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The Ancient World

ca. 2500 B.C. - 900 A.D.



China's First Emperors of the

Qin and Han Dynasties

221 B.C.-220 A.D.


In the "Period of the Warring States," China was split into seven individual states that were eventually conquered by the Qin Empire. The "first sovereign emperor" of China, Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di, brought about the political and cultural unification of the country. The succeeding Han dynasty built upon this unification, expanded the area of Chinese rule, and successfully defended itself against the nomadic tribes in the north. In addition, Confucianism became the state ideology during the Han period. Under these first two imperial dynasties, developments that would characterize the history of China for more than 2,000 years were initiated.

The Qin Dynasty
221-206 в.с.

China's first emperor created a unified state within a few years and began outwardly fortifying his empire. He ruled the land with an iron fist and in accordance with the state philosophy of Legalism.

3 Qin Shi Huangdi, former Zheng,
king of Qin, wood carving, ca. 1640

The unification of China into a state in the third century B.C. was accomplished by the western state of Qin, which gave the country its name. Its frontier position opposite Tibet and the territories of the mounted nomads required it to have a powerful army and a tight administration. Its newly-conquered territories were not given over to nobles as fiefs but were directly administrated by the ruler, which impeded the development of an aristocratic opposition.

From this power base, King 3 Zheng of Qin was able to conquer the other seven Chinese feudal states by 221 в.с.

This ended the "Period of the Warring States" and a unified state with a divine emperor (Shi Huang Di: first august emperor) at its head was created.
The emperor then extended Qin's centralized administrative system overall of China. Disregarding old boundaries, the empire was reapportioned into provinces and districts that were run by imperial administrators. The government was based on the philosophy of the Legalists, who declared that the central laws should supersede all
else and instituted the regulation of all areas of life by strict laws and taxes. Within a few years, language, measurements, weights, and coinage had been standardized in the empire. Even the gauge and length of wagons were standardized to accommodate uniform road networks.

The people were forced to extend the walls against mounted nomads, which is the first section of the 5 Great Wall.

5 The Great Wall of China in the hills near Beijing

After his death in 210 B.C., China's first emperor was laid to rest in an enormous burial monument with thousands of individually crafted 1, 2 terra-cotta figures.

Its 4 discovery in 1974 was an archaeological sensation.

The Qin dynasty ended shortly thereafter in 206 B.C. with an uprising of the people that brought the Hans to power.

1 Armor protection,
shown in a third
century B.C.

2 The grave of Qin Shi Huangdi,
with 6,000 life-size men and horses,
third century в.с

4 Archaeologists at the
excavation of Qin dynasty,
clay figures



Qin dynasty

Qin dynasty, also spelled Kin, Wade-Giles romanization Ch’in, (221–207 bce), dynasty that established the first great Chinese empire. The Qin, from which the name China is derived, established the approximate boundaries and basic administrative system that all subsequent Chinese dynasties were to follow for the next 2,000 years.

This dynasty was originated by the state of Qin, one of the many small feudal states into which China was divided between 771 and 221 bce. Occupying the strategic Wei River valley in the extreme northwestern area of the country, the Qin was one of the least Sinicized of these small states and one of the most martial. Between the middle of the 3rd and the end of the 2nd century bce, the rulers of Qin began to centralize state power, creating a rigid system of laws that were applicable throughout the country and dividing the state into a series of commanderies and prefectures ruled by officials appointed by the central government. Under these changes, Qin slowly began to conquer its surrounding states, emerging into a major power in China.

Finally, in 246 bce, the boy king Ying Zheng came to the throne. He, together with his minister Li Si, completed the Qin conquests and in 221 created the Qin empire; Ying Zheng proclaimed himself Qin Shihuangdi (“First Sovereign Emperor of Qin”). To rule this vast territory, the Qin instituted a rigid, authoritarian government; they standardized the writing system, standardized the measurements of length and weight and the width of highways, abolished all feudal privileges, oversaw the construction of what became the Great Wall, and in 213, to halt subversive thought, ordered all books burned, except those on such utilitarian subjects as medicine.

