Han Dynasty's Emperors of China

From B.C. 202 to 220 A.D., China's Second Dynasty

Detail of Royal Entourage in the Mountains from The First Emperor of the Han Dynasty Entering Kuan Tung by Chao Po-chu
Corbis/VCG via Getty Images / Getty Images

The Han Dynasty ruled China after the fall of the first imperial dynasty, the Qin in 206 B.C. The Han Dynasty's founder, Liu Bang, was a commoner who lead a rebellion against the son of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of unified China whose political career was short-lived and full of contempt from his peers.

For the next 400 years, civil unrest and war, internal familial conflicts, sudden deaths, mutinies, and natural succession would determine the rules that would lead the dynasty to great economic and military success over their long reign.

However, Liu Xis ended the long reign of the Han Dynasty, giving way to the Three Kingdoms period of 220 to 280 A.D. Still, while it maintained power the Han Dynasty was hailed as a Golden Age in Chinese history — one of the finest of Chinese dynasties — leading to a long legacy of the Han people, who still comprise the majority of Chinese ethnicities reported today. 

The First Han Emporers

In the final days of the Qin, Liu Bang, a rebel leader against Qin Shi Huangdi beat his rival rebellion leader Xiang Yu in battle, resulting in his hegemon over the 18 kingdoms of imperial China that had pledged allegiance to each of the combatants. Chang'an was chosen as the capital and Liu Bang, posthumously known as Han Gaozu, ruled until his death in 195 B.C.

The rule passed to Bang's relative Liu Ying until he died a few years later in 188, passing in turn to Liu Gong (Han Shaodi) and quickly onto Liu Hong (Han Shaodi Hong). In 180, when Emporer Wendi took the throne, he declared that China's border should remain closed to maintain its growing power. Civic unrest resulted in the next emperor Han Wudi overturning that decision in 136 B.C., but a failed attack on the southern neighbor Xiongu realm resulted in a several-year campaign to attempt to overthrow their biggest threat.

Han Jingdi (157-141) and Han Wudi (141-87) continued this plight, taking over villages and converting them to agricultural centers and strongholds south of the border, eventually forcing the Xiongu out of the realm across the Gobi Desert. After Wudi's reign, under the leadership of Han Zhaodi (87-74) and Han Xuandi (74-49), the Han forces continued to dominate the Xiongu, pushing them further west and claiming their land as a result.

Turn of the Millenium

During the reign of Han Yuandi (49-33), Han Chengdi (33-7), and Han Aidi (7-1 B.C.), Weng Zhengjun became the first Empress of China as a result of her male kin — though younger — taking the title of regent during her supposed reign. It wasn't until her nephew took the crown as Emporer Pingdi from 1 B.C. to A.D. 6 that she advocated her rule.

Han Ruzi was appointed as emperor after Pingdi's death in A.D. 6, however, due to the child's young age, he was appointed under the care of Wang Mang, who promised to relinquish control once Ruzi came of age to rule. This was not the case, instead and despite much civil protest, he established the Xin Dynasty after declaring his title was a Mandate of Heaven.

In 3 A.D. and again in 11 A.D., a massive flood struck Wang's Xin armies along the Yellow River, decimating his troops. Displaced villagers joined rebel groups who revolted against Wang, resulting in his ultimate downfall in 23 wherein Geng Shidi (The Gengshi Emporer) tried to restore the Han power from 23 to 25 but was overtaken and killed by the same rebel group, the Red Eyebrow.

His brother, Liu Xiu — later Guang Wudi — ascended the throne and was able to fully restore the Han Dynasty throughout the course of his reign from 25 to 57. Within two years, he had moved the capital to Luoyang and forced the Red Eyebrow to surrender and cease its rebellion. Over the next 10 years, he fought to extinguish other rebel warlords claiming the title of Emporer.

The Last Han Century

The reigns of Han Mingdi (57-75), Han Zhangdi (75-88), and Han Hedi (88-106) were rife with small battles between long-time rival nations hoping to claim India to the south and the Altai Mountains to the north. Political and social turmoil haunted the rulership of Han Shangdi and his successor Han Andi died paranoid of eunuch's plots against him, leaving his wife to appoint their son the Marquess of Beixiang to the throne in 125 in hopes of maintaining their family lineage.

However, those same eunuchs that his father feared ultimately led to his demise and Han Shundi was appointed the emperor that same year as Emporer Shun of Han, restoring the Han name to the dynasty's leadership. Students of the University started a protest against Shundi's eunuch court. These protests failed, resulting in Shundi being overthrown by his own court and the quick succession of Han Chongdi (144-145), Han Zhidi (145-146) and Han Huandi (146-168), who each tried to fight against their eunuch adversaries to no avail.

It wasn't until Han Lingdi ascended the thrown in 168 that the Han Dynasty was truly on its way out. Emperor Ling spent most of his time roleplaying with his concubines instead of governing, leaving control of the dynasty to eunuchs Zhao Zhong and Zhang Rang.

Downfall of a Dynasty

The final two emperors, brothers Shaodi — the Prince of Hongnong — and Emperor Xian (formerly Liu Xie) led lives on the run from mutinous eunuch counsels. Shaodi only ruled one year in 189 before being asked to relinquish his throne to Emperor Xian, who ruled throughout the remainder of the Dynasty.

In 196, Xian moved the capital to Xuchang at the behest of Cao Cao — the Yan Province governor — and a civil dispute broke out between three warring kingdoms vying for control over the young emperor. In the south Sun Quan ruled, while Liu Bei dominated western China and Cao Cao took over the north. When Cao Cao died in 220 and his son Cao Pi forced Xian to relinquish the title of emperor to him.

This new emperor, Wen of Wei, officially abolished the Han Dynasty and its family's inheritance to rulership over China. With no army, no family, and no heirs, the former Emporer Xian died of old age and left China to a three-sided conflict between Cao Wei, Eastern Wu and Shu Han, a period known as the Three Kingdoms period.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Han Dynasty's Emperors of China." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/han-dynasty-emperors-of-china-p2-195253. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). Han Dynasty's Emperors of China. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/han-dynasty-emperors-of-china-p2-195253 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Han Dynasty's Emperors of China." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/han-dynasty-emperors-of-china-p2-195253 (accessed June 6, 2023).