The han dynasty

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The Han Dynasty is one of the greatest in Chinese history. It lasted for more than 400 years (207 BC to 220 AD). Its first emperor, Liu Bang, did not start life as a privileged, wealthy aristocrat. Matter of fact, he was born into a family of peasants and did not have much of an education. He worked as a police officer – a low-level government job – in the Qin dynasty. After Shi Huangdi died in 210 BC, Liu Bang worked on his tomb! Enemies of the Qin formed bands of rebels that fought with each other to take over China. One day, as Liu Bang was leading a group of convicts to work on the tomb, some of the men escaped to join the rebels. In order to avoid punishment for the escape, Liu Bang ran away as well.

Soon Liu Bang became a rebel leader. Seeing opportunity, he joined forces with another rebel leader, Xiang Yu, of the kingdom of Chu. Xiang Yu fought in the east, while Liu Bang - controlling the Han kingdom - fought in the west. In 205, the Qin capital Xian-yang fell to Liu Bang. He wanted to declare himself emperor of all of China, but he had a big problem to deal with first…

His partner, Xiang Yu, also wished to become emperor. Xiang Yu kidnapped Liu Bang’s father and held him for ransom. He sent word that if Liu Bang didn’t surrender, he would boil his father alive in an enormous caldron. Faced with this choice, Liu Bang neither surrendered nor fought. His message in reply was a simple request: “Please send me a coup of the soup!” Xian Yu backed down and allowed Liu Bang’s father to live but the standoff between the two men continued.

In 202, the armies of the two men – the Han and the Chu – met, and Lu Bang’s army surrounded Xiang Yu. Cleverly, the Han army spent the evening singing Chu songs, which led Xiang Yu to believe that his men had deserted and joined Liu Bang. Devastated at this incredible loss of face, Xiang Yu took his own life. With his rival out of the way, Liu Bang became the new emperor of China.

Liu Bang gained the support of the people by softening the harsh policies of Shi Huangdi and the Qin dynasty. He lowered taxes and gave large blocks of land to his supporters. The government became more stable with the addition of a large bureaucracy - a ranked body of officials - that ran the government and advised Liu Bang.

After Liu Bang’s death in195 BC, his son became the emperor, but he was so young, that his mother ruled for him until he grew up. She worked to keep her family’s power until her death, but then tragedy struck. A group of officials and princes seized the throne and murdered the entire family. Such power struggles

were a common part of many later Chinese dynasties.

The greatest of the Han rulers was Wudi, who ruled from 141 to 187 BC. He helped the economy by building new roads and canals to make moving trade goods easier. To raise money, Wudi controlled the nation’s salt, iron, and alcohol trades, so that any money raised from selling these items went straight into the national treasury. To limit threats to his rule, Wudi took power and land from the large landowners, and placed limits on merchants so that they could not become too wealthy. Wudi ran the government based on Confucian values (such as loyalty to the emperor), and he created a civil service test that workers had to pass in order to qualify for government jobs This system ensured that only the best educated and intelligent workers were hired. The civil service test was used in China until 1912.

Because of his military successes, Wudi was called the Martial Emperor. He defeated the Xiongnu – nomadic raiders who lived in the grasslands north of China. Wudi expanded the Chinese empire to the northeast, south and west and opened up important trading routes with other civilizations. But the Han dynasty was eventually weakened by battles for power, bad leadership and high taxes that caused peasants to sink into debt and poverty. In 184 AD, a Daoist sect called the Yellow Turbans rebelled and fought the Han emperor. The central government lost power to local warlords and nomads destroyed the cities. The 350 years that followed are called the “Period of Division.”


During the Han Dynasty, Confucianism shaped society. Strong families were believed to strengthen China as a whole. Under Confucianism, fathers had complete control over other family members. Children were expected to show filial piety - obedience and devotion - to parents and grandparents. A son was considered valuable because he would carry on the family line. A daughter had fewer privileges. She was considered less important because she left her own family when she married to live with her husband. From that point on, wives were expected to obey their husband and their new mother-in-law.

Han society was highly structured and divided into classes. The emperor was at the top of society and ruled with the mandate of heaven. Below him were nobles and government leaders, then peasant farmers, artisans and merchants, and at the bottom: slaves. Peasant farmers had a higher status than merchants because the Chinese respected men who worked with their hands more than salesmen who sold products created by others. However, farmers were often desperately poor.

