The period of the Qin and Han dynasties began in 221 BC and ended in 220 AD. The Qin Dynasty was the first feudal dynasty to rule all of China. It laid the foundation of a united multi-ethnic country. Many institutions initiated in the Qin and Han dynasties were inherited continuously by later dynasties.
The Qin Empire was established in 221 BC by Emperor Qinshihuang, who adopted a series of reforms bringing the whole system under his rule. He made the Qin Empire the first united multi-ethnic country with a centralized autocratic monarchy. However, the heavy-handed methods of Qinshihuang and his successor led to the overthrow of the Qin Dynasty in 206 BC by a peasant uprising.
The Han Dynasty includes two periods: the Western Han and the Eastern Han. In 202 BC, Liu Bang established the Han Dynasty, choosing Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) as his capital. In 9 AD, Wang Mang staged a coup and set up the Xin Dynasty. The Han Dynasty was restored in 25 AD by Liu Xiu, who moved the capital to the city known today as Luoyang. Subsequently, this period became known to historians as the Eastern Han Dynasty, and the previous one as the Western I Ian Dynasty. In 220, the Eastern Han Dynasty was overthrown by a peasant uprising. In its over 400 years of existence, the Han Dynasty had a profound influence upon the subsequent dynasties. The names of the Han nationality, Chinese characters, the Chinese language and Chinese culture today are all in relation to the Han Dynasty. In the Qin and the Han dynasties, the production grew, the economy prospered, national defense was consolidated, technology and culture developed, and lots of outstanding achievements were made in medical science, astronomy, geology, etc. And there also appeared many great statesmen, thinkers, strategists, scientists, historians, and writers during this period. Notable among these achievements was the invention of the technique of papermaking, which was a great contribution to world civilization.
During the period of the Qin and Han dynasties, the Silk Road started to connect China with the Roman Empire and the Western world as a whole. With the opening up of the Silk Road, the brilliant Chinese culture began to influence the whole world, and the splendid cultural accomplishments of other countries gradually merged into traditional Chinese culture.
Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses
In 1974, east of the Mausoleum of Emperor Qinshihuang in Lintong, near Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi Province, three pits filled with row after row of life-sized clay figures of warriors and horses were discovered by some well-digging peasants. Pit No. 1, the largest, contains more than 6 000 such figures in different lines and rows. This terracotta army, which guards the tomb of Emperor Qinshihuang has been called the Eighth Wonder of the World. The creation of these figures was based on real people. Each figure has a different dress and appearance. Their hairstyles differ, gestures vary, and facial expressions are abundant. Whether they are officers, cavalry, infantry or archers can be decided from their dresses, facial expressions and hands gestures. The Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses have the strong specific properties and embody the characteristics of that time. The discovery of the Terra-cotta astonished the world. In 1987, they were included in the World Cultural Heritage List by the UNESCO.
Qinshihuang-The First Emperor in Chinese History
It was not until 770 BC that the State of Qin came into existence as one of the vassal states in western China. Later, it emerged as one of the seven most powerful states in China, assisted by Shang Yang’s reform. King Ying Zheng (259-210 BC) embarked on a campaign of expansion. In the space of only ten years, Qin vanquished the Han, Zhao, Wei, Chu, Yan and Qi one after another, and united the whole of China in 221 BC.
Ying Zheng dreamed his power would be continuous and unbroken. He called himself the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (Qinshihuang), and his successors would be the second, third and so forth. Therefore, he is known historically as Qinshihuang.
Qinshihuang enacted a sweeping series of reforms to consolidate his power. The government was presided over by a prime minister. The Yushidafu supervised the bureaucracy, and the Taiwei was commander-in-chief of the army. They were all appointed and removed by the emperor himself. The whole country was divided into 36 prefectures (later increased to more than 40), which were in turn divided into counties. The magistrates of the prefectures and counties were also directly appointed and removed by the emperor. In this way, the emperor could grasp the power to control all of the states. After the unification, Qinshihuang expanded the original Qin’s laws and orders to the whole country resulting in a system of unified law.
In the Warring States Period, linear measures differed from state to state. Qinshihuang set fixed standards for length, volume and weight, which propelled the development of the economy. The Qin Dynasty also issued a uniform currency. Round coins with a square hole in the middle were used all over China, and it promoted the economic communication among different nationalities and areas and set the pattern for the coins of later dynasties.
