Three Kingdoms History: Imperial Han

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The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Han

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Before the Han Dynasty was formed, the land suffered under the tyranny of the Qin rule. Confucian ideas were suppressed by the power hungry Qin officials, and many important books were publicly burned. No doubt the Qin Emperors wanted to keep the populace uninformed of new ideas and philosophies.

However, the people could no longer take it, and local warlords and nobles saw the discontent as a new opportunity to regain lost power. When the Qin Emperor Ying Zheng passed away, his son Hu Hai took over the throne. The new Emperor left all the affairs of state to his eunuchs and the time of rebellion was nearby. An uprising began, lead by Chen Sheng and Wu Kuang. Xiang Liang and Xiang Yu from Jiang Dong, Ying Bu from Po Yang, and Peng Yue from Yu Je all joined the uprising within the next few months.

The fighting was fierce, Chen Sheng was killed in battle and Xiang Liang took over his army. Another force was also present, lead by Liu Bang from Pei County in Jiangsu Province. Liu Bang was a minor official during the Qin rule, his strength came from his support by the peasant population and his renowned advisors Zhang Liang and Han Xin. Xiang Liang died and the King of Chu assigned Xiang Yu to fight in his place, and ordered Liu Bang to attack the Qin in the west. Liu Bang’s forces captured Wan castle, and marched on to the Qin Capital Xian Yang. The Qin forces were weakened because of the continued assaults on all fronts, and Liu Bang finally broke through the forces at Xian Yang in the year 206 BC.

The Qin ruler surrendered to Liu Bang, and the Qin laws were abolished. However the war was’t over yet, as Xiang Yu of Chu was still a competitor for the crown. Xiang Yu moved west to Xian Yang and forced Liu Bang to retreat to the lands of Shu; leaving his wife and father in Xian Yang.

However, trouble began for Xiang Yu. After he assassinated the King of Chu, he was faced with multiple rebellions in the north. In the meantime, Han Xin and Zhang Liang planned an invasion of the north–western provinces.

In the year AD 205, Liu Bang led 560,000 troops against Xiang Yu, who at that time was fighting rebels in the north. Xiang Yu turned his army around and crushed Liu Bang’s army. Liu Bang realised that he himself was no match for Xiang Yu and ordered Han Xin to conquer the Northern provinces. Within a year Han Xin had Xiang Yu cornered, some of Xiang’s old allies rallied with Liu Bang, and the situation became desperate for Xiang Yu.

However, Liu bang’s family was still in Xian Yang with Xiang Yu, and they were Xiang’s last trump card. Liu Bang offered to divide the country between Han and Chu, in return for his family. Xiang Yu agreed, but was backstabbed by Liu Bang who immediately invaded his territory. Xiang Yu committed suicide and Liu Bang’s biggest threat was gone. After whipping out all other resistance, Liu Bang founded the Han Dynasty, with its capital, Chang An, the former Xian Yang.

New laws, tax reduction and social reformation followed the formation of the new Empire. But the Empire was weak and needed time to heal, thus Liu Bang rewarded other warlords with rank, and made peace with the northern Xiong Nu tribes. During Liu Bang’s rule, Confucians and gentry landlords were given more power and influence, and formed the new civil administration.

Liu Bang died in 195 BC, and his wife Empress Lü took control of the nation. Internal discord followed, and wasn’t settled until Liu Che (Han Wu–Di) took the throne. The Han prospered under his reign, and new military campaigns were also planned.

Under Emperor Wu, Confucianism was adopted as the official political philosophy and the administration was completely revised. Wu–Di was a vigorous and daring Emperor, much different from the other Han Emperors. Military action was taken against the Xiong Nu tribes, and the migration of Han Chinese into new territory began. Areas of present–day Korea and Vietnam were occupied and Wu–Di’s power grew. However, supporting such a massive army put more pressure on the Chinese economy. The gentry became more powerful, and the peasants once again became oppressed. The Confucians struggled for advancement in China’s social structure, but the Emperor was deceived by the power–hungry gentry class.

The death of Emperor Wu brought only disunity in the Imperial Court. The next line of Emperors mainly included weak children, controlled by their patrons and guardians. It could be said that around this time, the Western Han lost its right to rule, and lost the Mandate of Heaven. The Confucians wept, and the gentry officials reaped the benefits of the rising economy through oppression of the weak. During Emperor Ru–Zi’s rule, a Confucian scholar called Wang Mang seized power in the Imperial Court and deposed of the Emperor. Many Confucians looked up to Wang Mang as their moral savior, and the end of the Western Han had come.

Wang Mang wanted to reform China into a social structure based solely on Confucianism, and used the prophecy of Mencius to justify his coup. However, Wang Mang was unable to work out the reforms with the middle class; the powerful gentry populace that was formed during the Western Han. Though Wang Mang had central control over China through the capital, the prefectures and provinces were divided, Confucians who followed Wang Mang administrated some of them, but both the legalist and gentry administrators kept their own laws and regulations. A decree was issued that people should gather their grain in storages instead of putting it on the market. But the people ignored this and no food was stored. When a terrible flood destroyed many of the rice plantations and farms, the people had no food and resorted to cannibalism.

