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History of China

Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD)

At the end of the Qin Dynasty, one of the rebel leaders, Liu Bang, arose to seize control of the government and establish a new dynasty called Han (206 BC-220 AD). The Han Dynasty is divided into two periods: the Western Han Dynasty, whose capital was Ch'ang-an, present day Xi'an and the Eastern Han Dynasty, with the capital at Luoyang. This dynasty was one of China’s golden ages. The new empire retained much of the Qin administrative structure but retreated from centralized rule by establishing vassal principalities in some areas for the sake of political convenience. The Han rulers modified some of the harsher aspects of the previous dynasty. Confucianism as the official ideology, out of favor during the Qin Dynasty, became the creed of the Han Dynasty.

In the 2nd century BC, the first imperial university was established to teach students the five classics of Confucianism and prepare them to become bureaucrats. Written examinations were used to identify the best-qualified people for civil service. Intellectual, literary, and artistic endeavors were rejuvenated and flourished. China's most famous historian, Sima Qian (145-87 BC) lived during the Han Dynasty.

Technological advances also marked this period. Two of the greatest Chinese inventions, paper and porcelain were developed during the Han Dynasty. The Chinese economy grew rapidly and by the 2nd century AD the population had reached 58 million. Trade and industry flourished, cities grew, and Chang'an and Luoyang became important cultural centers, attracting the best writers and scholars from all over China. The empire expanded westward as far as central Asia due to several successful military campaigns against the nomadic Xiong Nu, who lived in the arid steppe region north of China. One of the great achievements of the campaigns was the opening of the Silk Road.

In about 100 BC, the Han Emperor, Wudi, sent the diplomat Zhang Qian into Central Asia seeking allies against the Xiong Nu. Here he saw beautiful horses that he knew would help the emperor build a strong cavalry. Chinese products, particularly silk were already being transported and traded along this overland route and the exchange of horses for Chinese products further developed the trading route. Eventually, the paths followed by the caravan traffic became known as the Silk Road. This became a network of overland trade routes between Asia and Europe--a trans-Asia highway for economic, cultural and religious exchanges.

Chinese armies had invaded northern Vietnam, northern Korea and other neighboring countries by the end of the 2nd century BC. The Han Dynasty extended its political and cultural influence over those countries before finally collapsing because of domestic and external pressures.

After 200 years, from 9 to 24 AD, the Han Dynasty was overthrown briefly, Wang Mang, but was restored and lasted for another 200 years. The successive emperors, however, were ineffective in dealing with a growing population, increasing wealth and resultant financial complexities, court rivalries, and ever-more complex political institutions. Riddled with corruption, by 220 AD the Han Dynasty had collapsed.

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