Qinshihuang also promulgated order to unify the characters. The first reform of the characters resulted in the seal script (Xiaozhuan). Then, the official script (Lishu), a simplified version of the seal script, was devised. Today’s regular script (kaishu) developed from the official script. The standardization of Chinese characters promoted communication and the culture.
In 213 BC, Qinshihuang adopted his prime minister, Li Si’s advice that, all books, except for those on medicine and agriculture should be burned, in order to strengthen the regime’s ideological control of the people. To further guard against dissent, the Emperor had 460 Confucian scholars buried alive in the second year. These two matters were called “burning the books and burying the Confucian scholars”.
Qinshihuang sent General Meng Tian to defeat the Huns (Xiongnu). To curb the incessant invasions of the Hun nomads in the north, the Qin Dynasty set about building the Great Wall by linking up already existing defensive walls that had been built by various states. In the south, Qinshihuang subdued the Yue people and expanded the communication between different nationalities.
Qinshihuang ended the long-divided situation and established the first United multi-ethnic feudal country on Chinese soil. Qin’s territory, embracing over 20 million people, reached the Pacific in the east, Longxi (west of the Longshan Mountains) in the west, the Great Wall in the north and the South China Sea in the south.
The Great Wall
The origin of the Great Wall can be traced to defensive walls erected by various states during the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States periods (around the seventh century BC). After Qinshihuang united the country, he repaired, linked up and extended the walls built by the former states of Qin, Zhao, Yan and others into a huge military defense works which started from Liaodong Peninsula in the east and ended at Lintao (in today’s Gansu Province) in the west, a distance of more than 5 000 km. This is the world-famous Great Wall. The Wall was repaired and maintained over the course of many dynasties, especially during the Ming Dynasty, when the work continued for some 200 years. The eastern part of the wall was mostly of bricks and stones.
Historically, the Great Wall started from Yalu River in the east to Jiayu Pass in the west. Today, the Great Wall crosses five provinces (Liaoning, Hebei, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Gansu), two autonomous regions (Inner Mongolia and Ningxia) and one municipality (Beijing) in North China, with a total length of over 6 700 km. It is one of the foremost wonders of the world.
The Great Wall is composed of hundreds of passes, fortresses, towers, and stretches of wall. Beacon towers are situated at suitable intervals to give the alarm if an enemy approached.
The parts of the Great Wall located at Badaling, Mutianyu, and Simatai in Beijing were all constructed during the Ming Dynasty. These parts of the wall were built along mountain ridges. On many parts of the wall, five or six horsemen could side by side. Parts of the wall renovated in modem times are popular tourist attractions.
Meng Jiangnu Weeps Beside the Great Wall
A touching story has been circulating in China for many centuries. It tells how, during the Qin Dynasty, the husband of a woman named Meng Jiangnu was conscripted for forced labor on the Great Wall immediately after their marriage. When winter came, Meng Jiangnu made padded clothes for her husband and started off on a journey to the Great Wall to deliver them to him. When she finally reached her destination, she learned that her husband had already died. Meng Jiangnu knelt by the Great Wall and cried for several days. As a result of her wailing, part of the Great Wall collapsed. Finally, Meng Jiangnu drowned herself.
The Dazexiang Uprising
In 210 BC, Qinshihuang died during an inspection tour. His second son, Huhai, succeeded to the throne. He was so cruel that the people were in enmity and the society was in a turmoil.
In 209 BC, over 900 poor peasants drafted to guard the boundaries were delayed by rain in Dazexiang (southeast of today’s Suzhou in Anhui Province) on their way to their posts. According to the harsh Qin laws, they faced the death penalty, and in desperation, led by Chen Sheng and Wu Guang, they killed the officers escorting them and rose in revolt. This was the beginning of the first great peasant uprising in unified China.
In order to convince the people of heavenly determination on their rebellion, they had a piece of silk, on which three characters “King Chen Sheng” were written, put into the belly of a fish. A frontier guard bought the fish, discovering the silk and was greatly surprised. They also had people imitate animals to cry “Da Chu flourishes, King Chen Sheng” to make people more astounded. Chen Sheng impassioned with the remark “Are all the kings and nobles born naturally?” The first great peasant uprising broke out in Dazexiang. The peasant's army soon conquered several nearby counties, in no more than a month, the army expanded into tens of thousands. Chen Sheng proclaimed himself emperor in Chendi (today’s Huaiyang, Henan Province), and the name of the state “Zhang Chu”. The army marched westward and moved in Hanguguan Pass in September. When approached the capital of Qin, Xianyang, the army expanded several hundred thousand.
