Pottery Bird

Object nr. 214 China, Han Dynasty (206BC - AD220) Length: 17 cm

Private Collection, The Netherlands

Condition Report available

€ 4,800

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additional information

Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220)

One of the most notable dynasties in Chinese history was the Han Dynasty, which lasted over four hundred years in its entirety. The Han ruled contemporaneously with the Roman Republic and the empire.

The fall of the Qin Empire in 206 BC was followed by a civil war until Liu Bang became king of Han, taking the title of the first Emperor of the Han Dynasty in 202 BC. Liu Bang was posthumously known as Gaodi and ruled from 206 BC to 195 BC. Historians divide the Han Dynasty into three periods: the Western Han (also known as Former Han) dating from 206 BC to AD 9, followed by a short interregnum during which China was ruled by Wang Mang until AD 23; in AD 25 the Liu family reasserted itself as the Eastern Han Dynasty (also known as Later Han) until its fall in 220.

Western Han (206 BC - AD 8)

 ith its capital at Chang’an (present day Xi’an), the Han Dynasty began with a period of political consolidation, followed by expansion and finally by retrenchment and a weakening of political and social cohesion. Gaodi retained the centralised administrative system bequeathed by the Qin, as well as many of their laws. One of the main contributors of the Han Dynasty to imperial China was its gradual development of the civil service and the structure of central and provincial government.

There was a general revival of learning after the proscriptions of Qin. From the reign of Wendi (180 - 57 BC) orders were given to search for lost classics, and various Confucian and other texts such as the Shijing (Book of Songs), Shujing or Shangshu (Book of Documents) and Chunqiu (The Spring and Autumn Annals) became necessary learning tools for officials and candidates for the civil service. Sima Qian (d. circa 90 BC) wrote the Shiji (Records of the Historian), recording Chinese history from the mythical past up to his own day, and his format was followed by all Chinese dynastic historians until the end of the imperial period.

Government monopolies of mining and coinage, salt and iron provided revenues for the state, and state factories were developed and expanded for the manufacture of many artefacts, including objects of daily use, bronzes, lacquers and textiles, as well as weapons for war. Engineering projects, including water conservancy projects, were also government-sponsored. Attention to astronomical observations and their recording were inspired by the need for more accurate calendars, allowing the various communities to adjust their work to the seasons and enabling officials to maintain their records correctly.

In the early period Chinese territory was enlarged by Wudi, the martial emperor (140 - 87 BC), with expansion into areas of southern and south-western China, Korea, Vietnam and Central Asia and many campaigns against nomadic tribes, such as the Xiongnu. The envoy Zhang Qian was sent to investigate and make diplomatic contacts with Central Asia from 138 to 126 BC. Territorial extension was followed by colonisation programmes, including state-sponsored, border military farming settlements. This expansion was accompanied by the opening up of the so-called Silk Routes. The import of Ferghana horses, Asian thoroughbreds, was important to Wudi’s use of cavalry and an inspiration to Chinese artisans. Trading in Chinese goods, especially silk, extended as far as Rome. Trade routes included the Silk Routes through Central Asia as well as sea routes to Burma and India, and thus at least indirect contact was made with Iranian, Hellenistic and Roman cultures.

After Emperor Wudi, the next capable Emperor was Xuandi (73 - 49 BC), who was considerably less martial than Wudi and more concerned with the implementation of the Han laws and edicts. The following reigns marked the beginning of a series of weak emperors and the growth of rivalry between the families of imperial consorts. The Western Han period ended when one of these powerful consort families temporarily gained control and established a new dynasty, The Xin, for a brief interlude (AD 9 to 25). 


Wang Mang (AD 9 - 23)

 Wang Mang was a member of the powerful family of an imperial consort and acted as regent to one of the young emperors of the Western Han period. In AD 9 he founded his own dynasty, under the title of Xin. In his short reign he tried to institute some new social measures, nationalising land and giving more relief to the poor, issuing new types of coinage and changing the structure of government. He re-established various monopolies, such as those in salt and iron, and tried to control market prices. However, the time was insufficient to enable him to make headway with any of his radical changes or to counteract the stiff opposition he faced.

Historians still argue as to whether Wang Mang was a revolutionary socialist or merely an ambitious intriguer who took advance of the corrupt and weak conditions of the imperial court of his time. He attempted to call on precedents from China’s distant past in order to justify his measures and his own rule, but his policies antagonised many. Any increased revenue was expended on disastrous campaigns against the Xiongnu nomadic peoples. His final years saw the rise of a number of rival factions who fought one another and himself. Eventually the capital Chang’an was invaded and Wang Mang captured and killed in AD 23.

Eastern Han (AD 25 - 220)

The Han Dynasty was restored in AD 25 by Liu Xiu, a distant cousin of the last Western Han Emperor, and ruled as Guang Wudi (r. AD 25 - 57). Guang Wudi was a competent leader, strengthening the central government with the support of the wealthy families and moving the capital to Luoyang. He then advanced Chinese influence again in south China and northern Vietnam, and his successor Mingdi (r. AD 58 - 75) briefly re-established Han rule in Central Asia.

At some time during this period Buddhism was introduced, probably by traders from Central Asia, but did not yet gain a large following. The first mention of Buddhism in the Han empire dates from AD 65 and concerns a Buddhist community established at the court of Prince Ying of Chu, at Pengcheng in the north of Jiangsu province. The first Buddhist sculptures are also found in this region, dating from the end of the Eastern Han or the period of the Tree Kingdoms. The penetration of Buddhism by sea would seem to date from the end of the Han Dynasty, again spread through the activities of foreign traders.

Han administration produced a proliferation of documents and official returns which were sometimes kept in duplicate. By about AD 105 paper manufacture had been improved, leading to a wider use of this new material for government needs, although wooden or bamboo strips and silk were still used for some time. The first Chinese dictionary, Shuo wen, was compiled circa AD 100 and included more than 9,000 characters, their variant forms and explanations of their meanings. The records of titles in the imperial library have been preserved and constitute China’s first bibliographical list.

Following a change in the Yellow River’s course (c. AD 2 - 11) and pressure from non-Chinese peoples in the border areas as the end of the first century AD, migration southwards increased, with a gradual shift of population from northern China to the central and southern regions. This period marked the beginning of a change in the demographic and economic centre of gravity, which reached its height a thousand years later. Many non-ethnic Chinese were drawn into the Chinese orbit, and their cultures inevitably influenced Chinese customs.

The Han Dynasty began to decline from the time of Hedi (r. AD 88 - 105), with powerful families and eunuchs gradually gaining power at the expense of the central government. The great landowning families sought self-sufficiency, and estates often possessed their own markets, armed forces and tenant farmers. The decline of the dynasty was also evident in extravagant burials, which were condemned by moralists throughout the last two centuries of the Han Dynasty, and against which laws were enacted.

In AD 189 there was a massacre of eunuchs, who had become powerful (a phenomenon that was to recur several times in Chinese history), by imperial consort families. This led to the formation of rebel bands including the Yellow Turbans, who were fired by a belief in supernatural influences and led by inspired demagogues. The rivalry between eunuchs, bureaucrats and consort families, and the growth of popular revolts by messianic groups, finally led to the downfall of the dynasty. Civil war followed between the three kingdoms of Wei, Shu and Wu, which emerged as the Han Dynasty weakened, and the country was finally split in AD 220.


Floris van der Ven