What Was the Han Dynasty?

This Western Han Dynasty jade burial suit is from sometime between 206 BCE and about 60 CE.
A jade burial suit made of rectangular pieces of jade sewn together with gold thread, Western Han Dynasty in China. China Photos / Getty Images

The Han Dynasty was the ruling family of China from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D who served as the second dynasty in China's long history. A rebel leader named Liu Bang, or Emporer Gaozu of Han, founded the new dynasty and reunited China after the Qin Dynasty fell apart in 207 B.C.

The Han ruled from their capital at Chang'an, now called Xian, in west-central China. Han times saw such a flowering of Chinese culture that the majority ethnic group in China still refer to themselves as "Han Chinese."

Advances and Cultural Impact

Advances during the Han period included such inventions as paper and the seismoscope. The Han rulers were so wealthy that they were buried in suits made of square jade pieces stitched together with gold or silver thread, like the one pictured here.

Also, the waterwheel first appeared in the Han dynasty, with it many other forms of structural engineering — which have mostly been destroyed due to the fragile nature of their main component: wood. Still, mathematics and literature, as well as Confucian interpretations of law and governance, outlived the Han dynasty, influencing the works of later Chinese scholars and scientists.

Even such important inventions as the crank wheel were first discovered in archeological digs pointing to the Han Dynasty. The odometer chart, which measured journey lengths, was also first invented during this period — technology that is still used today to influence car odometers and miles per gallon gauges.

The economy prospered under Han rule as well, resulting in a long-term treasury that — despite its eventual decline — would lead future rulers to still use the same coinage up to the Tang Dynasty of 618. Nationalization of the salt and iron industries in the early 110s B.C. also persisted throughout Chinese history, expanding to include more government control of the nation's resources to pay for military conquests and domestic labor.

Conflict and Eventual Collapse

Militarily, the Han faced threats from different border regions. The Trung Sisters of Vietnam led a rebellion against the Han in 40 CE. Most troublesome of all, though, were the nomadic peoples from the Central Asian steppe to China's west, particularly the Xiongnu. The Han fought the Xiongnu for more than a century.

Still, the Chinese managed to hold off and eventually disperse the troublesome nomads in 89 A.D., though political turmoil forced many of the reigning emperors of the Han Dynasty to resign early — often resigning their lives as well. The effort to destroy the nomadic invaders and keep civic unrest at bay eventually emptied China's treasury and led to the slow-motion collapse of Han China in 220.

China disintegrated into the Three Kingdoms period over the next 60 years, resulting in a three-pronged civil war that ravaged the Chinese population and dispersed the Han people.