The Second Emperor was afraid of their revolt when he learned the army was almost at the gate. It was so urgent that he had to dispatch Zhang Han to defeat the main force by leading several hundred thousands of people who were constructing the Lishan Tombs at the moment. Soon, Wu Guang was killed by one of his soldiers, Chen Sheng was also assassinated by treachery. Although the rebel army was in the war for almost half a year, it was finally suppressed.
Hold Up a Stick and Rise
This is a set phrase in Chinese. It refers to the time when Chen Sheng and Wu Guang started the uprising. The rebels felled trees to make weapons and held up sticks as flags. Later, it signified revolt against oppression by desperate people.
The Chu River and the Han Boundary
The four-year war between Xiang Yu and Liu Bang had a great impact on later generations. It even finds an echo in Chinese chess. On the chessboard, the blank area between the positions of the opponents is called the Chu River and the Han Boundary, which reminds people who play chess that they are engaging in a kind of war between Chu and Han.
Liu Bang and Xiang Yu
After the uprising led by Chen Sheng and Wu Guang failed, Liu Bang and Xiang Yu continued to lead peasants against the Qin Dynasty. In 207 BC, Xiang Yu with a small force routed the main body of the Qin army at Julu (southwest of today’s Pingxiang in Hebei Province). At the same time, Liu Bang’s peasant army pressed on toward Xianyang and forced the abdication of the second Qin emperor.
Xiang Yu then proclaimed himself the King of Western Chu and made Liu Bang the King of Han. From 206 BC, Xiang Yu and Liu Bang fought for the rule of the empire for nearly four years, in what historians call “the War between Chu and Han”. At the beginning of the war, Xiang Yu had an army of 400 000, whereas Liu Bang’s forces numbered only 100 000. But Liu Bang won the support of the common people by abolishing the draconian laws and decrees of the Qin Dynasty and enforcing strict discipline on his troops. In addition, he had the assistance of able officials like Xiao He, Zhang Liang and Han Xin. Occupying the rich and fertile central Shaanxi plain, the Han army led by Liu Bang gradually grew stronger. Xiang Yu, in contrast, was arrogant, and his army was lawless. Wherever they went, they lost the support of the people.
In 202 BC, the Han army besieged the Chu army in Gaixia (in today’s Anhui Province). At night, Xiang Yu heard the Chu songs from the Han army’s camps on all sides. Greatly astonished, he thought that the Chu regions had already been occupied by the Han army. He sadly bid farewell to his favourite Concubine Yuji and escaped the encirclement with a small force, but was trapped at the Wujiang River (in the northeast of today’s Hexian County, Anhui Province), and committed suicide.
Liu Bang then established the Han Dynasty, with Chang’an (in the northwest of today’s Xi’an) as the capital. It is historically called the Western Han Dynasty, and Liu Bang is known as Hangaozu.
The Hongmen Banquet
In 206 BC, Liu Bang conquered the capital of Qin, Xianyang, soon Xiang Yu’s army of 400 000 soldiers were stationed at Hongmen (east of today’s Lintong, Shaanxi Province) and we're going to attack Liu Bang. After the mediation of Xiang Bo, Xiang Yu’s uncle, Liu Bang met Xiang Yu at Hongmen in person. In the banquet, Fan Zeng, Xiang Yu’s military advisor, commanded Xiang Zhuang to practice his sword as entertainments, but indeed, he would kill Liu Bang unexpectedly. Xiang Bo learned the intention of Xiang Zhuang, then joined the sword practice and protected Liu Bang. At the critical moment, a general of Xiang Yu, Fan Kuai appeared and helped Liu Bang to escape. Nowadays, people used this set phrase Hongmenyan (the Hongmen Banquet) to indicate a banquet given for ill purposes, teasing the opponents to be cheated and to achieve his own goal.
Emperor Wudi the Great of the Han Dynasty
Reigned from 140 BC to 87 BC, Liu Che was known as Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty. He had great talent, bold vision, outstanding statecraft and brilliant military exploits, which made China enter into a time of great prosperity and one of the most powerful empires ill the world.
Soon after Liu Bang founded the Han Dynasty, he granted territories in strategic parts of the country to nobles of his clan, with the title of king. The kings had their own armies, levied their own taxes, issued currency, and appointed and removed officials within their own jurisdictions. When Emperor Wudi came to the throne, fearing that the kings were too powerful, he instituted a system whereby the descendants of the kings inherited parts of the kingdoms as marquisates. Thus the kingdoms quickly became divided into smaller and weaker territories and came under the direct control of the imperial court. Later, Emperor Wudi went even further, depriving many nobles of their titles, and strengthening central rule.