In Han China, the wealthy lived in luxurious houses, and many had large estates with hired people to do the work. Most Chinese, however, lived in mud huts. They had no choice but to work hard to feed their families, raise extra crops to sell, and pitch in on building projects like the Great Wall. High taxes and poor harvests forced many peasants into debt. Chinese farmers split their land equally among their sons. Over time, these plots of land became too small to support a family and some sons were forced to sell their land and work for someone else.


Artisans in Han China produced many valuable items that others wished to buy: iron armor, swords, pottery, objects of jade and bronze, and lacquerware (carved wooden items painted with layers of shiny varnish). The most prized product, however, was silk. The method of making silk fabric from the cocoons of silkworms was a carefully guarded secret for centuries. The strong, lightweight fabric was highly sought in other parts of the world, and silk became a major Chinese industry.

Merchants traveled the Silk Roads – a network of trade routes that stretched 4, 000 miles from China to the Mediterranean Sea. Large camel caravans were guided through difficult terrain that was home to bandits seeking to rob them.

Buddhism, a religion from India, came to China through contact with traders. For many Chinese, Buddhism’s belief in rebirth and the end of suffering brought comfort at a time when the Han dynasty grew less stable and more violent. Buddhism’s growth in China is an example of diffusion – the spread of ideas from one culture to another.


During the Han period, art, literature, and architecture flourished. Han inventors made advancements in science and technology. They created paper from fibers such as hemp. They also invented the iron plow and the wheel barrow, the seismograph to measure earthquakes, water clocks to monitor time, the compass for ocean navigation, the water mill for grinding grain into flour and the rudder to improve steering on boats. The Han also made advances in acupuncture, the practice of inserting fine needles through the skin at specific points to cure disease or relieve pain.


After the Han Dynasty fell in AD 220, military leaders split China into rival kingdoms. In 618, however, a general seized power and founded the Tang Dynasty. The Tang created a flexible law code, established two new capitals, and expanded the civil service examination system.

Taizong was one of Chinas’ most admired emperors. He is well-known for his military success. He also sought talented ministers to help him govern and set up schools to prepare people to take the civil service exams. Wu Zhau declared herself empress upon the death of her emperor husband in 690. She was the only female to hold this title. Her reign lasted fifteen years.

The Tang Dynasty produced some of China’s greatest cultural achievements. Artisans created exquisite pottery and beautiful porcelain – a type of delicate, yet incredible strong ceramic called “china” by the rest of the world. In architecture, Indian Buddhist temples influenced the design of the Chinese pagoda – or multi-storied temple. One major Tang military invention was gunpowder, which was used in fireworks, explosives, firearms and cannons. Other innovations include the magnetic compass, paper money, mechanical clocks, and woodblock printing in which pages of words were carved into wooden blocks, inked and pressed onto sheets of paper. A faster form of printing soon followed called moveable type, in which individual words were etched into metal cubes that could be lined up in sentences for printing. The cubes could be rearranged and used again for other jobs, which saved time and money.


The Song Dynasty followed the Tang in 907. The Song established a strong central government made of civilians who had passed the civil service exam. These elite, educated workers were called scholar-officials. Song rulers protected their lands by paying tribute to the Jurchen - nomads who created the Jin Empire. The Song Dynasty lasted until 1279 AD.


During the Song period, new irrigation techniques and a new type of rice made agriculture more productive. More food led to population growth and China’s cities became the largest in the world. Increased trade brought prosperity to China and brought about the invention of paper money (lighter to carry in your pocket and easier and cheaper to make that coins) and banking systems. Scholar –officials and leading landowners formed a new, powerful class of people called the gentry. Women’s status, however, declined as the practice of foot binding became fashionable. Wealthy mothers wrapped their young daughter’s feet tightly with strips of cloth that deformed them into tiny, “beautiful” pointy-toed feet only four inches in length. As adults, they couldn’t walk, and were therefore dependent on their husbands and servants to care for them.

Guess the Test #10 Name: _____________________
Terms: Define these terms with rich detail:
The Han Dynasty

Liu Bang

Xiang Yu



The Civil Service Test

Filial Piety

The silk Roads


The Tang Dynasty

Wu Zhau



Moveable Type

The Song Dynasty


The gentry

ESSAYS: Answer these questions on separate paper. Five sentences for each!

  1. Describe Liu Bang’s rise to power as the first Han emperor.

  2. Talk about emperor Wudi and his achievements

  3. Describe Han society

  4. List Han trade products and inventions (mention the Silk Roads)

  5. List Tang trade products and inventions.

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