Han Dynasty

Han Dynasty

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The Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE) was the second dynasty of Imperial China (the era of centralized, dynastic government, 221 BCE - 1912 CE) which established the paradigm for all succeeding dynasties up through 1912 CE. It succeeded the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) and was followed by the Period of the Three Kingdoms (220-280 CE).

It was founded by the commoner Liu Bang (l. c. 256-195 BCE; throne name: Gaozu r. 202-195 BCE) who worked toward repairing the damage caused by the repressive regime of the Qin through more benevolent laws and care for the people. The dynasty is divided into two periods:

  • Western Han (also Former Han): 202 BCE - 9 CE
  • Eastern Han (also Later Han): 25-220 CE

The separation is caused by the rise of the regent Wang Mang (l. 45 BCE - 23 CE) who declared the Han Dynasty finished and established the Xin Dynasty (9-23 CE). Wang's idealistic form of government failed and, after a brief period of turmoil, the Han Dynasty resumed.

Gaozu initially retained the Qin Dynasty's philosophy of Legalism but with less severity. Legalism gave way to Confucianism under the most famous monarch of the Han, Emperor Wu (also given as Wudi, Wuti, Wu the Great, r. 141-87 BCE) who, among his many other impressive achievements, also opened the Silk Road, establishing trade with the West. The Han also negotiated a peace, which was more or less observed, with the nomadic peoples of the Xiongnu and Xianbi to the north and the Xirong to the west which stabilized the borders and encouraged peace and cultural development in the arts and sciences. Many of the commonplace items taken for granted today were invented by the Han such as the wheelbarrow, the compass, the adjustable wrench, seismograph, and paper, to name only a few.

The Han restored the cultural values of the Zhou Dynasty, which had been discarded by the Qin, encouraged literacy, & the study of history.

The Han also restored the cultural values of the Zhou Dynasty, which had been discarded by the Qin, encouraged literacy, and the study of history. The historian Sima Qian (l. 145/35-86 BCE) lived during this period whose Records of the Grand Historian set the standard and form for Chinese historical writings up through the 20th century CE. Chinese mythology and religion also developed during this time including the popular messianic movement focused on the Queen Mother of the West.

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Among them was Cao Cao (l. 155-220 CE) who, afterwards, waged war against his fellow commanders for control of the state. He was defeated at the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 CE after which the country was divided between three kingdoms and the Han Dynasty fell. Its legacy is so profound that it continues to the present day and the majority of ethnic Chinese refer to themselves as Han People (Han rem) proudly in identifying themselves as descendants of the great ancient dynasty.

The Qin Dynasty's Rise & Fall

The Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE) established itself as a decentralized government in which lords, loyal to the king, ruled over separate states. Initially, this form of government worked well but, in time, the states grew more powerful than the central Chinese government and each tried to claim from the Zhou the Mandate of Heaven.

The Mandate of Heaven was a concept originally conceived during the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BCE) and developed by the Zhou which maintained that a monarch's reign was legitimized by divine powers which had made an agreement with him: he would rule with their blessing as long as he cared for the welfare of his subjects. When it seemed the monarch and dynastic house cared more for themselves than the people – evidenced by social and economic turmoil – it was understood they had lost the Mandate of Heaven and should be replaced.

The seven separate states fought each other for supremacy – which would grant them the mandate – throughout the era known as the Warring States Period (c. 481-221 BCE) but none could gain the advantage until the state of Qin, under their king Ying Zheng, adopted a policy of total war and defeated the others. Ying then proclaimed himself Shi Huangdi (“First Emperor”) and founded the Qin Dynasty in 221 BCE. At first, Shi Huangdi seemed to observe the Mandate of Heaven in caring for the people but became increasingly oppressive and tyrannical. By 213 BCE, people were being conscripted to work on his projects and essentially serve as slave laborers while freedom of speech was banned and any books other than those on Qin history, Legalism, or practical matters were burned.

When Shi Huangdi died in 210 BCE, his weak son, Qin Er Shi (r. 210-207 BCE) succeeded him but could not maintain the empire against rebellion. The rebel forces were led by the noble Xiang Yu of Chu (l. 232-202 BCE) who ennobled the commoner Liu Bang of Han as King of Han. Liu Bang accepted the surrender of the last Qin emperor, Ziying (d. 206 BCE), and treated him and his family courteously but Xiang Yu ordered them all executed.

This was far from the first time the two men had disagreed (they had been sparring with each other for over a year by this time), and their ambition to become sole ruler of China ignited the conflict known as the Chu-Han Contention (206-202 BCE) which was resolved in Liu Bang's favor at the Battle of Gaixia in 202 BCE. Xiang Yu's forces were defeated; he committed suicide afterwards. Liu Bang (known later as Gaozu) was now the supreme ruler of China and founded the Han Dynasty.

