Before the Han Dynasty
Qin Shi Huang was ancient China’s self-proclaimed First Emperor. Although the Han Dynasty, which came later, was China’s first dynasty to rule as a unified country. According to the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History, the Han Dynasty lasted between 202 BC and 220 AD.
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Qin Shi Huang, a man of extreme ambition, was credited as the one who had the Great of Wall of China linked together to protect his empire from the invading Xiongnu people from the north. He is best remembered today as the one whose tomb was protected by the Terracotta Army. The quest to unify various states drove him to ruthlessly kill. This included the crown prince of Yen, his mother’s lover Lao Ai, and his own chancellor Li Buwei, among others. Later in his reign, Qin Shi Huang burned books that were “not of Ch’in’s.” Anyone who talked about these books were executed.
He was succeeded by his son Hu-hai who, in his insecurity, had commanders and former noblemen killed for any hint of disloyalty to his rule. The purge for real or imagined infidelity to Hu-hai became so extreme that the army rebelled months later. It was followed by a break to independence by the noblemen from various states previously conquered by his father. Civil war-wracked the new empire. The chancellor capitalized on the unrest so he could install the emperor’s nephew. He had his son-in-law stormed the palace to kill Hu-hai. After much bargaining and failure to reach an agreement, the emperor killed himself. The Second Emperor’s nephew was proclaimed as Ch’in’s new ruler by the chancellor, but the distrustful new ruler would go on to kill the one who plotted to make him emperor.
This new emperor called Tzu Ying would reign only for a total of forty-six days until the palace was stormed by a Chu general called Hsiang Yu. He had Tzu Ying, as well as the whole court, killed. This was the end of the brief, glorious, and bloody reign of the Ch’in Dynasty and the once-united empire was fragmented again into various kingdoms which were at war with each other.
Liu Pang and the Dawn of the Han Dynasty
As the wars between kingdoms dragged on for five years, a man named Liu Pang rose to the position as a military policeman who was in charge of troops made up of convicts. Although he was from a peasant family, he reaped the benefits from the reforms made by the Ch’in Dynasty and joined Hsiang Yu in the rebellion. Hsiang Yu proclaimed himself the ruler of Chu, then awarded Liu Pang with a territory in return for his service. Then had the real Duke of Chu murdered to eliminate a possible competition.
Liu Pang seized the chance to “avenge” the death of the king. He captured territories one by one and gifted these to his loyal men. Then later, captured the now-unpopular Hsiang Yu. Liu Pang defeated Hsiang Yu in a battle, and the Chu general killed himself to avoid capture. Liu Pang proclaimed himself the new emperor after this success and decreed that the dynasty would be named Han. He changed his name from Liu Pang to Gao Zu and set up a new capital in the city of Chang’an.
This new China emerged weary from the successive wars. The people suffered during the short but brutal reign of the Ch’in Dynasty, as well as the inter-kingdom wars that followed. The new emperor Gao Zu figured that if he wanted a unified China, he needed to balance benevolence and freedom with strict authority. Some of the reforms he initiated included:
* The grant of amnesty for noble families who submitted to his authority.
* Tax and service exemptions for specified number of years for those who helped him gain the throne.
* Gave complete pardon to anyone who fought against him but did not curse him, but put to death anyone who cursed him.
After Gao Zu took care of internal threats to his newly-established kingdom, he now had the time to face the Xiongnu people. Which at that time, were the greatest threat to China. Considered as barbarians by the ancient Chinese people, the Xiongnu started their raids on China during the earlier Xia Dynasty and continued up to the Han Dynasty. The Xiongnu people were ruled by a powerful king (chanyu) named Mao-tun (also called Modu) who led an invasion of China during the reign of Emperor Gao Zu. The years of campaigns against China led to Emperor Gao Zu’s defeat by Mao-tun after the Batte of Baideng. The emperor was forced to pay an annual tribute to appease Mao-tun. He also sent noble ladies to marry Xiongnu leaders which started the policy of heqin (marriage alliance) to gain peace.
Gao Zu ruled only for seven years, and he was succeeded by his son Hui-ti after his death. But it was his first wife, the empress dowager Lu Zhi, who held the real power. She even to poisoned Gao Zu’s other wives and sons who threatened her son’s power. Hui-ti died at the age of twenty-three and Lu Zhi appointed various relatives to government positions—a policy that strengthened her hold on power. She also installed Hui-ti’s supposed eldest son as puppet emperor. He was put to death after he discovered that the empress dowager had his real mother killed. He was replaced by another “son” of Hui-ti, but his power was severely limited throughout his reign.
