Times & Places

Han dynasty (206 BCE- 220 CE)

Following the death of the Qin emperor Qin Shi Huang, civil war ensued before China was reunited under the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). The Han is divided into two periods: the Western Han (206 BCE - 9 CE) and Eastern Han (25-220 CE). The Han dynasty was marked by the advancement of culture and the expansion of diplomacy and trade. Under the emperor Wudi (141-86 BCE) the literary arts and philosophy flourished. Confucianism was adapted to the needs of the court and developed alongside Taoism, both of which influenced the art and intellectual life of the period. Wudi established Confucianism as the foundation for official and personal conduct, and Confucian principles were at the core of the imperial examination system implemented during his reign. It was also under his rule that Sima Qian wrote the Shiji (Historical Records), an official chronicle of the time from the first emperor of China to that of Wudi. Interestingly, this court historian and astrologer recorded the history of the Shang (c. 1600 BCE to c. 1050 BCE) kings with accuracy although his sources are unknown.

In the 2nd century Emperor Wudi sent Zhang Qian to negotiate an alliance with the Yuezhi against northern nomads. His capture as he left China led to a journey of several years taking him to unknown lands. Zhang Qian eventually brought detailed reports of these places back to emperor Wudi, which had far-reaching political, military, and commercial consequences. Emperor Wudi cultivated political and economic relationships with these previously unknown lands and laid the foundations of the Silk Road.

Due to a competent army and strategic commerce, territories were regained in southern China and the northern part of Vietnam, districts under Chinese control were established in Korea, and missions sent to areas of western Central Asia. Further holdings in the Himalayas and Tibet were important for the Silk Road. Trade soon became the primary implement of foreign policy, and China established state-controlled commerce of all silk products which eventually enriched the treasury. Trade occurred at limited and specific markets within the Western Han capital of Chang'an, and watchtowers were erected for military supervision. Moreover, the Han government bred large numbers of camels they had acquired from the nomadic tribes of the north for the transport of people, goods, and messages. The first caravan from China to Persia traveled in 106 BCE.

Following the death of Wudi, weak successors, poor administration, and court intrigue weakened the Han. Wang Mang usurped the throne in 9 CE and ruled as the sole emperor of the Xin dynasty until his murder in 25 CE. In that same year, the Han dynasty was restored with the capital at Luoyang. The thriving culture that had begun in the Western Han continued in the Eastern Han. Contact with Japan was made for the first time, and relations continued to grow with Central Asia, extending to what is now Afghanistan and northwest India. Northwest India was ruled by the Yuezhi as the Kushan dynasty, which sent embassies to Luoyang. Through the latter interaction, Buddhism began to take root in China as a popular cult alongside local cults and Taoism.

Excavated tomb furnishings demonstrate the impact of foreign contact and the mingling of indigenous and imported belief systems. The Han dynasty marks the end of human sacrifices, which were replaced with representations. This was facilitated by the factory production of ceramics as well as lacquer. Works ranging from bronzes, textiles, jade objects, wall paintings, and earthenware, among others, were placed in burial chambers. These tomb furnishings were both objects of everyday use and guardian figures. Although Buddhism was established at court, its impact on the arts was limited, with motifs and themes appearing on bronze mirrors and in rock-cut reliefs. This tradition of furnishing tombs continued for several centuries reaching its peak in the Tang dynasty (CE 618-906) and subsequently declining.

The Han dynasty collapsed in 220 CE and China was divided into the three city states of Wu, Wei, and Shu, known as the Three Kingdoms (220-280 CE).

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