The Han Dynasty in China (202 BCE – 220 CE)

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The Han Dynasty would become one of the most important and long-lasting dynasties in all of Chinese history second in length only to the Zhou Dynasty. It would rule China for over four hundred years and ushered in a golden age of peace, prosperity, and development. So important was the Han to establishing a pattern in Chinese civilization distinguishing people belonging to it from those around them that Chinese people today refer to their ethnic group as Han Chinese and the written Chinese is referred to as “Han characters”.

Also, after adopting the foundations laid by the Qin Dynasty, the Han further strengthened them, cementing an imperial pattern that persisted in China until the fall of the last dynasty (Qing) in 1911.

Han Dynasty Silk Road trade routes. The territory of the Han Dynasty is colored green. Notice the Kushan Empire and the Parthian Empire discussed in previous sections of the Whirlwind World History book.
Han Dynasty Silk Road trade routes. The territory of the Han Dynasty is colored green. Notice the Kushan and the Parthian Empires discussed in previous sections of the Whirlwind World History book.
Emporer Gaozu
Lui Bang (Emporer Gaozu)

The Han Dynasty was started by Liu Bang (later known as Emporer Gaozu), in a literal rags-to-riches story. Liu Bang was one of the few dynasty founders in Chinese history who was born into a peasant family.

Prior to coming to power, Liu Bang initially served for the Qin dynasty as a minor law enforcement officer in his home town. During the Qun Empire’s chaos after First Emperor Qin Shi Huang died, Liu Bang renounced his civil service position and became an anti-Qin rebel leader. He won the race against fellow rebel leader Xiang Yu to invade the Qin heartland and forced the surrender of the last Qin ruler in 206 BC.

He then fought in a civil war for control over China, won, and established the Han dynasty.

The Han Dynasty was a golden age of stability, wealth, and new inventions and advancements.

Science and technology during the Han period saw significant advances, including the process of papermaking, the nautical steering ship rudder, crossbows, the use of negative numbers in mathematics, the raised-relief map, a hydraulic-powered sphere for astronomy, and a seismometer that could be used to discern the direction of distant earthquakes.

The Han expanded their borders and also built a wall that stretched for almost 6000 miles to protect themselves from invaders.

Social Structure

In the hierarchical social order, the emperor was at the apex of Han society and government. However, the emperor was often a minor, ruled over by a regent such as the empress dowager or one of her male relatives. The emperor’s authority derived in theory from his having received the mandate of Heaven, his virtue, and his role as mediator between the celestial realms and human world; as such, he could expect his subjects’ obedience and loyalty. He resided within the walls of the imperial palace at the capital city, attended by eunuchs who handled his personal needs, palace administration, and the imperial harem. Emperors had numerous consorts but also a principal wife–the empress–who held a special status and was quite influential, usually because she bore the heir to the throne, but also because she and her in-laws were an intimate part of the emperor’s palace life. Often, the imperial family, imperial in-laws, eunuchs, and high officials broke apart into squabbling factions fighting for power and influence.

Ranked immediately below the emperor were the kings who were of the same family clan. The rest of society, including nobles lower than kings and all commoners excluding slaves belonged to one of twenty ranks.

Each successive rank gave its holder greater pensions and legal privileges. The highest rank, of full marquess, came with a state pension and a territorial fiefdom.

Feudalism was a way of structuring society around relationships that were derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labor. It revolves around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs. In broad terms a lord was a noble who held land, a vassal was a person who was granted possession of the land by the lord, and the land was known as a fief. In exchange for the use of the fief and protection by the lord, the vassal would provide some sort of service to the lord. 

Holders of the rank immediately below full marquess, that of ordinary marquess, received a pension, but had no territorial rule. Officials who served in government belonged to the wider commoner social class and were ranked just below nobles in social prestige.

Rulers saw the benefit in having officials who were highly educated, loyal, of good character, and who understood the formalities of ritual and etiquette. An Imperial Academy was founded at the capital in 124 so that students could be educated in classical Confucian texts. Across the country, these students were nominated by local officials based on their how well-educated they were and their virtuous conduct. Successful graduates went on to serve as officials, and, because that conferred the highest prestige and status on an individual in Han China, Confucian values penetrated society. Texts were compiled explaining good etiquette, conduct, and ritual requirements for each family member and members of society based on their superior or subordinate status. Filial piety was celebrated in both art and texts, and law codes reinforced social norms by, for example, supporting the authority of the family patriarch, division of property among sons, and arranged marriages. In brief, over the course of the Han Dynasty, Chinese increasingly identified themselves as defenders of a Confucian civilization.

The farmer, or specifically the small landowner-cultivator, was ranked just below scholars and officials in the social hierarchy.

Family Life

The Han-era family was patrilineal and typically had four to five nuclear family members living in one household. Multiple generations of extended family members did not occupy the same house, unlike families of later dynasties.

The word patrilineal comes from the Latin pater, meaning father, and linea meaning line, string, or thread.

A patrilineal family traces descent through the male line. A child is known by his father, instead of his mother who birthed him.

