Emperors of Han Dynasty
Founding Emperor of Han Dynasty
The royal house of the Han Dynasty was the Liu’s. The founding emperor was Liu Bang, popularly known as Emperor Han-Gao-Zu (r. 202~195 BC). Liu Bang was originally a petit local official under the Qin Dynasty. Once, he was charged with an official duty of escorting some prisoners to the worksite of the Mausoleum of Emperor Qin-Shi-Huang. Some prisoners managed to escape, leaving Liu Bang in a panic because such a neglect of duty was, under the extremely severe legal system of the Qin Empire, a capital crime. He released the remaining prisoners, and sought refuge as an outlaw, followed voluntarily by some of these released men. Late Qin Dynasty saw large-scale uprisings against the harsh rule of the Qin regime, and Liu Bang’s team joined the rebels. In 206 BC, Liu Bang beat other rebel groups in marching into the Qin capital Xianyang, where the last Qin ruler surrendered to him. A fresh war for supremacy over China was fought in the next four years between Liu Bang’s Han forces and the Chu forces, another powerful rebel group under Xiang Yu, in which Liu Bang finally defeated the opponent in 202 BC, reunifying China under Han Dynasty.
Liu Bang, Emperor Gao-Zu of Han. Founder of the Han, he is often depicted as a deceitful rascal in early years in popular folk stories and literature.
Such was the start-up of the Han Empire, which was to go on ruling China in most of the next four centuries. It was during this period that the Chinese first became accustomed to living under a unitary imperial government and under a single royal house. Though the Han Dynasty was briefly interrupted by a Xin Dynasty (9~23 CE), the Liu clan was soon reinstalled to the throne.
Totally 15 emperors reigned during the Western Han Dynasty (the first half of Han Dynasty before the Xin Dynasty interregnum), of whom the better-known include Emperors Wen-Di (r. 180~157 BC), Jing-Di (r. 157~141 BC), Wu-Di (r. 141~87 BC), Xuan-Di (r. 74~49 BC), and Cheng-Di (r. 33~7 BC).
Emperors Wen-Di and Jing-Di: models of good governance
The reigns of Emperor Wen-Di (r. 180~157 BC) and Jing-Di (r. 157~141 BC) are often collectively called “the Rule of Wen and Jing” and held as an exemplary period of good , benevolent governance in China’s ancient history. Capable ministers with integrity were installed in offices, whom the emperors were glad to consult, and wasteful expenditures were avoided. Taoist political philosophy of minimum intervention in economy were followed, featuring low taxation and burden on the populace. The period laid a solid groundwork for prosperity under later Emperor Wu-Di.
The period reigned by Emperors Wen-Di and Jing-Di is often collectively honored as "the Rule of Wen and Jing", held as an exemplary period of good, benevolent governance.
Emperor Wu-Di: military conquest and expansion
Emperor Wu-Di (r. 141~87 BC) enjoys equal fame to Emperor Qin-Shi-Huang when it comes to military accomplishment. The Han Empire was plagued by raids from the Xiongnu, the powerful nomadic tribes confederation in the north. At one point, Emperor Gao-Zu (Liu Bang) was even besieged in the Battle of Baiden. Early Han emperors had to rely on a policy of marriage alliance (known as heqin) with, and submitting large amounts of tribute items to, the Xiongnu to appease the latter. When Emperor Wu-Di ascended the throne at the age of 16, the young emperor set out to bring some change. He launched a series of massive military campaigns into the Xiongnu territory, with one victory after another. In the battle in 119 BC, the Han forces under commanders Wei Qing and Huo Qubing drove the Xiongnu court to flee north of the Gobi Desert. The Han Empire was to prevail against the Xiongnu ever since. Under Emperor Wu-Di, Han influence & territory expanded across the Hexi Corridor into the the Tarim Basin, reaching Central Asia. The overland Silk Road was officially opened in this period thanks to political unity in this region.
Emperor Wu-Di, who opened the era of greatness of the Han Empire.