Western Han

He initially rewarded the generals Han Xin, Peng Yue, and others who had helped him defeat Xiang Yu, with grand estates and their own kingdoms but later grew suspicious of them and had them all executed, possibly at the urging of his ambitious wife, Empress Lu Zhi (l. 241-180 BCE). He first established his capital at Luoyang but then moved it to Chang'an for defensive purposes. With no experience in government, Gaozu had to rely on earlier models and so adopted the decentralized government of the Zhou and the Legalism of the Qin (though the latter was implemented more benevolently). The decentralized state was divided into 13 administrative districts known as commanderies (also as jun) and awarded ten kingdoms to members of his family whom he expected to rule justly.

The Qin Dynasty had misused the Mandate of Heaven to repress the people for the greater glory of the Chinese emperor and Gaozu took steps to make sure he would not make the same mistake. As a former commoner, he understood the life of the peasantry and initiated programs, such as lowering taxes and opening up bureaucratic positions to all classes, to provide people with upward mobility.

Gaozu died in 195 BCE and was succeeded by three puppet kings controlled by Empress Lu Zhi: Hui (r. 195-188 BCE), Qianshao (r. 188-184 BCE), and Houshao (184-180 BCE). Empress Lu Zhi was the power behind the throne during this time and was so feared that no one questioned her policies. When she died, the nobles had her entire family executed and chose one of their own, Wen (r. 180-157 BCE), as emperor who is considered among the most effective monarchs of the Han.

The Han Dynasty was still operating at this time as a decentralized state along the lines of the Zhou and under Wen's son, Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE), the states' threat to the throne was recognized as their power grew. Jing understood it was only a matter of time before they rebelled and accused the rulers of the states and officials of commanderies with various offenses and decreased their territory.

It was clear that a decentralized state would work no better for the Han than it had for the Zhou.

His actions resulted in the Rebellion of the Seven States of 154 BCE. Jing's imperial forces defeated the rebels and restored order, but it was clear that a decentralized state would work no better for the Han than it had for the Zhou. Jing centralized the government and instituted other measures to keep the states in line. The reigns of Wen and Jing are often referred to as a “golden age” of Han history for their stability and cultural advances and, had they been weaker monarchs, the Han Dynasty would have ended with the Rebellion of the Seven States.

Jing was succeeded by his son Wu who is usually referenced as Wu the Great for his expansionist policies and reforms. His early reforms opened up possibilities for the lower class that had never existed before in governmental positions, curtailed the greed of the nobles, and expanded the law code so that all were equal under the law. These reforms were rejected by the nobles and, especially by Wu's grandmother who was a powerful influencer at court. Wu got around their objections by creating his “insider court” comprised of commoners he elevated to important government positions to act on his suggestions for reform without them being officially approved. When his grandmother died, he was able to implement the reforms openly, including the adoption of Confucianism as the national philosophy.

He also engaged in a policy of expansion in every direction, defeating the Xiongnu in the north and conquering the regions of modern-day Korea and Vietnam. In 130 BCE, he opened up the Silk Road, establishing trade with the West, and initiating cross-cultural transmission, and encouraged the expansion of the Cult of the Queen Mother of the West which inspired religious, philosophical, and literary works on immortality and the meaning of life.

During Wu's reign, the Cult of the Queen Mother of the West became so popular that shrines to her multiplied throughout China. The Queen Mother of the West first appears in the inscriptions on oracle bones from the Shang Dynasty and she continued to be invoked throughout the Zhou and Qin dynasties. She is also known as Golden Mother of the Jade and was a goddess of prosperity and eternal life.

Stories circulated that the Queen Mother of the West met secretly with Wu on the sacred night of the 7th day of the 7th month, sharing her secrets with him, which accounted for the wisdom of his reign. Scholar Patricia Buckley Ebrey notes that “this movement was the first recorded messianic millenarian movement in Chinese history” (73) and encouraged the further development of the concepts of life after death, eternity, and ultimate meaning regardless of what trials one might be suffering through. Worship of the Queen Mother of the West often took the form of passionate outbursts and prophetic visions, one of which was said to foretell the coming fall of the Han.