These harsh methods, combined with the huge tax levies needed to pay for their construction projects and wars, took their toll, and rebellion erupted after Shihuangdi’s death in 210 bce. In 207 the dynasty was overthrown and, after a short transitional period, was replaced by the Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce).

While it lasted, the Qin dynasty left two architectural monuments of massive proportions, one the Great Wall of China, which actually connected sections of a number of existing short walls, and the other a great palace for the first emperor, which contained a hall of state some 1,500 feet (450 metres) square. Its most important artistic contribution may have been the simplification and standardization of the emerging written Chinese language. Little survives of Qin painting, but it generally emulated that of the late Zhou period. Silhouettes drawn on funerary slabs depict feasts and beasts (mythical and actual) and historic scenes. The Qin tomb near present-day Xi’an, the burial place of Shihuangdi with an army of more than 6,000 life-size terra-cotta soldiers and horses, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. The Qin, however, did not last long enough to stamp out literature and learning effectively, and much of the rich legacy of the ancient Shang dynasty managed to survive into the successor Han, under which the arts thrived greatly.

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Shihuangdi, Wade-Giles romanization Shih-huang-ti, personal name (xingming) Zhao Zheng or Ying Zheng (born c. 259 bce, Qin state, northwestern China—died 210 bce, Hebei), emperor (reigned 221–210 bce) of the Qin dynasty (221–207 bce) and creator of the first unified Chinese empire (which collapsed, however, less than four years after his death).

Early years
Zhao Zheng was born the son of Zhuangxiang (who later became king of the state of Qin in northwestern China) while his father was held hostage in the state of Zhao. His mother was a former concubine of a rich merchant, Lü Buwei, who, guided by financial interests, managed to install Zhuangxiang on the throne, even though he had not originally been designated as successor. The tradition, once widely accepted, that Zheng was actually Lü Buwei’s natural son is probably a slanderous invention.

When Zheng, at age 13, formally ascended the throne in 246 bce, Qin already was the most powerful state and was likely to unite the rest of China under its rule. The central states had considered Qin to be a barbarous country, but by that time its strong position on the mountainous western periphery (with its centre in the modern province of Shaanxi) enabled Qin to develop a strong bureaucratic government and military organization as the basis of the totalitarian state philosophy known as legalism.

Until Zheng was officially declared of age in 238, his government was headed by Lü Buwei. Zheng’s first act as king was to execute his mother’s lover, who had joined the opposition, and to exile Lü, who had been involved in the affair. A decree ordering the expulsion of all aliens, which would have deprived the king of his most competent advisers, was annulled at the urging of Li Si, later grand councillor. By 221, with the help of espionage, extensive bribery, and the ruthlessly effective leadership of gifted generals, Zheng had eliminated one by one the remaining six rival states that constituted China at that time, and the annexation of the last enemy state, Qi, in 221 marked his final triumph: for the first time China was united, under the supreme rule of the Qin.

Emperor of China
To herald his achievement, Zheng assumed the sacred titles of legendary rulers and proclaimed himself Shihuangdi (“First Sovereign Emperor”). With unbounded confidence, he claimed that his dynasty would last “10,000 generations.”

As emperor he initiated a series of reforms aimed at establishing a fully centralized administration, thus avoiding the rise of independent satrapies. Following the example of Qin and at the suggestion of Li Si, he abolished territorial feudal power in the empire, forced the wealthy aristocratic families to live in the capital, Xianyang, and divided the country into 36 military districts, each with its own military and civil administrator. He also issued orders for almost universal standardization—from weights, measures, and the axle lengths of carts to the written language and the laws. Construction of a network of roads and canals was begun, and fortresses erected for defense against barbarian invasions from the north were linked to form the Great Wall.