The country was torn apart by rebellion, the Red Eyebrows, and other countless factions started to fight for domination. The basic kindness and goodness that Confucians believed to be in all humans, seemingly disappeared. In the year AD 23, the rebel armies raided and destroyed the majestic Han Capital Chang An. The soldiers made their way into the capital and decapitated Wang Mang, who was reciting the Confucian analects with tears in his eyes.

The Xin Dynasty under Wang Mang died a premature death, and the country was still in turmoil. Two years later in AD 25, the Han prince Liu Xiu restored the Han Dynasty. The capital was moved to Luo Yang, and the fight against the remaining rebels and enemies began. After eleven years of fighting, peace returned to the land and the Han started to heal.

Liu Xiu was considered a wise and strong leader, and many scholars joined his cause in restoring the Han to power. After his death, his son Liu Xang took over the throne. Unlike the other Han Emperors, Liu Xang’s rule was harsh and he followed Daoism as a religion. The Confucians and gentry legalists did not like this; they feared that minor religious groups would compensate their positions of power. After his death, the Empress–Dowager Deng seized the power over the court. Once again, the women in the court used weak and young Emperors as puppets to cover up their own rule. During He–De’s rule, another power appeared in the court: the palace eunuchs. He–Di wanted to use the eunuchs to get rid of the troublesome families of the Empresses, Dowagers and Consorts. This resulted in a three–way struggle in the Han Court that would last till the reign of Ling–Di.
Though the chaos in the Imperial Court seemed never–ending, the county flourished. The economy had picked up again; exploration of new territory was resumed, books that were lost during the Qin Dynasty were reproduced and Chinese cultural life flourished.

The Eastern Han seemed promising, but the problems in the Han Court only grew. The rivalry between factions turned into a clandestine war, legalists or eunuchs would kill Confucians and their families and visa versa. The atrocities reached a high point during the reign of Emperor Huan. Emperor Huan relied heavily on his eunuchs after destroying the influential Liang family.

When Emperor Huan died in AD 168, the eunuchs killed the regent Dou Wu and secured the rule of the young Emperor Ling. The eunuch’s control over the Imperial Guard and the army kept them save for the next twenty years of rule under Emperor Ling. The enormous wedge that was driven between the Confucians, the Eunuchs and the Gentry Lords tore the country apart. The administration had aged considerably, and good men for civil appointments became rare.

For the peasants, the times would only increase their sorrow. The gentry oppressed the weaker peasant population, and were only interested in forming groups to compete against the Eunuchs and Confucians. Oppression was the only thing that kept China together.

In the year AD 184, a Taoist sect called the Huang Jin (Yellow Scarves) rose up against the government. Using Taoist practices and herbal medicine to cure and aid the peasant population, the Yellow Scarves gained a large following of low class citizens. However not everyone was interested in their ideals, families that gained power during the Han had no intention of changing to a class–less society. Emperor Ling assigned He Jin, the brother of his wife Empress He, as the Commander–in–Chief in charge of the Imperial Forces. The rebellion encountered heavy resistance in Northern and Central China, and they were no match for the veteran Han Generals. Many powerful families joined the Imperial side during the fights, and men like Sun Jian, Liu Bei, Cao Cao and Dong Zhuo were successful in their undertakings.

Though the Huang Jin was crushed, the Imperial Court could not be saved from disaster. After Emperor Ling died in AD 189, his wife Empress He took control of the court, and placed her son Liu Bian at the throne as Emperor Shao. The Eunuchs were threatened by the presence of He Jin and his alliance with the powerful Yuan family, and another violent war erupted within the capital. He Jin was killed by the eunuchs, and the eunuchs were killed in retaliation by He Jin’s allies.

During this confusion, a general called Dong Zhuo sought an opportunity to take control over the Empire. Dong Zhuo served under Zhang Wen, the Minister of Works, and had control over a private army. Dong Zhuo marched into the capital, disposed of Emperor Shao and his family, and instead placed the nine-year-old Liu Xie on the throne as Emperor Xian.

The Han Emperor was powerless against his oppressors; after Dong Zhuo came Cao Cao, another ambitious warlord who wanted to unite the land under his own rule. Emperor Xian was nothing but a puppet and even Han loyalists abused his sovereignty.

During Emperor Xian’s rule, the powerful families of China went to war, and eventually three major powers remained. Cao Cao in the North controlled the Emperor and commanded a powerful legion. In the south, the Sun family rose to power and established itself as the authority in the lands south of the Yangtze. In the west was Liu Bei, a distant relative of the Emperor and so called Han loyalist. When Cao Pi, the son of Cao Cao, dethroned the Emperor Xian, the Han finally came to its end. Cao Pi ascended the throne as Wei Emperor, Sun Quan established the Kingdom of Wu, and Liu Bei crowned himself Emperor of Shu. In the year AD 220, the Han reign officially ended after over four hundred years of reign, and after two generations of twelve Emperors.

Since that time, the “Han” Chinese did not regain power until Zhu Yuanzhang replaced the Northern Yuan Dynasty with his own Ming Dynasty. In retrospect, the Han Dynasty was a turbulent time for China, filled with both prosperity and poverty, brilliance in rule and decay of rule. Studying the Han era will help students of history to understand its role not only in history, but in today’s society as well.

Copyright © 2002 - 2003
Major Sources: Western Han – Shi Ji (Sima Qian)
Man from the Margin – Dr. Rafe de Crespigny
Ancient Chinese History and Emperors (Brian Williams)