The relatives of Empress Lu Zhi were killed after her death and Wendi, Gao Zu’s son by another concubine, was proclaimed as emperor. He ruled for twenty generally peaceful and stable years with policies that allowed the people a greater degree of freedom. The Yuezhi, another group of nomadic people from the western border, started a series of raids in China, but they were repelled with the help of the Xiongnu people. The Yuezhi were driven westward into Bactria, and they left China in its new-found stability.
Emperor Wendi died and passed his throne to his heir Emperor Wudi, who reigned for fifty-three years. He was successful in pushing back the Xiongnu, who once again raided the borders of China. He also initiated economic and political reforms including the reintroduction of taxes and government control of trade, as well as the use of the civil service exams and reestablishment of a bureaucracy.
Opens Trade with West
It was also Emperor Wudi who sent an ambassador named Zhang Qian to the Western frontiers of his empire at around 139 BC. Zhang Qian was captured by the Xiongnu after he embarked on his quest but gave him a wife while he was a captive for ten years. He escaped when he had the chance and continued his travels west to Bactria and Parthia. He returned to China in 126 BC and reported what he saw during his travels which coincided with the rule of Indo-Greek king Menander I and Parthian king Mithridates I.
By 123 BC, Parthia was ruled by Mithridates II. Emperor Wudi sent envoys to visit the Central Asian empire. His envoys were received in a friendly manner and were sent back with gifts of “the eggs of great birds which live in the region” after their visit to the Parthian court. The establishment of a trade route (later known as the Silk Road) between the two empires followed and soon the Chinese traded their silk and lacquer for Parthian horses.
But this trade route was threatened by invading nomads and the Han’s longtime nemesis: the Xiongnu. Li Guang, Emperor Wudi’s general, was successful in defeating the Xiongnu troops in China’s western frontier which protected the Silk Road trade. But this victory came at a great expense to the Han treasury. The size of the empire would remain as it was during the reign of its next emperors.
Hiatus: The Short-Lived Xin Dynasty
Yuandi, the Han emperor who adhered to the Confucian concept of filial piety, died in 33 AD—but not before he appointed various family members to government positions. This was continued by his widow, the empress dowager Zhengjun, who installed various relatives from the Wang clan into important posts. One of the most important posts was given to her nephew, Wang Mang. The empress acted as a regent, first for her son, and then for two other emperors. However, they all died soon after they took the throne.
While the empress dowager groomed another baby (a distant relative of her husband) to succeed the throne, Wang Mang busied himself in convincing people that the successive deaths of the previous emperors were omens from heaven that the Han Dynasty’s reign was about to end. He proclaimed himself the new emperor and established a new dynasty called the Xin which would rule China for at least a decade and a half.
Wang Mang overturned some of the Han Dynasty’s reforms and reestablished the old feudal system which oppressed the peasants. He also angered the noble families when he claimed that the emperor owned all of China and even claimed some of their lands for himself. Drought, famine, and floods added to his woes and by 23 AD, he gave up entirely and fled from the Han capital of Chang’an.
Eastern Han Dynasty
The China that Wang Mang left was a mess and battles were fought by many claimants to the Han throne. A man named Liu Xiu (Emperor Guang Wudi) emerged victorious. He moved the capital from Chang’an to the eastern city of Luoyang when he ascended the throne. He reformed the government by appointing people other than family members to government positions and dividing territories by county. He went on to rule for thirty-two years, most of which were prosperous.
Guang Wudi was married to two women: first was with Guo Shentong from Hebei in the north and the second was with Yin Lihua from Henan in the south. He favored his second wife more than he did the first. He banished Guo Shentong from the palace when she complained about it. When the time came for him to award the throne to one of his sons, Guang Wudi gave it to his son by Yin Lihua, Mingdi.
To appease the clan of Guo Shentong, the clever Emperor Mingdi sent his general Ban Chao to the north to help them repel the Xiongnu invasion. He also helped secure the Tarim Basin region in the west and established Han control over the important Silk Road route. It was also Mingdi who sent envoys to India to learn more about Buddhism after he dreamed of seeing a radiant god in the sky who his advisers said was the spirit of Buddha. The men he sent to India brought back the Sutra in Forty-two Sections. Mingdi, after he read the Buddhist teachings, started to adhere to the Sutra along with his court. Buddhism soon became the religion of the elite and they adopted it side by side with Confucianism.