Xin Dynasty & Eastern Han

This fall came to pass after the last of the eight Han monarchs who followed Wu when the nephew of empress Wang Zhengyuan (l. 71 BCE - 13 CE), Wang Mang, was appointed regent for a young heir to the throne, swore he would surrender control when the boy came of age, but then seized power instead and established the Xin ("new") Dynasty. Wang was a Confucian scholar and idealist who believed that a single, strong ruler with a clear vision and the freedom to do as he pleased would be more effective than one who took counsel and had to discuss policy with others before implementing it. He therefore became, essentially, a one-man government and attempted to do everything himself.

Wang meant well in trying to fully implement Confucian ideals in government policy but had neither the experience nor the character to govern effectively.

Since he did not trust others, he refused to delegate responsibilities and so the government payroll, which was supposed to have been reformed, was neglected and officials were working without pay. This encouraged corruption because, in order to buy necessities, these officials began charging citizens for services that should have been free as well as accepting bribes. Wang meant well in trying to fully implement Confucian ideals in government policy but had neither the experience nor the character to govern effectively.

He instituted state ownership of forests to provide access to all, built public halls for rituals and public granaries for food distribution, and cut the court's budget in order to provide more funds for public programs. His inability to delegate, however, and his unrealistic vision of himself and what he could accomplish, eventually led to his downfall. The people grew frustrated with his ineptitude and a mob overran the palace, hacked him to pieces, and used his head as a kickball.

After Wang's death, a prince named Liu Xuan took the throne (the so-called Gengshi Emperor, r. 23-25 CE) but he was weak and was deposed during the Red Eyebrows Rebellion (so-called because the rebels painted a stripe of red over their eyebrows). His reign is usually dismissed by scholars as an aberration of the rebellion and the period of the Eastern Han begins with the reign of Emperor Guangwu (r. 25-57 CE). Guangwu moved the capital back to Luoyang and instituted a number of reforms to prevent the kind of chaos of the Xin Dynasty from happening again.

Guangwu's reforms enabled the continuation of the Han Dynasty but the Han ruling house fairly quickly devolved into a series of monarchs who cared more about indulging their pleasures than ruling a country. Emperor An (r. 106-125 CE) turned over his responsibilities to the palace eunuchs and preferred to drink all day. His successor, Shun (r. 125-144 CE), was equally inept and so corrupt that his reign inspired the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion of 142 CE. Huan (r. 146-168 CE), who followed Shun, was so lazy and incompetent that when a group of students demanded he do something to remove and punish corrupt officials, he found it easier to have the students arrested and leave the officials in place.

The Eastern Han continued on this downward trajectory, with eunuchs and corrupt officials making political decisions and appointing inept relatives to important bureaucratic positions. At the same time, the Han was funding their expansionist policies in Vietnam and Korea while also defending against raids by the Xianbi along the borders. These campaigns were not only costly, requiring higher taxes to pay for them, but necessitated a strong military presence in border regions which empowered the generals stationed there at the expense of the emperor who became more and more isolated.

Under Huan's successor, Lingdi, floods, famine, and exorbitant taxes led to the Yellow Turban Rebellion of 184 CE, which these generals put down, ostensibly in his name but actually for their own self-interest, further weakening imperial authority. Among these generals was the warlord Cao Cao who then went to war against the other commanders in an attempt to unify China under his reign. He was defeated at the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 CE which left the country divided into the Period of the Three Kingdoms – Cao Wei, Eastern Wu, and Shu Han – each claiming the Mandate of Heaven for themselves and signaling the end of the Han Dynasty.


The Han Dynasty began as a kind of experiment in government as Gaozu and his advisors tried to find a balance between the overly trusting policies of the Zhou and the paranoid repression of the Qin with no model to work from. The Han inherited the vast territory that the Qin had held together with excessive brute force and that the Zhou had lost through too little. In trying to strike the perfect balance, they encouraged the concept of innovation among the people.

The Han developed music theory by c. 180 BCE, the seismometer was invented in 132 BCE, paper by c. 105 BCE, the waterwheel for producing power was in use by 40 BCE. The calendar, mathematical and medical treatises, cartography, metallurgy, architecture, astronomy, and many other disciplines, concepts, and items of common and uncommon usage were invented or developed by the Han. The Silk Road created a direct link to the West, allowing for these inventions, as well as religious, philosophical, and other cultural values, to be transmitted between different civilizations.

Their fall was inevitable as the empire had grown too large for the central government, as it had been formed, to govern effectively. Adding to this problem was the poor character of the later Han emperors who forgot their duty to the people and saw them only as a means to fund lavish lifestyles instead of their responsibility to care for and protect.

The Period of the Three Kingdoms which followed the Han Dynasty's fall was a time of violence and uncertainty equal in suffering to the Warring States Period. The stability and unity of the Han Dynasty would only be restored many years later by the Sui Dynasty (589-618 CE) who implemented reforms to protect against the weaknesses which led to the fall of the Han while retaining the aspects which had made the dynasty among the greatest in China's history.

Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty 206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.) followed the Qin Dynasty and preceded the Three Kingdoms in China. The Han Dynasty was founded by the prominent family known as the Liu clan. The history of this dynasty divides into two periods, the Western or early Han (206 B.C.E. - 9 C.E.) and the Eastern or later Han (25 - 220 C.E.). The interim period was the short-lived Hsin dynasty following the Wang Mang's usurpation of power in 9 C.E. Han rule was restored in 25 C.E.

The reign of the Han Dynasty, which lasted for 400 years, is commonly considered within China to be one of the greatest periods in the entire history of China. As a result, the members of the ethnic majority of Chinese people to this day still call themselves "People of Han," in honor of the Liu family and the dynasty they created.

Rise & Fall of the Lu Clan

Emperor Hui did not have any children so when he died in 188 BC his mother showed that she was the real powerbroker in the Han dynasty by placing one ruler on the throne before removing him for someone else. During the reigns of her handpicked emperors, Lu Zhi issued imperial edicts and picked family members as kings, military officers and officials.

Once Lu Zhi died in 180 BC, the King of Qi (grandson of the first emperor) raised an army to fight the Lus but before they could engage, the Lu Clan was destroyed by a coup. The King of Qi did not become the new ruler instead, the King of Dai, Liu Heng, became Emperor Wen and ruled until 157 BC.

Achievements during the Han Dynasty

One of the first things that Emperor Gaozu did was to establish the civil service. He gathered many educated men, asking them for help to run the empire. He also established schools to make sure that only educated and intelligent men would run the government. This method of government ran for more than 2,000 years.

The major economic achievement during the Han Dynasty was the opening of the Silk Road. Emperor Wu was the one that took the initiative to set out on diplomatic mission to various rulers in Central Asia. As a result, there was a huge exploration of trade routes that linked China to the Mediterranean and opened up new roads for merchants. Trade was increased, as well as economic prosperity of the Empire. Nowadays, China is trying to modernize the Silk road, but the ancient route is still valuable.

Another important invention for world history is paper. During the period of the Han Dynasty, paper was invented, and it allowed the government to easily keep records and pass on instructions through the empire. A eunuch named Cai Lun was responsible for the invention of paper. He dipped a screen into a vat of watery oatmeal-like pulp made of rice straw and inner tree bark. When the screen was raised, it had a layer of dripping slush on top, was then pressed and dried. And the end result of the process was the sheet of paper.

Last, but not least, during the Han Dynasty, the “Records of the Gran Historian” was written. It is largely considered largest Chinese historiographical work, written by Sima Qian. He is referred as the father of Chinese historiography. The book covers a period of more than 2,000 years, from the times of the Yellow Emperor, to the reign of Emperor Wu.

What was life like?

According to history and historians, many people during the Han dynasty lived in the cities. Life was nice for the rich, as their houses were finely decorated with carpets and art. Rich people wore silk robes, they were well educated, and considered almost royal.

Poor people, on the other hand, lived in crowded houses and often went without food. Peasants, and poor people, usually lived better in the countryside. They had to work hard, but they had food and shelter.

During the Han Dynasty, taxes were reduced to allow people to have more money, and people who tilled the soil were well respected.

Merchants were not respected, but they managed to become rich thanks to the Silk Road and trade routes.

The Fall of the Han Dynasty

By the end of the first century CE, one after another Han emperor died young or without a chosen heir. In the case of an emperor dying without an heir, close relatives were named emperors. In some cases, new emperors were children or even infants, and in that case, the real power was in the hands of a guardian from the family of the empress. That led to all types of cunning schemes in the court.

The Han Dynasty ran its course when a child Liu Xie was placed as the new ruler. He was a member of the Han family, but the real power in the hands of a warlord named Dong Zhou. He seized control over the capital. He killed all the eunuchs in the city, and burned the capital to the ground. Several battles later, the Liu Xie family finally abdicated in 220 CE, which was the last year of the Han dynasty.

Wars started for rule, and China would have to wait for more than 350 years to be unified again.

A commoner named Liu Bang founded the Han dynasty. During the preceding dynasty, he had worked his way into the court as a minor official, and while the Qin fell apart from the inside, Liu Bang raised an army, claimed the throne and established the Han dynasty with himself at its center and Chang’an as the capital, very near modern-day Xi’an. Of course, he was not able to accomplish this without a fight. His major rival for the throne was an opposing general by the name of Xiang Yu. In an attempt to get Liu Bang to surrender, Xiang Yu captured Liu’s father and threatened to boil him alive. Liu, in turn, replied, “Send me a cup of the soup.” It was with this unwavering strength that Liu set in motion one of the most significant Chinese dynasties to this day.

