer employing an
imperial dynasty was the
Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE). The Qin unified the
Warring States by conquest, but their empire
became unstable after the death of the first emperor
Qin Shi Huangdi. Within four years, the
dynasty's authority had collapsed in the face of rebellion.
Two former rebel leaders,
Xiang Yu (d. 202 BCE) of
Liu Bang (d. 195 BCE) of
in a war to decide who would become
hegemon of China, which had fissured into
18 kingdoms, each claiming allegiance to either
Xiang Yu or Liu Bang.
Although Xiang Yu proved to be a capable commander, Liu Bang defeated him at the
Battle of Gaixia, in modern-day
Anhui. Liu Bang assumed the title
"emperor" (huangdi) at the urging of his
followers and is known posthumously as
Emperor Gaozu (r. 202–195 BCE).
Chang'an was chosen as the new capital of the
reunified empire under Han.
At the beginning of the Western Han Dynasty, thirteen centrally controlled
commanderies—including the capital
region—existed in the western third of the empire, while the eastern two-thirds
were divided into ten
To placate his prominent commanders from the war with Chu, Emperor Gaozu
enfeoffed some of them as kings. By 157 BCE,
the Han court had replaced all of these kings with royal
family members, since the loyalty of non-relatives to the throne was questioned.
After several insurrections by Han kings—the largest being the
Rebellion of the Seven States in 154 BCE—the
imperial court enacted a series of reforms beginning in 145 BCE, limiting the
size and power of these kingdoms and dividing them into smaller ones or new
Kings were no longer able to appoint their own staff; this duty was assumed by
the imperial court.
Kings became nominal heads of their
fiefs and collected a portion of tax revenues
as their personal incomes.
The kingdoms were never entirely abolished and existed throughout the remainder
of Western and Eastern Han.
To the north of
China proper, the nomadic
Modu Chanyu (r. 209–174 BCE) conquered various
tribes inhabiting the eastern portion of the
Eurasian Steppe. By the end of his reign, he
Mongolia, and the
Tarim Basin, subjugating over twenty states
Emperor Gaozu was troubled about the abundant Han-manufactured iron weapons
traded to the Xiongnu along the northern borders, and he established a trade
embargo against the group.
Although the embargo was in place, the Xiongnu found traders willing to supply
their needs. In response, Emperor Wu ordered the execution of 500 merchants who
continued to trade contraband items with the Xiongnu in 121 BCE. Chinese forces
also mounted surprise attacks against Xiongnu who traded at the border markets.
In retaliation, the Xiongnu invaded what is now
Shanxi province, where they
defeated the Han forces at Baideng in 200 BCE.
After negotiations, the
heqin agreement in 198 BCE nominally held
the leaders of the Xiongnu and the Han as equal partners in a royal marriage
alliance, but the Han were forced to send large amounts of tribute items such as
silk clothes, food, and wine to the Xiongnu.
Despite the tribute and a negotiation between
Laoshang Chanyu (r. 174–160 BCE) and
Emperor Wen (r. 180–157 BCE) to reopen border
markets, many of the
Chanyu's Xiongnu subordinates chose not to
obey the treaty and periodically raided Han territories south of the
Great Wall for additional goods.
In a court conference assembled by
Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BCE) in 135 BCE, the
majority consensus of the ministers was to
retain the heqin agreement. Emperor Wu accepted this, despite continuing
However, a court conference the following year convinced the majority that a
limited engagement at Mayi involving the
assassination of the
Chanyu would throw the Xiongnu realm into chaos
and benefit the Han.
When this plot failed in 133 BCE,
Emperor Wu launched a series of
massive military invasions into Xiongnu
territory. Chinese armies captured one stronghold after another and established
agricultural colonies to strengthen their hold.
The assault culminated in 119 BCE at the
Battle of Mobei, where the Han commanders
Huo Qubing (d. 117 BCE) and
Wei Qing (d. 106 BCE) forced the Xiongnu court
to flee north of the
After Wu's reign, Han forces continued to prevail against the Xiongnu. The
Xiongnu leader Huhanye Chanyu (呼韓邪) (r. 58–31 BCE) finally submitted to Han as a
tributary vassal in 51 BCE. His rival claimant to the throne,
Zhizhi Chanyu (r. 56–36 BCE), was killed by
Chen Tang and Gan Yanshou (甘延壽/甘延寿) at the
Battle of Zhizhi, in modern
in the shape of a kneeling
female servant, dated 2nd century BCE, found in the tomb of
, wife of the Han prince
; its sliding shutter
allows for adjustments in the direction and brightness in light
while it also traps smoke within the body.
