Intellectual activities, literature, and art flourished during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.), which was also known for its military might. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Poetry, literature, and philosophy flourished during the reign of Emperor Wudi (141–86 B.C.). The monumental Shiji (Historical Records) written by Sima Qian (145–80 B.C.) set the standard for later government-sponsored histories. Among many other things, it recorded information about the various peoples, invariably described as "barbarian," who lived on the empire's borders. Wudi also established Confucianism as the basis for correct official and individual conduct and for the educational curriculum. The reliance of the bureaucracy on members of a highly educated class grounded in Confucian writings and other classics defined China's statecraft for many centuries. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

The Han era is known for its rich cultural, intellectual and political achievements. Some Chinese consider anything after the Han dynasty to be modern history. Musicians composed with lyres and flutes and landscape painters perfected their skills. The Hans believed that writing was “a manifestation of one's moral character." They wrote a lot — on paper, bamboo strips, wooden tablets. The Book of Odes was a collection of songs and poems etched on lapis lazuli. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, February 2004]

Art from India and Central Asia made its way into China in great amounts between the 1st and 5th centuries. During this period Buddhist art was created on the cave walls of Yungang and many Buddhist scriptures were translated into Chinese. Great works were created by the painter Gu Kazhi and the calligrapher Wang Xizhi and the poet Tao Yuanmung.

Good Websites and Sources: Wikipedia ; Early Imperial China ; National Geographic article ; Battle of Red Cliff Wikipedia

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University; 2) Chinese Text Project ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization ; 4) Ancient China Life ; 5) Ancient China for School Kids ; Books: Cambridge History of China Vol. 1, The Ch’in and Han Empires (Cambridge University, 1986); The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties by Jessica Rawson (British Museum, 1996); “Early Chinese Religion” edited by John Lagerwey & Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: 2009); A fully annotated translation of the “Shiji” text appears in William Nienhauser, et al., The Grand Scribe’s Records (Bloomington), v. 1. According to Dr. Robert Eno: “The principal source for the information here is Sima Qian’s “Shiji”. Translations for all “Shiji” passages are based on the standard text edition (Zhonghua shuju) and have been made in light of the scholarly translations in William Nienhauser et al., The Grand Scribe’s Records, Vol. 1 (Indiana University, 1995), and Burton Watson’s fine literary translation, Records of the Grand Historian, Vol. 1 (Columbia University, 1961; rev. 1993). For an overview of the events of the civil war period, see Michael Loewe, “The Former Han Dynasty,” in The Cambridge History of China: The Ch’in and Han Empires (Cambridge University, 1986), pp. 110-19.

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland ; 2) WWW VL: History China ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) e-book ; Links in this Website: Main China Page (Click History)

Han Dynasty Music and Dance


In 120 B.C., during the Han dynasty, a bureau of music was established that presided over both festive music performed at festivals and banquets and solemn music performed at ceremonial occasions. Folk songs from this period were recorded and preserved in imperial archives. Although the music has been lost some of the words have survived and the way that phrases are repeated indicates the songs were performed by choral singers.

Han dynasty dances included a dance with 16 boys acting out chores performed by farmers such reaping, cutting grass and shooing away birds, and a dance with 300 young girls moving around a sacrificial altar. Bas reliefs and rubbings from the period depict dances with weapons, scarves and long sleeves. The movements that were represented are similar to dance moves still performed today.

J. Kenneth Moore of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “During the Han dynasty, in the first century B.C., the Yuefu (imperial music bureau) was established. Its purpose was to collect regional popular music and poetry, oversee ceremonies at court, hire musicians, and standardize pitch. (A version of this office continued to operate until 1911.) Many ancient traditions lost during the Qin dynasty (221–206 B.C.), the dynasty preceding the Han, were recovered, and a Confucian musical ideology was disseminated."[Source: J. Kenneth Moore Department of Musical Instruments, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“In addition to the royal and ritual instruments found in tombs, many types of instruments serving popular and folk traditions existed and of these only vague written references or visual iconography survives. Significantly, instruments such as the harps, lutes, and drums depicted in the caves at Dunhuang and other oasis towns in Central Asia were making their way into China from the south and west as trade began along the routes that would become the Silk Road. \^/