The dynasty saw many important scientific and technological advances, most notably in papermaking and the use of negative numbers in mathematics. It is also the dynasty that gave birth to Chinese historiography. Sima Qian, the court astrologer during the reign of Emperor Wu, completed a massive, 526,000-character-long tome detailing the history of China, from the mythical Xia dynasty to his contemporary time. The book, named Shiji or Records of the Grand Historian, is not the first Chinese history book, but it is the most extensive and influential. One unique aspect that Sima Qian brought to his writing was a non-linear approach to the past. Instead of writing chronologically, he grouped everything into themed units, allowing him to include details about music, ceremonies, calendars, religion, and economics, not just major events and figures.

While the Han dynasty was overall very prosperous, it was not without its conflicts. It is actually difficult to discuss the Han as just one dynasty because it is broken up into two pieces: the Western Han, or Former Han, and the Eastern Han, or Later Han. The Western Han refers to the reign in Chang’an, and the Eastern Han refers to the time after which the usurper Wang Man declared the beginning of a new dynasty.

Wang Man, a government official from a powerful family, took advantage of growing social turmoil in the wake of Emperor Wu’s death to attempt an overhaul of the landowning structure. This overhaul was not successful, and after 14 years, angry peasants formed a rebellion, sacked the capital of Chang’an and cut off Wang Man’s head. The imperial capital was relocated to Luoyang, and thus, the Eastern Han began.

The dynasty finally ended with a series of natural disasters, the burning of Luoyang and, unsurprisingly, a power vacuum. The dynasty’s end marked the beginning of a conflict known as the Three Kingdoms period, which would last 350 years before a unifying dynasty would rise again.

Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.), an introduction

Disk (bi) with knobs, feline, and dragon, Eastern Han dynasty, 100–220, jade (nephrite), China, 22 high x 15.2 x 0.7 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.155)

The Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 C.E.) reunified China after the civil war following the death of Qin Shihuangdi in 210 B.C.E. It is divided into two periods: the Former (or Western) Han, when Chang’an (present-day Xi’an ) was its capital and the Later (or Eastern) Han, which ruled from Luoyang—230 miles east of Xi’an. The Han dynasty was a pivotal period in the history of China. During its long reign of almost four hundred years, many foundations were laid for enduring aspects of Chinese society.

Map of the Han dynasty, c. 60 B.C.E. (map: Qiushufang, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Philosophy and literature flourished during the Han dynasty. Confucianism became the official government orthodoxy . A civil service was created with entrance examinations based on knowledge of Confucian texts—a system that lasted through the early twentieth century. Daoism continued to grow in influence, however, and Buddhism was introduced from India via the Silk Road .

During the rule of Emperor Wu (reigned 141–87 B.C.E.), the Han defeated the Xiongnu , a Central Asian nomadic tribal group that resided west of China proper, and gained control of the regions where the Xiongnu lived. China was now in control of the trading routes across the middle of Asia for the first time. These routes extended to the Mediterranean region and the Near East and were later known as the Silk Road. People that lived along the Silk Road exchanged various goods, as well as ideas, religions, and technologies.

Ladle, Western Han dynasty, dated 61 B.C.E., bronze with gold inlay, China, 34.5 high x 11.5 x 22 cm (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: The Dr. Paul Singer Collection of Chinese Art of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC a joint gift of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, Paul Singer, the AMS Foundation for the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities, and the Children of Arthur M. Sackler, S2012.9.2495)

Bronzes and jades in the Han dynasty became even more closely associated with affluence and luxury than in any previous dynasty. In contrast to their use in religious rituals during the Shang dynasty , these items were now made for grand festivities and display. One special and well-known type of jade object crafted by the Han people was the luxurious jade burial suit, as jade was believed to have preserving power. At the same time, increased contact with India, Persia, and other countries along the Silk Road introduced new symbols , motifs, and techniques to Chinese art.

Figure of a female attendant, Qin dynasty or Western Han dynasty or modern period, 221 B.C.E.–9 C.E. or 20th century, Earthenware with traces of black pigment, China, 12.7 x 10 x 6 cm (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: The Dr. Paul Singer Collection of Chinese Art of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC a joint gift of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, Paul Singer, the AMS Foundation for the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities, and the Children of Arthur M. Sackler, S2012.9.3474)

Similar to many ancient civilizations, Chinese people believed in the existence of the afterlife. The Shang people were known for the ritual of human sacrifice. Starting from the Zhou , clay figures were used as substitutes for living humans, placed in or near the graves. The most famous example of this practice is the terracotta army of Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuangdi. This burial custom became even more widespread during the Han. Varieties of clay models, including servants, musicians, and everyday objects like bowls and utensils, were put in Han tombs for the use of the occupants in the afterlife. Tombs were increasingly modeled on palaces with separate chambers outfitted for different purposes.