In 121 BCE, Han forces expelled the Xiongnu from a vast territory spanning
Hexi Corridor to
Lop Nur. They repelled a joint Xiongnu-Qiang
invasion of this northwestern territory in 111 BCE. In that year, the Han court
established four new frontier commanderies in this region:
The majority of people on the frontier were soldiers.
On occasion, the court forcibly moved peasant farmers to new frontier
settlements, along with government-owned slaves and convicts who performed hard
The court also encouraged
commoners, such as farmers, merchants,
landowners, and hired laborers, to voluntarily migrate to the frontier.
Even before Han's expansion into Central Asia, diplomat
Zhang Qian's travels from 139 to 125 BCE had
established Chinese contacts with many surrounding civilizations. Zhang
Greco-Bactrian Kingdom); he also gathered
information on Shendu (Indus
River valley of
North India) and Anxi (the
Parthian Empire). All of these countries
eventually received Han embassies.
These connections marked the beginning of the
Silk Road trade network that extended to the
Roman Empire, bringing
Han items like silk to Rome and
Roman goods such as glasswares to China.
From roughly 115 to 60 BCE, Han forces fought the Xiongnu over control of the
city-states in the Tarim Basin. Han was
eventually victorious and established the
Protectorate of the Western Regions in 60 BCE,
which dealt with the region's defense and foreign affairs.
The naval conquest of
Nanyue in 111 BCE expanded the Han realm into
what are now modern
Yunnan was brought into the Han realm with the
conquest of the
Dian Kingdom in 109 BCE, followed by parts of
Korean Peninsula with the colonial
Xuantu Commandery and
Lelang Commandery in 108 BCE.
In China's first known nationwide
census taken in 2 CE, the population was
registered as having 57,671,400 individuals in 12,366,470 households.
To pay for his military campaigns and colonial expansion, Emperor Wu
nationalized several private industries. He
created central government
monopolies administered largely by
former merchants. These monopolies included
liquor production, as well as
bronze-coin currency. The liquor monopoly
lasted only from 98 to 81 BCE, and the salt and iron monopolies were eventually
abolished in early Eastern Han. The issuing of coinage remained a central
government monopoly throughout the rest of the Han Dynasty.
The government monopolies were eventually repealed when a political faction
known as the Reformists gained greater influence in the court. The Reformists
opposed the Modernist faction that had dominated court politics in Emperor Wu's
reign and during the subsequent
Huo Guang (d. 68 BCE). The Modernists argued
for an aggressive and expansionary foreign policy supported by revenues from
heavy government intervention in the private economy. The Reformists, however,
overturned these policies, favoring a cautious, non-expansionary approach to
foreign policy, frugal
budget reform, and lower tax rates imposed on
reign and civil war
: A Western-Han painted ceramic mounted cavalryman
from the tomb of a military general at
: A Western or Eastern Han
horse statuette with a lead
Wang Zhengjun (71 BCE–13 CE) was first empress,
empress dowager, and finally
grand empress dowager during the reigns of the
Yuan (r. 49–33 BCE),
Cheng (r. 33–7 BCE), and
Ai (r. 7–1 BCE), respectively. During this
time, a succession of her male relatives held the title of regent.
Following the death of Ai, Wang Zhengjun's nephew
Wang Mang (45–23 CE) was appointed regent for
Emperor Ping (r. 1 BCE – 6 CE). When Ping died
in 6 CE, the Empress Dowager appointed Wang Mang to act as emperor for the child
Liu Ying (d. 25 CE). Wang promised to
relinquish his control to Liu Ying once he came of age.
Despite this promise, and against protest and revolts from the nobility, Wang
Mang claimed that the divine
Mandate of Heaven called for the end of the Han
Dynasty and the beginning of his own: the
Xin Dynasty (9–23 CE).
Wang Mang initiated a series of major reforms that were ultimately
unsuccessful. These reforms included
nationalizing land to
equally distribute between households, and
new currencies, a change which debased the
value of coinage.
