The Han Dynasty was a period in Chinese history that lasted from 206 BC to 220 AD. Its legacy, however, can be observed in China to this day. The name in Chinese for the Chinese language itself is hanyu, literally “the Han language.” The most populous ethnic group in China, which makes up 92% of the nation’s population, is known as hanzu, or the “Han race.” These linguistic traces suggest that the Han Dynasty occupied a place of great significance in Chinese history, and a brief overview of the dynasty shows that this was indeed the case.
The Han Dynasty came immediately after the Qin, the first dynasty to unify China. The Qin Dynasty was established after the Qin state, originally one of seven states that divided up the territory of China, conquered the other six states, and the king of the Qin declared himself the first emperor of China. As is often the case in history, however, a kingdom brought together by force did not hold. Just three years into the reign of the founding emperor’s son, the dynasty was toppled by peasant revolts. By the end of the uprising, one of its leaders by the name of Liu Bang came to power, and established the Han Dynasty.
Unlike the Qin Dynasty, the Han was a time of peace and economic prosperity. During the rule of the Wen and Jing emperors, often considered the height of the Han dynasty, the government subscribed to the Daoist principle of “ruling through inaction.” It reduced taxes on farmland, which had been a heavy burden on the peasant population. Militarily, it avoided wars and reduced the frequency of conscription. As a result of these policies, agricultural production and population increased dramatically, and today the reign of the two emperors is known as one of the most prosperous periods in Chinese history.
Within an environment of peace and prosperity, culture and science also flourished in the Han Dynasty. Historian Sima Qian wrote Shiji, a five hundred thousand word comprehensive history of China, the scale and scope of which were unprecedented at the time. Cai Lun, a government official, perfected the art of papermaking, which is today considered one of China’s Four Great Inventions, and scientist Zhang Heng invented the world’s first seismometer. Zhang Zhongjing, a famous physician who is commonly credited with inventing dumplings (as detailed in a previous blog post), wrote his magnum opus On Cold Injuries and Miscellaneous Diseases. These are just a few examples of the cultural and scientific achievements made possible by the stable and affluent conditions of the Han Dynasty.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the Han Dynasty’s stability was its ability to withstand turmoil. In the middle of the dynasty, a regent by the name of Wang Mang seized power from a young emperor and briefly established his own dynasty. In just over a decade, however, he was overthrown by peasant revolts, and descendants of the Han imperial family were able to reestablish the Han Dynasty. Historically, this second period of the Han is known as the Eastern Han, while the earlier period preceding Wang’s usurpation of the throne is known as the Western Han.
In contrast with the previous Qin Dynasty, which managed to unify China by force but could not keep it together for long, the Han governed the entirety of China for over four hundred years, during which the nation enjoyed peace and prosperity, and witnessed and cultural and scientific development in many areas. Perhaps this is why the Han has left a visible legacy in contemporary China, and continues to be remembered nearly two thousand years later as a golden age in Chinese history.