Succeeding the Qin dynasty, the Han dynasty is considered the second great imperial dynasty of China after the Zhou dynasty. Spanning more than four centuries, this period was hailed as the golden age of Chinese history. This was the time when what is considered Chinese culture was established. Soon after (and to this day), China’s majority ethnic group refers to themselves as “Han people.” The Chinese script is also referred to as “Han characters.”
Rebel leader Liu Bang, known thereafter as Emperor Gaozu of Han, founded the dynasty. He was a man of humble birth who led a revolt against the repressive policies of the Qin dynasty.
Although ruling for over four centuries, there was a brief time when the Han dynasty was interrupted by the Xin dynasty of Wang Mang, a former regent of Liu Bang. As such, the Han dynasty is divided into two periods:
- the Western Han (or Former Han)
- the Eastern Han (or Latter Han)
The Han dynasty adopted a highly centralized administrative structure similar to Qin’s: the country was divided into administrative areas which were ruled by centrally appointed officials and a salaried bureaucracy was developed where merit decided promotion. But unlike the Qin dynasty, Han also adopted a Confucian ideology which called for moderation, virtue and filial piety. As a result, it masked the authoritarian policies of the dynasty.
The success of the policy resulted in the dynasty lasting for more than 400 years. Given the lengthy period of rule, the dynasty sure did leave lasting legacies that not only impacted China but the world as well.
The Han society was not just a literate one but also comprised of driven record keepers. As such, there is much recorded material on the cultural condition during the period. For instance, the Yuefu (Music Bureau) has detailed descriptions of the music of the day as well as its instruments, techniques and songs.
Music And Dance
Music was divided into two categories in the court and Confucian temples: one to accompany banquets and the other for ritual music.
Dance was an important element of temple rituals. A system of dance notation was also in place which recorded the movements of large bands of musicians as well as companies of dancers. Informal dances which involved heavy body movement but less footwork were part of private entertainment.
In terms of musical instruments, there were several forms of plucked string instruments used during this period.
The fu genre dominated Han dynasty poetry. This type of poetry can be translated as rhapsody or poetic exposition. Essentially, it’s a form of Chinese rhymed prose. In this kind of poetry, an object, feeling or subject is described and rhapsodized in exhaustive detail and from various angles.
Poems in this genre were meant to be recited or chanted, unlike the songs of the Classic of Poetry or the Verses of Chu which were meant to be sung. This genre came around the 3rd to 2nd centuries BC and lasted well into the Song dynasty.
This kind of poetry was used as grand praised for the imperial courts, palaces and cities. A large collection of historical fu can be found in Selections of Refined Literature, the Book of Han, New Songs from the Jade Terrace and official dynastic histories.
Little remains of Han architecture, but a lot has been learned about the style from mingqi house models and paintings on tomb tiles. The interior walls of important buildings were plastered and painted with figures, portraits and scenes from history. One of those who did the work, the so-called painters-in-attendance or daizhao, were close to the emperor. This tradition of including a daizhao carried on in future dynasties, even until modern times.
Other than painting on walls, paintings on standing room-divider screens and rolls on scrolls of silk appeared during this period.
The Han period marked the first time a major stone tomb sculpture was created in China. Apart from that, the Han also saw lifelike clay figurines of people and animals make an appearance.
Bronzework in the Western Han period continued the style established during the Zhou dynasty and it was also inlaid with silver and gold. Bronze vessels were also made for sacrificial rituals. Plus, there were bronze vessels made for household use such as lamps, mirrors and garment hooks which came in the form of animals, humans or mythic beasts.
Silk that was weaved in rich colors and patterns of geometric designs as well as cloud and mountain themes were popular in the Han dynasty. In fact, it became a major industry and a source of export trade.
Funerary wares made by Han potters included house models and human figures. In addition, two kinds of glazed ware was used domestically during the period and they often imitated the shape and design of bronze vessels.
Lacquerwork achieved perfection during the Han dynasty and examples could be seen in lacquered wine cups excavated from graves in northern China.
Science & Technology
The Han period featured many developments in premodern Chinese science and technology.
Bronzewares and animal bones were the chief ancient Chinese writing materials. This changed during the Han dynasty where clay tablets, silk cloth and rolled scrolls were introduced.
There are three Han mathematical treatises that still exist: the Book on Numbers and Computation, the Arithmetical Classic of the Gnomon and the Circular Paths of Heaven and the Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art.
Mathematical achievements during the dynasty are many and include solving problems with right-angle triangles, square roots cube roots and matrix methods; finding more accurate approximations for pi; and providing mathematical proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. Other mathematical achievements include the use of the decimal fraction, the use of Gaussian elimination in order to solve linear equations and the continued use of fractions to find the roots of equations.
The use of negative numbers is also one of the greatest mathematical advancements of the Han dynasty. Its use first appears in the Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art where they were represented by black counting rods whereas positive numbers were represented as red counting rods.
The alternating fields system was created by Grain Intendant Zhao Guo to protect crops from wind and drought. The system was created during the reign of Emperor Wu and worked by switching the positions of furrows and ridges between growing seasons.
Farmers in the Han era used the pit field system for growing crops. This system relied heavily on fertilized pits that didn’t need plows or oxen and can be used on sloping terrain. Paddy fields were also utilized to grow rice during Han-era China while farmers living along the Huai River used transplantation method.