The Han Dynasty Of Ancient China.

A description of one of the great eras of ancient China, telling of the reasons why the Han dynasty was such a success.

The Han Dynasty of ancient China thrived for four centuries, bar one brief usurpation that lasted fourteen years. It is because of this brief overthrowing of the dynasty that it is split into two eras, the Former (Western) Han and the Later (Eastern) Han. It is the Oriental equivalent of the Roman Empire - through innovative, previously unused government practise the Han expanded the Chinese Empire far and wide, whilst ensuring the infrastructure of the realm flourished.

Immediately prior to the arrival of the Han Dynasty was that of the Qin. It was notable because it originally used the governmental system of centralization, which the Han would follow virtually throughout their reign. Also, the Qin emperor was the first emperor; all previous rulers in the area had been kings of smaller regions. So the tone was set for the emperor being the supreme ruler. To bring about this style of leadership, the Qin Dynasty murdered many Confucian scholars who disagreed with their system, burning their books to prevent other possible dissenters arising. In general, they were brutal rulers who used violence to instigate their methods of government. However, the First Emperor was killed after a revolt around 210 BC and a change was just around the corner.

1. The Former (Western) Han

For several years warring factions vied to become supreme ruler of China. In 202 BC a peasant farmer named Lui Pang gained control. He became known as Han Kao-Tsu and was the founder of the Han Dynasty. Reigning for seven years, much of the time he spent it fighting other would be rulers. In that short time though, he was able to instigate several policy changes that would set them apart from the previous Qin dynasty.

First they decided not to rule with an iron fist. Decisions were only made after thorough discussions with a minister and government didn't attempt to manipulate the workings of the market to their own needs (laissez-faire policy). To the West of the Empire they adopted a strategy of centralization, like the Qin before. To the East, they allowed a number of vassal principalities to exist in exchange for their allegiance to the emperor. These policies allowed the culture and economy to thrive.

So it went on for many years until Han Wu-ti came to power in 141 BC. He stripped the nobility of their status, wishing the whole empire to be ruled from a central government. He also expanded the Han Empire to areas of modern day Vietnam and Korea. This meant that borders became larger and thus harder to protect. To remedy this problem the government bribed other countries with gifts and encouraged intermarriage between themselves and neighboring powers. This agreement worked well for both sides, providing security and peace of mind.

The government also became bureaucratic - essential to tracking records of taxes and such like in such a massive realm. The writing and storing of books became almost compulsory. It is hardly surprising then that the most famous historian of the era, Sima Qiam, lived at this time (he produced a huge detailed chronicle of previous years). Confucianism was made the curriculum of university and those who excelled in the study of it became prime candidates for government offices. There became a gulf of wealth between classes, which would eventually cause the downfall of the Western Han.

2. The Hsin (New) Dynasty

It was the court official Wang Mang who toppled the Western Han. After doing so he attempted to re-establish a closer monetary status between the classes. Previously the merchant class had prospered under the former Han, so they were immediately prevented from doing so by the halting of slave trade.

Unfortunately for Wang Mang a series of natural disasters, such as the flooding of the Yellow river, followed, which drastically affected the workings of the Chinese economy. More importantly, the superstitious population believed the catastrophes to be signs from God, warning them that their leader was not looked upon favourably. Subsequently, after a rule lasting fourteen years, in 23 AD, the Hsin dynasty was usurped by the Red Eyebrows. This peasant group also executed Wang Mang to appease their God.

3. The Later (Eastern) Han

Following two years of bitter fighting between rival tribes the Han dynasty was finally restored to power in 25 AD. Laissez faire policy was restored with the emphasis being on family supremacy. Each powerful family that owned a large business would pass it on to his heir. These families also had their own armies and were exempt from paying taxes. At the same time as an increase in military strength came a period of creative reform.

This led to an increase in the popularity of the Buddhist and Taoist religions. In turn rebellions against the Han became commonplace, with groups such as the Yellow Turbans leading the fight. The Great Families' armies developed into autonomous regional battalions, each with a reigning warlord. Generals from the Han armies, sent to sort out regional problems, turned their backs on the dynasty and became warlords themselves! Gradually, the centralised Han kingdom dissolved into many warring regions.

The Later Han dynasty lasted until 220 AD and was followed by four centuries of rule by regional warlords. The whole of the Han dynasty was regarded as one of military excellence and political and cultural expansion. The trade route known as the Silk Road (to Alexandria and Baghdad etc.) was made safe and relationships between distant empires established. It was also a period of scientific and technological breakthroughs with the inventions of paper, tea, and the humble wheelbarrow.

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