Mirror, Western Han dynasty, 2nd century BCE, bronze, China, 0.4 x 12.6 cm (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: The Dr. Paul Singer Collection of Chinese Art of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC a joint gift of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, Paul Singer, the AMS Foundation for the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities, and the Children of Arthur M. Sackler, S2012.9.1966)

Painted narrative scenes started to appear on tomb walls as well as clay and lacquer objects. Tomb tiles and textiles were also favored media for pictorial depictions. Themes ranged from Confucian ideals and historical events to Daoist mythology and auspicious omens. Thanks to the invention of paper, calligraphy as an art form started to thrive in the Han dynasty. Different script styles emerged. By the end of the Han dynasty, the squared lishu script, with heavily stressed horizontal strokes, was commonly used by government clerks and became the standard form of writing.

This resource was developed for Teaching China with the Smithsonian, made possible by the generous support of the Freeman Foundation

Rising from Rebellion

The Han Dynasty succeeded the Qin Dynasty, the first imperial dynasty of China. Although the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, Qin Shi Huang, was a formidable ruler, the empire he had established did not last long after his death, as he had a weak successor and there was in-fighting amongst his officials. The last days of the rule of the Qin Dynasty were so unbearable that many rebellions broke out across the empire.

These rebels were under the nominal leadership of Xiang Yu, a warlord from the state of Chu. Another important rebel leader was Liu Bang, a minor Qin official who was also from the Chu state. Following the death of Qin Shi Huang, Liu Bang resigned from his post, raised an army, and rebelled against Qin rule.

Although Liu Bang initially served under Xiang Yu during the rebellion against the Qin Dynasty, the two men would later become rivals, as each desired to become the Emperor of China. The struggle for supremacy between Xiang Yu and Liu Bang is known as the Chu-Han Contention, which lasted from 206 BC to 202 BC. At the Battle of Gaixia, the Han forces under Liu Bang won a decisive victory over Xiang Yu, who committed suicide after this defeat. Liu Bang proclaimed himself the Emperor of China and the Han Dynasty was established.

Chinese Lacquerware (4,500 BCE onwards) Characteristics and History

For more about the arts and crafts of Asia,
please see: Asian Art (from 38,000 BCE onwards).

Graved Red Lacquerware Box,
17th-Century Qing Dynasty
Frankfurt Museum of Decorative Art.

For dates of early cultures,
see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For later dates and chronology,
see: History of Art Timeline.
For movements and periods,
see: History of Art.

What is Lacquerware? Characteristics

In Chinese art, the word lacquerware refers to a variety of decorative techniques used to coat wood, bamboo, metal or other surfaces, with a hard, resinous finish. Originating during the era of Neolithic art, lacquering was originally intended as a form of waterproof protection for wood and bamboo, but the process rapidly became a greatly valued method of decorating fine objects. Now a highly skilled decorative art, it often involves the application of many layers of lacquer to the core material. The resin used in Chinese lacquerwork is obtained from a species of tree (indigenous to China) known as Toxicodendron vernicifluum, commonly called the Lacquer Tree. The resin, which is taken only from trees that are at least 10 years old, contains an active ingredient called urushiol, plus a number of phenols suspended in water. These ingredients react with each other, and with the surrounding oxygen, causing the lacquer resin to harden: a rather slow process known as "aqua-polymerization". The lacquer is sticky, and must be applied slowly using a brush, with a fluidity not unlike that practised in Chinese painting and its sister art of calligraphy. The result, however, can be quite spectacular, especially when iron compounds or other colour pigments (like red, powdered cinnabar) are added. The lacquer produces an extremely durable and beautiful finish, that is almost totally impervious to water, and highly resistant to damage by acids/alkalis or abrasion. Numerous lacquered items, for instance, have been unearthed in perfect condition from waterlogged Iron Age tombs in Suixian and elsewhere. Like other types of traditional Chinese art, including jade carving, ceremonial bronze casting, and Chinese pottery, lacquering in China dates back to prehistoric art times. Thereafter, trade in lacquered objects developed between China and both central and eastern Asia, and Chinese know-how had a major impact on Korean art as well as Japanese art and Indian culture. Many different types of items were lacquered, including: furniture and other household objects, domestic ware, food-serving implements, cosmetics boxes, music instruments, even coffins.