It was during the reign of Emperor Wudi that the Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu adapted Confucian theory to the needs of centralized politics. First, he stressed that Heaven dominated everything in the world. The emperor was the Son of Heaven, and he ruled over the people on behalf of Heaven. Therefore, all people, including kings, should abide by the will of the emperor, a concept which was called grand unification. Second, Dong Zhongshu advocated suppressing a Hundred Schools of Thought and making Confucianism the state ideology. This, he argued, would unify the people’s minds, which in turn would consolidate political unity.
Emperor Wudi was impressed by Dong Zhongshu’s theories and filled his administration with Confucian scholars. Confucianism thereby gained a foothold as the dominant ideology in China’s feudal society.
Wudi enforced the central military power, set forth a central standing army. He also moved a large number of people to the northern border areas to open up wastelands, enforced the frontier fortress and strengthen the defense so that the empire’s military force was empowered. From 133 BC, under the lead of famous generals Li Guang, Wei Qing and Huo Qubing, the Han army attacked the frequently intruding Huns, and after three great battles, they achieved a decisive victory. He also endeavored an expedition toward the boundary and the hinterland of Asia and expanded the territory of China.
Zhang Qian was sent on diplomatic missions twice by Wudi, connecting communication among the countries in the Western Regions and the Han Dynasty. Zhang Qian reported his experiences to Wudi and mentioned the destination of Silk Road-the Roman Empire.
With the increasing power, the people of the Central Plains began to be called “Han people” or “Han nationality” instead of “Qin people”. Wudi became the second great emperor who made great achievements to the country.
Zhang Qian’s Mission to the Western Regions
With the jingle of the camel bell in the Han Dynasty, China established contact with other nations outside in the Western Regions. Since then, Chinese and foreign cultures have clashed and mixed. In the time of Emperor Wudi, the Huns in the north often harassed the boundary of Han. Meanwhile, they also controlled several small nations in the Western Regions. In 138 BC, Emperor Wudi sent Zhang Qian with a delegation of over 100 people on a diplomatic mission to the Western Regions to seek allies, preparing for an attack of the Huns in two sides. Unexpectedly, Zhang Qian was captured by the Huns just as he left the Han territory, and was held the prisoner for a dozen years. During this period, he learned the Hun language and got to know well the geography of their territory. Ten years later, Zhang Qian escaped and found the west-moved Dayuezhi. He lived there for a year and got familiar with the circumstances of the Western Regions. Later, when he learned Dayuezhi had no intention to seek revenge, Zhang Qian made his way back to Changan, with only one companion left of the 100 who had set out.
In 119 BC, Emperor Wudi sent Zhang Qian on a second diplomatic mission to the Western Regions. This time, he had an entourage of 300, with thousands of head of cattle and sheep and a large number of gifts. They visited many countries, and these countries sent envoys with a tribute to the Han court. From then on, the Han Dynasty had frequent contacts with the countries in the Western Regions, later setting up a Western Regions Frontier Command in today’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, which was under the administration of the central government.
The Silk Road was another outcome of Zhang Qian’s journeys. The Silk Road started from Chang’an in the east and stretched westward to reach the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea and the Roman Empire. Trade caravans from China carrying large amounts of silk fabrics exchanged merchandise with traders from Persia, India, and Rome, and brought home walnuts, grapes and carrots from abroad. In the following several centuries, Sino-Western exchanges mainly characterized by the silk trade were mostly carried on through the Silk Road.
The Maritime Silk Road
There was also a Silk Road on the sea during the Han Dynasty. It started from coastal ports in today’s Guangdong Province and ended in India by way of Thailand after a 10-month voyage. The Han merchants took with them silk and gold and exchanged them for sapphires. In the Eastern Han Dynasty, Chinese sailing ships reached as far as Africa and established trade contact with the Empire of Rome.
Zhaojun Goes Beyond the Great Wall as a Bride
During the Qin and Han dynasties, the Hun nomads became a threat to the people of the Central Plains, launching numerous southward invasions. In its early years, the Han Dynasty was not strong enough to repel the Huns, so the Han rulers resorted to the policy of Heqin (peace through marriage ties) to pacify the borders. With the strengthening of the economic and military forces of the Han Dynasty, the policy of appeasement was replaced by one of military pacification. By the end of the reign of Emperor Wudi, the Han Dynasty had not intermarried with the Huns for 80 years.
