|Liu Bang, First Emperor of Han Dynasty|
In a rather common twist in Chinese history, the founder of the Han Dynasty never reigned over all of China. In the rebellion against the Qin, Liu Bang took on the title of Huangdi (Emperor) but it was his descendants that fully unified China. Liu Bang moved the capital of China to Chang'an (modern: Xi'an), a place that remained the Chinese capital for many centuries. The Western Han maintained direct control of western China, while they held the eastern portions as tributary kingdoms, ruled by regional vassal kings. Within 50 years, all the vassal kings of the east were Han family members, put in place to maintain order while ensuring loyalty to the Han throne. Still, the Han relatives rivaled each other for the imperial throne, forcing the Han dynasty to centralize power further by reducing the size of vassal kingdoms and by taking direct control of those kingdoms' governmental functions. Ultimately, the kingdoms became little more than revenue-producing fiefs, with control held directly by the Han emperor, although the kingdoms system was never entirely abolished by the Han.
|e Han Empire of China, c. 87 BCE|
|Wang Mang, only Emperor of Xin Dynasty|
Guangwu moved the capital to Luoyang and fought for another decade to establish his rule in China. During the Xin Dynasty and its aftermath, the Xiongnu had reconquered lands in the north, causing the early Eastern Han dynasty to parallel the early Western Han in many ways. The Xiongnu were defeated a second time in 81 CE, whereafter they fled into the hills and ceased pestering China. Han China, meanwhile, had shifted its focus on to reclaiming lost lands in the West. After fighting with the large Kushan Empire that sat between China and the Parthian Empire, the Han Dynasty finally incorporated the Tarim Basin into their empire. The Silk Road route was reestablished, and it is thought that traders from Rome made it all the way to China. Emissaries to Rome seem to have been unsuccessful, although the true extent of Rome-China trade is still uncertain.
The Han Dynasty reached its height during the reign of Emperor Zhang (75 – 88 CE). Its fall began soon after. Eunuchs, the common sterile officials of the imperial palace, were prone to intrigue, and often in Asian history one hears of a eunuch leading the overthrow of a dynasty. And so it was with the Han of China. One hundred years of intrigue between young and naive emperors, queen mother-regents, and ambitious eunuchs caused the Han family to become quarrelsome and untrustworthy. Emperor Ling, who ruled in the 170s and 180s, left the entire government to his eunuchs, spending his free time playing with his concubines and participating in military parades. The Han Dynasty had reached its ultimate low in decadence and decay.
In the last decades of the second century CE, student armies had risen up against Han politics. While the rebellions were subdued, smaller groups continued to grumble and cause trouble. More seriously, though, the militias that the Han emperors had used to subdue the riots remained active, and ambitious generals began to use their new armies to fight against the Han, rather than with them. The generals convinced the emperors that the eunuchs were plotting against them, and in 199 CE, 2,000 eunuchs were killed when some generals invaded the imperial palace. The generals became emperor-makers, deposing the emperor in favor of his brother. They burned Luoyang to the ground and returned the Chinese capital to Chang'an. The last Eastern Han Emperor, Xian, had no true power outside of his generals. One such warlord, Cao Cao of Wei, took the emperor under his wing and fought to covertly take over the empire. He died in 220, but his son, Cao Pi, convinced Xian to renounce the throne in favor of him and retire. The empire fell into disarray, with Cao Pi of Wei taking one portion, the Wu taking another, and a scion of the Han taking a third. The Han dynasty, as imperial rulers of China, came to an inglorious end.
|The Shu Han Empire, during the Three Kingdoms period of China, c. 250 CE|
The short-lived Shu Han Dynasty ruled just in the western-most portion of China during the Three Kingdoms period. It survived primarily because of its rugged location in the hills, mountains, and jungles of southwest China. The family was a distant scion of the senior line and technically had a better claim than the Eastern Han, though they never pushed that claim until the fall of Xian. The Shu Han lasted only 43 years. In 263 CE, the Wei dynasty, which ruled east of them, conquered and defeated the second and last Shu Han emperor. The Han Dynasty at last came to an ultimate end, although many descendants surely survived the conquest. Today, the people are all "Han", and it is very likely that most also descend from the Han Dynasty. Thus, the Han became the first imperial blood to flow freely throughout China.
It seems strange that one of the greatest and best-known Chinese dynasties was so fraught with corruption and intrigue, but so it is with many great empires. Somehow, out of this disorder and confusion, China became a world power worth reckoning. It is because of the Han that it became known to the West and became something to desire 1300 years later by explorers and treasure-hunters. China's place as a dynastic entity is without question, and the Han dynasty is one important link in a long chain of ruling houses. But most importantly, China's Han Dynasty proves that a dynasty provides impetus for centralization, even when the members of the dynasty are not all that decent of people.