Western Han

China's first imperial dynasty was the qin dynasty (221–206 BCE). The Qin unified the Chinese Warring States by conquest, but their empire became unstable after the death of the first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. Within four years, the dynasty's authority had collapsed in the face of rebellion. Two former rebel leaders, Xiang Yu (d. 202 BCE) of Chu and Liu Bang (d. 195 BCE) of Han, engaged in a war to decide who would become hegemon of China, which had fissured into 18 kingdoms, each claiming allegiance to either Xiang Yu or Liu Bang. Although Xiang Yu proved to be a capable commander, Liu Bang defeated him at the Battle of Gaixia, in modern-day Anhui . Liu Bang assumed the title "emperor" (huangdi) at the urging of his followers and is known posthumously as Emperor Gaozu (r. 202–195 BCE). Chang'an was chosen as the new capital of the reunified empire under Han.

At the beginning of the Western han dynasty, thirteen centrally controlled commanderies—including the capital region—existed in the western third of the empire, while the eastern two-thirds were divided into ten semi-autonomous kingdoms. To placate his prominent commanders from the war with Chu, Emperor Gaozu enfeoffed some of them as kings. By 157 BCE, the Han court had replaced all of these kings with royal Liu family members, since the loyalty of non-relatives to the throne was questioned. After several insurrections by Han kings—the largest being the Rebellion of the Seven States in 154 BCE—the imperial court enacted a series of reforms beginning in 145 BCE, limiting the size and power of these kingdoms and dividing them into smaller ones or new commanderies. Kings were no longer able to appoint their own staff; this duty was assumed by the imperial court.

Kings became nominal heads of their fiefs and collected a portion of tax revenues as their personal incomes. The kingdoms were never entirely abolished and existed throughout the remainder of Western and eastern han dynasty. To the north of China proper, the nomadic Xiongnu chieftain Modu Chanyu (r. 209–174 BCE) conquered various tribes inhabiting the eastern portion of the Eurasian Steppe. By the end of his reign, he controlled Manchuria, Mongolia, and the Tarim Basin, subjugating over twenty states east of Samarkand. Emperor Gaozu was troubled about the abundant Han-manufactured iron weapons traded to the Xiongnu along the northern borders, and he established a trade embargo against the group. Although the embargo was in place, the Xiongnu found traders willing to supply their needs. Chinese forces also mounted surprise attacks against Xiongnu who traded at the border markets.

In retaliation, the Xiongnu invaded what is now Shanxi province, where they defeated the Han forces at Baideng in 200 BCE. After negotiations, the heqin agreement in 198 BCE nominally held the leaders of the Xiongnu and the Han as equal partners in a royal marriage alliance, but the Han were forced to send large amounts of tribute items such as silk clothes, food, and wine to the Xiongnu. Despite the tribute and a negotiation between Laoshang Chanyu (r. 174–160 BCE) and Emperor Wen (r. 180–157 BCE) to reopen border markets, many of the Chanyu's Xiongnu subordinates chose not to obey the treaty and periodically raided Han territories south of the Great Wall for additional goods. In a court conference assembled by Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BCE) in 135 BCE, the majority consensus of the ministers was to retain the heqin agreement.

Emperor Wu accepted this, despite continuing Xiongnu raids. However, a court conference the following year convinced the majority that a limited engagement at Mayi involving the assassination of the Chanyu would throw the Xiongnu realm into chaos and benefit the Han. When this plot failed in 133 BCE, Emperor Wu launched a series of massive military invasions into Xiongnu territory. Chinese armies captured one stronghold after another and established agricultural colonies to strengthen their hold. The assault culminated in 119 BCE at the Battle of Mobei, where the Han commanders Huo Qubing (d. 117 BCE) and Wei Qing (d. 106 BCE) forced the Xiongnu court to flee north of the Gobi Desert. After Wu's reign, Han forces continued to prevail against the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu leader Huhanye Chanyu (呼韓邪) (r. 58–31 BCE) finally submitted to Han as a tributary vassal in 51 BCE.

