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The Han Dynasty

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Han Dynasty

The Han dynasty officially began in 206 BC and lasted until AD 220. Its long tenure was partly due to the great abilities of its first ruler. Gao-zu’s first acts in office were to undo some of the iron-fisted Qin dynasty policies; for example, he eliminated tight government controls over the economy. Gao-zu also began choosing his closest advisors on the basis of their qualifications rather than their family connections or their influence. He may well have felt that since he him- self had risen from humble beginnings, others should be given a similar chance. A government and civil service based on merit set a precedent that the Chinese would maintain with remarkable tenacity for the next two thousand years.

Emperor Wu Di, who ruled from 141 to 87 BC, was one of the great Chinese civil and military leaders. He centralized the government and supported what can be described as a free-market economy. Militarily, he led many victorious campaigns against the Xiongnu, with the end result that they lost much of their power and thus their ability to threaten China’s supremacy.

The Han dynasty saw a series of capable emperors that lasted into the mid- second century AD. Their success can be measured in several ways. First was the establishment of a law code: under the Han rulers, China achieved a legal code modeled on the Wei kingdom law code, first written in the early fifth century BC. Trade also grew throughout the Han era, both within the empire and outside; the establishment of the Silk Road (see “The Silk Road” in this chapter) opened up many new markets for Chinese goods. The standardization of the currency greatly eased trade within the empire. The Zhou period had seen the introduction of iron plows; by the Han period, these improved tools were clearly making the farms more productive. A rise in food production probably led to a rise in population; according to census records, there were 57 million people in the Chinese Empire by AD 2. The first century AD also saw the invention of paper, which would be of enormous importance to world culture throughout the rest of history.

The Han dynasty began to wane in the middle of the AD 100s, due to a number of linked causes. The first was corruption at court. The wise Han emperors of the early dynasty were followed by several incompetent men interested only in extravagance and idle pleasures. Poor government led to the second problem—a major peasant revolt. A religious cult called the Yellow Turbans acquired a substantial following among the peasantry; the fighting went on for twenty-one years, ending only in 205. The government managed to defeat the rebels, only to see the last emperor deposed. The third cause was the collapse of the dikes along the Huang He River, which led to severe floods and a change in the river’s course. Widespread loss of property, homelessness, and a major economic depression were the consequences. The Chinese moved south in massive numbers in search of better conditions, and the Xiongnu took advantage of the chaos to assert their independence.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at: 

Early Asian Empires Practice Test

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