The Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty was a period in China that lasted for a little more than 400 years from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D. This dynasty is often considered to be one of the most critical periods in the history of China because it played a pivotal role in the formation of the country’s civilization and culture. It occurred after the Qin Dynasty and before the Three Kingdoms period which occurred from 220 to 265 A.D. The emperors during the Han Dynasty helped define the era, but they also helped lead to its downfall.

Fighting for Power

Before the Han Dynasty, there was the Qin Dynasty. This dynasty lasted a mere 14 years and it marked a time of unity in the nation and an end to the fighting between the Warring States. But the peasants were not happy with the new regulations, laws, and increased taxes that the emperor of Qin imposed on them. As a result, they rebelled against the government in 209 B.C.

Although the peasants lost the rebellion, the fight continued in 207 B.C. when Liu Bang and Xiang Yu attacked the main part of the city. Xiang Yu and his men executed Ziying, the man who had declared himself king of the territory. The capital of Qin was utterly destroyed the next year, leading to the fall of the Qin Dynasty.

Once the Qin Dynasty had fallen, Xiang Yu and Liu Bang struggled to seize power in the new dynasty. After much fighting, Liu Bang succeeded at gaining power of the Han Dynasty. He made Chang’an the capital city and loosened some of the centralized rule that was characteristic of the Qin Dynasty.

Two Time Periods of the Dynasty

The Han Dynasty was split into two basic time divisions. From 202 B.C. to 9 A.D., it was the Western Han Dynasty and from 25 A.D. to 220 A.D., it was the Eastern Han Dynasty. There was also a short interruption of Han power from 9 A.D. until 25 A.D. when the Xin Dynasty was in power.

Western Han Dynasty

The Western Han Dynasty was the first period when China was unified and considered a powerful nation. In all, there were 12 emperors who ruled throughout this time which is considered to be one of the nation’s most peaceful and prosperous periods.

    Liu Bang - the one who established the dynasty, became Emperor Gaozu following the fall of the Qin Dynasty in 207 B.C. Emperor Gaozu ruled China for seven years from 202 B.C. until 195 B.C., and he is known for being one of the few emperors who rose to power from the peasant class. He was also credited with rebuilding the economy as he put people into government positions based on their knowledge and skills rather than their birth status or wealth. He died several days after a stray arrow struck him during an attack on Ying Bu, a prominent figure who rebelled against the Han Dynasty.

    Emperor Hui of Han - Gaozu’s successor, he ruled from 195 B.C. until 188 B.C. However, his rule is considered a weak one as his mother – Empress Dowager Lu – seemed to be the dominant and controlling force in his life. After his half brother was killed by the empress, Emperor Hui began indulging in binge drinking and women, which led to an early death at the age of 22.

    Liu Gong and Liu Hong - the two sons of Emperor Hui. Together, these two emperors were known as Emperors Shao of Han. Their rule lasted a combined eight years with Shaodi Gong’s rule lasting from 188 B.C. until 184 B.C. Shaodi Hong’s reign lasted about the same amount of time – from 184 B.C. to 180 B.C. However, since many feel that these two were mere puppets of Grand Empress Dowager Lu, they are often omitted from the list of official Han Dynasty emperors.

    Liu Heng - or Emperor Wen, was the fifth emperor of the Western Han Dynasty. He ruled from 180 B.C. until 157 B.C. He worked very closely with his wife – Empress Dou – and with ministers on affairs concerning the state. As a result, he is known as one of the more benevolent and respected leaders in the history of China. He strived to reduce financial burdens on his people and his son.

    Emperor Jingdi – the son of Liu Heng. He carried on his father's approach during his reign from 157 B.C. to 141 B.C.

    Liu Che - or Emperor Wudi, succeeded Emperor Jingi in 141 B.C. and his reign lasted 54 years until 87 B.C. He was the longest reigning emperor in China for more than 1,800 years. Among other accomplishments, his legacy is one of expanding the nation’s territory and establishing a reorganized and more centralized government. He also promoted the doctrines of Confucius and developed the imperial Music Bureau.

    Emperor Zhaodi - succeeded his father Emperor Wudi, who ruled from 87 B.C. to 74 B.C. He ascended to the throne at the age of eight years old when his father passed away. Emperor Zhaodi, under the advisement of trusted officials, lowered taxes for the people and reduced government spending. This brought about a period of peace and prosperity. However, Emperor Zhaodi died at the age of 20, only 13 years into his rule.

    Emperor He - the Prince of Changyi was installed as emperor by Huo Guang, a state official. His reign lasted 27 days.

    Liu Bingyi - or Emperor Xuan, who ruled the Western Han Dynasty from 74 B.C. until 49 B.C. Xuan grew up as a commoner so he understood the needs of the people. Part of his legacy includes lowering taxes, appointing capable people to government positions, and making the government more liberal. He was also known for getting rid of corrupt officials. He ruled for 25 years until his death in 49 B.C.

    Emperor Yuan - succeeded Xuan in 49 B.C. and reigned until 33 B.C. His main accomplishment was that he made Confucianism the official philosophy of the Chinese government. Those who adhered to the beliefs and ideas of Confucianism were given important positions inside the government. However, his rule was also characterized by infighting within his own administration and his indecisive nature.

    Emperor Chang - the final long-lasting emperor of the Western Han Dynasty who ruled from 33 B.C. until 7 B.C. Under his rule, the Han Dynasty continued to disintegrate as the Wang family continued to grasp power. Chang’s administration was known for corrupt government officials and several rebellions throughout the nation. He died after ruling for 26 years.

    Emperor Ai - assumed power from 7 B.C. until 1 B.C.

