Lecture Seven

The Early Han Dynasty

Scope: The Qin dynasty was overthrown in 207 B.C.E. After a civil war, a new dynasty, named the Man, was founded by Liu Bang, a low-ranking official who rose to power through personal genius and extreme good fortune. The dynasty he founded lasted more than 400 years, and its name became one of the standard terms used to refer to the Chinese people. This lecture covers the establishment of the dynasty and its development through the reign of the emperor Wudi from 141-87 B.C.E. During this period, the structure of the imperial state was solidified, and the ideological framework of official Confucianism was constructed from the blending of Confucian, Daoist, and Legalist elements. Cosmological thought also went through a period of renewed development in the work of Dong Zhongshu.


I. The fall of the Qin dynasty in 207 B.C.E. was followed by five years of civil war.

A. Two main contenders emerged in the struggle for power.

1. Xiang Yu was a former general from the fallen state of Chu, the last of the warring states to be eliminated by Qin.

2. Liu Bang was a minor local official who formed a rebel band after failing to fulfill his mission to transport prisoners to a Qin jail.

B. Both men joined the movement to overthrow the Qin but then fell into conflict over who should lead a new dynasty.

C. Xiang Yu nearly destroyed Liu Bang’s forces in 204 B.C.E., but Liu regrouped and, in 202 B.C.E., succeeded in defeating Xiang Yu.

II. Liu Bang founded a new dynasty, which he called the Han after the name of his native district.

A. Liu Bang established his capital near the present-day city of Xian.

1. New palaces were built in the ruins of the former Qin city.

2. The location of the capital reflected Liu’s power base in the northwest.

B. Liu then set about creating a new system of government throughout the empire.

1. The empire was divided into two major areas.

2. The western half was ruled directly by Liu through a system of local administration, with officials appointed by the emperor.

3. In the eastern part of the country, power was held by military strongmen who had been followers of Liu Bang and were granted, basically, feudal power by him.

4. Over time, the descendants of these local strongmen began to manifest separatist behavior, threatening the coherence of the Han order, just as local power had fragmented under the Zhou.

C. A series of challenges faced the Han in the first half of the 2nd century B.C.E.

1. In the 180s B.C.E., the family of the empress, named Lu, gained great power at court and almost usurped the throne before being suppressed in 180.

2. Between 180 and 141 B.C.E., the emperors Wendi and Jingdi moved to curtail the power of the eastern strongmen.

3. In 154 B.C.E., there was a revolt by local power holders in the east, which was put down by the imperial army.

4. The eastern provinces were then incorporated into the regular imperial administration, with officials appointed by the emperor.

III. In 141 B.C.E., a new emperor, Wudi, came to the throne.

A. Wudi ruled until 87 B.C.E.

1. He oversaw what is sometimes called the Han Synthesis.

2. This was a weaving together of elements of Conlucian, Daoist, and Legalist thought into a new Imperial Confucian ideology, which became the orthodox doctrine of the Chinese state.

3. Legalism was seen as an effective administrative system, but its harshness under the Qin had led to their downfall.

4. Confucianism provided a sense of moral guidance and restraint on the ruler, who could be overthrown based on Mencius’s interpretation of the Mandate of Heaven.

5. Daoism and other cosmological doctrines provided a larger framework for understanding the nature of the world in which men lived.

6. The philosopher Dong Zhongshu developed a theory of “correlative cosmology” to explain how natural phenomena were omens of political change.

B. Wudi also developed a strong administrative machinery.

1. He pursued military campaigns to expand China’s territory, adding parts of Korea and Vietnam and pushing Chinese power into Central Asia.

2. He set up government monopolies in certain critical commodities, such as salt, alcohol, and iron.

3. He also promoted the recruitment of a highly educated administrative elite, a new version of the shi.

IV. After Wudi’s death in 87 B.C.E., the Han entered a period of stagnation.

A. A great debate was held about Wudi’s economic policies.

1. Known as the “Debate on Salt and Iron,” it pitted the advocates of a strong central state against those favoring more autonomy for local elites.

2. In the end, later emperors abandoned many of Wudi’s more assertive policies.

B. A succession of lesser emperors presided over the Han until 9 C.E.

1. The court became more concerned with extravagant social life than with administration.

2. Powerful families sought to manipulate the throne through marriage alliances.

3. Revenues declined, and military affairs were neglected.

4. Finally, in 7 C.E., the main line of inheritance failed, as the emperor Zhengdi died without an heir.

C. From 9-23 C.E., Wang Mang usurped the throne and declared his own dynasty.

1. This short-lived regime attempted to reform the empire but fell after Wang died.

2. The Liu family regained power and launched the Later Han, which we will examine in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe, eds., The Cambridge History of China,

Volume I: The Ch 'in and Han Empires103-221.

Supplemental Reading:

William Theodore deBary and Irene Bloom, eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition, Volume I, 360-362.

Aihe Wang, Cosmology and Political Culture in Early China.

Questions to Consider:

1. Why did the Han retain Qin institutions while repudiating the ideas of Legalism?

2. Why would some elements in the Han political elite be opposed to Wudi’s activist style of government?

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