In 220 Shihuangdi undertook the first of a series of imperial inspection tours that marked the remaining 10 years of his reign. While supervising the consolidation and organization of the empire, he did not neglect to perform sacrifices in various sacred places, announcing to the gods that he had finally united the empire, and he erected stone tablets with ritual inscriptions to extol his achievements.

Another motive for Shihuangdi’s travels was his interest in magic and alchemy and his search for masters in these arts who could provide him with the elixir of immortality. After the failure of such an expedition to the islands in the Eastern Sea—possibly Japan—in 219, the emperor repeatedly summoned magicians to his court. Confucian scholars strongly condemned the step as charlatanry, and it is said that 460 of them were executed for their opposition. The continuous controversy between the emperor and Confucian scholars who advocated a return to the old feudal order culminated in the famous burning of the books of 213, when, at Li Si’s suggestion, all books not dealing with agriculture, medicine, or prognostication were burned, except historical records of Qin and books in the imperial library.

The last years of Shihuangdi’s life were dominated by an ever-growing distrust of his entourage—at least three assassination attempts nearly succeeded—and his increasing isolation from the common people. Almost inaccessible in his huge palaces, the emperor led the life of a semidivine being. In 210 Shihuangdi died during an inspection tour. He was buried in a gigantic funerary compound hewn out of a mountain and shaped in conformity with the symbolic patterns of the cosmos. (Excavation of this enormous complex of some 20 square miles [50 square km]—now known as the Qin tomb—began in 1974, and the complex was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. Among the findings at the site were more than 6,000 life-sized terra-cotta soldier and horse figures forming an “army” for the dead king.) The disappearance of Shihuangdi’s forceful personality immediately led to the outbreak of fighting among supporters of the old feudal factions that ended in the collapse of the Qin dynasty and the extermination of the entire imperial clan by 206.

Most of the information about Shihuangdi’s life derives from the successor Han dynasty, which prized Confucian scholarship and thus had an interest in disparaging the Qin period. The report that Shihuangdi was an illegitimate son of Lü Buwei is possibly an invention of that epoch. Further, stories describing his excessive cruelty and the general defamation of his character must be viewed in the light of the distaste felt by the ultimately victorious Confucians for legalist philosophy in general.

Shihuangdi certainly had an imposing personality and showed an unbending will in pursuing his aim of uniting and strengthening the empire. His despotic rule and the draconian punishments he meted out were dictated largely by his belief in legalist ideas. With few exceptions, the traditional historiography of imperial China has regarded him as the villain par excellence, inhuman, uncultivated, and superstitious. Modern historians, however, generally stress the endurance of the bureaucratic and administrative structure institutionalized by Shihuangdi, which, despite its official denial, remained the basis of all subsequent dynasties in China.

Claudius Cornelius Müller

Encyclopaedia Britannica


The Great Wall of China


The Great Wall of China


The Great Wall of China


The Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huangdi


The grave of Qin Shi Huangdi


The grave of Qin Shi Huangdi


The grave of Qin Shi Huangdi


The grave of Qin Shi Huangdi




The Han Dynasty 206 в.с-220 a.d.

In the power struggle at the end of the Qin era, a peasant rebel leader, Liu Bang, triumphed and took the emperor's throne in 206 B.C. as Emperor Gaozu.

The most important task of the first Han emperor, Hao Ti (206 B.C.), was defending against the 6 mounted nomads, above all the Xiongnu.

6 Horses and riders, terra-cotta figures,
second-first century B.C.


Bronze horse with lead saddle, Han Dynasty

Emperor 9 Han Wu Ti, the most illustrious of the Han emperors, took the offensive, and his search for allies led the Chinese to their first contact with the West.

9 Burial mound of emperor Han Wu Ti first century B.C.

The Xiongnu were finally defeated and forced westward, displacing Eurasian steppe peoples and ultimately triggering the Great Migration of Peoples in Europe of the fourth and fifth centuries.

China conquered eastern Turkistan to the borders of today's Afghanistan, where a trade link to the west— the 10 Silk Road—developed.