“Beginning in the Han dynasty, musical instruments were among the items introduced and exchanged along the Silk Road. Among those brought from the west were lutes similar to today's Middle Eastern ud, oboe-type instruments, and metal trumpets; among those brought from India were long-necked lutes and drums. In China, the ud-like instrument, with its round back, was transformed into the flat-backed pipa. The same Middle Eastern instrument later migrated west and became the European lute, used from the Middle Ages through the Baroque period. Indeed, "lute" is a corruption of the Arabic al ud—an etymological clue to the instrument's origin."^/

Han Dynasty Art

Objects unearthed from Han-era tombs include gilded silkworms; stones with humans battling bears; golden belt buckles with a bear and a tiger devouring a horse; bronze incense burners held by an image of an immortal; horned terra cotta heads used to ward off evil; and pear ornaments with girls holding lamps that would show the way to the afterlife. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, February 2004]

20080302-jade han tapei.jpg
Han-era jade tiger
Many great works of pottery and ceramic art came from the Han Dynasty. Lovely vessels and objects were buried with the dead and have been excavated by archeologists and looters. The first use of glazes on Chinese pottery dates back to this period. Han emperors and noblemen commonly decorated their tombs with pottery replicas of warriors, concubines, servants, horses, domestic animals, trees, plants, furniture, models of towers, granaries, mortars and pestles, stoves and toilets, and almost everything found in the real world so the deceased would have everything he needed in the next world.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Works include bronze mirrors and seals, “jades, lacquerware, ceramics, bronzes, textiles, paintings, wooden slips, wall art, stone carvings and sculpture, and bricks and tiles. In terms of jades, the most representative items here include; a pi disc, a set of jade pieces, a jade-decorated sword, a cup, a cicada amulet, a pig-shaped carving, and a jade suit sewn together with gold, silver, and copper. Lacquerware was popular in the everyday life of the upperclass. The most common forms here include a wine container, a food vessel, a case, a winged-cup, and plates and basins. Ceramics include a celadon bowl and container as well as items in yellow and green glaze, a pot, a miniature tower and animals, and figures. Tiles and "pictorial" bricks, although materials associated with architecture and tombs (respectively), also reveal the beauty of visual art and design in the Han dynasty. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Famous Han era pieces at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, include: a jade horn-shaped drinking cup with dragon design; a pottery hu in the shape of a cocoon; a bronze chia-liang standard measure; a bronze mirror with figure motif; and a jade his-pi small disk with dragon design.

History, Culture and Religion Behind Han Dynasty Art

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “The Chinese imperial period began with the unification of China in 221 B.C. by the state of Qin and the consolidation of a huge empire under the succeeding Han dynasty (206 B.C. - AD 220). Consolidating the empire involved not merely geographical expansion, but also bringing together and reconciling the ideas and practices that had developed in the different states. The new state incorporated elements of Legalism, Daoism, and Confucianism in its ideology but the officials who administered the state came to be identified more and more with Confucian learning. Reflecting the development of religious practices during the Warring States period, Han art and literature are rich in references to spirits, portents, myths, the strange, and the powerful. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=\]

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “During the Han Dynasty Chinese civilization underwent enormous change. Politically, there was the end of feudalism and the emergence of the fountainhead of the imperial system. Socially, the strict hierarchy was crumbling in the face of increasing egalitarianism. Ideologically, studies especially catering to the nobility broadened to a wider, richer pool of knowledge to which all scholars could contribute. Finally, the Confucian school of thought ultimately prevailed and was endorsed by the government. Culturally, the era still placed focus on the practice of rites and ceremonies for the spirits, but it also represents the last gasp in the use of bronze ritual objects as cultural symbols. Replacing them were various objects of daily life that highlighted the utilitarian, pluralistic, and lively aspects of the people. From a broader perspective, such "traditions" that persisted and survived to impact the ensuing development of Chinese civilization actually originated in the Ch'in (221-207 B.C.) and Han (206 B.C.-220 C.E.) period. Indeed, it was truly a pivotal time of transition from the "classic" to "tradition". [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

