Silk Road and Scholars - The Han Dynasty - Ancient China
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Han Dynasty China

statuette of a graceful dancer in long robes
Han Dynasty dancer

September 2016 - Kao Tsu (Liu Pang), when he established the Han Dynasty in 202 BC, didn't really change that much from the system that Ch'in had set up. He still got the kings and their families to live at his capital city, and he still sent out governors and judges whom he could trust. But Kao Tsu didn't kill or exile the scholars anymore. Instead, Kao Tsu called for smart educated men to work for him, to be the governors and judges he needed, because he knew they would be good workers and make fair, wise, decisions (but still he would not let any women be judges, no matter how smart they were).

Kao Tsu did let some areas have their own rulers, if the rulers were really loyal to him. We call this earlier part of the Han Dynasty the Western Han, because Kao Tsu's capital was in Western China, at Chang'an.

Kao Tsu's wife was the Empress Lu. When Kao Tsu died, Lu tried to take over power for herself, and she succeeded in controlling Chinese politics for some time, even though it was very difficult for women to get political power at this time.

In 141 BC, Wu Ti became emperor. Wu Ti was called the Martial Emperor, because he led many campaigns against the Huns (the Chinese called the Huns the Hsiung-Nu). At this time, the Huns were living north and west of China, and they tried to invade all the time.

map showing extent of eurasian empires at the time of the han

But just a little further south, the Sogdians were beginning to set up safe trade routes that connected Central Asia to China and West Asia - this was the beginning of the Silk Road. China sold silk and tea west to Central Asia in exchange for horses and carpets. They bought some things from even further away: spices from the Mauryan Empire in India, glass and silver from the Parthian Empire, fur and gold from the Roman Empire, and even ivory from Africa.


Practice Chinese calligraphy -
painting with water!

Wu Ti also set up the first university in China, in 124 BC. Young men (only men were allowed to go to university then) were chosen for being very smart and hard-working and then the government paid all their expenses while they went to the school. At first the university had only fifty students, but it grew quickly. Students at the school mainly studied Confucian philosophy, which Wu also made the official state philosophy. Now men who wanted to become governors and judges had to pass a very hard test to see if they were smart and well educated enough.

In 111 BC, Wu Ti invaded northern Vietnam, and made it part of the Han empire. And in 108 BC, he invaded northern Korea and took it over.

Wu Ti died in 87 BC.

Learn by doing: make a cup of tea and drink it
What happened next? - Eastern Han Dynasty China

Bibliography and further reading about the Han dynasty:

Period of Disunity (220-581 AD)
Han Dynasty Art
Han Dynasty Architecture
Ancient China
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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