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An Introduction to the Han Dynasty

House model

House model. Eastern Han dynasty (25-220). China; Sichuan province. Low-fired ceramic. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60P1802.

The Han Dynasty is one of the great dynasties in Chinese history, encompassing nearly four hundred years of expansion and consolidation which coincided with the period of the Roman republic and empire in the West. The period is usually broken down into three stages:

  • Western Han 206 BCE–9 CE (capital at Chang’an)
  • Wang Mang (also called Xin dynasty or Wang interregnum) 9–23 CE
  • Eastern Han 25–220 CE (capital at Luoyang)

The Han began with a devastating fight between two rebel groups, one led by Xiang Yu, the other by the leader who would eventually succeed, Liu Bang. (Posthumously, Liu Bang was known as Gaodi.) The rise and fall of Eastern and Western Han seemed to follow a typical pattern of political consolidation, imperial expansion, and exhaustion ending in peasant uprisings and a final breakdown of administration.

Significant developments during both major stages included the revival of learning and formulation of Confucian-based educational systems, the expansion of trade and empire to the north, south, and west along the Silk Road, and a general economic expansion domestically, coupled with changes in beliefs and burial practices.

The revival of learning began during the reign of Wendi (180‒157 BCE) who instructed scholars to search for missing texts burned by the Qin Emperor. The five classics (as defined by Confucious) –the I Qing (Book of Changes), Shijing (Book of Odes or Songs), Shujing (Book of History or Documents), Li Qi (Book of Rites) and the Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals)–were selected as the basis for an educational system that supported a state bureaucracy based on merit, rather than lineage. An examination system was begun in 196 BCE and an Imperial Academy begun in 124 BCE. By the end of the Western Han, enrollment at the Academy had exceeded 3,000.

Various economic measures were taken that expanded state control, including (in 119 BCE) a state monopoly of iron and silk production. Forty-nine foundries produced large numbers of agricultural implements. Steel began to be produced from experiments in making alloys from different irons of different carbon contents. Many farms were involved in silk production. Silk was used to pay taxes, used to trade horses, and made its way to Rome via the Silk Road. During the Eastern Han, a form of paper made from boiled remnants of fabric, bark, rape and hemp was produced and came into wide use. Along with improvements in paper production, the first Chinese dictionary (Shou wen) was compiled around 100 CElisting more than 9,000 characters, with an explanation of their meanings.

During the long reign of Wudi (141–87 BCE) the Chinese empire expanded to include parts of Korea and Vietnam. Diplomatic and military expeditions were sent to Central Asia to deal with the Xiongnu, who threatened China’s western frontier. As a result of these maneuvres, the Gansu corridor in the west was colonized by Chinese, and Ferghana horses were imported and incorporated into the Chinese cavalry. Wudi’s expansion heavily taxed state resources, and there was a general decline in leadership following his reign, leading to the usurpation of the throne by an imperial minister, Wang Mang.

Despite Wang Mang’s attempts at reform, his power base quickly eroded and the Han was restored by Liu Xiu (reign name, Guang Wudi) in 25 CE. The early period of the Eastern Han saw another phase of consolidation, and at one point the empire’s borders expanded even further to the west. However, during the latter phase of the Eastern Han, political stability weakened.

Spectacular finds from the Han include the tomb of Prince Liu Sheng and his consort Dou Wan, hollowed out of rock cliffs at Mancheng, in the northern province of Hebei. The best known objects from this tomb are the jade suits and body plugs meant to protect the bodies of the prince and his consort. From the ancient Chu state territory in the southern state of Hunan comes the elaborate wooden chamber tomb pit of Lady Dai, filled with an abundance of lacquerware, clay and wooden figures, and most importantly, large quantities of silk, including a famous banner containing enigmatic views of the cosmos at that time. The growing preference for relief carvings on stone slabs is best illustrated by the extensive arrangement of scenes in the Wu Liang shrine (2nd century CE, built by the sons and grandson of the deceased, and containing many references to filial piety.

For the first time in Chinese history, we have images of rural and daily life during the Han in the form of contemporary records, numerous ceramic burial items and stone monuments. There is a rich array of hunting scenes, barnyard animals, houses, watchtowers, soldiers, entertainers, even kitchen stoves. Behind the proliferation of grave goods lay a belief in the depiction of both the real world and evolving concepts of heavenly realms and celestial beings. Various beliefs held that the soul divided at death, or was summoned to Mount Wutaishan to be weighed before a heavenly court. An elaborate cosmology involving the five elements and the principles of yin and yang, along with Taoist prescriptions for immortality were developing that inspired much of the imagery on art from this time, including strange beings, animals, and cloud formations, and jade items meant to preserve the body. The tomb became a place where the earthly and heavenly met.

Tombs were outfitted with provisions for the afterlife, a whole dwelling with different rooms for food preparation, banqueting and resting. Ceramic replicas (mingqi) stood in for real objects, and these were coupled with representations of celestial places and their inhabitants. 

Han funerary practices extend to this day in the form of burning paper money and models, the idea being that the smoke carries these representations to heaven, just as the smoke from the fires of ancestral altars in the Shang carried offerings to the ancestors thousands of years earlier. Finally, Buddhism began to find its way into China, principally along the Silk Road and by sea, during the Eastern Han, although it did not yet produce a large following.

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