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The Collapse of Han China: Causes & Timeline

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  • 0:00 Han China
  • 1:02 Han China in the Late…
  • 2:23 The Beginning of the End
  • 3:34 The Battle of Red Cliffs
  • 5:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Han Dynasty was one of the most powerful empires in Chinese history. So why did it fall apart? In this lesson we'll examine the decline of Han China and see how this empire collapsed.

Han China

When we think of the great empires of history and what they accomplished, we have to talk about imperial China. Chinese emperors reigned with absolute power and directed the rise of some of the grandest civilizations in history. This was rarely more evident than during the Han Dynasty, the period from roughly 206 BCE to 220 CE when China was under the rule of imperial members of the Han family.

Han China is remembered as a golden age in the nation's history, when Chinese culture and society flourished, embracing Confucianism, expanding the borders of the empire, and yes, building walls. However, all good things come to an end, and from roughly 189-220 CE the Han dynasty became weaker and weaker, leading to the dissolution of the empire and division of China. Let's take a look through this time period and see how even great empires can fall apart.

Han China in the Late 2nd Century

In Han China, the emperor had absolute power. This doesn't mean, however, that he ruled completely alone. After all, China's a big place, and the Han emperors relied on a class of bureaucratic eunuchs to take care of many matters of administration. The eunuchs grew to be extremely powerful and influential members of Han politics, leading to a fair amount of resentment between them and members of the extended royal family. Ten eunuchs in particular, called the Ten Attendants, were highly trusted by the emperor and had a great amount of influence in court.

At the same time as this was happening, a period of famine resulted in a peasant uprising known as the Yellow Turban Rebellion. The agrarian peasants had begun to see the government as corrupt, and then something major happened: the Yellow River flooded. The Yellow River is one of the rivers along which Chinese civilization grew, and according to traditional Chinese cosmology, the flooding of the river was one of the signs that the emperor may have lost the mandate of heaven, the divine authority to rule. So, in 184 CE the peasants broke into a rebellion that wouldn't be pacified until 205 CE. To fight this rebellion, in 188, the emperor gave substantial power to provincial governors, who quickly became little more than warlords.

The Beginning of the End

In 189 CE, Emperor Ling of Han died, leaving his 13-year-old son in charge of China. In reality, this created a power vacuum and the empress, eunuchs, and others started fighting for control. The eunuchs murdered the empress' brother and her political rival, and were themselves massacred by another warlord. At the height of this, provincial governor and warlord Dong Zhou captured a young prince and another son of Emperor Ling in 190 CE and forcibly placed him on the throne as Emperor Xian, with Dong as regent. Angry at Dong's power grab, other warlords united against him. Dong Zhou was assassinated in 192 CE, but rather than return to normalcy, China fell further into chaos.

In the resulting battles between China's warlords, one man eventually rose to prominence. Cao Cao had been a relatively minor power, until he convinced the young Emperor Xian to move into his province for protection. From that point on, Cao Cao was the effective ruler of China and began reuniting the battling warlords under his control.

The Battle of Red Cliffs

Over the next few years, Cao Cao would reunify Northern China under his control, ruling through the puppet Emperor Xian. He next turned his attentions on Southern China. The main rival that stood in his way was a powerful warlord named Sun Quan. As Cao Cao started sending envoys to threaten Sun Quan and scare him into surrendering, this southern warlord found a friend in another of Cao Cao's enemies, an escaped warlord named Liu Bei.

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