Downfall: Second half of 2nd  century and first two decades of 3rd century were crucial for fall of Han dynasty. There can be defined 3 major reasons for fall of Han dynasty. First one was internal struggle within ruling system. As every new emperor was too young and regency had to rule the country. Often close positions to Emperor hold eunuchs that were part of imperial service.  They had to be eunuchs ( practiced for long period before this period) as it was guarantee that they cant have children and potentially create own dynasty that could usurp power of current dynasty. Eunuch officials held emperors as puppets and didn’t allow them to rule independently as while emperors were too young  eunuchs built their authority and power. Here Eunuchs often struggled against empresses dowagers who were official regents of young emperors. They often plotted issues against empresses dowagers and often arrested or killed them. Also eunuchs such as Sun Cheng interfered in family affairs and pushed members of Han family to become emperors and were choosing those who are easily manipulated. In such way emperor Shun, Chong, Zhi, Huang and Ling came to power and served just as puppets who didn’t care about governance of country.  Often these emperors spent too much on luxurious lifestyle. Especially notorious for such conduct are Emperor Huang( 146-168) and Emperor Ling( 168-189). Instead of governing they enjoyed luxury, gardens, drinking, concubines and spending money on parades. Corruption within governmental institutions drastically increased.

Second reason were poor economic conditions, oppression of people by local authorities and natural disasters that led to civil wars. Corrupt eunuch dominated administration led to decline in economy. In decades of worsening of living standards peasants started to rebel very often. Central power was weakening and local landlords got more power and used to oppress people.  Famines, floods and diseases were on rise and together with high corruption were reasons for people to start to believe that emperor has lost Mandate of Heaven and isn’t legitimate anymore.  This led to big dissatisfaction of peasants and in 184 Yellow Turban Rebellion Started. It was initiated by secret Taoist sect and organized peasants to revolt. Aim was to return justice and fight corrupted eunuch government. It started with Zhang Jue  a Taoist  spiritual healer and his 300 000 followers ( Way of Supreme Peace). But they were joined  by several million people even without Taoist beliefs who wanted to overthrow tyranny of eunuchs. Zhang Jue died already in 184. But civil war continued until 205. Rebels took some territories in Central and Eastern China but their further progress was stopped by General Cao Cao. This war had negative impact on China and its cost led to further decline. Yellow Turban Rebellion and civil war were major events after which fall of Han dynasty was inevitable.

General Cao Cao, source:

As third reason of decline is considered constant attacks of northern and western tribes. Huns, Uyghurs, Mongols, Kazakhs and Manchus were often entering Chinese territory massacring people and looting everything.

All these reasons led to dissatisfaction of other vassals. Crisis peaked in 189 when Emperor Shao was killed in eunuch plot. Emperor Xian was brought to power and because of such situation group of generals organized coups against eunuch tyranny and entered Luoyang. Luoyang was burnt down and 2000 eunuchs were executed. They moved back capital to Changan again . After that Emperor Xian became  just puppet of Chancellor and General Cao Cao.  Cao Cao used fake claim that he protects emperor but his real aim was to govern by himself.  Because of dominance of Cao Cao in central administration Nominal Kingdoms of Wu and Shu Han expressed dissatisfaction and separation from central government. This made General Cao Cao angry and he declared war on them and new civil war started. General Cao Cao gathered 200 000 soldiers and went towards south. He was very successful warrior as he defeated all other potential leaders before he became chancellor and took control over Emperor Xian. In 208 battle of Red Cliff occurred. Thanks to strategies of southern nominal rulers( Liu Bei and Sun Qian)  they managed with only 50 000 soldiers to severely defeat Cao Caos troops. After that Cao Cao kept focus on centralizing power in north while two southern kingdoms focused on keeping power within their borders. This was creating 3 independent basis of power. In 220 son of Cao Cao Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian to leave throne. Cao Pi declared himself as ruler of self-proclaimed northern empire of Cao Wei. Liu Bei  became emperor of Shu Han and Sun Qian  became emperor of  Dong Wu state. With this events Three Kingdoms Period ( mistranslation but generally accepted by historians) starts and it will be our next topic.