10 A Buddhist shrine on the Silk Road in western China

Domestically, Han Wu Ti carried out several reforms that were to have a long-lasting effect. He tried to repair the educational vandalism of Shi-Hwang-ti. He divided the central administration into departmental ministries for the first time.

The system of training of 12 officials through schooling and examinations was perfected and remained in effect until the 20th century.

12 Court official, clay,
2nd с. в.с.

Sculptures of maids and servants,
2nd century BC


The basis of this training was a synthesis of Legalism, Confucianism, which stressed the relationship between father and 11 son, and the yin-yang nature philosophy.

11 Depiction of model sons, varnish painting on a woven basket,
Han period

The veneration of Confucius in a state cult began under the Hans. In 174 в.c., Emperor Han Wu Ti made a sacrifice on the philosopher's grave in 8 Chu Fu, which survives to this day.

8 Statue of Confucius in his commemoration
temple in Chu Fu

The Han period was one of the greatest epochs of Chinese prosperity. Han Wu Di's successor increasingly came under the influence of the tamilvoi the empress. In 9 a.d., the Hans were even temporarily deposed by the nephew of an empress until in 25 a.d. a distant relative of the Hans, Liu Hsiu, restored the dynasty as Emperor Guang Wu Di. He moved his capital from Xi'an to Luoyang in the east, and his dynasty is therefore called the "Eastern Han" in contrast to the former "Western Han." The empire was stabilized—and even grew— into the first century. However the empress clan began to regain its influence, while palace intrigues were aggravated by the intervention of the eunuchs.

The 7 generals formed a third power factor so that the epoch became known as that of the Three Kingdoms.

7 Generals in their armor, clay figures,
Han period

In 184, the religiously motivated revolt of the Yellow Turbans erupted. The generals involved in crushing the revolt gained a level of autonomy, but then grew in their ambitions and ended up fighting each other in a civil war. In 220, the last Han emperor was forced to abdicate. From that time until the end of the sixth century, China remained divided into many competing kingdoms.



Han dynasty

Han dynasty, Wade-Giles romanization Han, the second great Chinese imperial dynasty (206 bce–220 ce) after the Zhou dynasty. It suceeded the Qin dynasty (221–207 bce). So thoroughly did the Han dynasty establish what was thereafter considered Chinese culture that “Han” became the Chinese word denoting someone who is Chinese.

The dynasty was founded by Liu Bang, later the Gaozu emperor (reigned 206–195 bce), a man of humble birth who led the revolt against the repressive policies of the preceding short-lived Qin dynasty. The Han copied the highly centralized Qin administrative structure, dividing the country into a series of administrative areas ruled by centrally appointed officials and developing a salaried bureaucracy in which promotion was based primarily on merit. Unlike the Qin, however, the Han adopted a Confucian ideology that emphasized moderation and virtue and thereby masked the authoritarian policies of the regime. So successful was this policy that the Han lasted longer than any other Chinese empire, reigning—with a short interruption when Wang Mang temporarily usurped the throne and established the Xin dynasty (9–25 ce)—for more than 400 years. Some scholars divide the Han into two sections, calling the period before Wang Mang’s usurpation, when the capital was in the western Chinese city of Chang’an (now Xi’an), the Qian (Former), or Xi (Western) Han (206 bce–25 ce); and the period after Wang Mang, when the capital was moved eastward to Luoyang, the Hou (Later), or Dong (Eastern), Han (25–220 ce).

Instances of book burning and repression during the Qin period that spared only a writing system for keeping records were designed to stamp out all forms of dissent and took a great toll on cultural expression; however, the brutish Qin regime was too brief to thoroughly accomplish such a broad goal, and the vestiges of culture were revived by the successor Han.

