The Western Han Dynasty

The Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-9 AD) and the Xin Dynasty (9-25 AD)

When Emperor Gaozu took power and established the Han Dynasty, he enfeoffed several of his relatives as princes and allowed them to rule over ten semi-autonomous kingdoms in the east. Talk about keeping it in the family! During his reign, tensions between the Han and Xiongnu people began to rise. Like Coca Cola versus Pepsi, this set the precedent for one of history’s greatest rivalries. He set a trade embargo against the group and even mounted surprise attacks on Xiongnu people while they traded at border markets. In retaliation, Xiongnu forces invaded modern-day Shanxi province and defeated Han troops. These skirmishes eventually led to the 44-year-long Han-Xiongnu War, which began in 133 BC and was one of the bloodiest in Chinese history. And you thought your neighbours were bad!

Although it happened as a consequence of his actions, it was a war that the first Han emperor would luckily be spared from seeing, as Emperor Gaozu died in 195 BC. He was succeeded by his son Emperor Hui, who indulged in so much hedonistic behaviour that he promptly passed away in 188 BC, aged just 22 years old. Sometimes the apple really does fall far from the tree! He was briefly succeeded by his two infant sons Liu Gong and Liu Hong before his half-brother, Liu Heng, finally took the throne as Emperor Wen.

Statue of Emperor WuAlongside his father Gaozu and his descendant Emperor Wu, Wen came to be regarded as one of the three greatest emperors of the Western Han Dynasty. He listened to the advice of his statesmen, yielded when it was necessary, and shunned the typical extravagance of previous emperors; in short, he was an ideal ruler according to Confucian principles. It was Emperor Wen who first introduced the concept of electing imperial officials based on examinations, which proved to be a model that lasted right up until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Under his steady hand, China’s economy and political power flourished.

Unfortunately it seemed his son, Emperor Jing, was far less concerned with keeping the peace and tragically brought about a period of unrest known as the Rebellion of the Seven States. What started out as a dispute between the Emperor and his cousin ended in a ferocious civil war that lasted for over three months. Now that’s one serious family feud! As a result of this atrocity, in 145 BC the princes were stripped of their privileges. Their territories were divided into commanderies, they were no longer allowed to appoint their own staff, and their personal income was made up of just a small portion of the tax they collected. In essence, they were just glorified taxmen!

Yet it was Emperor Jing’s son, Liu Che, who would be singled out repeatedly by historians for special praise. He took the name Emperor Wu and not only boasted the longest reign of all the Han emperors, but was revered as a brave ruler who repeatedly extended the territory of the empire. To this end, he built long stretches of earthen wall along the northern frontier in order to protect his western territory from the northern Xiongnu people. This would eventually form the foundation of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall and relics of this original Han Dynasty wall, such as the Yumen Pass and the Yang Pass, can still be visited today. He was also famously fascinated with the Western Regions and even drove the Xiongnu out of modern-day Gansu province and Xinjiang in order to form friendly ties with the Western peoples. This was the key to his success as a ruler, as it allowed him to establish significant control over the Silk Road. On his death in 87 BC, he left behind a considerably larger empire than he had inherited.

Unfortunately he was succeeded by his eight-year-old son, Emperor Zhao. While most of us were still trying to learn how to ride a bicycle, Zhao was busy learning how to run an entire country! His thirteen-year reign was marked by peace but, in an almost comical turn, his grandnephew and successor Liu He was made Emperor for just 37 days before being deposed by a powerful minister named Huo Guang. Imagine just how terrible you have to be at your job to get fired in less than 2 months! He was succeeded by Emperor Xuan, who had grown up as a commoner and thus understood the suffering of the people. The country prospered under his reign and many historians regard his death as the point when the Western Han Dynasty began to decline.