During the reign of Emperor Xuandi (74-49 BC), the power of the Huns had declined drastically. At that time, two men contended for the title of Khan, or paramount chief, of the Huns. One of them, Huhanye by name, sought the help of the Han Dynasty. He visited Chang’an twice, and pledged his allegiance to the emperor. He also expressed his willingness to help the Han Dynasty guard the border areas. In 36 BC, Emperor Yuandi, Emperor Xuandi’s successor, dispatched troops, which ensured Huhanye’s victory. In 33 BC, Huhanye went to Chang’an for the third time and offered to restore the heqin system by marrying a Han princess. Emperor Yuandi agreed immediately and set about selecting a woman from his palace to marry Huhanye. A palace maid named Wang Zhaojun volunteered to marry Huhanye. The latter gave her the title Ninghuyanzhi, which signified that the Huns would build peaceful and friendly relations with the Han Dynasty.
Wang Zhaojun lived in the Huns’ encampments for many years. Under her influence, her children and the people around her all did their best to maintain the good relations between the Huns and the Han Dynasty, which brought a rare period of stability to the northern border areas.
Sima Qian and His Records of the Historian
The author of Records of the Historian, Sima Qian (145 BC-?), was born in what is now Shaanxi Province. Encouraged by his father, he began to read ancient books when he was still very young. At the age of 20, he started to travel extensively and gathered a great deal of material on ancient celebrities. Later, he was appointed to an official post and often went on tours with the emperor.
Not long after his father’s death, Sima Qian succeeded to his position as the official in charge of historical records. Thus he had the opportunity to read many books and made a great many notes. In 104 BC, Sima Qian commenced his Records of the Historian. Falling foul of the emperor, he was castrated and dismissed from office. From that time on, he devoted all his time to his life’s work.
Records of the Historian is composed of 130 chapters. It starts with the legendary Emperor Huangdi, and ends with the reign of Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty, spanning 3 000 years. It was the first comprehensive biographical history book to appear in China. It covers a wide range of subjects: political, economic, cultural, military, etc. Its language is terse and lively, and easy to understand. Records of the Historian is not only a valuable historical work but also an outstanding work of literature.
Zhang Heng, a Pioneering Scientist
Zhang Heng (78-139) was born in Nanyang, Henan Province. He was one of the world’s first astronomers. He was also a learned mathematician. He was appointed as an official with historiographic duties and was also in charge of drawing up the calendar and observing astronomical phenomena.
He developed an armillary sphere, on which were carved all the astronomical phenomena known at that time.
Contrary to popular belief at that time, Zhang Heng maintained that earthquakes were not signs of Heaven’s anger but natural disasters. As a result of careful observations of earthquakes, he invented a seismograph in 132, which was the world’s first instrument to identify and ascertain the direction of earthquakes. When an earthquake occurred in February, 138, a bronze ball fell from the mouth of the carved dragon’s head westward on the instrument facing the direction of the epicenter of the earthquake into the mouth of a bronze toad below. Since it could not be felt in Luoyang, the capital, it was believed deceitful. It was not believed until several days later when it was reported that an earthquake occurred in the southeastern Gansu Province.
It was the first instrument to observe earthquakes in human history. It was not until the 13th century that similar instruments appeared outside China.
Zhang Zhongjing, the Saint of Medicine and Hua Tuo, the Founder of Surgery
Zhang Zhongjing (c. 150-219) was born in Nanyang, Henan Province. He devoted himself to the study of medicine after typhoid fever decimated most of his family. He gathered folk remedies and compiled a work titled Febrile and Other Diseases in 16 volumes. This medical classic not only recorded many Chinese medicine prescriptions but also expounds the theories of traditional Chinese medicine.
Hua Tuo (c. 141-208) was born in Bozhou, Anhui Province. He was proficient in internal medicine, surgery, gynecology and pediatrics. He is credited with being the first surgeon in the world to use the technique of general anesthesia, using a concoction called mafeisan to operate on an appendicitis patient with some disinfecting plasters. One month later, the patient made
a good recovery. He was also an expert acupuncturist, and once cured Cao Cao, the renowned prime minister at the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, of a neural headache using this technique.
Hua Tuo attached importance to therapy. He also emphasized prevention. He devised a set of exercises, known as the Five-Animal Exercises, to strengthen the physique, imitating the actions of the tiger, deer, bear, ape, and bird.