Han Dynasty China ended the previous Qin (Chin) Dynasty (the famed ‘Terracotta Warriors’ period), and was founded by the rebel warlord Liu Bang. Liu Bang installed himself as Emperor Gaozu. The Han Dynasty was divided into two periods referred to as the ‘Western Dynasty’ up to 9AD, and then the ‘Eastern Dynasty’ from 23AD. These periods were separated by a 14 year interregnum where the leader Wang Mang seized power and established the short-lived Xin (Hsin) Dynasty.
Much of the history of the Han Dynasty was spent in a state of war with the feared nomadic Hsiung-nu (Xiongnu) tribes. The decades of war and raiding from these nomads saw the various fractious Chinese states coalesce into a unified Han Empire. Eventually this unity triumphed over the nomadic raiders who became tributary tribes and vassal states of the Han. Their invasions of Hsiung-nu territory also benefited the Han as they were able to expand their territory and control over the Tarim Basin of Central Asia. Contact with the various peoples of this region also allowed the Han to establish the fames ‘Silk Road’ trade route that extended as far as Europe.
The Han Dynasty represents a ‘golden age’ in Chinese history and many modern Chinese people consider themselves and their culture ‘Han’. This golden age did not last however, and by 90AD, the Han began to collapse into political infighting. The Daoist Yellow Turban uprising against Han Confucianism weakened Imperial power and sparked a hundred years of war and rebellion that ended in the destruction of the Han Dynasty at the hands of the Wei leader Cao Pi.
The Western Han Dynasty
Following the death of the Qin Dynasty Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, the Han leader Liu Bang became Emperor Gaozu and took command of the warring ‘commanderies’ or states of China and established the Western Han Dynasty. Within 40 years Gaozu had replaced the various state leaders with members of his own family or loyal servants, and the unification of the Han Dynasty was well underway. The powers of these leaders were diminished and control was centralised into the Emperor’s Court.
Gaozu’s reign was also plagued by endless war with the nomadic Hsiung-nu tribes. Despite the Western Han’s best efforts, the Hsiung-nu raiding and war was only contained by a marriage alliance that forced on the Han a heavy burden of tribute to the nomadic leader Modu Chanya. Following the deaths of both Gaozu and Modu, this arrangement was greatly weakened and the Hsiung-nu raids began again. The Han, now under the command of Emperor Wu raised large armies and invaded the steppe. This army was predominantly mounted cavalry, supported by low quality foot troops. Years of bitter war eventually saw the Han prevail and by around 50BC the Hsiung-nu tribes were subjugated and the Han territories were stabilised and prosperous.
The Xin Dynasty Interregnum
During the time of Grand Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun (71BC–13AD) her male heirs suffered a series of unfortunate deaths. In 6AD the Empress appointed her nephew Wang Mang as regent for the Child Emperor Liu Ying. In 9Ad Wang Mang declared that he would not stand aside for Liu Ying and established his own Xin Dynasty as a replacement for the Han.
Despite a series of progressive reforms such as abolishing slavery and distributing farmland more fairly, the Xin Dynasty was plagued by loyalist Han rebellions. Ultimately though, it was a series of devastating floods along the Yellow River that destabilised Xin authority and allowed the Han rebel groups to regain control. Wang Mang was killed but such a mob in the Weiyang Palace in 23AD.
Following a series of Han factions, such as Emperor Genshi or the ‘Red Eyebrow’ rebels, fighting for control of the Imperial throne is was Emperor Gwangwu (Liu Xiu) who restored the Han Dynasty to power in 23AD.
The Eastern Han Dynasty
Emperor Gwangwu immediately restored control over the provinces lost during the Xin Dynasty Interregnum, chiefly the lands of the Hsiung-nu, the Tarim Basin and Korea. The Eastern Han also extended their influences and contacts as far as Parthia, Sogdia, India, and even to Rome under Emperor Marcus Aurelius (around 160-180AD). However, the rebellious factions such as the Daoist Yellow Turban Rebels, and Five-Pecks-of-Rice adherents continued to threaten the Han Imperial authority. Local governors were appointed to suppress these uprisings and increasingly began to form and maintain their own local militias. Imperial authority was collapsing into regional factionalism once more and the decline began in earnest around 90AD.
In 220AD, after decades of increasing civil wars between local rules and the Han Imperial authority, the Han Dynasty finally collapsed into three powerful states, or the ‘Three Kingdoms’; Cao Wei, Eastern Wu, and Shu Han.