20080216-han bronze 113 bc liu sheng u wash.jpg
Han bronze
“During the Ch'in and Han, bronze and jade objects were still considered valuables reserved for the upper echelons of society. The sword, knife, seal, and jade ornaments, as well as a bronze mirror, were what a gentleman would carry on him. Everyday objects used by people of different classes include “vessels for cooking food, such as "ting", "tseng", and "yen"; containers for drinks, such as "tsun", "ho", "hu" and cups; water vessels, such as "chien" and "p'an"; lamps for providing light; "po-shan" censers for making the air fragrant; and sheep-shaped weights for holding things down. \=/

“From the numerous traditions that developed during the previous Spring and Autumn as well as Warring States periods, people in the Ch'in and Han dynasties adopted a more regulated and eternal view of the cosmos, one which revealed itself in concrete terms through many of the decorative motifs used at the time. The popularity of such subjects as the phoenix and dragon as well as the Four Spirits reinforces the belief in the Yin-yang and Five Elements. The prevalence of cloud patterns, astrological images, mountains of the immortals, auspicious beasts, winged figures, and the Queen Mother of the West also demonstrates this worldview of cosmic order as well as life and death. In addition to expressing these views of a more abstract nature, Han dynasty spiritual life also dealt with more immediate and earthly desires, as reflected in such auspicious inscriptions as "Everlasting happiness", "Life without bounds", "Great luck all around", and "Filial descendants".” \=/

Examples of Art from the Han Dynasty

Description of three-footed, Han-Dynasty inkstone with lid of auspicious animal decor (height: 23.2 centimeters) by the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “This is a typical inkstone from the late Eastern Han (A.D. 25-220). It is comprised of the base and a cover, which is carved in high relief in the form of an auspicious animal standing proudly with an open mouth. The sides are carved in the form of two openwork dragons. The round cover is concave inside and fits over the raised lip of the inkstone. The surface is flat and the ridge would have held the ink inside. The legs are represented in the form of bears carved in relief with a band of six dragons connecting them. Both parts of the inkstone are carved with great detail. The characters "Chun i kuan" are engraved under the chin of the auspicious animal. Thus, this is not only a rare surviving example of this inkstone type, but it also of exceptional quality. \=/

Description of Rubbing of detail of hunting scene from lintel relief: (Height: 11.2 centimeters, length: 19.9 centimeters, width: 8.8 centimeters) by the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In Han architecture, lintels were used to distribute the weight of a structure down to the posts. This type of repetitive post and lintel system was often used to build underground tomb vaults. The individual members were pressed from clay to create the appropriate shape, decorated, and then fired to harden them. Rubbings in ink on paper placed over these pottery members with designs can be done to make it what looks like drawings, which is why they are often called "pictorial bricks." Many decorated tomb gates, walls, and ceilings have been found from the Han dynasty. This particular hunting scene is from an illustrated brick that once formed a lintel in a tomb. The delicate yet taut lines capture the pose of the tiger and the energy of the hunters. This tense and lively composition is complemented by the delicate and flowing forms and lines to give an almost cartoon-like effect. \=/

Painting and Calligraphy in the Han Period

painting on a tomb brick

Pictorial art during the Han Dynasty took the from of stone engraving, wall painting, and paintings on silk. Paintings mentioned in the Han period texts include Picture of Riding the Dragon to Ascend the Clouds, Picture of the Eastern Wall and Picture of the Western Wall, and Scripture of Grand Harmony. None of these remain today and we have no clue what they looked like. Han painting is thought to have had a solemn style and didactic function. The main objective of painting during this period was to educate people.

