The Han Dynasty is considered the first dynasty to write their history down but, as Shi Huangdi destroyed so many of the written records of those who came before him, this claim is often disputed. There is no doubt, however, that great advances were made under the Han in every area of culture.
The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Medicine, China’s earliest written record on medicine was codified during the Han Dynasty. Gunpowder, which the Chinese had already invented, became more refined. Paper was invented at this time and writing became more sophisticated. Gaozu embraced Confucianism and made it the exclusive philosophy of the government, setting a pattern which would continue on to the present day. Even so, unlike Shi Huangdi, he practiced tolerance for all other philosophies and, as a result, literature, and education flourished under his reign. He reduced taxes and disbanded his army who, nevertheless, rallied without delay when called upon.
After his death in 195 BCE, the crown prince Liu Ying succeeded him and continued his policies. These programs maintained stability and culture enabling the greatest of the Han emperors, Wu Ti (also known as Han Wu the Great, 141- 87 BCE), to embark on his enterprises of expansion, public works, and cultural initiatives. He sent his emissary Zhang Qian to the west in 138 BCE which resulted in the official opening of the Silk Road in 130 BCE. Confucianism was further incorporated as the official doctrine of the government and Wu Ti established schools throughout the empire to foster literacy and teach Confucian precepts. He also reformed transportation, roads, and trade and decreed many other public projects, employing millions as state workers in these undertakings. After Wu Ti, his successors, more or less, maintained his vision for China and enjoyed an equal success.
Increase in wealth led to the rise of large estates and general prosperity but, for the peasants who worked the land, life became increasingly difficult. In 9 CE, the acting regent, Wang Mang, usurped control of the government claiming the Mandate of Heaven for himself and declaring an end to the Han Dynasty. Wang Mang founded the Xin Dynasty (9-23 CE) on a platform of extensive land reform and redistribution of wealth.
He initially had enormous support from the peasant population and was opposed by the landowners. His programs, however, were poorly conceived and executed resulting in widespread unemployment and resentment. Uprisings, and extensive flooding of the Yellow River, further destabilized Wang Mang’s rule and he was assassinated by an angry mob of the peasants on whose behalf he had ostensibly seized the government and initiated his reforms.
The Fall of Han & Rise of The Xin Dynasty
The rise of the Xin Dynasty ended the period known as Western Han and its demise led to the establishment of the Eastern Han period. Emperor Guang-Wu returned the lands to the wealthy estate owners and restored order in the land, maintaining the policies of the earlier Western Han rulers. Guang-Wu, in reclaiming lands lost under the Xin Dynasty, was forced to spend much of his time putting down rebellions and re-establishing Chinese rule in the regions of modern-day Korea and Vietnam.
The Trung Sisters Rebellion of 39 CE, led by two sisters, required “ten odd thousands of men” (according to the official state record of Han) and four years to put down. Even so, the emperor consolidated his rule and even expanded his boundaries, providing stability which gave rise to an increase in trade and prosperity. By the time of Emperor Zhang (75-88 CE), China was so prosperous that it was partners in trade with all the major nations of the day and continued in this way after his death. The Romans under Marcus Aurelius, in 166 CE, considered Chinese silk more precious than gold and paid China whatever price was asked.
Disputes between the landed gentry and the peasants, however, continued to cause problems for the government as exemplified in the Yellow Turban Rebellion and the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion (both in 184 CE). While the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion began as a religious conflict, it involved a large number of the peasant class at odds with the Confucian ideals of the government and the elite.
The power of the government to control the people began to disintegrate until full-scale rebellion erupted. The rebel generals Cao Cao and Yuan-Shao then fought each other for control of the land with Cao Cao emerging victorious. Cao was then defeated at the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 CE and China divided into three warring kingdoms: Cao Wei, Eastern Wu, and Shu Han.
The Han Dynasty was now a memory and other, shorter-lived dynasties (such as the Wei and Jin, the Wu Hu, and the Sui) assumed control of the government and initiated their own platforms from roughly 208-618 CE. The Sui Dynasty (589-618 CE) finally succeeded in reuniting China in 589 CE. The importance of the Sui Dynasty is in its implementation of highly efficient bureaucracy which streamlined the operation of government and led to greater ease in maintaining the empire. Under the Emperor Wen, and then his son, Yang, the Grand Canal was constructed, the Great Wall was enlarged and portions rebuilt, the army was increased to the largest recorded in the world at that time, and coinage was standardized across the realm.
Literature flourished and it is thought that the famous Legend of Hua Mulan, about a young girl who takes her father’s place in the army, was composed, or at least set down, at this time (the Wei Dynasty has also been cited as the era of the poem’s composition). Unfortunately, both Wen and Yang were not content with domestic stability and organized massive expeditions against the Korean peninsula. Wen had already bankrupted the treasury through his building projects and military campaigns and Yang followed his father’s example and failed equally in his attempts at military conquest. Yang was assassinated in 618 BCE which then sparked the uprising of Li-Yuan who took control of the government and called himself Emperor Gao-Tzu of Tang.