Western Han Dynasty | Chinese Antiques

Founding of the Western Han Dynasty

Founded by the rebel leader Liu Bang, the Western Han Dynasty was established as the second imperial dynasty of China when the peasant leader Liu crushed the Imperial Army of Qin in Wei Valley. Liu Bang of Han became the first emperor Gaozu of the Han Dynasty.

Wang Mang a former official of the Han Dynasty interrupted the rule of Han Dynasty. His aunt, the Empress Dowager appointed him to act as the emperor while the young Liu Ying came to age. Wang Mang gave his word to step down once Liu Ying was old enough, but when the time came for him to relinquish the throne, he broke the agreement and proclaimed himself as the Emperor. This was the end of the Western Han Dynasty and the beginning of Xin Dynasty which was short lived.

Hence, the Han Dynasty was divided into two periods: the Western Han and the Eastern Han. The Han Dynasty was successfully restored after the Xin Dynasty


Ruling, Society & Culture of the Western Han Dynasty

• During the early Western Han, some military officers were designated as Kings and they ruled over semi-autonomous fiefs. Later, only the emperor’s male relatives were given that designation.

• Regents and eunuchs were positions that were given to a few officials during the later periods of the dynasty. Those serving the government also had privileged positions during this dynasty. They were immune from arrests unless permission from the emperor was granted.

• Scholars belonged to the same tier as that of the nobles and the government officials.

• The Han kingdom rivalled that of the Romans in prominence and in achievements in the fields of art and science. This era had a very rich cultural, intellectual and political heritage

• The arts began to gain status during the Eastern Han period when calligraphy and painting were no longer seen as pure letter symbols only. Ceramics was also developed along with the spread of pottery.

• Han emperors and other noblemen adorned their tombs with replicas made through pottery of warriors, servants, concubines, toilets, furniture; everything they needed in the next world.

• The makers of the Han dynasty were credited with being the first politicians in Chinese history to develop a system of training and educating future administration officials. Becoming an actual official was still more possible through recommendations instead of imperial examinations.

• The military forces of the Han dynasty were said to have used the most advance forms of weaponry during that time. Swords were a favoured weapon and the improvement in iron casting and working during the Han period made it possible for them to produce stronger swords. Improvements were also made to the traditional crossbow making it more accurate and powerful. The army began to adapt stirrups to gain greater balance riding horses.

• During the Western Han era, writing surfaces were made from different materials such as bones, bamboo slips, wooden boards and even tortoise shells. These things are not only heavy but they also took up a lot of space and are hard to carry around. People then needed not only intelligence to study, but they needed to be strong to carry their books as well.

• Literature became an integral part of the Han dynasty culture mainly because of the invention of paper.

• Historian Sima Qian wrote the Book of History, the first account of Chinese history from Huangdi to Emperor Wu.

• The Yuefu, or the Music Bureau began to collect and record ceremonial chants and songs and ballads of common people.

• During the Han period, the loom was invented. With that, silk began to be woven for export trades. The world renowned “Three Treasures of the Han Dynasty” was also created during this time.

• During the Western Han dynasty, the “dark style” black from the Qin Dynasty was the preferred colour. Court dress was black and when performing sacrificial ceremonies, the formal dress was edged with red.

• Characteristics of Han Dynasty clothing were square sleeves, sloping necklines, red clothes, red shoes and cicada-like hat. Clothes worn by high ranking officials and ordinary people had the same style. The only way to identify the position or rank of a person in the society was by the colour and the quality of the materials used in his clothing.

• During the Han Dynasty, a significant event referred to as the Yellow Turban Rebellion occurred. China was headed by Emperor Ling when this peasant revolt broke out. The rebels all wore yellow scarves around their heads which is the reason why the Yellow Turban Rebellion is also referred to as Yellow Scarves Rebellion. This momentous event in China also holds some significance with Taoism.

• The society of the Han Dynasty can generally be described as highly structured with a clear definition of each social class. Han China was comprised of a three-tiered rigid social system. Aristocrats and bureaucrats were at the top of this hierarchy followed by skilled farmers and iron workers. The bottom tier consisted of unskilled servants and slaves. The emperor was at the top of the whole hierarchy.