Although these reforms provoked considerable opposition, Wang's regime met its
ultimate downfall with the massive floods of c. 3 CE and 11 CE. Gradual silt
buildup in the
Yellow River had raised its water level and
flood control works. The Yellow River split
into two new branches: one emptying to the north and the other to the south of
Shandong Peninsula, though Han engineers
managed to dam the southern branch by 70 CE.
The flood dislodged thousands of peasant farmers, many of whom joined roving
bandit and rebel groups such as the
Red Eyebrows to survive.
Wang Mang's armies were incapable of quelling these enlarged rebel groups.
Eventually, an insurgent mob forced their way into the
Weiyang Palace and killed Wang Mang.
Emperor Gengshi of Han (r. 23–25 CE), a
Emperor Jing (r. 157–141 BCE), attempted to
restore the Han Dynasty and occupied Chang'an as his capital. However, he was
overwhelmed by the "Red Eyebrow" rebels who deposed, assassinated, and replaced
him with the puppet monarch
Emperor Gengshi's brother Liu Xiu, known posthumously as
Emperor Guangwu (r. 25–57 CE), after
distinguishing himself at the
Battle of Kunyang in 23 CE, was urged to
succeed Gengshi as emperor.
Under Guangwu's rule the Han Empire was restored. Guangwu made
Luoyang his capital in 25 CE, and by 27 CE his
Deng Yu and
Feng Yi had forced the Red Eyebrows to
surrender and executed their leaders for
From 26 until 36 CE, Emperor Guangwu had to wage war against other regional
warlords who claimed the title of emperor; when these warlords were defeated,
China reunified under the Han.
The period between the foundation of the Han Dynasty and Wang Mang's reign is
known as the Western Han Dynasty (simplified
pinyin: Xī Hàn) or Former Han Dynasty
pinyin: Qiánhàn) (202 BCE – 9 CE).
During this period the capital was at Chang'an (modern
Xi'an). From the reign of Guangwu the capital
was moved eastward to Luoyang. The era from his reign until
the fall of Han is known as the Eastern Han
pinyin: Dōng Hàn) or the Later Han
pinyin: Hòu Hàn) (25–220 CE).
During the widespread rebellion against Wang Mang, the
Korean state of
Goguryeo was free to raid Han's Korean
commanderies; Han did not reaffirm its control over the region until 30 CE.
Trưng Sisters of
Vietnam rebelled against Han in 40 CE. Their
rebellion was crushed by Han general
Ma Yuan (d. 49 CE) in a campaign from 42–43 CE.
Wang Mang renewed hostilities against the Xiongnu, who were estranged from Han
until their leader Bi (比), a rival claimant to the throne against his cousin
Punu (蒲奴), submitted to Han as a tributary vassal in 50 CE. This created two
rival Xiongnu states: the Southern Xiongnu led by Bi, an ally of Han, and the
Northern Xiongnu led by Punu, an enemy of Han.
During the turbulent reign of Wang Mang, Han lost control over the Tarim
Basin, which was conquered by the Northern Xiongnu in 63 CE and used as a base
to invade Han's Hexi Corridor in
Dou Gu (d. 88 CE) defeated the Northern Xiongnu
Battle of Yiwulu in 73 CE, evicting them from
Turpan and chasing them as far as
Lake Barkol before establishing a garrison
After the new Protector General of the Western Regions
Chen Mu (d. 75 CE) was killed by allies of the
Kucha, the garrison at Hami was withdrawn.
Battle of Ikh Bayan in 89 CE,
Dou Xian (d. 92 CE) defeated the
Northern Xiongnu chanyu who then retreated into
After the Northern Xiongnu fled into the
Ili River valley in 91 CE, the nomadic
Xianbei occupied the area from the borders of
Buyeo Kingdom in Manchuria to the Ili River of
The Xianbei reached their apogee under Tanshihuai (檀石槐) (d. 180 CE), who
consistently defeated Chinese armies. However, Tanshihuai's confederation
disintegrated after his death.
Ban Chao (d. 102 CE) enlisted the aid of the
Kushan Empire, occupying the area of modern
Tajikistan, to subdue
Kashgar and its ally Sogdiana.
When a request by Kushan ruler
Vima Kadphises (r. c. 90–c. 100 CE) for a
marriage alliance with the Han was rejected in 90 CE, he sent his forces to
Wakhan (Afghanistan) to attack Ban Chao. The
conflict ended with the Kushans withdrawing because of lack of supplies.