His son, Emperor Yuan, was notoriously indecisive and his inability to quash political squabbles meant that the state of the empire deteriorated. He was followed by Emperor Cheng, who was a womaniser and a drunk; Emperor Ai, who was equally as ineffectual; and Emperor Ping, who was just nine years old when he took the throne and fourteen when he died. It was this string of incompetent rulers that laid the foundation for Wang Mang’s eventual usurpation. Ping’s cousin Liu Ying was meant to take the throne but, on January 10th 9 AD, the Emperor Regent Wang Mang claimed it for himself and established the Xin Dynasty (9-23 AD).

Wang tried to appeal to the poorer classes by eliminating private landholding, introducing new currencies, and abolishing private slavery, but this antagonised the wealthy aristocracy and inevitably led to many noblemen defying him. After all, you should never bite the hand that feeds, nor the one that pays the most taxes! In the course of the ensuing warfare, the capital of Chang’an was almost completely destroyed. Meanwhile, massive floods from 3 to 11 AD caused the Yellow River to overflow. Farmers whose homes had been subsequently destroyed were forced to join roving bandit groups in order to survive. One such group, named the Red Eyebrows, became so large that they were able to defeat Wang Mang’s army, take control of the capital, force their way into the palace, and murder Wang in a most brutal fashion. Like Macbeth, it was Wang’s blind ambition that led to his inevitable downfall.

Architectural Achievements of Qin Dynasty

Zhengguo CanalThe Qin Dynasty was responsible for some of the greatest architectural achievements in ancient Chinese history, and this was predominantly due to the fact that they had access to a colossal slave labour force made up principally of peasants and farmers. The Lingqu Canal, the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, and the Zhengguo Canal are known as the “three great hydraulic engineering projects of the Qin Dynasty” and were each revolutionary for their time. These water systems are some of the largest of their kind and miraculously are all still in use today! Yet these watery wonders pale in comparison to the dynasty’s later achievements.

During the Warring States Period, large sections of defensive wall were used to surround the different states in order to protect them from each other and outside forces. When Qin Shi Huang conquered the other six states in 221 BC, he had the interior walls destroyed but connected large sections of the existing northern walls and eventually created the foundation for the Great Wall as we know it today. Although this wall has been renovated and rebuilt beyond all recognition, credit will always go to the Qin Dynasty for its original conception.

The Terracotta Army, on the other hand, has genuinely remained unchanged for thousands of years. This collection of over 6,000 life-sized terracotta warriors and horses was constructed simply to protect the Emperor in the afterlife. They are part of a gigantic tomb complex that was hermetically-sealed after the Emperor’s death in 210 BC and remained in perfect stasis until the army was rediscovered over 2,000 years later. After such a long nap, no wonder these soldiers look so fresh and well-rested!

The Qin Dynasty

 (221-206 BC)

As the renowned philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long”. And never was this statement truer than when it came to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). Though it only lasted for fifteen years, this was the dynasty that unified China, established the Great Wall, and laid the basic foundation for all of the dynasties that followed. Many historians believe that the name “China” is derived from the word “Qin” (pronounced “Chin”), which speaks to its great importance. So why, after having accomplished so much, did the Qin Dynasty collapse so quickly?

In short, innovative though this kingdom may have been, these advancements came at great monetary and human cost. It is estimated that, during this brief fifteen year period, the country’s population dropped from a healthy 40 million to a staggeringly low 18 million. Books were burned, taxes crippled the citizens, scholars were buried alive, and thousands of slave labourers perished from exhaustion. From bloody beginnings to bloody ends, the Qin Dynasty has become synonymous not only with progression, but also with oppression and greed.

