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Chinese Dynasties: The Western Han Dynasty, the Start of the Golden Age

The Han dynasty is considered the golden age in Chinese history and has influenced Chinese civilization and its identity. The Han dynasty was the second imperial dynasty of China lasting from 202 BCE to 207 CE — or others say more accurately from 202 BCE to 9 CE, then 25 CE to 220 CE. The former is known as the Western Han Dynasty and the latter is the Eastern Han Dynasty.

Modern China’s majority ethnic group refers to themselves as the “Han Chinese.” The Sinitic language is known as “Han language,” and the written Chinese is referred to as “Han characters.”

In the beginning

At the start of the Western Han dynasty, thirteen commanderies existed in the western third of the empire, and the eastern two-thirds were divided into ten semi-autonomous kingdoms. Emperor Gaozu, the first emperor of the Han dynasty, distributed some of these lands to prominent commanders of the war with Chu and named them kings.

By 196 BC, the Han court had replaced all but one of these kings with royal Liu family members as they began to question the loyalty of non-blood relatives. After several insurrections of Han kings, the staff was not assigned to them. Instead, they were chosen by the kings themselves. Kings became nominal heads of their fiefs and collected a portion of tax revenues as their personal incomes.

To the north of Chinese territory, nomadic Xiongnu chieftain Modu Chanyu started to conquer many countries surrounding China. This troubled the sitting emperor since an abundance of Han-manufactured iron weapons were traded to the Xiongnu along the northern borders. Eventually, he established penalties and sanctions against the group.

Establishing peace

Angered, the Xiongnu invaded Shanxi province where they defeated the Han forces at Baideng. In an effort to establish peace, an agreement was struck wherein the Xiongnu and the Han were made equal partners in a royal marriage alliance, but the Han were forced to send large amounts of tribute items, such as silk clothes, food, and wine to the Xiongnu.

Despite this, many of Chanyu’s subordinates ignored the agreement and continued to raid Han territories south of the Great Wall. Many years later, the seventh emperor of the Han dynasty, Emperor Wu, called for a conference to discuss the existing agreement. Despite the lopsided compliance, both main parties decided to maintain the agreement.

The following year, a plan was hatched to ambush Xiongnu forces and assassinate Chanyu. This plan failed and the emperor thought it best to send massive military forces into Xiongnu territory. After Wu’s reign, Han forces continued to prevail against the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu leader Huhanye Chanyu finally submitted to Han as a tributary vassal in 51 BC. His rival claimant to the throne, Zhizhi Chanyu, was killed by Chen Tang and Gan Yanshou.

Reformists and Modernists

A lot of Emperor Wu’s reign was spent battling for new lands and territories. To pay for his military campaigns and colonial expansion, Emperor Wu nationalized several private industries. He created central government monopolies administered largely by former merchants. These monopolies included salt, iron, and liquor production, as well as bronze-coin currency.

The government monopolies were repealed with the rise of the political faction known as the Reformists. They strongly opposed the Modernists. The Modernists argued for an aggressive and expansionary foreign policy supported by revenues from heavy government intervention in the private economy. The Reformists, however, overturned these policies, favoring a cautious, non-expansionary approach to foreign policy, frugal budget reform, and lower tax-rates imposed on private entrepreneurs.


The famous work Shiji, also known as Records of the Grand Historian in English, was written during the Western Han period. It mostly dealt with major events and personalities spanning 2,000 years. It contains 130 chapters and rings in at more than 52,000 words. It was a hugely influential text and had a lasting impact on history-writing not only in China, but in other Asian countries as well.

Another contribution of the Western Han dynasty is in metallurgy and agriculture. These discoveries helped in the widespread use of iron tools. The plough, in particular, was greatly improved by the use of two blades instead of one. The wheelbarrow greatly aided in shifting loads, and mechanized pumps helped in irrigation.


In case you missed it, you can also read about the Qin dynasty, Zhou dynasty, Shang dynasty, and the Xia dynasty, as well as what came before the first Chinese dynasty here.

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