The Later Han, 25-220
   When Wang Mang tried to create a new dynasty, the Hsin ("New") dynasty, from within the Han dynasty, his central concern was addressing the severe inequities in wealth and property that had grown up between the classes in China. He would have succeeded had not his military been weak and had not nature, and the Hsiung Nu, conspired to create widespread starvation and dissatisfaction. When Wang Mang was executed in 23 AD by the peasant group, the Red Eyebrows, there were no strong candidates to assume the awful burden of taking over the massive Chinese imperial government. For two years, from 23 to 25 AD, various factions fought among themselves until, in 25 AD, a wealthy landowner led a rebel army and seized the government. Since he was related to the Han imperial house, he declared the Han dynasty restored.   However, a pattern of history seems to have been set by the former Han. Beginning auspiciously with agrarian reforms, the former Han redistributed wealth and solved a rising agrarian crisis that had been building since the Chou period. Soon, however, the government grew weak and economic power shifted to wealthy landowners at the expense of the peasantry. The agrarian crisis caused by these inequities led to the rise of a peasant revolt, the Red Eyebrows, which overthrew the Han government. The same pattern would be repeated with astonishing precision in the later Han dynasty as well.

   As in the Former Han, a strong centralized government was restored and powerful reforms were instituted in the early years of the Later Han; these reforms led to an astonishing recovery of a population that had been devastated by war and famine. As in the former Han, this period of creative reform and restoration was immediately followed by an aggressive military expansion. In 50 AD, the Later Han government allied itself with some Hsiung Nu tribes and, forty years later, marched across the Gobi desert and attacked the northern Hsiung Nu. So effective was this campaign that it provoked massive migrations of Hsiung Nu west into central Asia and north into Russia; these migrations eventually pushed the Hsiung Nu all the way to Europe and finally Rome: the "Huns." The military expansion of the Chinese empire would push the Chinese all the way to the Caspian Sea; this mind-boggling control of large parts of inner Asia created the greatest trade route in the ancient world: the Silk Road.China Atlas
The Han Empire
The Silk Road


   As in the Former Han, however, economic power soon became concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy landowners. These wealthy landowners maintained their own private armies and kept the peasants on their lands at or below subsistence level. As in the Former Han, they also managed to avoid paying taxes, so the onus fell on the shoulders of merchants and the poor, many of whom could not even support themselves, let alone the government. Revolts began to break out in 184 AD spearheaded by secret, religious peasant groups. The Former Han fell at the hands of the peasant Red Eyebrows society; the Later Han perished under the weapons of the Yellow Turbans, a new-Taoist secret society based in eastern China. After decades of weak government, the Han dynasty fell in 220 AD; with it fell the Chinese Empire itself. The next three hundred years, the period of "The Three Kingdoms" and "The Six Dynasties," would see the vast Han empire fracture into separate, strong kingdoms.

The Han Synthesis

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 5-29-97