How did the Han Dynasty shape China?

BY XU WEIMIN and MIAO LINGYI | 12-28-2023
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A Western Han rhinoceros-shaped bronze zun vessel preserved in the National Museum of China Photo: Ren Guanhong/CSST

The Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) played a pivotal role in the development of Chinese civilization. Before Han, Qin Shi Huang’s military conquests, which unified China by defeating six major states, established a multi-ethnic nation that endured for over two millennia. However, the Qin (221–207 BCE) itself was a relatively short-lived dynasty. In addition to adopting the institutions and ideology of the Qin Dynasty, the Han Dynasty introduced new elements that exerted significant influence on Chinese civilization in the following centuries.

Cultural identification

The Han Dynasty not only inherited the territory and centralized political system of the Qin Dynasty, but also embraced the concept of “Great Unity” [a concept which places importance on the unity of national ideology and law]. Expanding beyond the original Qin territory, the Han exerted influence on and assimilated the surrounding regions with its civilization, which was predominantly Confucian. During the 400 years of the Han Empire’s rule, the state, its people, and subsequent generations identified strongly with the culture forged during this period. “Han” became a cultural symbol that has held together the Chinese nation and left an indelible mark on the civilization of the group known as “Huaxia.”

The formation of Han civilization was a complex process involving multiple ethnic groups, with the Han ethnic group playing a predominant role. Its material culture and values have endured for more than two thousand years and continue to hold an important position in the present day.  

China has a long-standing tradition of venerating Heaven and ancestors. The Qin practiced a tradition known as “zhi-ji” [a sacrificial system popular during the Qin era], which continued into the Western Han period. The Han was a crucial period in the formation of various “ancestor worship” traditions. By tracing common ancestors, the cohesiveness of the Huaxia people was greatly enhanced. Han rulers placed great emphasis on ancestor worship, stressing the legitimacy of bloodline inheritance and social hierarchy. The sacrificial culture also underwent significant changes during this period, transitioning from temple sacrificial ceremony prevalent prior to the Western Han, to tomb-sweeping rituals that were commonly practiced during the Eastern Han. The concept of “worshiping Heaven and honoring ancestors” also had enduring impact on Chinese people.

Valuing filial piety is another long-standing moral tradition of the Chinese nation, deeply rooted in its culture and continuing to serve as common moral guidance today. The Han Dynasty established a social order centered on filial piety and treated filial piety as a national policy for state governance. The moral understanding of filial piety also served as an important reference for judicial decisions of the time.

Enhancement of self-identification

“Frontier” and “China” are two dynamic terms rich in connotation that have evolved over different historical periods. Through interactions with surrounding areas, the territory of China changed continuously throughout history. However, in the broader context, the territorial boundaries of the unified dynasties have mostly undergone periodic expansions and contractions within the scope of the territories delineated during the Qin and Han periods.

Since the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE), the outward expansion of the Chinese civilization has resulted in increasing contact with the populations of neighboring regions. Learning from the fall of the Qin, the Han rulers relocated the powerful clans from the Guandong region [east of the Hangu Pass in present-day Henan Province, which was a chokepoint shielding the Central Plains regime from outside attack] to Guanzhong [generally refers to present-day Shaanxi Province, the traditional heartland of Qin and Han]. This move aimed to sever their ties with regional regimes and introduced refined cultures from various places into Guanzhong, accelerating cultural interaction and integration. Meanwhile, the early Western Han court embraced the philosophical teachings of “Huang-Lao Daoism” to revitalize its economy and population, which proved remarkably effective. Citizens began to recognize and accept this newborn regime. Building upon those progressions, Emperor Wu ordered the adoption of Confucianism as the official ideology, shaping the national culture suitable for a small-scale peasant economy through Confucian education and ritual systems, which influenced the civilization of China for more than two millennia to come. 

Cultural exchanges

The emergence of the Silk Road is an important milestone in the history of world civilization. If the Age of Exploration marked the second phase of globalization, the opening of the Silk Road may have initiated the first phase. Through this trade route connecting the East and West, countries along the Silk Road were able to trade equally and freely, greatly promoting interaction and exchange between civilizations. With the establishment of a highly centralized administrative system, the Han Empire achieved unprecedented power, providing a solid foundation for its outward expansion.

The first Han ruler and his followers, who arose from the lower classes of society and had experienced the chaos of the late Warring States Period (475–221 BCE) and the harsh rule of the Qin Dynasty, were keenly aware of the sufferings of its people. The short-lived rule of the Qin Dynasty also served as a warning to them. Consequently, the Han rulers implemented policies to avoid repeating the harsh governance of their predecessors, ultimately leading to four hundred years of prosperity.

Educational improvement 

China’s emphasis on education originated from the educational reforms of the Han Dynasty. Education was made available at official and private schools. Official schools emerged in the middle of the Western Han Dynasty, including centralized official schools and local official schools. Private education during the Han era mainly consisted of two types: shu-guan [schools of basic literacy education] and jing-guan [higher-level private schools where renowned scholars gave lectures]. While vigorously developing both public and private schools, the Han court also paid great attention to the education and cultivation of children. Based on pre-existing teaching materials, the Han authority created a series of classic textbooks for early childhood education. These textbooks were not only beautifully written but also vividly portrayed people’s daily life.

Han culture had the capacity and willingness to absorb and integrate other cultures. As an inland agricultural civilization, the core area of Chinese civilization exerted a strong and far-reaching influence on the surrounding regions. This also meant that the Central Plains, as the central region, had gradually absorbed different cultures from neighboring areas as far back as the Erlitou period, evolving into a unified multi-ethnic state during the Qin and Han periods. With the Confucian-based cultural framework established during the reign of Emperor Wu, and its dissemination through ritual systems and education, the Han civilization eventually evolved into a social and cultural community recognized by various ethnic groups within the Huaxia region.

Xu Weimin (professor) and Miao Lingyi are from the School of Cultural Heritage at Northwest University.