His rival claimant to the throne, Zhizhi Chanyu (r. 56–36 BCE), was killed by Chen Tang and Gan Yanshou (甘延壽/甘延寿) at the Battle of Zhizhi, in modern Taraz, Kazakhstan.

In 121 BCE, Han forces expelled the Xiongnu from a vast territory spanning the Hexi Corridor to Lop Nur. They repelled a joint Xiongnu-Qiang invasion of this northwestern territory in 111 BCE. In that year, the Han court established four new frontier commanderies in this region: Jiuquan, Zhangyi, Dunhuang, and Wuwei. The majority of people on the frontier were soldiers. On occasion, the court forcibly moved peasant farmers to new frontier settlements, along with government-owned slaves and convicts who performed hard labor. The court also encouraged commoners, such as farmers, merchants, landowners, and hired laborers, to voluntarily migrate to the frontier.

Even before Han's expansion into Central Asia, diplomat Zhang Qian's travels from 139 to 125 BCE had established Chinese contacts with many surrounding civilizations. Zhang encountered Dayuan (Fergana), Kangju (Sogdiana), and Daxia (Bactria, formerly the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom); he also gathered information on Shendu (Indus River valley of North India) and Anxi (the Parthian Empire). All of these countries eventually received Han embassies. These connections marked the beginning of the Silk Road trade network that extended to the Roman Empire, bringing Han items like silk to Rome and Roman goods such as glasswares to China. From roughly 115 to 60 BCE, Han forces fought the Xiongnu over control of the oasis city-states in the Tarim Basin. Han was eventually victorious and established the Protectorate of the Western Regions in 60 BCE, which dealt with the region's defense and foreign affairs.

The naval conquest of Nanyue in 111 BCE expanded the Han realm into what are now modern Guangdong , Guangxi , and northern Vietnam. Yunnan was brought into the Han realm with the conquest of the Dian Kingdom in 109 BCE, followed by parts of the Korean Peninsula with the colonial establishments of Xuantu Commandery and Lelang Commandery in 108 BCE. In China's first known nationwide census taken in 2 CE, the population was registered as having 57,671,400 individuals in 12,366,470 households. To pay for his military campaigns and colonial expansion, Emperor Wu nationalized several private industries. He created central government monopolies administered largely by former merchants. These monopolies included salt, iron, and liquor production, as well as bronze-coin currency.

The liquor monopoly lasted only from 98 to 81 BCE, and the salt and iron monopolies were eventually abolished in early eastern han dynasty. The issuing of coinage remained a central government monopoly throughout the rest of the han dynasty. The government monopolies were eventually repealed when a political faction known as the Reformists gained greater influence in the court. The Reformists opposed the Modernist faction that had dominated court politics in Emperor Wu's reign and during the subsequent regency of Huo Guang (d. 68 BCE).

The Modernists argued for an aggressive and expansionary foreign policy supported by revenues from heavy government intervention in the private economy. The Reformists, however, overturned these policies, favoring a cautious, non-expansionary approach to foreign policy, frugal budget reform, and lower tax rates imposed on private entrepreneurs.

Wang Mang's reign and civil war

Wang Zhengjun (71 BCE–13 CE) was first empress, then empress dowager, and finally grand empress dowager during the reigns of the Emperors Yuan (r. 49–33 BCE), Cheng (r. 33–7 BCE), and Ai (r. 7–1 BCE), respectively. During this time, a succession of her male relatives held the title of regent. Following the death of Ai, Wang Zhengjun's nephew Wang Mang (45 BCE–23 CE) was appointed regent for Emperor Ping (r. 1 BCE – 6 CE). When Ping died in 6 CE, the Empress Dowager appointed Wang Mang to act as emperor for the child Liu Ying (d. 25 CE). Wang promised to relinquish his control to Liu Ying once he came of age. Despite this promise, and against protest and revolts from the nobility, Wang Mang claimed that the divine Mandate of Heaven called for the end of the han dynasty and the beginning of his own: the xin dynasty (9–23 CE).