In 91 CE, the office of Protector General of the Western Regions was reinstated
when it was bestowed on Ban Chao.
In addition to tributary relations with the Kushans, the Han Empire received
gifts from the
Parthian Empire, from a king in modern
Burma, from a ruler
in Japan, and initiated an unsuccessful mission
in 97 CE with
Gan Ying as emissary.
Roman embassy of Emperor
Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–180 CE) is recorded in
Hou Hanshu to have reached the court of
Emperor Huan of Han (r. 146–168 CE) in 166 CE,
Rafe de Crespigny asserts that this was most
likely a group of
Other travelers to Eastern-Han China included
Buddhist monks who
translated works into Chinese, such as
An Shigao of Parthia, and
Lokaksema from Kushan-era
A female servant and male advisor dressed in
, ceramic figurines from
the Western Han Era
Eunuchs in state
Emperor Zhang's (r. 75–88 CE) reign came to be
viewed by later Eastern Han scholars as the high point of the dynastic house.
Subsequent reigns were increasingly marked by
eunuch intervention in court politics and their
involvement in the violent power struggles of the imperial
With the aid of the eunuch
Zheng Zhong (d. 107 CE),
Emperor He (r. 88–105 CE) had
Empress Dowager Dou (d. 97 CE) put under
house arrest and her clan stripped of power.
This was in revenge for Dou's purging of the clan of his natural mother—Consort
Liang—and then concealing her identity from him.
After Emperor He's death, his wife
Empress Deng Sui (d. 121 CE) managed state
affairs as the regent empress dowager during a turbulent financial crisis and
widespread Qiang rebellion that lasted from 107 to 118 CE.
When Empress Dowager Deng died,
Emperor An (r. 106–125 CE) was convinced by the
accusations of the eunuchs Li Run (李閏) and Jiang Jing (江京) that Deng and her
family had planned to depose him. An dismissed Deng's clan members from office,
exiled them and forced many to commit suicide.
After An's death, his wife,
Empress Dowager Yan (d. 126 CE) placed the
Marquess of Beixiang on the throne in an
attempt to retain power within her family. However, palace eunuch
Sun Cheng (d. 132 CE) masterminded a successful
overthrow of her regime to enthrone
Emperor Shun of Han (r. 125–144 CE). Yan was
placed under house arrest, her relatives were either killed or exiled, and her
eunuch allies were slaughtered.
Liang Ji (d. 159 CE), brother of
Empress Liang Na (d. 150 CE), had the
Consort Deng Mengnü (later empress) (d. 165 CE)
killed after Deng Mengnü resisted Liang Ji's attempts to control her. Afterward,
Emperor Huan employed eunuchs to depose Liang Ji, who was then forced to commit
Students from the
Imperial University organized a widespread
student protest against the eunuchs of Emperor
Huan further alienated the bureaucracy when he initiated grandiose construction
projects and hosted thousands of
concubines in his
harem at a time of economic crisis.
Palace eunuchs imprisoned the official Li Ying (李膺) and his associates from the
Imperial University on a dubious charge of treason. In 167 CE, the Grand
Dou Wu (d. 168 CE) convinced his son-in-law,
Emperor Huan, to release them.
However the emperor permanently barred Li Ying and his associates from serving
in office, marking the beginning of the
Following Huan's death, Dou Wu and the Grand Tutor Chen Fan (陳蕃) (d. 168 CE)
coup d'état against the eunuchs
Hou Lan (d. 172 CE),
Cao Jie (d. 181 CE), and Wang Fu (王甫). When the
plot was uncovered, the eunuchs arrested
Empress Dowager Dou (d. 172 CE) and Chen Fan.
General Zhang Huan (張奐) favored the eunuchs. He and his troops confronted Dou Wu
and his retainers at the palace gate where each side shouted accusations of
treason against the other. When the retainers gradually deserted Dou Wu, he was
forced to commit suicide.
Emperor Ling (r. 168–189 CE) the eunuchs had
the partisan prohibitions renewed and expanded, while themselves auctioning off
top government offices.
Many affairs of state were entrusted to the eunuchs
Zhao Zhong (d. 189 CE) and
Zhang Rang (d. 189 CE) while Emperor Ling spent
much of his time
roleplaying with concubines and participating
in military parades.