Rise to Power

During the Warring States Period (c. 476-221 BC), China as we known it was separated into seven major warring kingdoms known as the Yan, Zhao, Qi, Chu, Han, Wei, and Qin. Each of these states vied for dominance, but for a long time they all appeared to be equally matched. Part of the reason for this was, believe it or not, because of their dedication to good manners! From the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 771-476 BC) onwards, the popular philosophy designated warfare as a gentleman’s activity, much like the concept of chivalry in Europe. It was considered improper to take advantage of an enemy’s weaknesses and there was a certain etiquette involved when it came to engaging in battle. Like a spot of English afternoon tea, it was of paramount importance to remain polite! Yet, during the 4th century BC, a Qin statesman named Lord Shang Yang emerged, and it was his philosophy of Legalism that would change the political and military landscape forever.

Shang Yang sought to do away with military formalities and with the feudal system altogether, instead advocating fixed laws where all citizens were treated equally and had to answer to the ruling court. Under his guidance, a number of governmental, political, and military reforms were instituted from 361 BC right through until his death in 338 BC. These reforms, coupled with strong leadership and little internal unrest, enabled the State of Qin to become far more ruthless and powerful than the other warring states. Its territory was also naturally shielded by high mountains, as it occupied a strategic position in the Wei River valley of modern-day Gansu and Shaanxi provinces.

From the 3rd to the 2nd century BC, the Qin rulers began centralising state power by creating a rigid system of laws and dividing their territory into a number of prefectures, each ruled by a government official appointed by the state. They commanded a large and efficient army, and took advantage of the latest developments in weaponry and transportation. One great example of this is that they abandoned the use of chariots and instead utilised a cavalry, which were much faster and able to adapt to different terrain types. In ideology and practice, the Qin Empire was militarily superior compared to their counterparts.

Qin Shi HuangdiIn 246 BC, at the tender age of just nine years old, Ying Zheng took the Qin throne and, together with his minister Li Si, utilised this advantage to embark on a series of conquests. In 230 BC, they annexed the State of Han; the State of Zhao surrendered in 228 BC; the northernmost State of Yan fell in 226 BC; and so on, until the last surviving State of Qi was finally conquered in 221 BC. Thereafter Ying Zheng bestowed upon himself the epithet Qin Shi Huangdi or the “First Sovereign Emperor of Qin”. Unlike previous rulers, who referred to themselves simply as kings or emperors, Ying Zheng equated his authority with that of the legendary rulers and deities known as the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, and thus derived his title from theirs. He may have been powerful, but he certainly wasn’t modest about it!

Not content with the huge empire he now had, Qin Shi Huang sent a colossal army of over 500,000 men to conquer the territory of the southern tribes. After a long and harrowing campaign, he successfully dominated much of modern-day Sichuan province, and the region surrounding the present-day cities of Guangzhou, Fuzhou, and Guilin. This set the boundaries of unified China, which would remain largely unchanged for the next 2,000 years.

Political Reforms

In order to rule such a vast territory, the Qin court opted for a strict, totalitarian regime. They began by abolishing feudal privileges and standardising everything, from weights and measurements to currency and the writing system. After all, you can’t get jealous of someone when they have the exact same things as you! This was perhaps one of their most revolutionary and influential reforms, as Li Si’s creation of a uniform writing system helped greatly in uniting the country. Yet Qin Shi Huang wasn’t content with just controlling his citizens’ material lives; he also sought to dominate them mentally.

Before the Qin Dynasty, people subscribed to what were known as the Hundred Schools of Thought. These were based on the teachings of several renowned scholars and included philosophies such as Confucianism, Legalism, Mohism, and Taoism. It was this type of “divisive” thought that Qin Shi Huang wished to suppress, and so he set about repressing all non-Legalists philosophies and their followers. When it came to the Emperor’s wishes, individual human rights were essentially abolished and he was not afraid to use cruelty as a last resort. The most illustrative example of this was the infamous burning of the books and burying of the scholars incident.

In 213 BC, the Emperor ordered the burning of all books that advocated viewpoints other than the philosophy of Legalism, particularly if they challenged this school of thought or the state in general. Only texts with practical uses, such as ones on agriculture, divination, and medicine, were spared. This decree also stipulated that all scholars who refused to hand over their books would be executed by premature burial. According to historical documents, 460 Confucian scholars were buried alive and the school of Mohism was completely eradicated. Other important texts pertaining to the other schools of thought were also tragically lost.

