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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
The long perspective
Zhou and Qin
     The Han dynasty
     Chinese architectural tradition
     Emperor Wudi
     Contribution of the Han
     Engraved texts
     Western and Eastern Han

Intermediate times
To be completed

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The Han dynasty: 206 BC - AD 220

The Han is the first of the five great Chinese dynasties, each of them controlling the entire area of China for a span of several centuries. The others are the T'ang (7th-10th centuries), Song (10th-13th), Ming (14th-17th) and Qing (17th-20th).

The Han is a great deal earlier than any of these, and it lasts - with one minor interruption - longer than any other. At its peak the imperial power stretches from the Pamir Mountains in the west to Korea in the east and to Vietnam in the south. With justification the Han dynasty comes to seem a golden age, and the Chinese have often described themselves as the 'sons of Han'.


The Han kingdom was one of the five states engulfed between 230 and 221 BC by the Qin emperor. During the rebellions which follow his death, the Han throne is seized in 206 by a man of peasant origin. After four years of warfare he is strong enough to claim the Qin empire. As founder of a great dynasty he is later given the title Kaozi - 'exalted ancestor'.

As befits his origins, Kaozi is a rough character, with little respect for the Chinese official classes. The first great Chinese historian, Sima Qian, writing a century later, gives a vivid but improbable glimpse of the man. 'Whenever a visitor wearing a Confucian hat comes to see the emperor, he immediately snatches the hat from the visitor's head and pisses in it'.


Confronted by the practical problems of running the empire, Kaozi overcomes his aversion to the Confucians. He even commissions a Confucian work on the principles of good government. And his successors make the Confucians the scholar-officials of the state.

Under the most powerful of the Han emperors, Wudi (the 'martial emperor'), scholars of other disciplines are banned from court. The Confucian examination system is made a cornerstone of the administrative system (see Chinese examinations). And an imperial academy is set up to study the supposed works of the master (most of them, in reality, written or compiled by his disciples).


The Chinese architectural tradition: from the 1st c. BC

No architecture survives in China from the early dynasties (with the spectacular exception of the Great Wall) because the Chinese have always built in wood, which decays. On the other hand, wood is easily repaired.

When timbers of a wooden structure are replaced and repainted, the building is as good as new - or as good as old. The conservative tendency in Chinese culture means that styles, even in entirely new buildings, seem to have changed little in the 2000 years since the Han dynasty.


Documents of the time suggest that Han imperial architecture is already of a kind familiar today in Beijing's Forbidden City, the vast palace built in the 15th century for the Ming emperors. Carved and painted wooden columns and beams support roofs with elaborate ornamented eaves.

The painting of buildings provides ample opportunity for the Chinese love of rank and hierarchy. The Li Chi, a Confucian book of ritual complied in the Han dynasty, declares that the pillars of the emperor's buildings are red, those of princes are black, those of high officials blue-green, and those of other members of the gentry yellow.


Minor improvements are introduced with the advance of technology. The colourful ceramic roof tiles of Chinese pavilions are an innovation in the Song dynasty in the 11th century. But in broad terms the civic buildings of China retain their appearance through the ages.

A good example is the magnificent Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Its colours, frequently restored, are so fresh that the building looks new. But the structure dates from the early 15th century, in the Ming dynasty, and its appearance on its marble platform is almost identical to Marco Polo's description of its predecessor in the 13th century.


The reign of the emperor Wudi: 142 - 87 BC

At the peak of the Han dynasty, under the emperor Wudi, the Chinese empire stretches to its greatest expanse and seems to need for nothing. Even the valuable commodities which previously have been acquired from beyond the empire's northern boundary - horses and jade - are now regarded as home produce. They come from the steppes to the north of the Himalayas, where the nomadic Xiongnu are now increasingly brought under Chinese control.

Sima Qian, writing during Wudi's reign, depicts the empire as Proudly self-sufficient, in his list of what is available and in which regions.


Wudi employs military force more effectively than his predecessors against the Xiongnu, who are constantly pressing from the north. Searching for allies against these ferocious neighbours, he is intrigued by reports that there are other nomadic tribes, the Yueqi, enemies of the Xiongnu, living to the west of them.

In 138 Wudi sends an envoy on a dangerous mission to make contact with these potential allies. The 13-year adventure of the envoy, Zhang Qian, is one of the great early travel stories (see the Journey of Zhang Qian). It is also the first fully documented contact between China and the west, and a significant step towards the opening of the Silk Road.


The contribution of the Han

Several important technical advances are made in China during the Han dynasty. In warfare, the Chinese skill in working bronze is applied to the invention of the crossbow.

In the story of communication there are two major turning points. Paper is invented, with a traditional date of AD 105. And although true printing must wait a few more centuries, an initiative of AD 175 proves an important stepping stone towards the first printed texts in Chinese.


Engraved texts: 2nd - 8th century AD

The emperor of China commands, in AD 175, that the six main classics of Confucianism be carved in stone. His purpose is to preserve them for posterity in what is held to be authentic version of the text. But his enterprise has an unexpected result.

Confucian scholars are eager to own these important texts. Now, instead of having them expensively written out, they can make their own copies. Simply by laying sheets of paper on the engraved slabs and rubbing all over with charcoal or graphite, they can take away a text in white letters on a black ground - a technique more familiar in recent centuries in the form of brass-rubbing.


Subsequent emperors engrave other texts, until quite an extensive white-on-black library can be acquired. It is a natural next step to carve the letters in a raised form (and in mirror writing) and then to apply ink to the surface of the letters. When this ink is transferred to paper, the letters appear in black (or in a colour) against the white of the paper - much more pleasant to the eye than white on black.

This process is printing. But it is the Buddhists, rather than the Confucians, who make the breakthrough.


Western and Eastern Han: 206 BC - AD 221

For the first 200 years of the dynasty, the Han capital is in the Wei valley - at Xi'an (the same site as Ch'ang-An, the first capital of the Zhou dynasty). During a brief interlude the throne is seized by a usurper, who forms the Hsin or 'new' dynasty (AD 8-23). The imperial family then recovers the throne and moves the capital further east into the plains. The emperors re-establish themselves at Loyang - again the very place to which the Zhou dynasty moved from Xi'an, nearly eight centuries earlier.

At Loyang the Han survive for another 200 years, until eventually toppled in 221 after several decades of peasant uprisings - a pattern of events which has been common at the end of Chinese dynasties.


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