End of the Han Dynasty
The Partisan Prohibitions were repealed during the
Yellow Turban Rebellion and
Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion in 184 CE, largely
because the court did not want to continue to alienate a significant portion of
gentry class who might otherwise join the
The Yellow Turbans and Five-Pecks-of-Rice adherents belonged to two different
Daoist religious societies led by
Zhang Jue (d. 184 CE) and
Zhang Lu (d. 216 CE), respectively. Zhang Lu's
rebellion, in modern northern
Sichuan and southern
Shanxi, was not quelled until 215 CE.
Zhang Jue's massive rebellion across eight
provinces was annihilated by Han forces within
a year, however the following decades saw much smaller recurrent uprisings.
Although the Yellow Turbans were defeated, many generals appointed during the
crisis never disbanded their assembled
militia forces and used these troops to amass
power outside of the collapsing imperial authority.
He Jin (d. 189 CE), half-brother to
Empress He (d. 189 CE), plotted with
Yuan Shao (d. 202 ) to overthrow the eunuchs by
having several generals march to the outskirts of the capital. There, in a
written petition to Empress He, they demanded the eunuchs' execution.
After a period of hesitation, Empress He consented. When the eunuchs discovered
this, however, they had her brother He Miao (何苗) rescind the order.
The eunuchs assassinated He Jin on September 22, 189 CE. Yuan Shao then besieged
Luoyang's Northern Palace while his brother
Yuan Shu (d. 199 CE) besieged the Southern
Palace. On September 25 both palaces were breached and approximately two
thousand eunuchs were killed.
Zhang Rang had previously fled with
Emperor Shao (r. 189 CE) and his brother Liu
Emperor Xian of Han (r. 189–220 CE). While
being pursued by the Yuan brothers, Zhang committed suicide by jumping into the
Dong Zhuo (d. 192 CE) found the young emperor
and his brother wandering in the countryside. He escorted them safely back to
the capital and was made
Minister of Works, taking control of Luoyang
and forcing Yuan Shao to flee.
After Dong Zhuo demoted Emperor Shao and promoted his brother Liu Xie as Emperor
Xian, Yuan Shao led a coalition of former officials and officers against Dong,
who burned Luoyang to the ground and resettled the court at Chang'an in May 191
CE. Dong Zhuo later poisoned Emperor Shao.
Dong was killed by his adopted son
Lü Bu (d. 198 CE) in a plot hatched by
Wang Yun (d. 192 CE).
Emperor Xian fled from Chang'an in 195 CE to the ruins of Luoyang. Xian was
Cao Cao (155–220 CE), then Governor of Yan
Province in modern western
Shandong and eastern
Henan, to move the capital to
Xuchang in 196 CE.
Yuan Shao challenged Cao Cao for control over the emperor. Yuan's power was
greatly diminished after Cao defeated him at the
Battle of Guandu in 200 CE. After Yuan died,
Cao killed Yuan Shao's son
Yuan Tan (173–205 CE), who had fought with his
brothers over the family inheritance.
Yuan Shang and
Yuan Xi were killed in 207 CE by
Gongsun Kang (d. 221 CE), who sent their heads
to Cao Cao.
After Cao's defeat at the naval
Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 CE, China was
divided into three spheres of influence, with Cao Cao dominating the north,
Sun Quan (182–252 CE) dominating the south, and
Liu Bei (161–223 CE) dominating the west.
Cao Cao died in March 220 CE. By December his son
Cao Pi (187–226 CE) had Emperor Xian relinquish
the throne to him and is known posthumously as
Emperor Wen of Wei. This formally ended the Han
Dynasty and initiated an age of conflict between
Eastern Wu, and
Society and culture
In the hierarchical social order, the
emperor was at the apex of Han society and
government. However the emperor was often a minor, ruled over by a
regent such as the
empress dowager or one of her male relatives.
Ranked immediately below the emperor were
the kings who were of the same
The rest of society, including
nobles lower than kings and all commoners
slaves belonged to one of twenty ranks (ershi
Two Han-dynasty red-and-black
, one a bowl, the other
a tray; usually only wealthy officials, nobles, and merchants could
afford domestic luxury items like lacquerwares, which were common
commodities produced by skilled artisans and craftsmen.
Each successive rank gave its holder greater pensions and legal privileges.