The term "lacquer" stems from the Sanskrit word laksha, a reference to the populous Lac insect and its resin-like residue which was used as wood finish in India. (The Lac also secreted a scarlet colourant, which was the third most expensive pigment, after gold and ultramarine, during the Renaisssance in Italy.)

To begin with, raw lacquer was mixed with charcoal or iron oxides (typically from ochre, a naturally tinted clay containing ferric oxide) to produce black, red and yellow lacquers. Later, during the period from the Xia culture (c.2100-1600) to Zhou Dynasty art (1050-221 BCE), special pigments were added to extend the colour range. Later, during the Song era (960-1279) and Ming era (1368-1644), more advanced decorative techniques were developed using gold and silver powders and flakes.

Although Chinese lacquerware has predominated, other Asian forms with different characteristics have developed alongside. For example, lacquer trees in Thailand, Vietnam and Burma, contain "laccol" or "thitsiol", instead of the Chinese ingredient urushiol. As a result, the finish they give is softer and takes longer to set, although (unlike urushiol) the lacquer does not cause any sort of allergic reaction, and can therefore be applied by hand.

Lacquerware first appeared during the era of Neolithic Art in China: the oldest known lacquer object - a red wooden bowl - was found at a Hemudu culture site, dating to 5000-4500 BCE. However, it wasn't until Shang Dynasty art (c.1600-1050 BCE) that more sophisticated methods of lacquering were developed. Later, during four centuries of Han Dynasty art (206 BCE-220 CE), numerous centres of lacquerware production were established, and - as trade also expanded - knowledge of the Chinese process spread to Korea, Japan, and the rest of South-East Asia.

For important dates in the evolution of lacquering in China, see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present).

Han Dynasty Lacquerware (206 BCE - 220 CE)

By the Warring States period (475𤫍 BCE), lacquerwork had become a flourishing crafts industry, and because the whole process was up to 10 times more expensive than equivalent bronze casting, lacquered vessels rivalled bronzes as the most prestigious medium for making ceremonial or ancestral offerings. At this time, lacquer production was based at Changsha and in four regional government-controlled centres in Sichuan, where the process was divided into several different stages, and performed by specialist artisans. The sugong, for instance, primed the core to be lacquered, which might consist of wood, bamboo, cloth or even metal. After this, successive layers of lacquer were applied to the core by the xiugong. The top layer was then applied and (when dry) polished by the shanggong, after which the huagong - specialist Chinese painters - completed the decoration. Other craftsmen might be employed to inlay or engrave the design, add gilding, or an inscription.

Examples of highly decorated Han lacquerware - mainly from the state of Chu and from Sichuan - include the set of four nested coffins (c.170 BCE) discovered in the tomb of a mid-level aristocrat at Mawangdui, which were said to have taken the equivalent of one million man-hours, to complete. Lavishly equipped, the well-preserved wooden tomb has several outer compartments containing some of the finest early Chinese silks, arranged around the lacquered coffins.

Note: The Han Dynasty is also famous for producing the earliest examples of Chinese porcelain, made in the province of Zhejiang, around 100-200 CE).

Tang Dynasty Lacquerware (618-906)

During the period of Tang Dynasty art (618𤵻) new decorative methods were developed for discerning connoisseurs: Chinese lacquer workers began cutting sheets of silver or gold into animal, bird and flower shapes. These were then affixed onto the surface of the lacquered object, which was then re-lacquered, rubbed and polished (using a technique known as pingtuo), to reveal traces of golden or silvery patterns peeping through. Other techniques, such as carving lacquerware were also introduced. It was also during the Tang era that Chinese craftsmen passed on the gold and silver foil inlay method used by the Japanese in the Nara period (710𤴀).

Song Dynasty Lacquerware (960-1279)

The goldsmithing art of adding inlaid gold and silver to lacquerware was continued by the Song, to which were added new techniques, including qiangjin (engraving inlaid with gold), diaotian (inlaid with differently coloured lacquer), and diaoqi (carved lacquer). The art of inlaying lacquer with mother-of-pearl was also enhanced under the Songs. Song Dynasty art also exerted an important influence on the Kamakura period (1185�) in Japan, when Japanese craftsman began carving Buddhist imagery into thick coats of lacquer, using a technique called Kamakura-bori. Another craft reportedly developed during the Song period is "zhezhi" - better known in the West as Origami paper folding, the name given to its sister version from Japan.