After the invention of paper, calligraphy became an important art form to the Chinese. Chinese scribes used brush and ink to create beautiful characters with one or more strokes. Paper was the perfect medium for calligraphy since it absorbed the ink well. Before paper, the Chinese wrote on silk which could be rolled easily, but which was also very expensive. Bamboo strips were also used, but they were very bulky. Paper was both cheaper and easier to bind together into books. It was made out of silk, hemp, bamboo, and seaweed pulp that was dried on a screen. [Source: Ancient China, Jennifer Barborek, Boston University]

Ceramics in the Han Dynasty

Some experts believe the first true porcelain was made in Zhejiang province during the Eastern Han dynasty. Shards recovered from archaeological Eastern Han kiln sites estimated firing temperature ranged from 1,260 to 1,300 ̊C (2,300 to 2,370 ̊F). As far back as 1000 BC, the so-called "porcelaneous wares" or "proto-porcelain wares" were made using at least some kaolin fired at high temperatures. The dividing line between the two and true porcelain wares is not a clear one. Archaeological finds have pushed the dates to as early as the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). The late Han years saw the early development of the peculiar art form of hunping, or "soul jar": a funerary jar whose top was decorated by a sculptural composition. This type vessels became widespread during the following Jin dynasty (265–420) and the Six Dynasties. [Source: Wikipedia]

Glazed pottery and lacquerware were also seldom used by ordinary people. Gray pottery is what appeared among the belongings of the vast number of people in society, either for use in daily life or as funerary accompaniment. In Han dynasty funerals, large numbers of pottery figures were often made to accompany the tomb occupant. Made from clay fired at low temperatures, this type of pottery is relatively soft. Surfaces were covered with a fine layer of white clay and then painted with pigments of various colors to describe the details. In general, Han sculptural art did not strive for outward precision and realism, but artisans often paid special attention to emotions and energy, including the spirit. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/

Description of Grey pottery horse and rider painted in unfired colors Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-AD 8): (Height: ca. 50 centimeters, width: ca. 44 centimeters) by the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “This work is actually composed of three pieces; the rider, the horse, and its tail. The rider is shown wearing a cap that is draped over his head, leaving the face bare. The facial features have been lightly touched, revealing a gentle yet firm expression. He wears a suit covered with plates to indicate armor, suggesting that he is a calvary soldier. Sitting astride the horse, his hands are held up in a position of holding reins. The muscular horse stands rigid with its head held up, ears straight, and tail poised ready for action. With its mouth open, the energy and spirit of this magnificent animal have been remarkably portrayed. The body of the horse has also been painted to depict the saddle and accessories, adding details and color to the work. \=/

Bronze from the Han Dynasty

20080216-Bronze horse2, Han.jpg
Bronze horse
Perhaps the greatest testimony of Han dynasty artistic achievement and skill was the "Flying horse," an A.D. second century bronze sculpture of an entire horse supported on the hoof of one leg found in the grave of a Han general. A famous gilded bronze horse is another treasure. It is thought to have been given as a gift from Emperor Wu Di to his sister. Horses were valued for practical and spiritual reason. They carried the Han to Central Asia and were believed to carry the emperor to heaven. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, February 2004]

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Bronze vessels did not reach the quality of casting found in the previous Shang and Zhou dynasties, when the art of bronze dominated the production of vessels for rituals and ceremonies and the techniques for making them less refined. However, in terms of gilt bronzes, Han craftsmen produced a rich variety of shapes and styles that opened another facet on this art form. In addition to the production of wine vessels, mirrors, and weapons, we also find the technique of gilded bronze on, for example, a lamp, horse, po-shan incense burner, and belt hook. Seals made of bronze were reserved for the use of the emperor and major officials. The simple and steady manner of seal carving in the Han dynasty became a standard followed by later generations. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “By the Western Han period, iron had become the material of choice for agricultural tools and weapons, and the number of bronze objects in tombs decreases dramatically. Those objects that were made of bronze were primarily coins and mirrors rather than vessels. The bronze vessel as an art form also declined with the rise of representational art in the Han period. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=\]

