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The Han Dynasty
Part 1 Directions: The article begins with a summary of the author’s claims:
The Han dynasty, which ruled over China for more than four centuries from 206 BC to AD 220, not
only governed the empire effectively, but also created an environment in which art, literature,
education and scientific innovations flourished.
Annotate the article, looking for evidence that supports each of the claims.
Then complete the chart below
Piece of Evidence that Best Supports the Claim
The Han governed the
empire effectively
The Han Dynasty created an
environment in which
education flourished
The Han Dynasty: Politics, Ideology, and Empire
The Han Dynasty which ruled over China for more than four centuries from 206 BCE to 220 CE,
not only governed the empire effectively, but also created an environment in which art, literature,
education, and scientific innovation flourished.
Gao Zu, a Chinese peasant and one of the rebel leaders who succeeded in deposing the Qin
emperor, founded the Han dynasty. Keeping the centralized form of government of the Qin, Gao
Zu and his successors expanded it into a bureaucracy founded on education and accountability.
That bureaucratic administration set the stage for expanding the imperial territory and influence.
Gao Zu realized that managing a large empire required a loyal work force, so he appointed
military leaders, men who had helped him during the rebellion, to positions of authority in the
provinces of China. He also relaxed the repressive application of the law. Gao Zu remained in
power until his death in 195, in part because of those measures, and in part because of the
Chinese concept of the Mandate of Heaven, the belief that heaven endorsed a virtuous ruler by
keeping him in power but ousted the nonvirtuous by allowing him to be overthrown.
Jing, the fifth Han emperor, developed the bureaucracy further and undid more of the Qin
customs. His son, Wudi, who succeeded Jing in 141 BCE, believed that the most talented and
learned men were the best people to help him administer the empire. Since most of the besteducated men in the realm were trained in Confucianism, Wudi made Confucianism the official
philosophy of the empire. He established an academy and scholarships so that more men could
be educated in Confucian classic literature. He also ordered that the Confucian classics, which
had been destroyed or hidden under the Qin, be revived and documented.
Finally, Wudi established a system whereby government workers had to prove their merit in
order to be placed in positions and retain their jobs. The first civil service examination the world
has known was the brainchild of Wudi. The exams stressed Confucian teachings and thus
ensured that all members of the administration were steeped in that philosophy. In Wudi's
administration, civil servants had to be worthy, show respect and loyal to the emperor, focused
on ensuring the general good of the people, and accountable to one's superiors. Even the
provincial governors were supervised by inspectors sent from the emperor.
Expanding the Empire
Expansion began under Wudi as part of his defense program. In prior periods, the Chinese faced
continual threats from nomadic neighbors in the north and west. Wudi began a systematic
campaign to eliminate threats all along China's borders by increasing security on the northern
and western frontiers, which facilitated state-sponsored trade along such routes as the Silk Road
and extended the empire into Central Asia.
Han expansion extended in other directions as well. Wudi's policies brought portions of the
Korean Peninsula and territory as far as the northern region of present-day Vietnam into the
empire. During the 54-year reign of Wudi, the empire nearly doubled. That expansion not only
enlarged China politically and geographically, but it also enriched it economically and culturally
by creating opportunities for exchange between China and other Asian cultures. Trade along the
Silk Road would eventually bring the empire into contact with Mediterranean culture as well.
A Shining Period
Every great civilization has its high point, but China has had several periods of cultural
achievement, including the Han dynasty. Not the least of the Han's accomplishments was the
revival of the Confucian classics and the priority placed on education. Local schools were
founded in addition to the national university, and academic pursuits soon expanded into literary
ones. Richly detailed histories were written during the 400-plus years of Han rule, as were
poems, prose, and textbooks on math and medicine.
Strides were also made in artistic endeavors, including dance, drama, painting, bronze work, silk
weaving, and ceramics. Scientific progress was accomplished in the fields of astronomy and
mathematics, and such inventions as paper, water clocks, and a rudimentary seismograph were
developed during the Han period. Han emperors even had a music bureau, which gathered
musical works from all over the empire.
Like the Qin before them, the Han drafted male citizens into military or public works service.
Requiring farmers and craftsmen to leave their land put them under great financial hardship but
also resulted in the construction of roads, bridges, canals, dikes and other structures that
facilitated defense, trade, and communication throughout the empire.
Source: "The Han Dynasty: Politics, Ideology, and Empire (Overview)." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras.
ABC-CLIO, 2014. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.
