Learn Why the Han Dynasty in China Collapsed

Bringing Down the Great Classical Civilization of China

Han Dynasty chariot
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The collapse of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–221 CE) was a setback in the history of China. The Han empire was such a pivotal era in the history of China that the majority ethnic group in the country today still refer to themselves as "the people of Han." Despite its undeniable power and technological innovation, the empire's collapse sent the country into disarray for nearly four centuries.

Fast Facts: Collapse of the Han Dynasty

  • Event Name: Collapse of the Han Dynasty
  • Description: The Han Dynasty was one of the greatest classical civilizations of all time. Its collapse left China in disarray for over 350 years.
  • Key Participants: Emperor Wu, Cao Cao, Xiongnu Nomads, Yellow Turban Rebellion, Five Pecks of Grains
  • Start Date: The first century B.C.E.
  • End Date: 221 C.E.
  • Location: China

The Han Dynasty in China (traditionally split into Western [206 BCE–25] CE and Eastern [25–221 CE] Han periods) was one of the world's great classical civilizations. The Han emperors oversaw great advances in technology, philosophy, religion, and trade. They expanded and solidified the economic and political structure of a vast area of over 6.5 million square kilometers (2.5 million square miles).

Nevertheless, after four centuries, the Han Empire crumbled away, falling apart from a mixture of internal corruption and external rebellion.

Internal Forces: Corruption

The astonishing growth of the Han empire began when the seventh emperor of the Han dynasty, Emperor Wu (ruled 141–87 BCE), changed tactics. He replaced the previous stable foreign policy of establishing treaty or tributary relationships with his neighbors. Instead, he put in place new and central governmental bodies which were designed to bring the frontier regions under imperial control. Subsequent emperors continued that expansion. Those were seeds of the eventual end.

By the 180s CE, the Han court had grown weak and increasingly cut off from local society, with debauched or disinterested emperors who lived only for amusement. Court eunuchs vied for power with scholar-officials and army generals, and political intrigues were so vicious that they even led to wholesale massacres within the palace. In 189 CE, the warlord Dong Zhuo went so far as to assassinate the 13-year-old Emperor Shao, placing Shao's younger brother on the throne instead.

Internal Causes: Taxation

Economically, by the latter part of the Eastern Han, the government experienced sharply decreasing tax revenue, limiting their ability to fund the court and to support the armies that defended China from external threats. The scholar-officials generally exempted themselves from taxes, and the peasants had a sort of early-warning system by which they could alert one another when the tax collectors came to a particular village. When the collectors were due, the peasants would scatter to the surrounding countryside, and wait until the tax men had gone. As a result, the central government was chronically short on money.

One reason that the peasants fled at the rumor of tax collectors is that they were trying to survive on smaller and smaller plots of farmland. The population was growing quickly, and each son was supposed to inherit a piece of land when the father died. Thus, farms were quickly being carved into ever-tinier bits, and peasant families had trouble supporting themselves, even if they managed to avoid paying taxes.

External Causes: The Steppe Societies

Externally, the Han Dynasty also faced the same threat that plagued every indigenous Chinese government throughout history -- the danger of raids by the nomadic peoples of the steppes. To the north and west, China borders on desert and range-lands that have been controlled by various nomadic peoples over time, including the Uighurs, the Kazakhs, the Mongols, the Jurchens (Manchu), and the Xiongnu.

The nomadic people had control over the extremely valuable Silk Road trade routes, vital to the success of most Chinese governments. During prosperous times, the settled agricultural people of China would simply pay tribute to troublesome nomads, or hire them to provide protection from the other tribes. Emperors even offered Chinese princesses as brides to the "barbarian" rulers in order to preserve the peace. The Han government, however, did not have the resources to buy off all of the nomads.

The Weakening of the Xiongnu

One of the most important factors in the collapse of the Han Dynasty, in fact, may have been the Sino-Xiongnu Wars of 133 BCE to 89 CE. For more than two centuries, the Han Chinese and the Xiongnu fought throughout the western regions of China -- a critical area that Silk Road trade goods needed to cross to reach the Han Chinese cities. In 89 CE, the Han crushed the Xiongnu state, but this victory came at such a high price that it helped to fatally destabilize the Han government.

Instead of reinforcing the strength of the Han empire, weakening Xiongnu allowed the Qiang, people who had been oppressed by the Xiongnu, to free themselves and build coalitions which newly threatened Han sovereignty. During the Eastern Han period, some of the Han generals stationed on the frontier became warlords. Chinese settlers moved away from the frontier, and the policy of resettling the unruly Qiang people inside the frontier made control of the region from Luoyang difficult.

In the wake of their defeat, over half of the Xiongnu moved west, absorbing other nomadic groups, and forming a formidable new ethnic group known as the Huns. Thus, the descendants of the Xiongnu would be implicated in the collapse of two other great classical civilizations, as well -- the Roman Empire, in 476 CE, and India's Gupta Empire in 550 CE. In each case, the Huns did not actually conquer these empires, but weakened them militarily and economically, leading to their collapses.

Warlordism and Breakdown into Regions

Frontier wars and two major rebellions required repeated military intervention between 50 and 150 CE. The Han military governor Duan Jiong adopted brutal tactics that led to the near-extinction of some of the tribes; but after he died in 179 CE, indigenous rebellions and mutinous soldiers ultimately led to the loss of Han control over the region, and foreshadowed the Han collapse as the unrest spread.

Peasants and local scholars began to form religious associations, organizing into military units. In 184, a rebellion broke out in 16 communities, called the Yellow Turban rebellion because its members wore headdresses showing their allegiance to a new anti-Han religion. Although they were defeated within the year, more rebellions were inspired. The Five Pecks of Grain established a Daoist theocracy for several decades.

End of the Han

By 188, the provincial governments were far stronger than the government based at Luoyang. In 189 CE, Dong Zhuo, a frontier general from the northwest, seized the capital of Luoyang, kidnapped the boy emperor, and burned the city to the ground. Dong was killed in 192, and the emperor was passed from warlord to warlord. The Han was now broken into eight separate regions.

The last official chancellor of the Han dynasty was one of those warlords, Cao Cao, who took charge of the young emperor and held him virtual prisoner for 20 years. Cao Cao conquered the Yellow River, but was unable to take the Yangzi; when the last Han emperor abdicated to Cao Cao's son, the Han Empire had gone, split into Three Kingdoms.

Aftermath

For China, the end of the Han Dynasty marked the beginning of a chaotic era, a period of civil war and warlordism, accompanied by the deterioration of climate conditions. The country eventually settled into the Three Kingdoms period, when China was divided among the kingdoms of Wei in the north, Shu in the southwest, and Wu in the center and east.

China would not reunify again for another 350 years, during the Sui Dynasty (581–618 CE).

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