The Han Dynasty, spanning from 206 BCE to 220 CE, was one of the most influential periods in Chinese history.
Following the short-lived Qin Dynasty, the Han Dynasty established itself with its founder, Emperor Gaozu (Liu Bang), and would go on to create a lasting legacy in politics, culture, and trade.
It’s traditionally divided into two main periods: the Western Han (206 BCE – 9 CE) and the Eastern Han (25-220 CE), separated by the brief interlude of the Xin Dynasty.
Notably, the Han Dynasty saw the consolidation of Confucianism as the state philosophy, the opening of the Silk Road trade route, and significant advancements in science and technology.
Its decline paved the way for the Three Kingdoms era, yet the dynasty’s impact is still felt today, with the majority ethnic group in China identifying as “Han” Chinese.
|Western Han (206 BCE – 9 CE)|
|206 BCE||Han Dynasty begins with Liu Bang becoming Emperor Gaozu|
|195 BCE||Death of Emperor Gaozu; Emperor Hui succeeds|
|180 BCE||Reign of Emperor Wen begins|
|157-141 BCE||Reign of Emperor Wu; Expansion and establishment of Confucianism|
|133 BCE||Defeat of the Xiongnu|
|125 BCE||Zhang Qian’s envoy mission opens the Silk Road|
|104-102 BCE||War of the Heavenly Horses|
|91 BCE||Han conquest of parts of modern-day Korea|
|9 CE||Wang Mang usurps the throne; end of Western Han|
|Xin Dynasty (9-23 CE)|
|9 CE||Wang Mang establishes the Xin Dynasty|
|23 CE||Overthrow of Xin Dynasty|
|Eastern Han (25-220 CE)|
|25 CE||Liu Xiu establishes the Eastern Han as Emperor Guangwu|
|57-88 CE||Further Han expansions into Central Asia, Korea, and Vietnam|
|105 CE||Paper production scales up after Cai Lun’s invention|
|132 CE||Zhang Heng creates the first seismoscope|
|144 CE||Yellow Turban Rebellion begins|
|168-189 CE||Eunuch power rises leading to corruption|
|189 CE||General Dong Zhuo takes control|
|220 CE||End of the Han Dynasty, start of the Three Kingdoms period|
Timeline of the Han Dynasty
206 BCE – Han Dynasty starts with Liu Bang as Emperor Gaozu
After the short-lived but highly centralized Qin Dynasty fell due to widespread discontent and rebellion, Liu Bang, a peasant leader and one of the rebel leaders, emerged as the victor in a power struggle against Xiang Yu, another prominent rebel leader.
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Liu Bang established the Han Dynasty in 206 BCE, taking the title of Emperor Gaozu. The Han Dynasty would go on to become one of the most influential periods in Chinese history, characterized by consolidation, expansion, and cultural growth.
Gaozu implemented policies to reduce the harshness of the laws imposed during the Qin era and laid the groundwork for the prosperity of the Han era.
195 BCE – Emperor Gaozu dies; Emperor Hui succeeds
Emperor Gaozu’s death in 195 BCE marked the end of the founding emperor’s reign. His son, Emperor Hui, took over the throne.
However, Emperor Hui’s reign was short-lived, and he is often considered a “puppet emperor.” Real power during his reign was held by his mother, Empress Dowager Lü Zhi.
Also Read: Sui Dynasty Facts
She took an active role in governing the state, and upon Emperor Hui’s death, she placed various infant emperors on the throne, effectively ruling in their names. This period became known as the “Lü Clan Disturbance.”
180 BCE – Emperor Wen’s reign begins
After the turmoil of the Lü Clan Disturbance, Emperor Wen, also known as Wen-di, ascended to the throne. He is often credited with initiating a period of relative peace and prosperity.
Emperor Wen made efforts to reduce the tax burden on the peasantry, eliminate corruption, and provide a more lenient legal system.
His reforms laid the groundwork for the stability and growth of the Western Han Dynasty. He is remembered as one of the most benevolent and capable rulers in Chinese history.
Under his reign, Confucianism began to take root as a guiding philosophy for governance, setting the stage for its dominance in later periods.
157-141 BCE – Emperor Wu’s reign; Expansion and Confucianism’s establishment
Emperor Wu, known as Wu-di, is often cited as one of the most significant and influential emperors of the Han Dynasty. He embarked on military campaigns that greatly expanded the empire’s borders to include parts of modern-day Vietnam, Korea, and Central Asia.
This led to direct confrontations with the Xiongnu, a nomadic group and the Han’s perennial adversaries. Emperor Wu also established Confucianism as the official state philosophy, which helped shape China’s governance, culture, and societal norms for the next two millennia.
He funded Confucian research projects, such as the compilation of the “Five Classics,” and established Confucian academies, integrating Confucian scholars into state bureaucracy.
133 BCE – Defeat of Xiongnu
One of the defining foreign policy challenges of the Western Han was its relationship with the Xiongnu, a confederation of nomadic tribes to the north.
During Emperor Wu’s reign, after several battles and strategic maneuvers, the Han forces achieved significant victories over the Xiongnu, leading to a decline in Xiongnu power and a more peaceful northern frontier for the Han.