Marriages were highly ritualized, particularly for the wealthy, and included many important steps. The giving of betrothal gifts, known as bridewealth and dowry, were especially important. A lack of either was considered dishonorable and the woman would have been seen not as a wife, but as a concubine.

The word concubine comes from the Latin con/com, meaning with or together, and cubare meaning to lie down.

A concubine is a woman who lives with a man in an intimate relationship without being married to him. The terms comes from  the institution in ancient Rome that regulated the cohabitation of free citizens who did not want to enter into a marriage, similarly to modern day civil unions (a legally recognized arrangement similar to but different from marriage). Whatever the status and rights of the persons involved, they are always inferior to those of a legitimate spouse, and typically the rights of inheritance are limited or excluded. Concubinage was common in ancient history – sometimes to ensure heirs were born.

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Arranged marriages were normal, with the father’s input on his offspring’s spouse being considered more important than the mother’s, and a woman who had been widowed continued to belong to her husband’s family after his death. In order to remarry, the widow would have to be returned to her family in exchange for a ransom fee. Her children would not be allowed to go with her.

The most common occupation for women was weaving clothes for the family, sale at market or for large textile enterprises that employed hundreds of women. Other women helped on their brothers’ farms or became singers, dancers, sorceresses, respected medical physicians, and successful merchants who could afford their own silk clothes.

Families ate a variety of foods like rice, beans, chestnuts, bamboo shoots, fruits (strawberries, peaches, melons, apricots, and more), and domesticated animals such as ducks, geese, cows, pigs, and even dogs. Seasonings included soy sauce, sugar, honey, and salt.

A Han banquet
A Han banquet

The types of clothing worn and the materials used during the Han period depended upon social class. Wealthy folk could afford silk robes, skirts, socks, and mittens, coats made of badger or fox fur, duck plumes, and slippers with inlaid leather, pearls, and silk lining. Peasants commonly wore clothes made of hemp, wool, and ferret skins.

A servant
A servant

Families throughout Han China made ritual sacrifices of animals and food to deities, spirits, and ancestors at temples and shrines. They believed that these items could be utilized by those in the spiritual realm.

The Empire Ends

After 92 AD, the palace eunuchs increasingly involved themselves in court politics, engaging in violent power struggles between the various consort clans of the empresses and empresses dowager, causing the Han’s ultimate downfall. Imperial authority was also seriously challenged by large Taoist religious societies which instigated the Yellow Scarves Rebellion and the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion.

The Yellow Scarves Rebellion was caused by a crisis of famine and floods that forced many farmers and former military settlers to seek employment in the south, where large landowners exploited the labor surplus to amass large fortunes. Peasants also suffered from high taxation, imposed to fund the construction of fortifications along the Silk Road and garrisons against foreign invasion. The strain led to landowners, landless peasants, and unemployed veterans forming armed bands (around 170 CE) and eventually private armies and an uprising by rebels led by a Taoist religious group (who wore yellow scarves on their heads) in 184. The rebellion was suppressed a year later, but pockets of resistance continued for years.

Following the death of Emperor Ling (ruled from 168 to 189 AD), the palace eunuchs suffered wholesale massacre by military officers, allowing members of the aristocracy and military governors to become warlords and divide the empire. The Han dynasty ceased to exist when a king usurped the throne from Emperor Xian and the Three Kingdoms period in China began.

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Han dynasty map: By User:Historian of the arab people – Self Made, copied map from page 63 of the book Mapping History: World History (London: Cartographica, 2007), by Dr. Ian Barnes. ISBN 978-1-84573-323-0, Public Domain,

Han Dynasty trade routes: Map of the Silk Road trade routes during the Han Dynasty Author: Wikimedia Commons User “Алый Король” and Leo Timm Source: Wikimedia Commons and The Epoch Times License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Concubinage info:

Some text was taken and edited from Boundless World History – – License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

Yellow Turban rebellion:

Banquet scene: By Ancient Chinese artists of the late Eastern Han period –, National Cultural Information Resources Sharing Project, Zhengzhou, Henan, Public Domain,

Han servant: By Guillaume Jacquet – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Lui Bang: By Anonymous artist of the Qing Dynasty, 18th century – 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes. British Library., Public Domain,

Lui Bang info:

This text was adapted (with permission) from:

  • Western Civilization: A Concise History – Volumes 1-3
    by Dr. Christopher Brooks
  • World History Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500
    by Eugene Berger, Ph.D, George L. Israel, Ph.D., Charlotte Miller, Ph.D., Brian Parkinson, Ph.D., Andrew Reeves, Ph.D, and Nadejda Williams, Ph.D.
    CC BY-SA
  • Modern World History
    by Dan Allosso, Bemidji State University and Tom Williford, Southwest Minnesota State University

I’ve taken excerpts from the above-mentioned resources and heavily edited and added to them for my intended audience. While I’ve received permission to use/adapt these books, none of the above endorses Guest Hollow or my use of their materials.

Information was also taken from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License and other resources (listed in the individual page credits).

This online book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Beowulf the Fox Terrier dog and the Greek & Latin roots graphic © Jennifer Guest

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