• At the time of the Eastern Han dynasty, red was the most respectful colour because it symbolised the “fire virtue” of the Han Dynasty. The government officials of this period wore coloured clothes that conformed to the season, according to the Five Elements theory. During Spring, ceremonial clothes as well as carriages were grey-green. In Summer, ceremonial dress was was red. For Autumn, the preferred colour was yellow and in Winter, the preferred colour was black.

• Shenyi was the long coat developed in the Western Han Dynasty and the Yijin which made up the front of the jacket/gown. Women in this period wore long pants, long jackets, a long intricate belt with delicate, expensive accessories to show the class a woman belonged to in the society.

• The famous Silk Road was developed during this dynasty. Composed of different routes through the mountains and valleys that merchants, traders and government officials followed for safe travel away from robbers and bandits.

• The greatest contributor to the Han dynasty economy’s affluence was the silk trade and the opening up of the Silk Road.

• The invention of the loom enabled silk to be produced and traded to the western people through the Silk Road. Silk was used as a currency.

• The Han dynasty inventions were some of the greatest contributions not only in the Chinese society but across the globe. Some of the lesser known innovations developed during this period include the creation of the wheelbarrow, paper, seismograph and stirrups.

• The invention of cast iron tools can also be credited to the people of the Han dynasty. It was during the Han dynasty that the cast iron processing was perfected. Furnaces which are able to convert iron ore into pig iron and later into cast iron. This resulted in vastly improved weapons, tools and domestic wares. It paved the way for the creation of new agricultural tools which in turn helped increase the agricultural tax revenue of the empire.

• Better irrigation systems were enhanced to aid in the colonisation of the northern region of China. The Empire invested on conducting study on agriculture and crop rotation was used.

• Iron and salt, two biggest products in the economy of the empire, were monopolized for at least a century.

• A new class of philosophers and educated elite were hailed. This led to assemblage of different important books such as anthologies, history accounts and encyclopedia. The most famous and important book of the Han dynasty is the Book of the Mountains and Seas. This atlas-like book includes every information known at the era about geography and topography of known lands, ecology, zoology and botany and famous myths.

• Iron and salt, two biggest products in the economy of the empire, were monopolized for at least a century.

• A new class of philosophers and educated elite were hailed. This led to assemblage of different important books such as anthologies, history accounts and encyclopedia. The most famous and important book of the Han dynasty is the Book of the Mountains and Seas. This atlas-like book includes every information known at the era about geography and topography of known lands, ecology, zoology and botany and famous myths.

Events During The Han Dynasty

256 BC: Liu Bang, born (Emperor Gao/Gaozu), emerges from peasant class to become the first emperor of the Han Dynasty.

206 BC: Han Dynasty begins. Lui Bang reduces taxes, develops agriculture, restricts spending, levies heavy taxes and restrictions on corrupt Qin merchants. He subdues other unruly kings within the neighbourhood and soon annexes them all, appointing his sons and relatives as princes of these subjugated kingdoms, thereby consolidating all the powers of his new empire.

195 BC: Lui Bang dies. He is mortally wounded during his Ying Bu rebellion campaign with a stray arrow.

141 BC: Emperor Wu of Han, tenth son of Emperor Jing (seventh emperor of the Han Dynasty Liu Che) rules at 16 years old. Chinese history regards him as the greatest Han emperor with the goal of unification of the whole of China. As an energetic military campaigner, Liu Che embarks China into its greatest expansion ever, conquering parts of modern Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam and Korea, vanquishing the Huns to the Gobi desert. This Emperor of the Han dynasty moves an approximate two million Chinese to the north western part of the empire to ensure

87 BC: Emperor Wu, Liu Che dies on the throne aged 70, capping his 54-year rule.

45 BC: Future Xin Emperor Wang Ming is born.

13BC: Liu Xiu is born on 13 January.

25 AD: Emperor Guang Wu (Liu Xiu) restores the fallen Han Dynasty. Liu Xiu is an emperor of the Han Dynasty and first emperor of the Eastern Han. He rules small parts of China at first and successfully unifies China little by little.

104 AD: A eunuch of the Imperial Court, Cai Lun invents a new type of paper. Bamboo fibres and the inner bark of a mulberry tree are added to water and pounded using a wooden tool. The whole mixture is poured over a flat woven cloth letting the water drain out. When dried, only the fibres remain and Cai Lun realises he has made a lightweight material with a good writing surface.

105 AD: Cai Lun presents this invention to the Emperor He Di and paper is then invented, according to Chinese History.