After a short civil war, a new dynasty, called Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), emerged with its capital at Chang'an ( ). The new empire retained much of the Qin administrative structure but retreated a bit from centralized rule by establishing vassal principalities in some areas for the sake of political convenience. The Han rulers modified some of the harsher aspects of the previous dynasty; Confucian ideals of government, out of favor during the Qin period, were adopted as the creed of the Han empire, and Confucian scholars gained prominent status as the core of the civil service. A civil service examination system also was initiated. Intellectual, literary, and artistic endeavors revived and flourished. The Han period produced China's most famous historian, Sima Qian (145-87 B.C.?), whose Shiji (Historical Records) provides a detailed chronicle from the time of a legendary Xia emperor to that of the Han emperor Wu Di (141-87 B.C.). Technological advances also marked this period. Two of the great Chinese inventions, paper and porcelain, date from Han times.
Under the Han rulers, science and technology made remarkable strides; paper, the compass, and the seismograph were invented; and steel was manufactured. The empire expanded into southern China, northern Vietnam and parts of Korea, and forged trade routes through Central Asia to India and Persia. Confucianism was reinterpreted and adopted as the official state ideology, and a national university was established for the training of Confucian officials. The political unity of the Qin was preserved, but sanctioned by Confucianism so that Chinese of today still look back on this epoch with pride and call themselves "men of Han." Diversity developed within the culture: native and foreign, Confucian and Taoist, courtly and popular.
The Han Dynasty, after which the members of the ethnic majority in China, the "people of Han," are named, was notable also for its military prowess. The empire expanded westward as far as the rim of the Tarim Basin (in modern Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region), making possible relatively secure caravan traffic across Central Asia to Antioch, Baghdad, and Alexandria. The paths of caravan traffic are often called the "silk route" because the route was used to export Chinese silk to the Roman Empire. Chinese armies also invaded and annexed parts of northern Vietnam and northern Korea toward the end of the second century BC. Han control of peripheral regions was generally insecure, however. To ensure peace with non-Chinese local powers, the Han court developed a mutually beneficial "tributary system". Non-Chinese states were allowed to remain autonomous in exchange for symbolic acceptance of Han overlordship. Tributary ties were confirmed and strengthened through intermarriages at the ruling level and periodic exchanges of gifts and goods.
After 200 years, Han rule was interrupted briefly (in AD 9-24 by Wang Mang, a reformer), and then restored for another 200 years. The Han rulers, however, were unable to adjust to what centralization had wrought-- a growing population, increasing wealth and resultant financial difficulties and rivalries and ever-more complex political institutions. Riddled with the corruption characteristic of the dynastic cycle, by AD 220 the Han empire collapsed.
The Han Dynasty lasted four hundred years. The term "The Han people" comes from the name of this dynasty. (The English term for "China" comes from the name of the previous dynasty Ch'in). The Han dynasty is the East Asian counterpart of and contemporary with Rome in its golden age. During this dynasty, China officially became a Confucian state, prospered domestically, and extended its political and cultural influence over Vietnam, Central Asia, Mongolia, and Korea before finally collapsing under a mixture of domestic and external pressures.
The Han ruling line was briefly interrupted by the usurpation of a famous reformer, Wang Mang, whose interlude on the throne from A.D. 9 to 23 in known as the Hsin dynasty. Historians therefore subdivide the Han period into two parts, Former (or Western) Han (capital at Ch'ang-an, present day Xi'an) and Later (Eastern) Han (capital at Loyang).
Han Kao-tsu (Liu Bang)
Founder of the dynasty and first commoner to rule China (202 B.C. - 195 B.C.) Spent most of the short reign suppressing military challenges of ambitious subordinates and fighting defensively against a Turkic-speaking northern people known as the Hsiung-nu. Policy proposals initiated by officials rather than the emperor and policy decisions made by the emperor only after widespread consultation and deliberation among his ministerial advisers. Laissez-faire policies: blend of pre-Ch'in feudalism and Ch'in's autocratic centralism: eastern part of the empire for feudal fiefdom (princedoms and marquisates); western half for central government control (commanderies and subordinate districts). The policy lead to population growth, expansion of economy and flourishing of culture.
Emperor Wu (Han Wu-ti, reigned from 141 to 87 B.C.)
Centralization of power and defeudalization: stripped the nobility of their status and wealth, and transformed their nominal fiefs into commanderies and districts. Campaigned against the Xiongnu in the north; dispatched the courtier Chang Qian westward to find anti-Xiongnu allies.
Expansion of Han territory: westward, from Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang) into Russian Turkestan, eastward to Korea, southward to Vietnam. Chinese began to learn about Japan through Korea. At the time, Japan was still at the Neolithic stage of development.
Development of a tributary system for neighboring countries. Ruler's sons sent to Chang-an to be educated (as hostage), Chinese princesses or noblewomen given in marriages to alien rulers.