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Western Han dynasty

Demise of the Qin dynasty and founding of the Han dynasty

The first emperor of the Qin dynasty, Qin Shi Huang Di, died in 210 B.C.E. during an inspection trip. His second son, who took the name Er Shi Huang Di (“second emperor”), inherited the throne. In 207 he was murdered by the eunuch Chao Gao. The stern penal system, the grim forced labor (building of the Great Wall), and war maneuvers led to discontent among the farmers. The old nobility was discontent because the emperor had taken power from them.

The nephew of the murdered emperor was able to hold onto power for just over one month before Liu Bang, ringleader of a farmers’ uprising, moved into the capital. The emperor abdicated his title and was later murdered by Xiang Yu, another important leader of the uprising. Now Liu Bang and Xiang Yu stood in opposition over sovereignty in China. At first they split the empire between them, Liu Bang in the west and Xiang Yu in the east.

Liu Bang was able to defeat Xiang Yu in the civil war of 202 B.C.E. and founded the Han dynasty.

Measures for rebuilding and securing the empire

Chang’an (today called Xi’an) in the province Shenxi became capital city of the new empire. At first, Liu Bang had rewarded his retinue with generous fiefdoms; this reintroduction of the feudal system proved to be a failure, as the seigneurs quarreled among themselves and sought to increase their own might, so that they threatened the authority of the new dynasty.

Liu Bang therefore endeavored to curtail the seigneurs’ power. He rescinded their ability to grant fiefdoms, depriving them of the most important means of creating their own independence and loyalties. He proceeded unmercifully against disagreeable seigneurs, exchanging them for family members whom he trusted.

Additionally, Liu Bang stood before the problem that the run-down empire must be rebuilt. He decreased the tributes and annual compulsory labor required of the population, reworked the law of the Qin, softened their punishment system a little, and eliminated the inheritability of civil servant titles. Relocations of the populace were carried out. The population was measured in censuses; a per capita tax was levied; compulsory labor was required.

Although the Qin dynasty’s style of rule, oriented on Legalism’s theories, was later damned by Confucian scholars, their administration was maintained in practice, and indeed in future dynasties, legalistic governance teachings were applied, for the Confucian teachings of leadership by the leader’s virtuous example were unfit for practical exercise of authority.

Only a year after Liu Bang’s takeover, he had to ward off external enemies. The Huns (xiong nu) attacked from the north and forced Liu Bang to retreat south of the Great Wall. In 198 B.C.E., he managed to establish a fragile peace with the Huns. After his death in 194, Liu Bang was awarded the name Han Gao Zu (“great ancestor of the Han”). His heir was his second-oldest son Hui Di; the eldest, borne by a different wife, had caused Hui Di’s mother to be poisoned.

Hui Di held power for just four years. Thereafter, his mother Lu Hou, the Empress Dowager, took the scepter. She executed the other wives of the emperor and gradually put members of her own family into high offices in order to assure her power. Lu Hou died in 180 B.C.E. and Emperor Wen Di came to power, after the Dowager’s family members were killed.

Wen Di consolidated the empire once and for all, and he was a just and thrifty monarch. The Huns he kept in check by requiring tribute. But his heir, Jing Di, was the first to finally solidify and centralize the emperor’s power against the princes, defeating a last great resistance.

Heyday of the Han dynasty

The reign of Emperor Wu Di (141 – 87 B.C.E.; wu means “the warlike”) is considered the heyday of the Han dynasty. The princes had lost all their clout, and the princedoms were destroyed, because they could no longer be inherited only by the eldest son, but had to be divided among all sons. The first decades of the Han dynasty were characterized by consolidation of power and strengthening of the central State; the reign of Han Wu Di, by expansion of the empire.

Han Wu Di undertook field maneuvers in Mongolia, south China, Vietnam, and Korea. In contrast to his predecessors, he led offensives against the Huns (beginning in 135 B.C.E.), soundly defeating them in the year 121. This victory guaranteed decades of safe travel and trade with the west via the Silk Road. Under the Han dynasty, contacts with advanced cultures as distant as Greece.

Famous Chinese historian Sima Qian (145 – 90 B.C.E.), who wrote the influential history Shiji, lived in the Han era.

Confucianism in the time of the Han dynasty

Through the reign of Han Wu Di, Confucianism had been but a shadowy presence. Emperor Wen, for example, was drawn to Daoism, and governance was long influenced by Legalism, whose laws and administration went back to the Qin era. Han Wu Di first “confucianized” the administration; under him, only Confucians were permitted to become civil servants. The system of civil servant testing was introduced, which was intended to last two thousand years until the decline of the Chinese empire. Rejection of laws by the Confucians was relativized, and law became looked up as a practical supplement to Confucian ethics. This happened primarily through the influence of Dong Zhongshu’s writings, a famous commentator upon the Confucian classics.

Decline of the western Han dynasty

The successors to Han Wu Di were weak emperors and could not hold on to imperial authority, due in large part to growing power amongst large landholders, who enjoyed tax breaks thanks to their service to the empire, enlarged their holdings with monies from the per capita taxes paid by small farmers, and thus brought about a tax shortage on the state level. Landless farmers were now in the service of their landlords and no longer must provide compulsory labor to the State.

The decline of the dynasty began with emperors Zhao Di and Xuan Di, who were not of age and stood in the shadow of General Huo Guang, who continued Wu Di’s work after that personage’s death. Emperor Zheng Di was more interested in a dissipate court life than in the business of ruling. Landowners’ power grew while that of the central government shrank; palace intrigues plagued the families of the Empresses, until in the year 9 C.E. Wang Mang took the throne and founded his own dynasty.

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