Description of Hsin Dynasty (dated A.D. 9) bronze standard measure: (Height: 25 centimeters) by the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ When Wang Mang usurped the throne from the Han, he changed the name of the dynasty to Hsin. In order to unify the standards of measure under his rule, in 9 AD (the first year of his reign), he ordered that they be established and cast. The purpose was to create objects for making measurements that could be used throughout the entire country. Here, we find such an example cast in bronze, indicating the importance of this dynastic standard. The 216 characters on the surface also explain its origins, the individual parts of the object, and the dimensions. The object itself can be divided into five measuring parts. The central container is the main one, with it and the others all engraved with corresponding unit names. To combine as many measurements in one object, it could also be turned upside down, depending on which measurement was being made. Study of this object shows that measurements were made in units of ten, presenting us with a way to understand ancient methods of calculation. For example, judging from the object and the inscription, we find that one "foot" in the Hsin dynasty equaled 23.0887 centimeters. Based on this, other measurements can also be made. Thus, this standard offers us a glimpse at the measures used at the time. \=/

Description of Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D. 25-220) gilt bronze tsun wine vessel with mountain scenes and animal feet (height: 19.6 centimeters) by the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ This gilt bronze tsun vessel is simple in shape, consisting of a domed cover, vertical sides, and three legs in the form of animals. The cover and body, however, are decorated with lively mountain scenes in relief. Among the mountains are spirits, birds, and other animals, representing contemporary attitudes towards the forests and mountains and revealing the lively Han view of spirit and form in Nature. Due to the age and uneven surface of this piece, much of the gilding flaked off, showing just how difficult this gilding process was. The origins of Chinese landscape art probably began in the carved stone images of the Han dynasty. This bronze shows rows of mountains inhabited with animals, serving not only as decoration, but also as an ideal representation of the land. Thus, this important work stands at the beginning of landscape art in China. \=/

jade burial suit

Jade During the Han Dynasties

During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.), the imperial family held jade in great esteem. While alive they wore jade pendants and ingested jade powder. When they died they were covered and stuffed with jade. Banners and tomb tiles were imprinted the round pi disk, which was believed to assist the deceased reach the next world quicker.

In the Han period, when jade objects were believed to possess auspicious meaning, their uses and functions multiplied. Circular jades — often containing images of twin-bodied animals, mask patterns, grain seeds, rush mat designs, curling chih dragons, and round tipped nipples — decorated buildings. Engraved dragon and phoenix patterns were popular in the Han imperial court.

Description of han Dynasty Pi disc with carved chih dragon and ch'ang-le characters by the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “This greenish jade disc is mottled brown in places and semi-translucent. This exceptional jade was ground and carved using three techniques; openwork, engraving, and low-relief carving. It can also be divided into three parts; a central disc (with a hole in the middle) decorated with raised dots, an openwork rim around the disc (decorated with phoenixes and dragons), and an openwork decoration at the top above the border. This type of design extending beyond the border is known as a "beyond-the-rim pi disc." In the openwork border at the top and bottom are the characters for "ch'ang" (everlasting) and "le" (happiness). [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/]

“Although often cited by scholars in describing this type of decoration and related to other archaeologically excavated examples, this disc (technically speaking) does not bear "beyond-the-rim" decoration, because the additional openwork merely appears appended to the border. As a result, no decoration extends from the center to the outside in a connected fashion. Artifacts in other museums are perhaps better examples of this type. However, the lively interaction of phoenixes and dragons in the openwork rim of this ch'ang-le disc seem to extend at least in spirit and energy. Furthermore, this type of design goes far beyond traditional ones, making this not only a rare specimen in the history of jades, but also a representative example of the new heights in the art of jade at the time. \=/

Liu Xu jade suit replica

Han Dynasty Jade Suits

The greatest expressions of the quest for immortality were the jade suits that appeared around the 2nd century B.C. About 40 of these jade suits have been unearthed. The jade suit of the 2nd century B.C. Prince Liu Sheng unearthed near Chengdu, Sichuan province was made of 2,498 jade plates sewn together with silk and gold wire. Liu Shen was buried with his consort who was equally well clad in a jade suit. Sufficient room was made for the prince's pot belly.