The latter was not only a literate society but one of compulsive record keepers. Thus, the cultural milieu of the Han was well documented. The Yuefu, or Music Bureau, for example, compiled detailed descriptions of the music of the day and its instruments, techniques, and songs. In the court and the Confucian temples, music fell into two categories: music to accompany banquets and ritual music. In temple rituals, dance was often an important element, and something resembling a system of dance notation recorded the movements of large bands of musicians and companies of dancers in their performances. There also were highly informal dances with much body movement but little footwork that were part of private entertainment. Several forms of plucked string instruments were in use during the Han. Buddhism came to China from India during the dynasty, and with it came richly sonorous bronze bells. A form of drama appeared in which performers acted out the heroic deeds of celebrated warriors.

Although little except walls and tombs remains of Han architecture, much has been learned about the style from mingqi house models and paintings on tomb tiles. Imperial records describe the main palace of the Dong Han at Luoyang as being immensely proportioned, surrounded by tall towers variously of timber, stone, and brick. The tombs had vaulted roofs and were enclosed in huge earthen mounds that still stand centuries after their contents were looted. Interior walls of important buildings were plastered and painted—so the ubiquitous records relate—with figures, portraits, and scenes from history. Although the names of the artists did not survive, the highest-ranking of them—the daizhao, or painters-in-attendance—were close associates of the emperor, a tradition carried on in ensuing dynasties down to modern times. In addition to wall paintings, paintings on standing room-divider screens and on rolls or scrolls of silk appeared in the Han.

The first major stone tomb sculpture in China was created in the Han period, and lifelike clay figurines of people and animals also appeared. In the Xi Han, bronzework continued the style of the late Zhou period and often was inlaid with silver and gold. Bronze vessels were made both for sacrificial rituals and for household use, the latter including lamps, mirrors, and garment hooks fashioned in the form of humans, animals, and mythical beasts. The weaving of silk in rich colours and patterns of geometric designs or cloud and mountain themes became a major industry and source of export trade. Han potters included house models and human figures among their funerary wares, and two types of glazed ware were used domestically, often closely imitating the shape and design of bronze vessels.

The Shang dynasty discovered lacquer, but it was the Han that brought its lacquerwork to such perfection that some of its lacquered wine cups in perfect condition have been excavated from water-sodden graves in North China. Many exquisite examples of Han lacquerware survive.

Poetry was nurtured during the Han period, and a new genre, fu, a combination of rhyme and prose, began to flourish. Fu were long, descriptive compositions meant to entertain, and they became the norm of creative writing. About 1,000 examples survive. The prose literature of the era included works of history, philosophy, and politics. One of the greatest of early histories comes from this period in the Shiji (“Historical Records”) of Sima Qian. In sharp distinction from the Qin, who tried to suppress culture, the Han came to require cultural accomplishment from their public servants, making mastery of classical texts a condition of employment. The title list of the enormous imperial library is China’s first bibliography. Its text included works on practical matters such as mathematics and medicine, as well as treatises on philosophy and religion and the arts. Advancement in science and technology was also sought by the rulers, and the Han invented paper, used water clocks and sundials, and developed a seismograph. Calendars were published frequently during the period. The governmental, cultural, and technological achievements of the Han were such that every ensuing dynasty sought to emulate them.

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Gaozu, Wade-Giles romanization Kao-tsu, personal name (xingming) Liu Bang, courtesy name (zi) Ji, posthumous name (shi) Gaohuangdi (born 256 bc, Peixian [now in Jiangsu province], China—died 195 bc, China), temple name (miaohao) of the founder and first emperor of the Han dynasty (206 bc–ad 220), under which the Chinese imperial system assumed most of the characteristics that it was to retain until it was overthrown in 1911/12. He reigned from 206 to 195 bc. His wife, the empress Gaohou (reigned 188–180 bc), became the first female ruler of China.

Born of a peasant family, Liu Bang began his career as a police officer under the Qin dynasty (221–207 bc). He turned rebel after the death (210 bc) of the Qin emperor Shihuangdi, who had been the first to unify China. The rebels were under the nominal leadership of Xiang Yu, a warlord who defeated the Qin armies and then tried to restore the pre-Qin feudal system, reinstating many of the former nobles and dividing the land among his generals. Liu Bang, by then an important rebel leader, received control of the kingdom of Han in western China (what is now Sichuan and southern Shaanxi provinces). The former allies soon turned against each other, and Liu’s peasant shrewdness led him to victory over the militarily brilliant but politically naive Xiang Yu. The civil war ended when Xiang Yu took his own life in 202 bc, upon which Gaozu became the ruler of China.

