Divided into Western Han (206 BC- 25 AD) and Eastern Han (25-220 AD) The Han Dynasty was one of China’s Golden Ages, when developments in commerce, natural sciences, and the arts reached new heights.
Militarily strong, the Han Empire expanded to Central Asia– reaching as far as modern day Vietnam and Korea.
To increase their influence and ensure peace in the region, the Han introduced a “tributary system,” by which neighbors could remain autonomous states by recognizing China’s authority and giving gifts (ties strengthened through inter-marriage). For instance, the Huns to the north gave Han emperors an annual tribute of horses, which were highly valued by the Chinese for combat.
This dynasty gave the Chinese people their name: Today, 90% of population is listed as “Han Chinese” ethnicity in official statistics.
A kinder, more gentle society
The Han built on Qin’s strengths but softened things up. The famous historian Sima Qian wrote of the first Han emperor’s rule: “It removed the harsh corners of the Qin code and retreated to an easy roundness, whittled away the embellishments and achieved simplicity.”
Han Meritocracy & Bureaucracy
This dynasty had more staying power — lasting some 400 years. This was largely due to the order and stability created by an effective administration based on a meritocracy (enabling them to centrally manage their large territory). Formal civil service examinations are introduced, based on Confucian classics.
Daoism also makes a comeback, developing into something of a nationwide religion in later Han (it slowly mutates away from Laozi’s early philosophy into deity worship and other superstitions and rituals, like burning joss, seen in modern Asia).
The Silk Road develops, linking the capital of Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) with Central and Western Asia. For more than 1000 years, merchants from different cultures —often in caravans of several hundred camels—travel as far as Rome and Persia.
Via the Silk Road, the West is introduced to silk. After Caesar wore a silk cloak at a theater, he started a fashion craze among Rome’s nobility. At one point in Rome, one pound of silk sold for 600 grams of gold. The Egyptian Queen Cleopatra was also a great collector of silk. China’s two other big exports were tea and porcelain china (which was invented in China during the Han). Popular imports included animals (especially camels, horses and birds) and food & spices (such as pomegranate, garlic, walnuts, and pepper).
Buddhism –which emerged in India around the Confucius’ time during the Warring States period—makes its debut in China via the Silk Road. From China, it would later spread to Southeast Asia, Tibet, Korea, and Japan.
Paper is invented (circa 105). Made of hemp, linen and tree bark, this early “proto-paper” replaces silk as a writing medium for official documentation. The first Chinese dictionary makes its debut. Paper wouldn’t be widely used until the 3rd century (reaching Japan and Korea in the 7th century and Europe in the 12th).
Good Ruler-Bad Son Problem
The Han dynasty finally ends with a reoccurring problem: Succession of a minor to the throne. This structural flaw in the ruling system would end many future dynasties, as power was often passed from a good ruler to a bad son (often too young, incompetent, or drunk on power).
Also, unlike European kingdoms, the throne wasn’t automatically passed to the oldest son (complicated by the fact that emperors had many concubines and sons). During the resulting power struggle, rebel leaders, rival states, or powerful generals often seized power.