Collapse of the Qin Empire

Undoubtedly extraordinary though these architectural achievements were, they proved to be the Qin Dynasty’s downfall. Huge tax levies needed to pay for their construction, the great human cost involved when building them, and the generally oppressive authoritarian regime inevitably took their toll on the people, and three separate assassinations attempts were made on Qin Shi Huang during his short reign. His increasing paranoia led him to become obsessed with making himself immortal and, in a horrible twist of fate, he died while traveling to the east in search of an elixir of immortality. Talk about irony!

The chief eunuch, Zhao Gao, and the prime minister, Li Si, hid the news of his death in order to secretly alter his will and change his successor to his son Huhai, who they felt would be more pliable and easily manipulated. He took the name Qin Er Shi and, although he lacked his father’s intelligence, he appeared to have the same vicious nature. It’s true what they say: the bad apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! He executed numerous ministers and princes, indulged in massive building projects that crippled the country, increased taxes, and even arrested messengers who brought him bad news. Evidently the phrase “don’t shoot the messenger” hadn’t been invented yet!

As a result of his despotic rule, coupled with the years of oppression they had suffered under his father, men from all over China soon started to revolt. In the ensuing panic, Li Si was executed and Zhao Gao forced Qin Er Shi to commit suicide. Ziying, Qin Er Shi’s nephew, ascended the throne and promptly executed Zhao Gao. In short, there were more deaths and executions than the end of a Shakespearean tragedy! Yet it appeared the damage was done and the dynasty was beyond redemption. Ziying’s attempts to declare himself as the one true king failed, and a full-scale rebellion broke out in 209 BC.

xiang yuWhen rebels from the conquered State of Chu attacked, led by a Han lieutenant named Liu Bang, the Qin court was powerless to resist and surrendered in 207 BC. Ziying was executed by the Chu leader Xiang Yu but, in a shocking twist, he was in turn betrayed and defeated by Liu Bang. On February 28th 202 BC, Liu Bang declared himself Emperor Gaozu of the new Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). As you can imagine, the citizens of ancient China were left hoping that bloody beginnings wouldn’t once again beget bloody ends.

The Han Dynasty

(206 BC–220 AD)

When the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) collapsed in 206 BC, two contestants for the throne emerged: the rebel leaders Xiang Yu of Chu and Liu Bang of Han. The country had fissured into 18 separate kingdoms, and each one claimed allegiance either to Xiang or Liu. It was a time of epic battles, political power plays, and fragile alliances. Although Xiang Yu put in a commendable fight, Liu Bang defeated him at the Battle of Gaixia (202 BC) and assumed the throne not long thereafter. Thus he established the Han Dynasty, moved his capital to Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an), and took on the regal name of Emperor Gaozu. Anxious to avoid the same mistakes that the despotic Qin Shi Huang had made, he embarked on a political campaign defined by liberal and beneficent administration. Little did he know that he had just established the longest serving dynasty in Chinese history, one so illustrious that China’s largest ethnic group refers to themselves as the “Han people” to this day.

mural of han dynastyOnly one major disruption would disturb this hugely successful empire: a temporary usurpation by an official named Wang Mang, who established the short-lived Xin Dynasty (9-25 AD). After all, nobody’s perfect, and the same goes for dynasties! In fact, the Han Dynasty was so long that historians use this interruption as a benchmark, dividing the dynasty into two periods: the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-25 AD), when the western city of Chang’an was the capital and Wang Mang had yet to usurp the throne; and the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), when Wang Mang was deposed and the capital was moved east to Luoyang. In total, a staggering twenty-four members of the Liu family would serve as emperor under a dynasty that lasted for over 400 years. So, no matter how big your family’s trophy cabinet is, it’ll never quite match the Liu’s!

