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Eastern Han Dynasty: Great Contributions to the Art and More

After the end of the short-lived Xin Dynasty, the reign of the Han Dynasty resumed. The Eastern Han Dynasty (aka the Later Han) formally began in 25 BCE and Liu Xiu became Emperor Guangwu of Han. At first, only parts of China were under his control, but through suppressions and conquest of regional warlords, the whole of China was united by the time of his death in 57 CE.

For a couple of decades after Emperor Guangwu’s death, the battle for territory and its expansion waged on. But in 75 CE, Emperor Zhang, the 3rd emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty, was credited with the high point of the dynastic house by Han Scholars. The emperors that succeeded him had reigns that were involved in violent power struggles of imperial consort clans.

Eunuch schemes

A eunuch named Zheng Zhong aided Emperor He, who ascended to the throne after Zhang’s death,  had the Empress Dowager Dou put under house arrest and her family stripped of power in revenge for Dou purging the clan of his natural mother and concealing his true identity. After his death, his wife, Empress Deng Sui became regent empress dowager during a turbulent financial crisis caused by a rebellion.

This was the first of many eunuch schemes that led to exiles, dismissals from office, overthrowing of regimes, suicides, and so forth. It was chaos. During Emperor Ling’s reign (168-189 CE), the eunuchs had manipulated themselves into power by renewing and expanding the partisan prohibitions while the emperor spent much of his time role-playing with concubines and participating in military parades.

Because the court did not think it would be wise to continue to alienate the gentry class who might join the rebellions that were arising, in 184 CE, the Partisan Prohibitions were repealed. At this point, it should also be known that there were rebellions ongoing, namely the Yellow Turban Rebellion and the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion. These rebellions were led by two different hierarchical Daoist religious societies led by faith healers Zhang Jue and Zhang Lu.

Zhang Lui and the Yellow Turban Rebellion weren’tt quelled until 215 CE, and Zhang Jue’s Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion was defeated by Han forces within a year. Despite the defeat, many generals of the Yellow Turban never disbanded their militia forces and used troops to amass power. The military Grand Marshal, He Jin (who was also the half-brother of Empress He), and regent of the Eastern Han dynasty plotted with Yuan Shao, a warlord to overthrow the eunuchs.

They had several generals march to the outskirts of the capital and demanded Empress He to execute all the eunuchs. After a period of hesitation, the Empress consented. The eunuchs discovered this and had her brother, He Miao, rescind the order. He Jin was then assassinated by the eunuchs.

Warlords and statesmen

Yuan Shao and his brother Yuan Shu besieged the Northern and Southern Palaces. Both palaces were breached and around 2,000 eunuchs were killed. Zhang Rang, one of the most powerful eunuchs, fled with the young Emperor Shao and his brother Liu Xie – the future Emperor Xian of Han. While they were being pursued by the Yuan brothers, Zhang committed suicide.

A military general, Dong Zhuo, found the two young men wandering the countryside and escorted back to the capital. Dong Zhuo made Minister of Works, took back control of the Northern Palace and forced Yuan Shu to flee. He demoted Emperor Shao and promoted his brother Liu Xie as Emperor Xian, Yuan Shao led a coalition of former officials and officers against Dong, who burned Luoyang to the ground and resettled the court at Chang’an in 191 BE. Dong Zhuo later poisoned Emperor Shao.

Dong was killed by his adopted son, Lu Bu, in a plan hatched by the politician, Wang Yun. Emperor Xian fled Chang’an to the ruins of the Northern Palace and was persuaded by the warlord and statesman Cao Cao to move the capital to Xuchang. Yuan Shao challenged Cao Cao for control over the emperor and failed. Cao Cao also killed Yuan Shao’s son Yuan Tan who had been fighting with his brothers over the family inheritance. Yuan Shang and Yuan Xi were then killed by a minor warlord, Gongsun Kang, who sent their heads to Cao Cao.

In the naval Battle of Red Cliff in 208 CE, China was divided into 3 different spheres on influence, with Cao Cao ruling the north, and 2 different leaders ruling the south and the west. Cao Cao died in 220 CE and his son Cao Pi had Emperor Xian relinquish the throne to him. This formally ended the Han dynasty and initiated an age of conflict between three states: Cao Wei, Eastern Wu, and Shu Han.

Contributions to the arts and more

The Han Dynasty was the longest reigning dynasty in ancient China so there were bound to be plenty of achievements and inventions during this era. And there were!

Source: Unsplash

One of the eunuchs, Cai Lun, invented the standard paper-making process. Bamboo fibers and the inner bark of the mulberry tree were the perfect combination for not only a good writing surface, but a light one. Cai Lun also used remnants of hemp, tree barks, fishnets, and linen rags as paper materials. This invention greatly helped in spreading literacy in the country and is considered one of the greatest historical contributions of China.

There were major developments in the arts, especially in the fields of jade carving, pottery, silk weaving, painting, and calligraphy. Han tombs were filled with artifacts like miniature items of ceramic and terracotta sculpture. The brick walls were decorated with mural paintings and a range of carved relief sculptures.

Jade burial suits were also made to bury royal members in order to protect them against evil spirits in the afterlife. In addition, the invention of paper established painting and calligraphy as the most important areas of art in China for the next two millennia.

Source: Britannica

The famous Silk Road was established and is currently a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Silk Road was instrumental in the development of civilizations of China, India, Persia, Europe, and Arabia through economic and political interactions between them. It also assisted in the cultural interaction between the East and West for centuries.

Major innovations in ship designing and map making were made. A rudder was invented allowing the ships to be steered. The Chinese junk ships were designed, making it the first sea-worthy Chinese vessel. These inventions allowed the Chinese to venture into calmer waters, like interior lakes and rivers and the open sea.

This aided in better maps, and the Han Chinese used the grid system, a method still used today, to better pinpoint locations. The raised relief map was invented, making it easier to understand the terrain and that in turn, aided in better navigation.


In case you missed it, you can also read about the Western Han dynastyQin dynastyZhou dynastyShang dynasty, and the Xia dynasty, as well as what came before the first Chinese dynasty here.

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