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August 15, 2022

China's Han Dynasty

By Alexandra Queen

The Han Dynasty

Bigger than Life

Alexandra Queen - warrior@filthypikers.com

Bigger than life, the high adventure of the Han Dynasty was an exciting time in Chinese history, forging diverse influences into a unique sense of identity still evident today.

The Han Dynasty (208 BC - 220 AD) was a time of high drama, romance and adventure of epic proportions of the type found in comic books and pulp fiction. Spielberg himself could not have done better. It emerged from the ashes of an evil empire - the Qin Dynasty - that ruthlessly oppressed everyone and everything that did not support its regime. Scholars were driven out and brutally murdered, literature was burned, the ancient ways were suppressed (O'Riley 120).

Enter Liu Bang, humble, illiterate peasant.

Though he did not single-handedly overthrow the old, evil emperor, Liu Bang did fight his way through the chaos of the times to unite the lands under his banner and forge a new empire, a shining example of tolerance, culture, refinement and ass-kicking whose influence is still felt today.

The change in attitudes from book burning and burying scholars alive (O'Riley 120) to tolerating and even encouraging them is recounted in folk tale, passed down over the course of two thousand years (no doubt written down by grateful scholars) and is retold by Keith Buchanan thusly:

One day, riding forth from his palace to a hunt, the emperor was stopped by a kneeling scholar, who offered him a bundle of books, saying, "These will help Your Majesty to govern the Empire." The emperor smacked the rump of his horse, and said, "On horseback I conquered the Empire, what need have I for books?" The scholar replied, "Yes Sire, you conquered the Empire on horseback, but can you also govern it from the saddle?" The emperor is said to have been so impressed by this answer that from then on, he admitted scholars to his council. (181)

But life was not all Confucian texts and plum wine on the verandah - over the course of the Han dynasty, the empire was expanded and four different major cultural blocks of peoples in the Northeast, Southeast, Northwest and West were slapped around, made to play nice, and assimilated, all with varying degrees of success (Buchanan 55). This was also the era of the Silk Road, opened at this time to allow the Han Dynasty to profit extravagantly from cultures in the Middle East and Central Asia, including Rome, with still more trade routes to other areas by sea (Curry) The result was an empire awash in a wide assortment of cultures, customs and beliefs. Instead of suppressing and eradicating that which was different, the Han Dynasty began the tradition of taking these influences and making them uniquely their own, a trait China has continued to prove adept at down through the years, from Buddhism to Communism.

  • Buchanan, Keith, Charles P. Fitzgerald, and Colin A. Ronan. China: The Land and the People. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1980.
  • Curry, Andrew. U.S. News & World Report, Jan 8, 2001 v130 i1 p44 Meanwhile, in other lands...
  • O'Riley, Michael Kampen. Art Beyond the West. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2002.
Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2002-10-05
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