Wang Mang initiated a series of major reforms that were ultimately unsuccessful. These reforms included outlawing slavery, nationalizing land to equally distribute between households, and introducing new currencies, a change which debased the value of coinage. Although these reforms provoked considerable opposition, Wang's regime met its ultimate downfall with the massive floods of c. 3 CE and 11 CE. Gradual silt buildup in the Yellow River had raised its water level and overwhelmed the flood control works. The Yellow River split into two new branches: one emptying to the north and the other to the south of the Shandong Peninsula, though Han engineers managed to dam the southern branch by 70 CE. The flood dislodged thousands of peasant farmers, many of whom joined roving bandit and rebel groups such as the Red Eyebrows to survive.

Wang Mang's armies were incapable of quelling these enlarged rebel groups. Eventually, an insurgent mob forced their way into the Weiyang Palace and killed Wang Mang.

Emperor Gengshi of Han (r. 23–25 CE), a descendant of Emperor Jing (r. 157–141 BCE), attempted to restore the han dynasty and occupied Chang'an as his capital. However, he was overwhelmed by the "Red Eyebrow" rebels who deposed, assassinated, and replaced him with the puppet monarch Liu Penzi. Emperor Gengshi's brother Liu Xiu, known posthumously as Emperor Guangwu (r. 25–57 CE), after distinguishing himself at the Battle of Kunyang in 23 CE, was urged to succeed Gengshi as emperor. Under Guangwu's rule the Han Empire was restored. Guangwu made Luoyang his capital in 25 CE, and by 27 CE his officers Deng Yu and Feng Yi had forced the Red Eyebrows to surrender and executed their leaders for treason. From 26 until 36 CE, Emperor Guangwu had to wage war against other regional warlords who claimed the title of emperor; when these warlords were defeated, China reunified under the Han.

The period between the foundation of the han dynasty and Wang Mang's reign is known as the Western han dynasty (simplified Chinese: 西汉; traditional Chinese: 西漢; pinyin: Xī Hàn) or Former han dynasty (simplified Chinese: 前汉; traditional Chinese: 前漢; pinyin: Qiánhàn) (206 BCE – 9 CE). During this period the capital was at Chang'an (modern Xian). From the reign of Guangwu the capital was moved eastward to Luoyang. The era from his reign until the fall of Han is known as the eastern han dynasty (simplified Chinese: 东汉; traditional Chinese: 東漢; pinyin: Dōng Hàn) or the Later han dynasty (simplified Chinese: 后汉; traditional Chinese: 後漢; pinyin: Hòu Hàn) (25–220 CE).

End of the han dynasty

The Partisan Prohibitions were repealed during the Yellow Turban Rebellion and Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion in 184 CE, largely because the court did not want to continue to alienate a significant portion of the gentry class who might otherwise join the rebellions. The Yellow Turbans and Five-Pecks-of-Rice adherents belonged to two different hierarchical Daoist religious societies led by faith healers Zhang Jue (d. 184 CE) and Zhang Lu (d. 216 CE), respectively. Zhang Lu's rebellion, in modern northern Sichuan and southern Shaanxi , was not quelled until 215 CE. Zhang Jue's massive rebellion across eight provinces was annihilated by Han forces within a year, however the following decades saw much smaller recurrent uprisings. Although the Yellow Turbans were defeated, many generals appointed during the crisis never disbanded their assembled militia forces and used these troops to amass power outside of the collapsing imperial authority.

General-in-Chief He Jin (d. 189 CE), half-brother to Empress He (d. 189 CE), plotted with Yuan Shao (d. 202 ) to overthrow the eunuchs by having several generals march to the outskirts of the capital. There, in a written petition to Empress He, they demanded the eunuchs' execution. After a period of hesitation, Empress He consented. When the eunuchs discovered this, however, they had her brother He Miao (何苗) rescind the order. The eunuchs assassinated He Jin on September 22, 189 CE. Yuan Shao then besieged Luoyang's Northern Palace while his brother Yuan Shu (d. 199 CE) besieged the Southern Palace. On September 25 both palaces were breached and approximately two thousand eunuchs were killed. Zhang Rang had previously fled with Emperor Shao (r. 189 CE) and his brother Liu Xie—the future Emperor Xian of Han (r. 189–220 CE). While being pursued by the Yuan brothers, Zhang committed suicide by jumping into the Yellow River.