Han Expansion
Part 2 Directions:
Look carefully at the two maps
Then answer the questions below
1. Based on observations and your knowledge about the Han Dynasty, why did they expand to the
2. Why do you think they expanded to the south?
3. Why didn’t they expand to the southwest?
Fall of the Han
Part 3 Directions:
Read and annotate the article
Focus on finding reasons the Han Dynasty collapsed (or fell)
Complete the Dynastic Cycle chart and answer the questions
The era from 200 to 600 CE was a time of dramatic change across much of Afroeurasia. Successful, longenduring empires that had risen and flourished during the preceding centuries
began to flounder. One by one, nearly all were extinguished by the end of the sixth century.
The first to fall was the Han Dynasty in China. The Han demise was a complicated affair. Not surprisingly, a
large part of the story involved pressure from pastoral nomads who lived along China’s northern borders.
Over the preceding centuries a confederation of nomadic groups known as the Xiongnu amassed so much
power in horse cavalry that they were able to extort resources from the Han in return for agreeing to keep
the peace. The Han cooperated, finding it cheaper to pay the Xiongnu than to fight them. For a while, this
compromise worked well. But in 51 CE, a succession dispute divided the Xiongnu into two groups. This set
off a chain reaction that had a severe impact on the Han. The Xiongnu nearest the Chinese border took the
payment intended for the entire confederation. The farther group immediately retaliated, attacking the Han
(for not paying) as well as their greedy Xiongnu kinsmen. As the confederation disintegrated, individual
groups began to demand separate payments from the Han. The costs to the Han rose considerably, and at
the same time nomadic cavalry raids increased. The Han were not getting what they continued to pay for.
At the same time, nature entered the fray as an enemy of the Han. In 153 CE a swarm of locusts
laid waste to large areas of farmland. Deforestation that had started in much earlier times
produced erosion and floods. The Huang He (Yellow River) filled with silt and began to flood
more frequently, with more devastating results. Infectious diseases new to China began to arrive
via the silk roads causing widespread epidemics.
The misery these disasters caused was compounded by the increasingly desperate economic
situation of the peasants. Over time, the long-standing tradition of dividing land equally among
all sons had reduced the size of the average farm to the point where farmers could not make
enough from the land to pay their taxes. Farmers had little choice but to give over their small
plots to wealthy aristocratic landlords whose legal status exempted them and their dependents
from taxes. Thus the wealthy landlords grew richer, the peasants became poor tenant farmers,
and the Han government lost tax revenue. As conditions worsened, poverty and frustration fueled a series
of peasant revolts.
All of these dilemmas placed heavy demands on the Han government and called for creative and
decisive leadership. But internal competition for power among factions within the Han court
paralyzed the government and left it incapable of dealing effectively with the empire’s many
problems. The rising power of large landowners and the increasing independence of Han generals
continually eroded the power of the emperor. In 220 CE the dynasty collapsed, and the
most powerful among the generals divided the empire into several smaller kingdoms.
Source: World History for Us All Big Era 5
4. To what extent do you think the Xiongnu contributed to the fall of the Han Dynasty?
5. If you were a Han emperor, would you see the Mandate of Heaven a blessing or a curse?
6. How did the Han gain the Mandate of Heaven?
7. Evidence the dynasty ruled during
a time of peace & prosperity
11. A new dynasty arose
After years of disunity,
the Sui Dynasty
established central
10. Provide some details about
the rebellion.
Dynastic Cycle
Han Dynasty
East Meets West:
The Silk Road
Part 4 Directions:
8. What caused the dynasty to
begin to fall?
Read and
9. What was the natural disaster
that signaled the loss of the
Mandate of Heaven?
annotate the article
Focus on finding ways the Silk Road changed China
After you read, answer the summary question
History often seems to be all about the rise and fall of governments and shifts in political and
military power. However, many of the most important developments of history—the ones with a
lasting impact on human life and culture—come out of the peaceful exchange of goods and ideas
along trade routes. One such important historical trade route is the romantically named Silk
Road, which linked the East to the West and played a significant role in the transfer of
knowledge from China to Europe.
What Is the Silk Road?
The "Silk Road" is a name historians use to describe the first trade route that connected China
with the Mediterranean region in ancient and medieval times. It would probably be more
accurate to use the term "Silk Roads" because the Silk Road was a 4,000-mile network of routes
that passed through the entire Asian continent. The routes began in the ancient Chinese capital of
Changan, split as they moved west to go around the Taklimakan Desert in Central Asia, and then
came together again in the Near East. They ended at cities like Antioch and Tyre on the
Mediterranean Sea.
Since most of the Silk Road passed through desert or mountains, travel was difficult and
dangerous. Travelers journeyed in caravans and made their way from one desert oasis to the
next. Goods traveled along with the people from Central Asia across the Mediterranean Sea into
Europe. Side routes ran into the Indian subcontinent.