The highest rank, of full
marquess, came with a state pension and a
fiefdom. Holders of the rank immediately below,
that of ordinary marquess, received a pension, but had no territorial rule.
Officials who served in government belonged to
the wider commoner social class and were ranked just below nobles in social
prestige. The highest government officials could be
enfeoffed as marquesses.
By the Eastern Han period, local elites of unattached scholars, teachers,
students, and government officials began to identify themselves as members of a
gentry class with shared values and a
commitment to mainstream scholarship.
When the government became noticeably corrupt in mid-to-late Eastern Han, many
gentrymen even considered the cultivation of morally grounded personal
relationships more important than serving in public office.
farmer, or specifically the small
landowner-cultivator, was ranked just below scholars and officials in the social
hierarchy. Other agricultural cultivators were of a lower status, such as
wage laborers, and in rare cases slaves.
Artisans and craftsmen had a legal and
socioeconomic status between that of
owner-cultivator farmers and common
State-registered merchants, who were forced by law to wear white-colored clothes
and pay high commercial taxes, were considered by the gentry as social parasites
with a contemptible status.
These were often petty shopkeepers of urban marketplaces; merchants such as
industrialists and itinerant traders working between a network of cities could
avoid registering as merchants and were often wealthier and more powerful than
the vast majority of government officials.
Wealthy landowners, such as nobles and officials, often provided lodging for
retainers who provided valuable work or duties, sometimes including fighting
bandits or riding into battle. Unlike slaves, retainers could come and go from
their master's home as they pleased.
Medical physicians, pig breeders, and butchers
had a fairly high social status, while
occultist diviners, runners, and messengers had
gender, and kinship
The Han-era family was
patrilineal and typically had four to five
nuclear family members living in one household.
Multiple generations of
extended family members did not occupy the same
house, unlike families of later dynasties.
Confucian family norms, various family members
were treated with different levels of respect and intimacy. For example, there
were different accepted time frames for mourning the death of a father versus a
Arranged marriages were the norm, with the
father's input on his offspring's spouse being considered more important than
Monogamous marriages were also the norm,
although nobles and high officials were wealthy enough to afford and support
concubines as additional lovers.
Under certain conditions dictated by custom, not law, both men and women were
divorce their spouses and remarry.
female servant in
: A Han pottery female dancer in silk robes
Apart from the passing of noble titles or ranks,
inheritance practices did not involve
primogeniture; each son received an equal share
of the family property.
Since the father usually sent his adult married sons away with a portion of the
family fortune, unlike later dynasties, sons did not always receive their
inheritance after the death of their father.
Daughters were not formally included in a father's will, although they did
receive a portion of the family fortune through their
Women were expected to obey the will of their father, then their husband, and
then their adult son in old age. However, it is known from contemporary sources
that there were many deviations to this rule, especially in regard to mothers
over their sons, and empresses who ordered around and openly humiliated their
fathers and brothers.
Women were exempt from the annual
corvée labor duties, but often engaged in a
range of income-earning occupations aside from their domestic chores of cooking
The most common occupation for women was weaving clothes for the family, sale
at market or for large textile enterprises that employed hundreds of women.
Other women helped on their brothers' farms or became singers, dancers,
sorceresses, respected medical physicians, and
successful merchants who could afford their own silk clothes.
Some women formed spinning collectives, aggregating the resources of several
Education, literature, and philosophy
The early Western Han court simultaneously accepted the philosophical
Huang-Lao Daoism, and
Confucianism in making state decisions and
shaping government policy.
However, the Han court under
Emperor Wu gave Confucianism exclusive
patronage. He abolished all academic chairs or erudites (boshi 博士) not
dealing with the Confucian
Five Classics in 136 BCE and encouraged
nominees for office to receive a Confucian-based education at the
Imperial University that he established in 124
Unlike the original ideology espoused by
Confucius, or Kongzi (551–479 BCE), Han
Confucianism in Emperor Wu's reign was the creation of
Dong Zhongshu (179–104 BCE). Dong was a scholar
and minor official who aggregated the ethical Confucian ideas of
filial piety, and
harmonious relationships with
five phases and
Much to the interest of the ruler, Dong's synthesis justified the imperial
system of government within the natural order of the universe.
The Imperial University grew in importance as the student body grew to over
30,000 by the 2nd century CE.