Rise of the Palace Eunuchs and the Decline of the Han Dynasty
China became stable and prosperous once again during the reign of Mingdi’s son, Emperor Zhangdi. The Eastern Dynasty had extended its reach as far as the Parthian border in the west and the Silk Road had been secured which added to the empire’s prosperity. Emperor Zhangdi died in 88 AD and left his 9-year old son Hedi as China’s new heir while the now-elderly general Ban Chao was named as regent. Ban Chao advised Hedi order the death of his mother’s relatives who, at that time, wanted to exploit the emperor’s youth so they could gain important positions in the government. The orders were carried out by Hedi’s trusted eunuchs. This would start the rise of a new kind of power in the royal palace.
Emperor Hedi died in his twenties and without an heir; a baby by one of his concubines would die young, too, which left the throne empty. A nephew of the late emperor was appointed as the new ruler, and powerful relatives rose once again to take advantage of the situation. A succession of young rulers followed, but almost all of them died young. China, at that time, was run by various family members.
Huandi, one of China’s teenage rulers (he was only fourteen when he was crowned as emperor), rose to power in 146 AD. He married Empress Dowager Liang Na. Unfortunately for Huandi, Empress Liang Na had a powerful and ambitious brother Liang Ji, who ran the government while the Han Dynasty was stuck with the problem of succession. He continued to rule Luoyang on Huandi’s behalf, and the young king became a sort of a puppet ruler who only trusted the powerful palace eunuchs.
The eunuchs, at first, were not as powerful as they were during the rule of the Eastern Han Dynasty. More importantly, they were not able to have sons because of their status. They gradually accumulated land and wealth, and they were allowed to adopt sons—something that became common for eunuchs at that time. But during the rule of the Eastern Han Dynasty, these adopted sons were allowed to keep their inheritance when their fathers died. They slowly accumulated wealth and estates. It was only natural that these sons would marry and start their own powerful clans—something the Han Dynasty severely disliked as this could cause another conflict.
Huandi resented his brother-in-law so much that he ordered his most trusted eunuchs to kill Liang Ji, but he had killed himself before the eunuchs could get to him. His entire clan was also wiped out, and Huandi became the sole ruler of a China that was currently on the edge of collapse.
The merchant class and powerful government officials rose in power during the reign of the Han Dynasty’s child emperors. The government’s policy of merit system produced some of China’s brightest yet most ambitious men who confiscated the land of those who were unable to pay their taxes but allowed them to farm the lands the debtors previously owned. The newly-rich merchants who benefited from the Silk Road trade also became wealthy landowners. This seemed to throw China back into the old feudal system the peasants so hated.
Those problems were made worse by the fact that Huandi’s twelve-year-old son, Lingdi, inherited the throne. The eunuchs had accumulated so much power that his mother, Empress Dowager Dou, was worried. She planned to order the killing of the most powerful eunuchs. She who was imprisoned when the news of this plan reached them. They also tricked Lingdi into believing that his mother hatched a plot against him and that they were the only ones he could trust. Lingdi trusted them and had his mother banished. This was only the beginning of China’s woes. Diseases, flooding, pestilence, and failed military campaigns would rip China apart. By 184 AD, the rage of the people exploded which resulted in the Yellow Turban Rebellion.
As the fight against the Yellow Turban rebels raged on, Lingdi died without naming an heir. So the eunuchs and the palace general agreed on appointing Shaodi, Lingdi’s fifteen-year-old son, as the new emperor. But both parties were distrustful of each other, and the eunuchs, as well as the generals, fought for dominance which only resulted in a massacre in the palace. A general called Tung Cho took advantage of the situation and killed Shaodi who he had replaced with a younger brother called Xiandi. Tung Cho was killed by a general named Cao Cao (the grandson of a favored eunuch) who promptly had the new emperor marry his daughter to cement an alliance. Together they recaptured the Han throne, but by then, it was too late. The Yellow Turban rebellion dragged on, and China had broken down into several factions. They were led by different generals who were unwilling to let the Han Dynasty dominate once again.
Xiandi would later abdicate the throne for Cao Cao’s son in 220 AD. This heralded the end of the Han Dynasty. The collapse of this would result in the Three Kingdoms Period. This divided China into the kingdoms of Wu, Shu, and Wei.
Picture By User:Historian of the arab people – Self Made, copied map from page 63 of the book Mapping History: World History, by Dr. Ian Barnes. ISBN 978-1-84573-323-0, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5096078
Hung, Hing Ming. The Road to the Throne: How Liu Bang Founded China’s Han Dynasty. New York: Algora Publishing, 2011
Bauer, S. Wise. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007
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