Yuan Dynasty Lacquerware (1271-1368)

During the era of Yuan dynasty art, Chinese lacquer experts mastered the techniques of incising, engraving and filling-in with gold leaf or silver powder, and began carving floral patterns, dragons, serpents and other images through a thick layer of red or (more rarely) black lacquer. According to the artistic manual, "Essential Criteria of Antiquities" by Cao Zhao, the experts in this style of carving were Zhang Cheng and Yang Mao, both pupils of Yang Hui. Up until the 1950s, it was believed that carving pictorial imagery in lacquer was first introduced in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but in 1959 the discovery in a tomb near Shanghai of a lacquer box carved with figures in a landscape, dating to 1351, provided clear evidence that this technique was already firmly established in China by the mid-14th century.

Ming Dynasty Lacquerwork (1368-1644)

Lacquer carving continued during the era of Ming culture, as well as the succeeding Qing Dynasty art,in many different factories and production centres. It achieved a particularly high standard under the Ming Yongle Emperor (1360-1424 ruled 1402 onwards), and Xuande Emperor (1399-1435 ruled 1425 onwards), being noted for its carved red lacquer dishes, trays, boxes, and cups. Decorative motifs include, landscapes with figures, as well as dragon, phoenix, and floral designs, carved deeply against a typical yellow background. Later, under the Jiajing Emperor (1507-67 ruled 1521 onwards) more realistic designs appeared, characterized by a shallower, sharper style of carving, occasionally through as many as nine coats of different colours, against intricate floral or figurative backgrounds. Painting and inlaying with mother-of-pearl, gold lacquer and other materials were also popular.

Note: During the later Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), a fashion for Chinese decorative techniques like lacquerware spread throughout Europe, notably in the fields of decorative arts and crafts, interior design, textiles and silks. Known as chinoiserie, it became especially popular during the era of Rococo.

For more about traditional arts and crafts in China, see the following:

• For more about decorative arts and crafts in China, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

Han Dynasty - History

The Han Dynasty was one of the great dynasties of Ancient China. Much of Chinese culture was established during the Han dynasty and it is sometimes called the Golden Age of Ancient China. It was an era of peace and prosperity and allowed China to expand to a major world power.

Zhang Heng - Han Scientist and Astronomer
from the State Post Bureau of the PRC

When was the Han Dynasty?

The Han Dynasty ran for over 400 years, from 206 BC to 220 AD. It was the second Imperial dynasty after the Qin Dynasty. It was followed by the Three Kingdoms period.

How did it get started?

The Han Dynasty began with a peasant revolt against the Qin Emperor. It was led by Liu Bang, son of a peasant family. Once the Qin Emperor was killed there was a war for four years between Liu Bang and his rival Xiang Yu. Liu Bang won the war and became emperor. He changed his name to Han Gaozu and established the Han Dynasty.

One of the first things that Emperor Gaozu did was to establish the civil service. He gathered a number of educated men about him to help him run the empire. Later Han emperors would establish examinations and schools to make sure that only the most intelligent men would run the government. This method of government would run for over 2,000 years.

Liu Bang - Founder of the Han Dynasty by Miuki

The period of the Han Dynasty was a time of invention and science. One of the most important inventions was paper. Paper allowed the government to easily keep records and pass on instructions throughout the empire.

Other important inventions include iron casting, crop rotation, and acupuncture as well as advancements in medicine, mathematics, building, agriculture, engineering, and astronomy.

Many people lived in the cities. Life was nice for the rich who lived in big houses that were finely decorated with carpets and art. They wore silk robes and were well educated. Life in the city was difficult for the poor who lived in crowded houses and often went without food.

Life in countryside was better for the peasants. They had to work hard, but they generally had food and shelter. Taxes were reduced during the Han Dynasty and people who tilled the soil were often respected.

Merchants were generally not respected. However, they were able to become rich, especially with trade improving due to the Silk Road and general peace in the country. Laws were made to make merchants wear white clothes and pay high taxes.

#10 Han era is considered a golden age in Chinese history

Han dynasty’s long period of stability and prosperity consolidated the foundation of China as a unified state. Apart from being an age of economic prosperity, art and culture advanced to unprecedented heights. It was also one of the most prolific eras of science and technology in ancient China. Among the achievements of the Han dynasty are the invention of the first known papermaking process and the world’s first seismoscope and major innovations in ship design, map making, metallurgy and agriculture. Such is the impact of Han dynasty that to this day, China’s majority ethnic group refers to itself as the “Han people” and the Chinese script is referred to as “Han characters”. The Han period is thus considered a golden age in Chinese history.

Watch the video: History of Han Dynasty China: Every Year Map in Chinese Version