Society and culture: There is quite a lot to speak about shape of society and culture during these 400 years of Han rule.

han costumes
Clothing from Han dynasty

Lets speak first about political system. As it is obvious emperor was on top and he was main legislator and appointer of high ranking officials. He was head of government. Government composed of Imperial Cabinet which included 3 major ministers:  1) Minister of Masses, b) Minister of Work and  c) Grand Commandant of Army. They were major executive branch of imperial decisions and acted as major advisors to emperor. Minister of Masses had to do registration of population and employ  lower rank ministers and officials. Minister of Work dealt with disciplinary affairs and reviewed reports on functioning of local governments. Emperor could appoint 9 other ministers that governed own ministry. 3 ministers also had responsibility to draft budget and it had to be confirmed by Emperor. These 3 ministers also could appoint lover officials such as provincial officials, commanders and magistrates.

Administration was divided on provinces, commanderies and counties. On top of commandery was administrator and on top of province was governor. They could make local decisions and some fiscal rights. Han dynasty had several nominal kingdoms appointed by emperor who had high autonomy and their system was same as the central one. From such nominal kingdoms were created Shu Han and Dong Wu as independent ones after 208 after Battle of Red Cliff.

Next important issue is social structure. We mentioned that highest nobility didn’t have to hold highest positions as ranks were given by ability not wealth. But those who were aristocrats such as nominal kings, princes and dukes enjoyed high status. They were often military commanders and landowners. Regents and eunuchs were considered as aristocracy that assisted in governance. So aristocracy, governmental officials, scholars and army were first tier of social structure. Second tier were peasants and skilled laborers( iron workers). It was like in Zhou dynasty as they were considered to be major working force of society. This time in Han dynasty to third tier belong artisans, craftsmen but also merchants. As trade increased they were not considered so low part of society and got place in 3rd tier. Fourth tier was composed of slaves who were unsuccessful peasants or workers and had to be enslaved to participate on grand projects. It was like that as it was believed that they cant  function on their own and contribute to society except being slaves. Peasants were not completely free but enjoyed own land but had to pay taxes to local authorities and were often used to work for local landowner.  Such concept of political and social system was more or less present until end of Chinese Empire.

Legal system was changed also slightly. Han Code was established. It included Confucian principles of good and bad moral or immoral. Three major crimes were murder, theft and injury( included rape). Punishments were often strict including capital punishments and public humiliation for crimes. By law women had to obey man and had to accept marriage arranged by elders. But women also could demand a divorce and were legally protected from violence and rape from husband.

As we mentioned economy was progressing almost during whole Han period.  Only by the ends of two dynasty periods there were big declines. Currency was stable, Iron tools and weapons were widely and serially produced. Also salt was produced on high scale Taxation of land and businesses was common. Later in Han period state took iron and salt industry in its hands in order to take more income while agriculture stayed in private hands.  Silk Road was main achievement of economy of Han dynasty. This road connected China with Central Asian States, Bactria, India,   Persia, Middle East, Roman Empire and North Africa. China was selling silk, iron, salt, spices and jade. Via Silk Caravans to China were coming various commodities such as wares made from glass from Roman Empire but also cultural influence was entering China about which we will speak later.  This was main door between Chinese and European civilization.  Silk Road shows real openness of Chinese Empire for trade and cultural exchange. It was first time in Europe that they had direct contact with China and its silk. This brought big profit to China and big satisfaction to other merchants with silk. Also other merchants got chance to travel via these routes and sell their commodities. Taxes on foreign merchants brought further rise in Chinese economy. Silk road was whole system of routes that were secured by armies of the areas where it was passing because barbaric tribes or bands could often attack caravans and rob them. Government put monopoly on salt and iron and employed succcessful industrials as top managers since it wanted to prevent them from earning too much.

Science and technologies were widely developing during Han dynasty. One of most notable discoveries is seismometer which was very useful since earthquakes were quite common. Approximation of value pi was also done.  Waterwheel and water clocks were widely used too. Some kind of paper was discovered. Calendar appears too and also musical theories. Canals were provided with dams in order to regulate water flow.  Astronomy was very developed and stars and comets were recorder frequently. There were suggestions that earth is egg shaped and that around earth is large celestial sphere. Such views were much more advanced than any other during that time in world and only could be comparable to ancient Greeks. Further big discoveries continued to progress during Tang and Song dynasties.

