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What is Han Dynasty?

The Han Dynasty used its control of the Yangtze River to solidify its grip on a number of provinces.
A statue of Confucius, the founder of Confucianism, which played a key role in the Han Dynasty.
A map of China.
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  • Written By: Licia Morrow
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  • Last Modified Date: 17 December 2014
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The Han Dynasty began in China in 206 BCE, after Liu Bang led his rebels to defeat the government of the Qin Dynasty. After four years of the Chu-Han War between Liu Bang and his rival, Xiang Yu, Bang emerged as the victor and established the Han Empire and its capital Chang’an in 202 BCE. Two of the main goals of the new dynasty were the unification of China and the incorporation of Confucian principles.

The change to Confucianism was brought about by the strengthening economy, fortification of the royal palace, a reduction of civil servants, the government’s waning power over the peasant class, and the rise of aristocratic families. Confucianism taught that people are born with a potential for morality and the new government of the Han incorporated this into their state policy, believing that rulers must support this morality. Therefore, the Han period saw a great reduction in harsh laws and punishments, and a turn to a rule by merit doctrine.

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The Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) was ruled by over twenty different emperors whose contributions to Chinese culture last to the present day. Two distinct dynasties were established during this period. The Western Han Dynasty lasted from 206 BCE to 24 CE and the Eastern Han Dynasty was in place from 25 CE to 220 CE. Royal consort families and their disputes with each other led to the collapse of the Western Han Dynasty. China saw a reemergence of its flourishing culture during the Eastern Han period, in its new capital, Luoyang.

Military expansion and improved trade were key successes during the Han Dynasty. During Wu Ti’s reign, which lasted from 141 BC to 87 BCE, China saw its borders expanded to Vietnam and Korea. In addition, Wu Ti managed to prod colonization of northwestern areas and expel the Hsiung south of the Gobi.

These types of expansion during the Han Dyansty led to increased trade, especially the creation of the Silk Road. At this point, Chinese in the outlying areas had better access to trading with people from the interior regions. Because of improved travel routes, tools of better quality, and expanding irrigation technology, agriculture also saw a great improvement during the Han Empire. Important trade commodities included silk, copper, iron, and salt.

With the introduction of a new aristocracy, education also grew during this period. History books and encyclopedias were compiled on a much larger scale than at any time in earlier Chinese history. During the Han Dynasty, the Chinese people first made an organized attempt to record history for future posterity.

During the Han period, China saw an increase in diplomatic relations and was able to reach out to other governments including Japan, Rome, and those in western and central Asia. The Han Empire came to an end when rebelling peasant warlords, the Red Eyebrows, Yellow Turbans, and Five-Pecks-of-Grain Sect, separated the dynasty into three kingdoms.

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