Type of Government
The Han dynasty was governed by a centralized monarchy headed by an emperor and supported by an elaborate structure of imperial administration. The Han government was divided into three branches: the civil service (public administration), the military (defense), and the censorate (auditor). The many Han provinces were managed as commanderies (districts under the control of a commander) headed by a governor and a commandant.
The Han dynasty was the second imperial dynasty in Chinese history, ruling from 206 BC to AD 220. Historians divide the period of Han rule into two periods: the Western Han (206 BC–AD 8), when the capital was located in the western city of Ch’angan (modern-day Xi’an), and the Eastern Han (25–220), when the capital was moved to Luoyang to the east. Throughout the Han’s four-hundred-year dynasty—except for a brief interruption from 9 to 24—the throne passed through a single family line. Some historians compare the Han dynasty to the Roman Empire in terms of its geographic scope, military prowess, and imperial governance.
The Han was preceded by the short-lived Ch’in dynasty (221–206 BC), which formed the first centralized empire in Chinese history. Ch’in rule was heavily influenced by the theory of legalism, which emphasized the power of the state embodied in a strict legal code. The Ch’in period was marked by authoritarian rule, harsh treatment of the population, and political violence, all of which culminated in a civil war.
The Han dynasty was established in 206 BC by Liu Pang (256–195 BC), who led one faction of the civil war against the tyrannical Ch’in king Cheng (c. 259–210 BC). Liu Pang learned from Cheng’s mistakes and sought to develop a political structure that would bring stability and unity to the burgeoning empire. The Han government retained a key element of the Ch’in organization: it recognized the necessity of a strong, centralized government. However, this belief was tempered by Confucian sentiments, which emphasized moral virtue and moderation over harsh legal policies. The Han also made another innovation: implementing a bureaucracy based on merit and skill rather than on birth. The science of public administration was inaugurated as an imperial school and was set up to train public servants. Furthermore, a system for entry into the bureaucracy was established. This shift made for a professional and efficient state.
The early Han dynasty was a time of peace and prosperity—a welcome change after centuries of warfare. China saw population and economic growth, as well as territorial expansion. At its peak, Han trade routes extended to the Mediterranean (via the famous Silk Road), and the areas of present-day Korea and Vietnam were brought under Han rule. During the reign of Liu Ch’e (156–87 BC), the Han’s sphere of influence expanded to include Central Asia.
Throughout its history, the Han dynasty was plagued by succession problems. Because most kings took many wives and consorts, thus producing many possible heirs, the rules of succession were never clear. This problem came to head during the late Han period, which was characterized by court intrigue, political wrangling among statesmen, and dynastic struggles. During the first and second centuries AD, Han rule was further weakened by a series of natural disasters, a widening gap between rich and poor, a depleted treasury, and an overstretched military. Politically, the imperial bureaucracy was undermined by a new class of upstart wealthy individuals who began to buy their way into government service, usurping the positions once held by educated civil servants. All these developments sapped the power of the central government as the Han dynasty reached its end.
The Han dynasty was governed by an autocracy (government by one person) centered on the position of the emperor and supported by an impressive structure of imperial administration. The emperor sat atop the hierarchy and ruled through edicts that declared his imperial will. He also handled the investiture of kings and noblemen and appointed senior government officials. Succession passed through the male line to the emperor’s son of choice, typically the eldest son of the empress.
Closest to the emperor was the inner court, which comprised his consorts and their families and his most trusted advisers. Notably, women and servants held paid positions in the civil service in this capacity, though they were instructed to keep their hands out of governmental business. Eunuchs (castrated servants) also served in the inner court because they were considered safe to be around the women. Members of this group alone had direct access to the emperor and received titles directly from the emperor.
The imperial government, known as the outer court, was divided into three branches—the civil branch, the military, and the censorate—whose heads made up the top level of officials. The civil branch was headed by the chancellor, the most powerful man in the government next to the emperor. A notable feature of the Han government was an intense fear of corruption, and thus checks and balances were worked into every level of government, often resulting in the duplication of duties and positions. For this reason, there were sometimes two co-chancellors, known as the chancellor of the left and the right. The supreme commander had oversight of the military, and the imperial counselor managed the censorate, which served as a governmental auditor and essentially spied on the other branches of the administration.
Nine ministers headed the administrative departments of government, which handled religious matters, palace security, criminal cases, diplomacy, and revenue collection, among other duties. Subordinate to the ministries were a number of bodies that managed specialized tasks. The Han civil service comprised twelve grades, and promotion was based on merit and skill rather than on birth.
The Han also developed a structure for administering its vast territories. Under Liu Pang, the regions under Han control were managed according to two different systems: areas to the east were divided into ten autonomous kingdoms, whereas the provinces to the west were controlled directly by the empire as commanderies. By 100 BC all territories had been converted to the latter form of governance, thus uniting them under the central authority of the emperor. A governor and a commandant administered each commandery, which was divided into ten to twenty prefectures and then into many districts. The prefectures were responsible for collecting taxes, arbitrating disputes, and providing soldiers for the military.
Political Parties and Factions
During the Han dynasty political thought was dominated by two competing camps associated with the theories of legalism and Confucianism. These camps have been described as modernist and reformist, respectively. Broadly speaking, the modernists believed that government should seek practical solutions to the problems of the day; this mode of thinking dominated the first half of the Han period, peaking during Liu Ch’e’s reign. By contrast, the reformists sought to re-create an ideal of the distant past (for them, the feudal system of the Chou kings) and focused more on the principles of government; this theory gained currency during the Eastern Han period, when rulers were heavily influenced by Confucian thought.
The Western and Eastern Han dynasties were demarcated by the year AD 9, when the Han line was interrupted by a brief dynastic crisis. In that year Wang Mang (45 BC–AD 23), the nephew of the empress dowager and regent to two child emperors, seized control of the throne, establishing the short-lived Hsin dynasty. According to Wang Mang, a series of twelve omens had appeared to him, signaling that heaven had given him a mandate to rule. During his fourteen-year reign, Wang Mang attempted to reform the government according to Confucian principles, though most of his solutions proved impractical and earned him many enemies. Wang Mang was killed in 23 and the Han dynasty was reestablished under Liu Hsiu (4 BC–AD 57), who relocated the capital to the eastern city of Luoyang. Regardless, Wang Mang’s interregnum marked the beginning of the Han dynasty’s decline.
Even though the Han dynasty persisted in name until 220, the line effectively collapsed in 189, when the Han territory was parceled out to three leading generals. When the most powerful of these generals, Cao Cao (155–220), died, the Han empire was divided into three separate kingdoms: the Wei (220–264), Wu (222–280), and Shu Han (221–263) dynasties. The demise of the Han dynasty thrust China into three centuries of chaos, and the political and cultural unity achieved by the Han would not be recaptured until the Sui dynasty (581–618).
Hardy, Grant, and Anne Behnke Kinney. The Establishment of the Han Empire and Imperial China. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.
Lewis, Mark Edward. The History of Imperial China. Vol. 1, Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
Loewe, Michael. The Government of the Qin and Han Empires: 221 BCE–220 CE. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 2006.