125 BCE – Silk Road opens with Zhang Qian’s mission
Emperor Wu sent Zhang Qian as an envoy to the Western Regions, aiming to form an alliance with the Yuezhi against the Xiongnu.
Although the diplomatic mission didn’t achieve its intended alliance, Zhang Qian’s travels led to the establishment and expansion of trade routes known as the Silk Road, facilitating cultural and commercial exchanges between the East and the West.
104-102 BCE – War of the Heavenly Horses
The War of the Heavenly Horses was a series of military campaigns launched by Emperor Wu against the kingdom of Dayuan (located in the Ferghana Valley) to obtain their famed Ferghana horses, which were superior in strength and speed.
These horses were crucial for the Han military’s efforts against the Xiongnu. After initial setbacks, the Han forces eventually prevailed, and the Ferghana Valley became part of the Han Empire’s territories.
91 BCE – Han conquers parts of modern-day Korea
Expanding its influence northeastwards, the Han Dynasty established commanderies in parts of modern-day Korea, integrating the region into its expanding empire and facilitating the spread of Han culture into the Korean Peninsula.
9 CE – Wang Mang usurps throne; end of Western Han
Wang Mang was a high-ranking official and regent who declared the end of the Western Han Dynasty, taking power for himself and establishing the short-lived Xin Dynasty.
He implemented a series of radical reforms, including land redistribution, which were met with resistance and eventually led to widespread revolts. These internal challenges, combined with external pressures from groups like the Xiongnu, rendered his rule unstable.
9 CE – Xin Dynasty’s establishment by Wang Mang
As mentioned, this period represents Wang Mang’s rule after he declared the end of the Western Han. Though he had ambitious goals, his reign was marked by instability, economic decline, and widespread rebellion.
By 23 CE, revolts culminated in the siege and eventual sack of the capital, leading to Wang Mang’s death and the restoration of the Han Dynasty under a new line, marking the beginning of the Eastern Han period.
23 CE – Overthrow of Xin Dynasty
The Xin Dynasty under Wang Mang’s rule faced numerous challenges, both from internal revolts and external threats. The Red Eyebrows, one of the most significant rebel groups, played a crucial role in toppling Wang Mang’s regime.
By 23 CE, these rebels had captured Chang’an, the capital, leading to Wang Mang’s death. His demise marked the end of the Xin Dynasty and set the stage for the restoration of the Han Dynasty.
25 CE – Eastern Han begins with Liu Xiu as Emperor Guangwu
Liu Xiu, a member of the Han royal family, led the resistance against Wang Mang and eventually declared himself Emperor Guangwu, marking the beginning of the Eastern Han Dynasty.
He successfully restored the Han Dynasty, relocating the capital from Chang’an to Luoyang. His reign marked a period of stabilization and recovery following the turbulent years of the Xin Dynasty.
57-88 CE – Han expands into Central Asia, Korea, and Vietnam
The Eastern Han continued the expansionist policies of the Western Han. This period saw military campaigns and diplomatic efforts that increased Han influence in Central Asia, enhancing control over the Silk Road and ensuring safe trade routes.
Additionally, the Han solidified their presence in regions like Korea and northern Vietnam.
105 CE – Large-scale paper production starts
One of the most transformative inventions of the Han Dynasty was paper. While earlier forms of paper existed, it was during the Eastern Han that a court official named Cai Lun perfected the paper-making process using mulberry bark, hemp, rags, and fish nets.
This innovation made paper cheaper and more accessible, revolutionizing communication, record-keeping, and literature.
132 CE – Zhang Heng invents the first seismoscope
Zhang Heng was a polymath of the Han Dynasty – an astronomer, mathematician, inventor, and poet. Among his many accomplishments, he is credited with creating the first seismoscope, an instrument capable of detecting earthquakes, even if they occurred hundreds of miles away. This invention showcased the advanced scientific understanding and innovative spirit of the Han era.
144 CE – Yellow Turban Rebellion starts
The Yellow Turban Rebellion, led by the Taoist-inspired Zhang Jue and his followers, who wore yellow turbans (hence the name), was a massive peasant revolt against corruption, heavy taxation, and famine.
This uprising posed a significant threat to the Han Dynasty and, while it was eventually suppressed, it exposed and exacerbated the internal weaknesses of the Han government.
168-189 CE – Eunuch power leads to corruption
The Eastern Han saw a significant rise in the political influence of eunuchs, palace officials who were castrated. While eunuchs had always held roles in the imperial court, during this period, their power and influence grew to unprecedented levels, leading to factional struggles, corruption, and undermining the authority of the emperor.
189 CE – General Dong Zhuo takes control
Amid the instability caused by the increasing influence of eunuchs and the weakening of the emperor’s power, General Dong Zhuo, a warlord, seized control of the capital, Luoyang. He installed a puppet emperor and ruled with an iron fist, marking the beginning of the end for the Han Dynasty.
220 CE – Han Dynasty ends, Three Kingdoms period begins
The decline of the Eastern Han was marked by factional infighting, corruption, and external threats. By 220 CE, Emperor Xian, the last Han emperor, was forced to abdicate the throne, marking the official end of the Han Dynasty.
The power vacuum left in its wake led to the rise of three prominent warlords – Cao Cao, Liu Bei, and Sun Quan – and the beginning of the legendary Three Kingdoms period, a time of warfare and shifting alliances.