General Dong Zhuo (d. 192 CE) found the young emperor and his brother wandering in the countryside. He escorted them safely back to the capital and was made Minister of Works, taking control of Luoyang and forcing Yuan Shao to flee. After Dong Zhuo demoted Emperor Shao and promoted his brother Liu Xie as Emperor Xian, Yuan Shao led a coalition of former officials and officers against Dong, who burned Luoyang to the ground and resettled the court at Chang'an in May 191 CE. Dong Zhuo later poisoned Emperor Shao.

Dong was killed by his adopted son Lü Bu (d. 198 CE) in a plot hatched by Wang Yun (d. 192 CE). Emperor Xian fled from Chang'an in 195 CE to the ruins of Luoyang. Xian was persuaded by Cao Cao (155–220 CE), then Governor of Yan Province in modern western Shandong and eastern Henan , to move the capital to Xuchang in 196 CE.

Yuan Shao challenged Cao Cao for control over the emperor. Yuan's power was greatly diminished after Cao defeated him at the Battle of Guandu in 200 CE. After Yuan died, Cao killed Yuan Shao's son Yuan Tan (173–205 CE), who had fought with his brothers over the family inheritance. His brothers Yuan Shang and Yuan Xi were killed in 207 CE by Gongsun Kang (d. 221 CE), who sent their heads to Cao Cao.

After Cao's defeat at the naval Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 CE, China was divided into three spheres of influence, with Cao Cao dominating the north, Sun Quan (182–252 CE) dominating the south, and Liu Bei (161–223 CE) dominating the west. Cao Cao died in March 220 CE. By December his son Cao Pi (187–226 CE) had Emperor Xian relinquish the throne to him and is known posthumously as Emperor Wen of Wei. This formally ended the han dynasty and initiated an age of conflict between three states: cao wei, Eastern Wu, and Shu Han.

Western Han Emperors

han dynasty Sovereigns

Posthumous name

Personal name

Period of reign

Era name

Range of years

Western han dynasty202 BC – 9 AD

Emperor Gaozu of Han


Liu Bang


202–195 BC


Emperor Hui of Han


Liu Ying


195–188 BC


Liu Gong


Liu Gong


188–184 BC


Emperor Houshao of Han


Liu Hong


184–180 BC


Emperor Wen of Han


Liu Heng


180–157 BC



179–164 BC



163–156 BC

Emperor Jing of Han


Liu Qi


157–141 BC



156–150 BC



149–143 BC



143–141 BC

Emperor Wu of Han


Liu Che


141–87 BC



141–135 BC



134–129 BC



128–123 BC



122–117 BC



116–111 BC



110–105 BC



104–101 BC



100–97 BC



96–93 BC



92–89 BC



88–87 BC

Emperor Zhao of Han


Liu Fuling


87–74 BC



86–80 BC



80–75 BC



74 BC

Prince He of Changyi

昌邑王 or 海昏侯

Liu He


74 BC



74 BC

Emperor Xuan of Han


Liu Bingyi


74–49 BC



73–70 BC



69–66 BC



65–61 BC



61–58 BC



57–54 BC



53–50 BC



49 BC

Emperor Yuan of Han


Liu Shi


49–33 BC



48–44 BC



43–39 BC



38–34 BC



33 BC

Emperor Cheng of Han


Liu Ao


33–7 BC



32–28 BC



28–25 BC



24–21 BC



20–17 BC



16–13 BC



12–9 BC



8–7 BC

Emperor Ai of Han


Liu Xin


7–1 BC



6–3 BC



2–1 BC

Emperor Ping of Han


Liu Kan


1–6 AD



1–5 AD

Ruzi Ying


Liu Ying


6–9 AD



6–8 AD



8–9 AD

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