A Confucian-based education was also made available at commandery-level schools
private schools opened in small towns, where
teachers earned respectable incomes from
Some important texts were created and studied by scholars. Philosophical
works written by
Yang Xiong (53 BCE – 18 CE),
Huan Tan (43 BCE – 28 CE),
Wang Chong (27–100 CE), and
Wang Fu (78–163 CE) questioned whether human
nature was innately good or evil and posed challenges to Dong's universal order.
Records of the Grand Historian by
Sima Tan (d. 110 BCE) and his son
Sima Qian (145–86 BCE)
established the standard model for all of
Standard Histories, such as the
Book of Han written by
Ban Biao (3–54 CE), his son
Ban Gu (32–92 CE), and his daughter
Ban Zhao (45–116 CE).
dictionaries such as the
Shuowen Jiezi by
Xu Shen (c. 58 – c. 147 CE) and the
Fangyan by Yang Xiong.
Biographies on important figures were written
by various gentrymen.
rhapsodies were also popular forms of
literature amongst the gentry.
Law and order
Han scholars such as
Jia Yi (201–169 BCE) portrayed the previous
Qin Dynasty as a brutal regime. However,
archaeological evidence from
Shuihudi reveal that many of the
statutes in the Han
law code compiled by Chancellor
Xiao He (d. 193 BCE) were derived from Qin law.
Various cases for
rape, physical abuse and
murder were prosecuted in court. Women,
although usually having less rights by custom, were allowed to level civil and
criminal charges against men.
While suspects were jailed, convicted criminals were never imprisoned. Instead,
punishments were commonly monetary fines, periods of forced hard labor for
convicts, and the penalty of death by beheading.
Early Han punishments of
mutilation were borrowed from Qin law. A series
of reforms abolished mutilation punishments with progressively less-severe
beatings by the
Acting as a judge in lawsuits was one of many duties of the
Magistrates of counties and Administrators of
commanderies. Complex, high profile or unresolved cases were often deferred to
the Minister of Justice in the capital or even the emperor.
In each Han county was several districts, each overseen by a
chief of police. Order in the cities was
maintained by government officers in the marketplaces and
constables in the neighborhoods.
The most common staple crops consumed during Han were wheat, barley,
proso millet, rice, and
Commonly eaten fruits and vegetables included chestnuts, pears, plums, peaches,
melons, apricots, strawberries,
mustard plant and
Domesticated animals that were also eaten included chickens,
Mandarin ducks, geese, cows, sheep, pigs,
camels and dogs (various types were bred specifically for food, while most were
used as pets). Turtles and fish were taken from streams and lakes. Commonly
hunted game, such as owl, pheasant, magpie,
sika deer, and
Chinese Bamboo Partridge were consumed.
Seasonings included sugar, honey, salt and
Beer and wine were regularly consumed.
The types of clothing worn and the materials used during the Han period
depended upon social class. Wealthy folk could afford
silk robes, skirts, socks, and mittens, coats made of
badger or fox fur, duck plumes, and
slippers with inlaid leather,
pearls, and silk lining. Peasants commonly wore
clothes made of
Religion, cosmology, and metaphysics
Families throughout Han China made ritual sacrifices of animals and
foodstuffs to deities, spirits, and
temples and shrines, in the belief that these
items could be utilized by those in the spiritual realm.
It was thought that each person had a
two-part soul: the spirit-soul (hun 魂)
which journeyed to the afterlife paradise of immortals (xian),
and the body-soul (po 魄) which remained in its grave or tomb on earth and
was only reunited with the spirit-soul through a ritual ceremony.
These tombs were commonly adorned with uniquely decorated hollow clay tiles that
function as a door to the tomb. Otherwise known as tomb tiles, these artifacts
feature holes in the top and bottom of the title allowing it to pivot. Similar
tiles have been found in the
Chengdu area of
Sichuan province in south-central
In addition to his many other roles, the emperor acted as the highest priest in
the land who made sacrifices to
Heaven, the main deities known as the
Five Powers, and the
spirits (shen 神) of mountains and
It was believed that the three realms of Heaven, Earth, and Mankind were linked
by natural cycles of
yin and yang and the
If the emperor did not behave according to proper ritual, ethics, and morals, he
could disrupt the fine balance of these cosmological cycles and cause calamities
such as earthquakes, floods, droughts, epidemics, and swarms of locusts