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Han

Han (hän) [key], dynasty of China that ruled from 202 B.C. to A.D. 220. Liu Pang, the first Han emperor, had been a farmer, minor village official, and guerrilla fighter under the Ch'in dynasty. During the period of civil strife that followed the fall of the Ch'in, he advanced from the Huai River valley, defeated his rivals for the throne, and then established himself in Chang'an (see Xi'an) near the old Ch'in capital. Under Liu Pang and the succeeding Han emperors the task of unification begun by the Ch'in was carried further. However, the harsh laws of the Ch'in were repealed, taxes were lightened, the absolute autocracy of the emperor was lessened, and, most importantly, Confucianism was made the basis of the state. The pyramidal bureaucracy of Ch'in administration was retained, and the Han period saw the beginnings of one of the distinguishing features of the Chinese educational and state system, the recruiting of members of the bureaucracy through civil service examinations. The dynasty attained its greatest territorial expanse under the emperor Wu Ti (reigned 140 B.C.–87 B.C.), who extended Han power W to Xinjiang and Central Asia, N to Manchuria and Korea, and S to Yunnan, Hainan island, and Vietnam. One of China's greatest historians, Ssu-ma Ch'ien, flourished during the reign of Wu Ti. The Han emperors ruled for 400 years with one interruption; in A.D. 8 an agrarian reformer usurped the throne and established the Hsin dynasty. This short-lived dynasty has come to mark the division between the Early, or Western, Han period and the Later, or Eastern, Han period, which began A.D. 25, when the Han capital was moved east to Luoyang. The entire Han era was one of political and cultural centralization and expansion. The writing brush and paper and ink came into wide use and the manufacture of porcelain had its beginnings in this period. Many classic texts were edited, and the first dictionary was compiled. The coming of Buddhism increased cultural ties with India and parts of the Middle East. Trade with border states was increased to pacify these regions and to gain their allegiance. The dynasty collapsed c.A.D. 220 and was followed by some 350 years of smaller political units, including the Three Kingdoms and the Tsin dynasty. China was eventually reunited under the Sui dynasty.

See P. Ku, The History of the Former Han Dynasty (tr., 3 vol., 1938–55); Ssu-ma Ch'ien, Records of the Grand Historian of China (tr., 2 vol., 1961); M. Loewe, Everyday Life in Early Imperial China (1968); J. Gernet, Ancient China from the Beginnings to the Empire (tr. 1968); Tung-hsi Ch'u, Han Social Structure (1972).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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