The final two emperors of the Western Han Dynasty were Emperor Ping (1 B.C. until 5 A.D.) and Emperor Ruzi (5 A.D. until 25 A.D.), also known as the “Infant Ying.”

Interruption of Han Power

From 9 A.D. until 23 A.D., the Xin Dynasty was in power in China. This dynasty only had one emperor during its reign of rule – Wang Mang. He took power a few years after the death of Emperor Ai, who ruled from 7 B.C. until 1 B.C.

Wang Mang took power after building a reputation that endeared him to the people of China. In 9 A.D., he declared himself the emperor. However, there was a rebellion by the peasants in 23 A.D. and the capital city of Chang’an was besieged. During the rebellion, Wang Mang was killed and the Han Dynasty was restored by the descendants of the former rulers.

Eastern Han Dynasty

Following the interruption by the Xin Dynasty, the Han Dynasty power was re-established in 23 A.D. Emperor Gengshi helped restore the dynasty when he took power, but he was considered an incompetent ruler who was unable to keep the empire together. By the year 25, he was deposed from office and Emperor Guangwu assumed power.

    Emperor Guangwu - considered the founder of the Eastern Han Dynasty and he helped consolidate the nation by the time he died in 57 A.D. One of his other main accomplishments was that he made the city of Luoyang the capital city of his rule.

    Emperor Ming - in 58 A.D., the second son of Emperor Guangwu took his father’s place in the seat of power. During his reign, Buddhism became a major philosophy throughout China and the nation’s first Buddhist temple was built. He is also known for eradicating the Xiongnu influence along the Tarim Basin, among other accomplishments. His reign ended in 75 A.D. when he died.

    Emperor Zhang - his reign lasted from the years 75 to 88. He is described as being a hardworking emperor who was involved with state affairs. He reduced taxes and government spending and he also promoted the idea of Confucianism. Under his rule, there was a period of prosperity and the culture flourished. Along with his father’s reign, this is one of the most highly praised eras in Chinese history and it is often referred to as the Rule of Ming and Zhang.

    Emperor He - took power in 88 and he ruled until 105 as the fourth emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty. When he took the throne, he was only nine years old. This may be part of the reason that the Han Dynasty began its decline under his rule. His administration was known for a great deal of strife amongst government officials. His adopted mother also appointed her own relatives to important government positions, which increased corruption and dissent. When Emperor He died in 105, there were problems finding a successor as his sons were very young.

    Emperor An – ruled from 106 until 125. He succeeded Emperor Shang, who was placed into power when he was only about 100 days old, following his death soon after. Emperor An was not very successful in keeping the dynasty together. He is described as indulging in women and alcohol rather than concerning himself with the affairs of the state. He is also known as the first emperor of the Han Dynasty to encourage corruption in his administration. Emperor An died at the age of 31 in 125 when he was on his way to Nanyang.

    Emperor Shun - ruled from 125 to 144. He was the son of Emperor An and he is also described as being incompetent. He allowed the corruption in the government to continue which allowed the Eastern Han Dynasty to continue to decline. He reigned for 19 years before dying at the age of 30.

    Emperor Chong and Emperor Zhi – had a combined reign lasting from 144 to 146.

    Emperor Huan - assumed power in 146 after Zhi was poisoned to death and he reigned until 168. During his time in power, corruption reached record levels and protests began against the government in hopes of getting rid of corruption. Emperor Huan ordered the protestors to be arrested rather than listening to the protests, which helped to further decline the dynasty.

    Emperor Ling - succeeded Emperor Huan and reigned from 168 until 189. He was a descendant of Emperor Zhang and his administration was dominated by corruption, too. It was during Emperor Ling’s reign that the Yellow Turban Rebellion, a major peasant revolt in China’s history, broke out. While he indulged in women and alcohol, his corrupt officials levied heavy taxes on the people and caused even more rebellion. He was also known for giving political offices to the highest bidder.

    Emperor Xian - the final emperor of the Han Dynasty who ruled from 189 until 220 following the short reign of the Prince of Hongnong. He was the son of Emperor Ling and the brother of the Prince of Hongnong. But when the latter was removed from power through poisoning by Dong Zhuo, a major warlord, Xian took power. However, he became a puppet of Cao Cao, another warlord and the Chancellor of the Eastern Han Dynasty. This spelled the end of this dynasty as Cao Pi, Cao Cao’s son, eventually overthrew the government and paved the way for the era of the Three Kingdoms.

The Fall of the Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty was a period of prosperity as the country’s trade reached higher levels than before. The Silk Road helped bring in new revenue for the country as trading commodities could be done as far away as the Roman Empire.

Education became more important as the new Imperial University in Luoyang brought in thousands of students. In many cases, the emperor himself provided the history lectures at the school. And threats to China had diminished so the country was able focus its efforts westward for expansion. But towards the end of the second century A.D., the dynasty was growing weak. The courts were being run by emperors who were only interested in amusing themselves rather than conducting the affairs of the state responsibly. There were officials vying for power within the system, but those struggles often ended with massacres inside the palace walls.

Also, the Han government was not collecting enough through taxes to support the nation’s military. Many of those in the upper classes were exempt from paying taxes and the peasants in the lower class had figured out how to avoid the tax collector when he came around to collect taxes from them. This lack of revenue left the nation vulnerable to attacks from its enemies.

When Emperor Ling died, Dong Zhuo took advantage of the chaos and seized control of Luoyang, the capital city of the dynasty at the time. With his installation of his puppet emperor – Emperor Xian – he was able to rise to power in the dynasty’s imperial court and rule the nation. Although he was assassinated in 192, he effectively helped end the Han Dynasty era altogether.