Unfortunately the Han Dynasty’s success would be somewhat marred by political squabbles and corruption within the palace. While the emperor’s favourite consort would be granted the title of empress and her son would likely be selected as heir, numerous concubines complicated this process by each vying for power. The empress could be deposed at any moment and replaced by just about anyone, so competition was rife between the concubines and the statesmen who supported them. In short, life in the imperial palace was full of more scandal than your average soap opera!


Wu Zetian

Wu Zetian02

Wu Zetian (624-705) is considered one of the most controversial figures in Chinese history. She broke many customary precedents during her rise to power and even established her own dynasty, which she named the Zhou Dynasty (690-705). She was the first and only woman to have ever ruled China. Her reign was described by historian Liu Xu[1] thusly: “Heaven and earth became like a huge cage, and even if one could escape it, where could he go?”. Her system of secret spies and her ruthlessness in disposing of political rivals led to a reign of terror that is echoed in Liu Xu’s comment. Yet there’s more to her story than meets the eye. In order to understand Wu Zetian as a political figure, you must first delve into the changeable accounts of her history, and then decide for yourself what manner of person she was.

Early Life

Wu Zetian was originally born Wu Zhao in 624 A.D but the location of her birth is still unknown. Her family originated from Wenshui, Bingzhou (modern-day Wenshui County, Shanxi). Her father, Wu Shihuo, was involved in the timber business and her mother was from the influential Yang family. Compared to other families at the time, Wu Zhao’s family were considerably well-off and so, thanks to the family’s servants, she enjoyed much leisure time. Her father encouraged her to use this time to educate herself, which was incredibly unusual for a woman at that time. Wu focused her attention on studying politics, writing, literature and music. Thanks to these efforts, she became known for her intelligence and wit.

On his travels the nobleman Li Yuan would often stay with the Wu family. Li Yuan eventually overthrew Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty and established the Tang Dynasty, adopting the regnal name Emperor Gaozu. After his ascension to the throne he was incredibly generous to the Wu family. He even bestowed a succession of senior ministerial posts on Wu Shihou. This relationship was significant as it was the first connection the Wu family established with the royal Tang family.

When Wu Zhao was only fourteen years old, she became a concubine of Emperor Taizong, Emperor Gaozu’s son. Among the concubines, she held the title of cairen[2]. However, it appears she was not terribly well-favoured by Emperor Taizong and did not bear him any children. This meant that, according to tradition, on his death she was consigned to Ganye Temple and was supposed to live out the rest of her life as a Buddhist nun. Yet Wu Zhao somehow made her way out of the convent and back into the imperial palace.

Wu ZetianRise to Power

Historians are unsure as to how Wu Zhao left the convent, but sometime in the 650s Wu Zhao found herself back in the imperial palace as Emperor Gaozong’s concubine and was thereby known as Consort Wu. In 652 she gave birth to her first son, Li Hong, and in the next year she gave birth to her second son, Li Xián. This succession of sons, along with Consort Wu’s natural charm and beauty, swiftly made her the favourite of Emperor Gaozong. In light of this, Empress Wang and the Emperor’s previous favourite, Consort Xiao, started conspiring against her.

In 654, Consort Wu gave birth to a daughter, but the infant tragically died. Evidence suggests the child’s death was caused by deliberate strangulation. Consort Wu accused Empress Wang of murdering the child, backing up her allegations with eyewitness accounts. Empress Wang was childless, meaning she may have been jealous of Consort Wu, and she lacked a sound alibi. The death of this child played an important part in Consort Wu’s rise to power, as it encouraged Emperor Gaozong’s eventual decision to depose Empress Wang. Some historians believe that Consort Wu may have even strangled the child herself and then framed Empress Wang. The most likely explanation, considering the poor ventilation system in the palace, is that the child died of asphyxiation.