Early Emperors of Eastern Han Dynasty
Compared with their forefathers in the Western Han Dynasty, emperors of the Eastern Han shared a generally worse reputation except the first three emperors. Emperor Guang-Wu-Di (r. 25~57 CE, private name: Liu Xiu) was initially a distant relative to the royal family (as a ninth-generation grandson to Liu Bang). Virtually the whole nation rebelled against the Xin regime under Wang Mang in 22 CE. Liu Xiu assembled forces to join the civil war in which he was to emerge as a competitive candidate claiming the throne. He reunified China in 36 CE, restoring the rule of Han Dynasty.
Emperor Guang-Wu-Di was succeeded by Emperors Ming-Di (r. 57~75 CE) and Zhang-Di (r. 75~88 CE) successively, both of whom were reputable as diligent and capable administrators. Inspired by a dream he had one night, Emperor Ming-Di sent a delegation to seek Buddhism from India. Buddhism thus began to spread in China. The White Horse Temple in Luoyang, built upon Emperor Ming-Di’s order, is China’s earliest Buddhist temple. Emperor Zhang-Di reduced taxes and curtailed government spending while promoting Confucianism. Society and culture prospered during the reigns of Emperors Ming-Di and Zhang-Di (collectively known as the Rule of Ming and Zhang).
White Horse Temple, probably the first Buddhist temple in China, was built upon the order of Eastern Han Emperor Ming-Di, who was inspired by a dream to introduce Buddhism into Chinese heartland.
Mid-and-Late Eastern Han Emperors: toddler- or teenage- emperors, between consort clans and eunuchs
A strange phenomenon occurred after Emperor Zhang-Di (r. 75~88 CE). A total of 12 emperors reigned during the Eastern Han Dynasty, of whom nine ascended the throne at ages of under 16 (as toddler- or teenage emperors) and only three lived more than forty years. The reason lies mainly in the consort clans’ involvement in court politics. In contrast to the short lives of the emperors, the empresses (who were to become empress dowagers after the emperors’ death) lived longer. Until a young emperor reached majority, the empress dowager would manage state affairs as regent and assign certain relatives of her own clan to key posts. Some empress dowagers would deliberately select younger princes to succeed to the throne so as to retain control.
Three quarters of Eastern Han Dynasty emperors ascended the throne as toddler- or teenage-emperors, allowing excessive influence from the clans of the empress dowagers.
After the boy emperors reached majority and recovered the power, they tend to pit eunuchs against the consort clans. Consequently, Eastern Han politics was dominated alternatively by the consort clans and the eunuchs.
Empress Dowager Deng (Empress to Emperor He-Di (r. 88~106 CE)), for example, first offered the throne to Liu Long, then only three months old, rather than the eldest son Liu Sheng, upon the claim that the latter was too sickly to be suitable for the throne. Liu Long died before long, and Empress Dowager Deng enthroned Liu Ku, then merely 12 years old. The result was state politics under the Empress Dowager’s clan’s control for 16 years. The consort clans held paramount power. General Liang Ji, brother of Empress Dowager Liang (wife of Emperor Shun-Di (r. 125~144 CE)), went so far as to poison the nine-year old boy-Emperor Zhi-Di to death in 146 CE in retaliation for his comment that Liang was “an arrogant general”.
Court politics were made more complicated by the role of eunuchs in Eastern Han Dynasty. As the young emperors got older, they tend to regain the power from the consort clans by pitting the eunuchs against the latter. Purging and slaughtering of the losing party would be rampant. Consequently, the eunuchs and the consort clans would dominate the increasingly corrupt Eastern Han politics alternatively.
The last Han Dynasty emperor was Emperor Xian-Di (r. 189~220 CE). He was chosen by warlord Dong Zhuo as emperor in the chaotic twilight years of the dynasty, but remained a puppet throughout his reign. He was to be deposed by Cao Pi, son of prime minister Cao Cao, and was created Duke of Shanyang instead, while the latter proclaimed the founding of Wei Dynasty.
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