The Han Dynasty in China: Characteristics, Wu Ti & Xiongnu

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  • 0:04 The Han Dynasty Begins
  • 1:12 Han Government
  • 2:00 Han High Point
  • 3:45 A Dynasty Interrupted
  • 4:35 Another Nearly 200 Years
  • 5:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore China's Han dynasty. We will discover the ups and downs of its history and learn about some of its major characteristics and accomplishments.

The Han Dynasty Begins

Liu Bang was a commoner, a minor official in the court of the powerful Emperor Qin Shihuangdi of the Qin dynasty. Like many others, he wasn't satisfied at all with the brutal Qin rule, so he began to plot. In 206 BCE, he became king of the Han people, and that year, the new, weak Qin emperor gave him the opportunity he was seeking. Liu Bang prepared an army and stepped in to take over China.

It proved to be a hard fight against famous general Xiang Yu, who was in charge of the Qin forces. At one point, the general captured Liu Bang's father and threatened to boil him alive. Liu replied, 'Send me a cup of the soup.' His dad never did get boiled, and Liu Bang came out victorious. He was crowned Emperor Gaozu of the Han dynasty in 202 BCE, the first commoner to rule a dynasty that would last about 400 years and bring a time of prosperity and advancement to China.

Han Government

In the beginning, Han rule was not much different from Qin rule. The emperor and his bureaucratic government still stood at the center of Chinese life, and the emperor still claimed absolute power and followed legalism, a philosophy that maintained that the state was much more important than the individual, and that individuals had to conform completely to the decrees of their supreme rulers.

Over time, however, he introduced Confucianism to the government with all of its ideals of duty to society, individual virtue, and tradition. Confucianism moderated the harshness of legalism and absolute rule with a sense of morality, at least in theory. In practice, the government still directly controlled the people as it sought to unify China, and punishments for rebels were still quite harsh.

Han High Point

The Han dynasty reached its high point under Emperor Wu Ti, who ruled from 141 BCE to 87 BCE. Accomplishments and characteristics during and following this high point in Han history include:

  • Military conquest and expansion - In its quest for more territory, the emperor's army bumped up against the nearby Xiongnu people, better known as the Huns, in the north. The Xiongnu made periodic raids on Han territory, but eventually the powerful Han army split the Xiongnu in two. The southern Xiongnu surrendered; the northern Xiongnu moved away to the west. The Han dynasty expanded its borders from Korea to Vietnam.
  • Trade - The dynasty's military conquests made travel possible along the famous Silk Road, which allowed Chinese merchants to engage in active trade and cultural contact with people all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Paper - Paper was first used in the Han dynasty. It was developed by a man named Cai Lun about 105 CE.
  • History - Historian Sima Qian (145-circa 85 BCE) wrote his famous Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian, during Wu Ti's reign. This work, sponsored by the government, recorded over 2,000 years of history and legend and became a standard and model for histories for many years to come.
  • Education - Han rulers valued education and set up a national university that taught Confucianism. Chinese scholars in the Han dynasty wrote books about everything from geography to botany to mythology, and even created an encyclopedia.

A Dynasty Interrupted

All this happened under what came to be known as the Western Han dynasty, but troubles were just around the corner. About 9 CE, Wang Mang, the power-hungry nephew of a widowed empress, seized the throne and set up the new Xin dynasty. Most people actually liked Wang Mang pretty well and accepted him as an emperor, but not everybody.

Wang was killed in 22 or 23 CE by a group of angry peasants led by Liu Xiu and called the Red Eyebrows (they actually painted their eyebrows bright red). The fighting lasted until 25 CE and led to millions of casualties, but in the end, Liu Xiu became the new emperor. Because he was a descendant of Liu Bang, the Han dynasty continued, but it was now called the Eastern Han dynasty.

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