In 655, in spite of opposition from his chancellors, Emperor Gaozong deposed Empress Wang and replaced her with Consort Wu. He then had Empress Wang and Consort Xiao imprisoned. Later that year, when Emperor Gaozong showed signs of releasing them, Empress Wu had Empress Wang and Consort Xiao executed. It was said that, from then on, she was haunted by them in her dreams.

From 657 onwards, Empress Wu began a campaign against any official who opposed her. She would have associates falsely accuse her political rivals and then subsequently depose, exile, or execute them, or force them to commit suicide.

In 660, Emperor Gaozong’s health began to deteriorate. He suffered from painful headaches and loss of vision, which some historians believe was the result of Empress Wu slowly poisoning him. Emperor Gaozong’s ill-health prevented him from ruling effectively, so he allowed Empress Wu to make some rulings on his behalf. Empress Wu proved herself to be a competent politician, making quick and astute judgements on matters of state.

By 664, Empress Wu’s influence on the governance of the country had angered Emperor Gaozong so much that he had Chancellor Shangguan Yi draft an edict for her deposition. Empress Wu pleaded with Emperor Gaozong, who relented. Shangguan was subsequently executed and, from then on, Empress Wu would sit behind a curtain beside Emperor Gaozong and give him advice during imperial meetings.

Thereafter, Li Hong pleaded with his mother to cease influencing his father’s governance of the country. Historians generally believe that Li Hong’s death in 675 was the result of poisoning by his mother. After Li Hong’s death, Li Xián was created crown prince but this title was to be short-lived. Empress Wu formally accused Li Xián of treason in 680 and he was deposed, exiled and forced to commit suicide by Empress Wu. His brother, Li Zhe, was made crown prince.

The Zhou Dynasty

In 683, Emperor Gaozong suffered a fatal stroke. Li Zhe (Emperor Zhongzong) ascended the throne but his reign only lasted six weeks. After his disobedience became too much, Empress Wu deposed and exiled him. She replaced him with his younger brother, Li Dan (Emperor Ruizong).

From then on, Empress Wu took charge of governing the country. From 688 onwards, she began systematically hunting down and massacring members of the Li family. In 690, she forced Emperor Ruizong to yield, usurped the throne and established the Zhou Dynasty. She summoned Li Zhe back from exile and named him her heir apparent.

Tragically, in court her cruelty intensified. She even forced two of her grandchildren to commit suicide after a discussion they had about her affair with the Zhang brothers was leaked. When Empress Wu fell ill in 704, she only allowed the Zhang brothers to see her, which led to rumours that they were plotting to usurp the throne.

By 705 these rumours became such a growing concern that, when the Empress fell ill again, a few of the chancellors and Li Zhe plotted a coup. They managed to execute both of the Zhang brothers and subsequently surrounded Wu Zetian in Changsheng Hall, forcing her to surrender. She was made to pass the throne to Li Zhe, who retained his regnal title of Emperor Zhongzong and restored the Tang Dynasty. Later that year, Empress Wu Zetian passed away and Emperor Zhongzong had her remains interred in Qianling Mausoleum alongside her husband.

Throughout her political career, Empress Wu killed numerous potential rivals, including members of her own family. Yet, outside of the palace, she implemented great social change, lowered taxes, supported the development of the fine arts, raised the status of women, and expanded the Chinese Empire. Though it was true she was tyrannical and obsessive in her thirst for power, she was no more violent than many of the emperors before her. It is arguably her gender that has brought attention to acts that would have been perfectly normal for a male emperor and would have gone largely unnoticed. To her subjects, she was regarded as a capable and astute emperor. In her own will she stated: “My achievements and errors must be evaluated by later generations”. Therefore it is up to you to decide precisely what kind of person she was.



[1] Liu Xu (888-947): Chinese official and historian. Lead editor of the Old Book of Tang.

[2] Cairen: The fifth rank in the Tang Dynasty’s nine-rank system of officials and concubines