Liu Bang was a coarse man who once urinated into the formal hat of a court scholar to show his disdain for education. Nevertheless, he was a pragmatic and flexible ruler who recognized the need for educated men at court. He showed particular concern for reviving the rural economy and for lightening the tax burden of the peasants. Though generally humane in civil matters, he dealt harshly with those who threatened his reign from within China. His conduct of foreign affairs was a skillful combination of diplomacy and the use of force. His descendants continued the process of consolidating and expanding the empire.

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Guangwudi, Wade-Giles romanization Kuang-wu-ti, personal name (xingming) Liu Xiu, temple name (miaohao) (Han) Shizu (born c. 6 bc, Nanyang [now in Hubei province], China—died ad 57, Luoyang), posthumous name (shi) of the Chinese emperor (reigned ad 25–57) who restored the Han dynasty after the usurpation of Wang Mang, a former Han minister who established the Xin dynasty (ad 9–25). The restored Han dynasty is sometimes referred to as the Dong (Eastern), or the Hou (Later), Han (ad 25–220).

Liu Xiu—the future Guangwudi (“Shining Martial Emperor”)—was a member of the imperial Liu family and a supposed descendant of Gaozu (reigned 206–195 bc), the founder of the Han dynasty. In ad 22, when the radical reform measures of Wang Mang made his Xin dynasty unpopular, Liu raised an army with support from his powerful clan and other wealthy landowner families. After Wang Mang was killed in 23, Liu defeated some of the other rebelling forces and set up his own power. Two years later he moved the capital, Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), to Luoyang, in eastern China—hence the name Dong Han—and proclaimed himself emperor.

The subsequent 10 years of Guangwudi’s reign were spent in consolidating his rule and subduing the numerous domestic rebellions that had arisen, including the Red Eyebrows revolt. He also suppressed the nomadic tribesmen of China’s northern borders and returned imperial rule to the outlying areas of South China. Having restored peace to the empire, Guangwudi became so weary of fighting that he forbade the mention of the word war in his presence.

The Dong Han was never as powerful as the Xi (Western) Han (also called the Qian [Former] Han). In the wars that led to the founding of the Dong Han dynasty, many of the vast, tax-exempt landed estates had been destroyed, thus eliminating one of the major problems that had plagued the last years of the Xi Han. Nevertheless, Guangwudi had risen to power with the support of a few aristocratic families, and he continued to depend on their military assistance. As a result, those families gradually increased their own holdings at the expense of the central government, and the dynasty grew to resemble a federation of great clans.

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Wudi, Wade-Giles romanizationWu-ti, original name Liu Che (born 156 bc—died March 29, 87 bc), posthumous name (shi) of the autocratic Chinese emperor (141–87 bc) who vastly increased the authority of the Han dynasty (206 bc–ad 220) and extended Chinese influence abroad. He made Confucianism the state religion of China.

Liu Che was probably the 11th son of the Jingdi emperor, the fifth ruler of the Han dynasty. Not being the eldest son, he would normally not have ascended the throne, but relatives of the emperor secured his designation as heir apparent at age seven. From his relatives and his teachers, the future emperor absorbed influences from two basically antagonistic schools: the Daoists, inclined to the legalist philosophy favouring an autocratic ruler guided by the rules of expediency, and the Confucianists, who sought through rituals and other means to check the growing power of the Han monarchs.

The Wudi emperor began his reign in 141 bc. During its early years he was under the moderating influence of relatives and court officials; however, by the late 130s he had decided that the essentially defensive foreign policy of his predecessors was not going to solve his foreign problems. From 133 bc he launched attacks on the nomadic Xiongnu people, who constituted China’s principal threat on the northern frontier, and thereafter he committed his realm to the expansion of the empire. By 101 bc Wudi’s troops, spurred by an emperor heedless of their hardships and intolerant of defeat, had extended Chinese control in all directions.