Jade suits were believed to slow decomposition and effectively preserve the body after death. A jade suit unearth in Jiangxi Province was made of roughly 4,000 translucent pieces of jade held together with gold wire. Designed to form fit and cover the body, it has the shape of a robot from 1950s B science fiction movie.

Describing jade suits found in the the Han Tomb of Liu Sheng, Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Although their coffins had collapsed, Liu Sheng and Dou Wan were each found in a well-preserved jade suit. Liu Sheng's was made of 2498 pieces of jade, sewn together with two and a half pounds of gold wire (Dou Wan's was smaller). Each suit consists of 12 sections: face, head, front, and back parts of tunic, arms, gloves, leggings, and feet. It has been estimated that a suit such as Liu Sheng's would have taken ten years to fashion. Along with the jade suits, Liu Sheng and Dou Wan each had a gilt bronze headrest inlaid with jade and held jade crescents in their hands. Archaeologists had known of the existence of jade burial suits from texts, but the two suits found at Mancheng are the earliest and most complete examples ever discovered. During the Han, jade funerary suits were used exclusively for the highest ranking nobles and were sewn with gold, silver, or bronze wire according to rank. The practice was discontinued after the Han.” One of the suits was 188 centimeters long. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=\]

Treasures from the Han Tomb of Liu Sheng

20080320-Han tomb of liu sheng u wash.jpg
Tomb of Liu Sheng
Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “ In 1968 two tombs were found in present-day Mancheng County in Hebei province (review map). The first undisturbed royal Western Han tombs ever discovered, they belong to the prince Liu Sheng (d. 113 B.C.), who was a son of Emperor Jing Di, and Liu Sheng's consort Dou Wan. The structure and layout of the tombs departs from earlier traditions in significant ways. For the first time images of daily life began to appear in tombs in the form of wall reliefs and earthenware models. Before this time, representations of scenes from life had been rare, a minor artistic concern when compared to the interest in shapes and surface decoration. In the tombs at Mancheng, however, the bronzes are mostly unadorned vessels meant for everyday use. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=\]

Liu Sheng's tomb contained over 2,700 burial objects. Among them, bronze and iron items predominate. Altogether there were: A) 419 bronze objects; B) 499 iron objects; C) 21 gold items; D) 77 silver items; E) 78 jade objects; F) 70 lacquer objects; G) 6 chariots (in south side-chamber); H) 571 pieces of pottery (mainly in north side-chamber); I) silk fabric; J) gold and silver acupuncture needles (length: 6-7 centimeters); J) an iron dagger (length: 36.4 centimeters width: 6.4 centimeters); K) three bronze leopards inlaid with gold and silver plum-blossom designs; L) bronze weights (height: 3.5 centimeters, length: 5.8 centimeters; M) a bronze ding with two ears fitted with movable animal-shaped pegs to keep the cover tight; N) a double cup with a bird-like creature in the center that holds a jade ring in its mouth and its feet are planted on another animal. /=\

There was also a bronze incense burner inlaid with gold (height: 26 centimeters). According to Ebrey: “Three dragons emerge from the openwork foot to support the bowl of the burner. The bowl is decorated with a pattern of swirling gold inlay suggestive of waves. The lid of the burner is formed of flame-shaped peaks, among which are trees, animals, and immortals. There are many tiny holes in the peaks. Oil-burning lamps were a common means of night-time illumination in this and later periods. A bronze lamp (height: 48 centimeters) has an ingenious movable door to regulate the supply of oxygen and thus the strength of the fire. Smoke from the fire would go up the sleeve, keeping the room from getting too smoky.” /=\

Han Dynasty Literature

Ancient books and documents were put on handschrolls. The first handscrolls, dating back to the Spring and Autumn period (770-481 B.C.), were made mostly from bamboo or wood strips bound together with chord. Ones from the eastern Han Period (25-220 A.D.) used silk and early paper. Biographies of Model Women is a 2000-year-old text from the Han Dynasty with some rather juicy descriptions of sexually liberated women.