Construction was widespread and most used materials were stone and timber. City walls, watchtowers,  palaces and houses were widely built. Also many long roads and wooden bridges were built.

Military was very advanced during Han dynasty thanks to iron. Swords was most commonly used weapon. But also crossbows and spears were widely used. Fleet was very large and powerful too. Army enabled securing of trade routes but also expansion.  Army was compulsory for every male who was 20 years old. Service lasted 1 year and it was in infantry, cavalry or navy. In Eastern Han period appeared possibility of avoiding military service if person paid tax.

Medicine developed too. Especially herbal one and acupuncture. Type of anaestetics were used too to reduce pain or during surgeries.

Education experienced positive reforms too. It was more conceptualized and took important part in society. By the end of Western Han Imperial Academy was established.  It was main central educational institution that can be compared to university. Each province and prefecture had own schools.  There were also private tutors hired by aristocrats. Teachers from them could suggest students to study on Imperial Academy in Changan. There they were taught Confucianism, literature and laws. After successful examination they could enter imperial service. But mostly education was reserved for higher circles of society.

Art and literature were developing fast and were standardized. Calligraphy and painting of scenery became widespread on bamboo scrolls or on canvas. Music Bureau was collecting chants and poems from ordinary people and saving them in written form on bamboo panels. Sima Qian wrote first history book about history of China that dates from legends to Han period. It is considered as only reliable source of Chinese history between legends and emperor Wu of Han dynasty.  Also first written evidence of Tao Te Qing dates from this period.

Han era was very significant for developing of philosophy and religion. When its about Taoism it experienced big expansion and organization. Firstly it got more supporters among peasants. Since it included rituals and beliefs that date several thousand years it was attractive to them to identify themselves in Taoist teaching. Reasons for that were rituals of worship that they practiced and also their closeness to nature. Concept of yin yang respected by Taoists dates from periods of Shang dynasty. Emperors who were guided by Taoist ideas such as Liu Bang and Wen Di contributed significantly to improvement of living conditions of peasants such as reduction of taxes and appreciating their work. First Taoist larger organized movement with clergy appeared in first half of 2nd century when Zhang Daoling formed “Way of Five Pecks of Rice”. According to Legend Zhang Daoling had a dream in which Lao Tzu appeared and told him to lead people of the virtue. Condition for joining was to accept Taoist dogma and give 5 pecks of rice. Later it was changed to name “Way of Celestial Masters” In mountains of  Sichuan province they functioned as secret organization living isolated and peaceful life.  Only people of virtue could join.  Because of poor situation and eunuch tyranny in 170ies  Way of Celestial Masters called for ordinary people and peasants to join them in newly formed theocratic state.  It exercised sovereignty in areas of todays Sichuan province. Name of state was Way of Celestial Masters and their aim was to establish equality among all people and achieve eternal peace within its borders. They prohibited violence on any kind of being. They even prohibited animal sacrificing as part of rituals. They offered help to hungry and poor by putting fresh food on some stands in towns and villages. There were many freedoms given to peasants including sexual freedoms as Taoist teaching was very open towards sex and considered it as natural thing and connection of yin and yang. Government officials were priests. Higher ranking priest took higher position in apparatus.  On top was Celestial Master who by tradition had to be from lineage of First Celestial Master. This point and other negative things can give us reason to question legitimacy of Taoist state and theocracies in general. Taoist teaching focuses on individual and his own experience and one or few priests cannot guide masses who didn’t found themselves in Taoism as much as they did and perceive it differently Also imposing obligatory collective prayer isn’t productive for society as not whole population can have same spiritual feelings and need to pray as others. There is always question of legitimacy in theocracies why and how supreme leader is blessed by divine power in order to govern the land? Because of that theocracies cant be legitimate regimes. If clergy controls state apparatus it can easily manipulate people and abuse them claiming divine right and in name of higher power. Among worst examples of theocracies in Asia is Tibetan Buddhist theocracy that exploited and tortured people severely. Another question is how religious authorities can legitimately punish criminals guided by spiritual morality not state law. Because of that reason in world  we need secular state whether its single party system established by party that has legitimacy from people which won civil war like in China or if there is elected government like in some other countries directly by people.  So in this case legitimacy is based on will of people and government represents people and aims to make their lives as best as possible and foster development of country. Government that is supported by people and that does in favor of people is legitimate one. Laws should be secular and free from influence of any religious sect. Religion as any other belief should be personal one and within religious communities such as monasteries, churches of temples there can be agreement on religious rules binding only for members of community. Other citizens can choose which religion to practice or not and they are free to choose how much they want   of religion can as much as they want practice religion and how they feel to do about it. On another hand those who don’t want don’t have to and are free to live the way they want.

