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Of the great Chinese dynasties, that of the Han is one of the most important, and paradoxically one of the least known. Its heyday, during the reign of Emperor Wudi, is contemporary with the Roman Republic of the time of the Gracchi and the struggle between Sylla and Marius. It was at the same time that the famous Silk Road opened. The Han China also produced many of the great inventions of history, which would take several centuries to reach the West.
Emperor Wudi, founder of the Han Dynasty
The Han dynasty was founded in 206 BC. J-C, following the fall of the first Qin emperor. It is founded by Han Gaozu, or Liu Bang, who manages to sideline his rival Xian Yu, of the Chu, in the fight for the succession of Emperor Qin, in a time of relentless revolts. Realizing that the Qin dynasty had caused its own downfall by abusing its power, he cut taxes, giving land to peasants and initiating many reforms.
The power of the Han stabilizes and reaches its peak in 140 BC. J-C, when Wudi becomes emperor. His name means "warrior emperor" and it is indeed through war that he asserts his power. He fought above all against the nomads of the north, the Xiongnu, and established diplomatic relations with the peoples of Central Asia. It is expanding the territory of China to the south and east. At the end of its conquests, the territory of the empire reached almost the size of present-day China, except Tibet. The capital of the previous Han is Chang'an.
Emperor Wudi is not just a fighter. He imposed Confucianism as a state philosophy, reorganized the army and especially the civil service by setting up competitions to recruit civil servants. He reigns fifty-four years.
The Silk Road
It was during Wudi's reign that the Silk Road was truly opened. Seeking alliances against the Xiongnu, the emperor sends his ambassador Zhang Qian west. The latter concluded agreements with the peoples of Central Asia, which opened up trade routes. Starting from the Han capital, Chang'an, what would become the Silk Road pierces the Mediterranean, and leads to Rome.
The Silk Road allows the West, in this case the Republic and then the Roman Empire, to have access, not only to silk, but to other rare and expensive products, such as ivory and spices. Its role as a link between East and West goes beyond the strictly commercial level, since it allows for the establishment of diplomatic relations, but also the dissemination of religions, such as Nestorianism and Manichaeism.
It was not until the Mongol invasions, and even more so the opening of the major maritime routes in the 15th century, that the Silk Road was gradually abandoned.
Chinese inventions under the Han
The Han period is not only one of territorial and commercial expansion. It was also during the reign of the Han emperors that many fundamental inventions were discovered, which the West would take centuries to acquire.
Among them, we can cite paper, invented in the 2nd century BC. J-C, or the irrigation pump and rudder (1st century AD), as well as the compass and the seismograph, invented by Zhang He in the 2nd century AD. J-C.
The Han period also experienced an artistic and literary abundance. It was also around the same time that Buddhism entered China. The Han ruled China for four hundred years, contributing significantly to its already rich history. It was only really contested by the short-lived Xin Dynasty (9-23 AD), and did not finally give way until 220, when Emperor Xiandi was forced to abdicate by Cao Pi. The so-called period then began. of the Three Kingdoms, where Cao Pi must face Liu Bei of the Shu, and Sun Quan of the Wu ...
- Gernet J., The Chinese World, T.1, From Bronze Age to Antiquity, Pocket, 2006.
- Pirrazzoli - T’Serstevens M., La Chine des Hans. Coll Histoire et civilization, Office du livre and Presses Universitaires de France, 1982.
- Debaine-Frankfurt C., The rediscovery of ancient China, Découvertes Gallimard, 2008.