Han Dynasty

Essential Question

How did the Han Dynasty improve the Chinese government and borders?

The Han Dynasty

Shi Huangdi’s son was a less effective ruler than his father. People rebelled during his rule. A civil war broke out during the last years of his reign. Eventually, a military general named Liu Bang (lee•oo bahng) defeated the Qin forces. He ended the civil war and reunified China. In 202 B.C., he started the Han Dynasty. The Han Dynasty lasted until about 220 A.D., during the same time period as the Roman Empire.

In terms of power and prestige, the Han Dynasty in the East rivaled its almost contemporary Roman Empire in the West. With only minor interruptions, it lasted a span of over four centuries and was considered a golden age in Chinese history, especially in arts, politics, and technology. All subsequent Chinese dynasties looked back to the Han period as an inspiring model of a united empire and self-perpetuating government.

The Han Expansion

From 141 to 87 B.C., a descendant of Liu Bang named Wudi (woo•dee) ruled the Han Empire. He was called the Martial Emperor because he used war to expand China. Wudi made many military conquests. He brought southern Chinese provinces, northern Vietnam, and northern Korea under his control. He chased nomadic invaders out of northern China. By the end of his rule, China had grown significantly, in fact nearly as large as it is today. The Han faced rebellions, peasant revolts, floods, famine, and economic disasters. Somehow they managed to stay in power until A.D. 220.

The Han Government

The Han kept the Qin policies of the strong central government, but also wanted to free people from hard government policies. They gave large amounts of land to their supporters to reward and continue their loyalty. The Han lowered taxes for farmers and punishments less harsh. In Han China, peasant men owed the government a month of labor per year on the emperor’s public projects. Peasants were put to work building roads, canals, and irrigation projects.

Under the Han, Confucianism became China's official government philosophy. Government officials were expected to practice Confucianism. Rulers even began universities to teach Confucian ideas. They set up a system of tests to find the most educated and ethical people for the imperial bureaucratic state. These tests were very competitive, at their most competitive time only 1 of 333 applicants were accepted for government jobs. If a person passed an exam on Confucian teachings, he could get a good position in the government. Their duties included teaching at private schools, supervising community projects, maintaining law and order, conducting ceremonies, assisting in tax collection, and overseeing imperial social welfare programs. In essence, anything that the emperor needed to be done.

The idea that scholar-officials should be chosen by how well they performed on their exams and promoted or demoted based on how well they do their job is referred to as the merit system. The idea that ability was more important than one's family was a groundbreaking idea. However, not just anyone could take the test. The exams were only open to people who had been recommended for government service already. As a result, wealthy or influential families continued to control the government.

Once a scholar-official received a job they served in it for seven years, then to prevent corruption, they were moved to another job. If a scholar-official did a good job they would be promoted or if they did a bad job they would be demoted to a less important job or dismissed. This idea to base promotions on performance is known as the merit system. The idea that ability was more important than one's family was a groundbreaking idea.

Discussion Questions

  • What role did Emperor Wudi have in improving the Han Dynasty?

  • What was the world-changing consequence of Zhang Qian's Long Journey?

  • How was the Han Dynasty structured?

  • What was the basis for the civil service exams? Why were they important?

Activity 2: How did the Han dynasty development its imperial bureaucratic state and expansion the empire.

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Extension Activities