Southern China and northern and central Vietnam were incorporated into the empire. Northern and central Korea, which had slipped from Chinese control in 128 bc, were reconquered and again administered by imperial governors. Imperial troops were also sent across the Gobi (Desert) in unsuccessful attempts to eliminate the threat from the Xiongnu.

Han armies were farthest from home when they marched west into the Fergana Valley region (now in Uzbekistan). The first expedition, in 104 bc, was a failure, but the emperor refused to accept defeat. His intransigence stemmed from pride and his desire for horses. The horses Wudi wanted from Fergana were not principally intended for his war machine (although the Han armies suffered a chronic shortage of horses); rather, they were “blood sweating” horses (infected by a parasite causing skin hemorrhages), which for the emperor had a mystical significance in that possession of them was considered a mark of Heaven’s grace. The second expedition returned in 101 bc with some of the famous horses and the head of the ruler of Fergana; furthermore, the small states between China and Fergana had been humbled. Wudi had brought to submission all but the most distant parts of the world known to the Chinese.

His wars and other undertakings exhausted the state’s reserves and forced him to look for other sources of income. New taxes were decreed and state monopolies on salt, iron, and wine were instituted. Yet, by the latter part of his reign, his regime was in financial difficulties and confronted by popular unrest. The emperor’s economic controls were paralleled by his rigid control of the state apparatus. He created institutions for close supervision of the bureaucracy and drew into his personal service men who were outside the normal bureaucratic ranks and who made the bureaucracy more responsive to his will. He usually selected men whose behaviour was much like his own: harsh, demanding, and merciless.

In spite of his aggressive policies, the Wudi emperor is also known for making Confucianism the state orthodoxy. Although he was unimpressed with the image of the ideal Confucian ruler as a benevolent father figure, he nevertheless appreciated the literary grace of the Confucianists and particularly the Confucian emphasis on ritual, which complemented his religious interests.

Most of the rituals performed by the Wudi emperor had a dual function; although of dynastic political and religious significance, they frequently manifested his ceaseless search for immortality. He richly rewarded men who he believed could introduce him to immortals who would reveal their secrets to him. He sent men in search of the islands of the immortals and constructed elaborate palaces and towers designed to attract the spirits to him. At great expense he had conquered much of the world, and he invested heavily in the ardent hope that he would not have to leave it.

The last four years of Wudi’s life were a time of retreat and regret. His empire could no longer afford an aggressive foreign policy, and he was forced to begin a period of retrenchment. The deeply suspicious emperor suffered intense personal loss when, in 91 bc, his heir apparent was falsely accused by an imperial confidant of practicing witchcraft against the emperor. In desperation, the son led an uprising in which thousands of people were killed and in which the heir committed suicide. Shortly before the emperor’s death, he designated an eight-year-old son as heir apparent; then, anticipating his own death, he had the youth’s mother accused of a crime and imprisoned. Reportedly she “died of grief,” but Wudi condoned her death, and perhaps caused it, to avoid having the young emperor dominated by relatives as he himself had been. He died in 87 bc.

The Wudi emperor is best remembered for his military conquests; hence, his posthumous title, Wudi, meaning “Martial Emperor.” His administrative reforms left an enduring mark on the Chinese state, and his exclusive recognition of Confucianism had a permanent effect on subsequent East Asian history.

Jack L. Dull

Encyclopaedia Britannica



The Invention of Paper

One of the most important developments of mankind—the invention of paper—was made in China during the Han period.
Plant fibers were worked into a mash through soaking in water, boiling, and pulping. The mash was spread into flat forms, and it settled as a thin, cohesive layer.
In the 13th century, paper came to Europe by way of Arabia.


Paper manufacture in China, ink drawing, 18th century