Over hundreds of years, trade and travel along the Silk Road grew and declined based on the
conditions in the numerous regions through which it passed.
Who Paved the Way?
The Silk Road was probably first used as early as 300 BCE, but the earliest recorded traveler was
Chinese general Zhang Qian in the second century BCE. At that time, trade of silk and other
luxuries between central China and its borders was common, but the nomadic tribes who lived on
the northern and western frontiers often raided trading parties. In 138 BCE, Han dynasty emperor
Wudi sent Zhang to the western nomads to attempt to create an alliance with them against the
northerners. Although that mission was unsuccessful, Zhang traveled as far west as modern-day
Afghanistan and returned to China with information about trade routes and new products.
The Chinese were especially interested in Zhang's descriptions of the fine horses that were raised
in Central Asia because of their military value. With Chinese silk, a valuable luxury, to be traded
in exchange, the Chinese government launched western trading parties with military escorts for
security. Since they could now travel in relative safety, private merchants often tagged along.
They traded not only silk but also Chinese herbs, paper, spices, tea, and jade carvings for raw
jade, gold, silver, wool, glass, ivory, grapes, and bamboo. All sorts of exotic animals were also
exchanged between eastern and western Asia. As the Han dynasty began to decline in the early
third century CE, so did state-sponsored trade along the Silk Road, although it never died out
Because the routes passed through such difficult terrain, early traders were unable to travel the
entire length. Instead, they would travel a certain distance, trade their wares at a trading post or
oasis, and then return home. In turn, traders at the oasis would travel farther on to the next oasis
to trade their new items. Little by little, goods from the East and the West made their way to the
other end of the trade routes. In that way, the West eventually learned of such Chinese inventions
as paper.
Heavy Traffic on Cultural Highways
Once China was reunited under the Tang dynasty in 618 CE, trade along the Silk Road began to
grow again. The Tang not only encouraged trade but also protected and extended the routes.
They imported new styles of clothing, such games as polo, new musical instruments, exotic
plants, and spices.
Under the Tang dynasty, merchants, craftsmen, missionaries, religious pilgrims, entertainers,
diplomats, entrepreneurs, artists, and adventurers traveled the Silk Road. Towns began to grow
up around the main oases, and the Tang capital of Changan, located at the eastern end of the Silk
Road, became a culturally diverse, bustling city. A census taken in 754 indicates the presence of
Turks, Persians, Indians, and 20,000 other non-Chinese residents. In Changan, music, literature,
poetry, calligraphy, painting, and dance from many cultures thrived.
Beliefs also traveled the Silk Road. During the latter period of the Han dynasty, Buddhist
temples, shrines, and sculptures were built along the Chinese portions of the Silk Road.
Buddhism continued to spread as monks came to teach in China and students of Buddhism
traveled to India to learn more about the faith. During the Tang dynasty, Islam spread from the
Near East into Persia and Central Asia, with outposts in China and India. Christianity also
arrived in China by 635.
As the Tang dynasty weakened in the late ninth century, so did trade along the Silk Road. The
Song dynasty, which followed, controlled a much smaller amount of territory and therefore never
controlled the trade routes either.
Silk Road trade rebounded during the time of the Mongols following the conquests of Genghis
Khan in the early 13th century. Although the invading Mongols initially destroyed many oases
and trading centers along the routes, the relative peace that followed the establishment of the
extensive Mongol Empire meant that the Silk Road was once again comparatively safe for travel.
Genghis' grandson Kublai Khan brought China under his control by 1279. The security of trade
routes was extremely important to the Mongols. Trade between segments of the Silk Road grew
as a result, and travelers could make their way from one end all the way to the other. The most
famous European to make the journey was Marco Polo, who traveled to the court of Kublai. In
addition to goods and people, new ideas, art, and literature traveled the Silk Road during Kublai's
The End of the Road
By the late 1400s, the Silk Road was no longer the only avenue connecting the East and the
West. Europeans and Asians both began making greater use of maritime routes, which were
faster and therefore less expensive. Meanwhile, the Ming dynasty, which regained control of
China in 1368, established a policy of isolationism that meant less contact with the West. Some
trade via the Silk Road persisted, but it never was as active as it once had been.
MLA Citation
"East Meets West: The Silk Road (Overview)." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2014.
Web. 3 Nov. 2014.
Summary Question: How did the Silk Road change China?
Use at least 3 PERSIA GEM categories in your answer.
PERSIA Politics
Geography Engineering Military