Taoist state ceased to exist in 215 when Cao Cao annexed it into territory controlled by him.  However leader of that state Zhang Lu wasn’t killed but was treated well by Cao Cao a Chancellor and General of imperial army. This was a lesson to Taoist sect not to create theocracies anymore but to follow real teaching.  Way of Celestial Masters continued to operate as secret sect without territories but focused on living in nature and building temples and didn’t interfere anymore in state affairs. Focus was more on abilities not lineage but Celestial Master stayed as nominal tittle. Movement fell apart on more smaller Taoist sects. Further about development of Taoism will be in other chapters.

Zhang Daoling

There were significant developments in Confucianism during Han rule. Since emperor Wu Di Confucianism was getting more and more significance as he and following emperors governed under Confucian principles. Among advisors of emperors were notable Confucian scholars of that time. Morality, education and hierarchy were becoming more and more popular and spontaneously Confucianism was adopted as state ideology. Legalism ceased to exist as independent idea and some of its principles related to strict respect of law and that law should be above everything were incorporated into Confucian teaching and thus state apparatus. State and society were governed and organized under Confucian principles. In state laws related to honor, guilt, crime, reward, punishment,respect and hierarchy were adopted Confucian concepts which were strictly executed under strict legalist principles of law supremacy.  Also education was based under Confucian ideas of getting to high positions of officers through the education. Schools were built where reading, writing, calligraphy, morality and wisdom were taught.  Students were taught about respect of laws, rules, hierarchy, family relationships,  how to govern, to serve properly, duties, religious rituals, honesty and justice. Those were supposed to be basic virtues for people who were supposed to enter state service. From Han dynasty second part of Confucian “Analects “ date that were carved on stone blocks.  Confucian Imperial Academy was established in end of Han period as we mentioned and it was highest educational institution of Imperial China.  Highest Confucian scholars appeared to be teachers there but also highest ranking scholars were main advisors to emperors. New governmental officials were not tested just in their knowledge but also in virtueeand moral behavior so only those of the virtue could enter service. Confucian scholars were not respected and appreciated because of knowledge but also because of wisdom, honesty and morality. Since middle and late Han period time Confucianism was dominant state ideology of Chinese empire until beginning of XX century.

During Han dynasty innovations happened in terms of philosophy and religion.  Buddhism entered China for the first time in 1st century CE. It was brought to China via Silk Road. Emperor Ming of Han heard about Buddhist teaching and wanted to learn more about it. He sent delegation to learn about Buddhism in Central Asia that came there from India. After two years delegation returned from todays Chinas Xinjiang together with two Buddhist monks of Tocharian origin and a lot of Buddhist scriptures, statues and  sutras that were written. One story says that sutras, scripts and statues were carried on white horse. One of first Buddhist temples in China was built during that period and was named in honor of legendary white horse and it still holds name of White Horse Temple. Temple was built nearby Luoyang and was first center of Buddhism in China. Two Buddhist monks were translating sutras and other scripts into Chinese what took them about one year.  Two monks got Chinese names She Moteng and Zhu Falan and they stayed for whole life in China and were buried in courtyard of temple. Their Buddhist teaching belonged to Mahayana school of Buddhism which started to spread across China.  They got more supporters among people and got few ethnic Chinese monks in the temple. As some scriptures couldn’t be easily translated into Chinese they were adapted to Taoist scriptures and some of original meanings were translated to as close as possible synonymous meaning. Therefore Chinese Buddhism became special branch of Buddhism that expanded later to Korea, Japan and Vietnam.  Buddhism together with Taoism and Confucianism became important teaching that significantly influenced Chinese culture, religion and philosophy.


White Horse Temple, first Buddhist temple in China






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