The love story between Xiang Yu, the ruler of the 2,200-year-old kingdom of Chu, and Lady Yu, is well known in China. The inspiration for the film Farewell My Concubine, it described how Xiang Yu challenged but ultimately lost to the first Han dynasty ruler and ends with Xiang Yu and Lady Lu in tent surrounded by Han forces. Rather than surrender they commit suicide. Lady Yi kills herself first after performing a sword dance and vowing to love Xiang forever, even in death.

Poetry by Wan Cheih Among the earliest and most influential poetic anthologies was the Chuci (Songs of Chu), made up primarily of poems ascribed to the semilegendary Qu Yuan (ca. 340-278 B.C.) and his follower Song Yu (fourth century B.C.). The songs in this collection are more lyrical and romantic and represent a different tradition from the earlier Shijing. During the Han dynasty (206 B.C. - A.D. 220), this form evolved into the fu, a poem usually in rhymed verse except for introductory and concluding passages that are in prose, often in the form of questions and answers. The era of disunity that followed the Han period saw the rise of romantic nature poetry heavily influenced by Taoism. [Source: Library of Congress]

The Mulberries by the Path, a Han Poem

Dr. Eno wrote: “This poem from the Eastern Han period was one of many that were collected by the "Bureau of Music,” a government agency that was charged with transcribing and preserving popular chants and songs. The idea behind this was that the rulers needed to know what was on the minds of their subjects, and nowhere did people speak more frankly than in the lyrics of songs.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

"The Mulberry Trees by the Path," apart from its considerable charm, is a commentary on the relationship that China's ruling class established with the population it controlled. The encounter between a young peasant girl collecting mulberry leaves to feed to silkworms and an official whose overbearing and licentious conduct belies his standing as a representative of the “Confucian” government shows how the gap between official morality and official conduct was keenly perceived by the Han people. (It may be good to note that the “Qin family” of the poem bears no relationship to the dynasty of that name. Qin is a common surname. Here, it may also denote the region of Qin, but without suggesting the dynasty.)

Song-era painting that sot of fits the poem

The southeast rising sun
Shines on our Qin family's home.

The Qins have a beautiful daughter,
She calls herself Luo Fu.

Silk making Luo Fu loves,
South of town amidst mulberry leaves,
Blue-green silk for her basket string,
For its handle a cassia twig,
Her hair bound up above her head,
Gleaming pearls below her ears,
Bright yellow silk for her skirt,
Rich purple the silk of her blouse.

Men who pass and see Luo Fu
Lay down their loads and stroke their beards.

Boys who pass and see Luo Fu
Snatch the caps off their cloth-wrapped heads.

Hoers forget their hoes,
Ploughmen forget their ploughs.

They argue as they come and go,
But sit and gaze at Luo Fu.
An officer comes from the south,
His five steeds prance as they stand.

Off he sends a runner:
— Find out what beauties live here!
—The Qins have a beautiful daughter,
She calls herself Luo Fu
— And how old is Luo Fu?
—Twenty not yet come;
Fifteen not long gone.

The officer says to Luo Fu,
— Won't you ride off by my side?
Before him Luo Fu speaks:
— Lord Minister, how foolish you are!
My lord, you have a wife.

I, Luo Fu, have a husband.

In the east ride a thousand horsemen,
In front, there rides my husband.

How shall you know him?
White horses follow his glistening black,
Blue silk thread through its tail.

A bridle of gold frames his horse's head,
And the deer-sword at my husband's waist
Is worth ten million cash.

At fifteen a ministry scribe,
At twenty a minister of court,
At thirty a palace aide,
At forty a governor of state.

As a man he is pure and bright,
His long beard flowing down.

Stately his steps at court,
Graceful he makes his way.

He sits in ranks of thousands,
And all sing praise of my husband.

Han Dynasty Science, Medicine and Technology

20080216-han tomb of liu sheng 113 bc accupuntcure needles u wash.jpg
Accupuntcure needles found in
the Tomb of Liu Sheng
Emperor Qin Shihuang is usually given credit for unifing the Chinese writing system but a careful look reveals the system was largely standardized in the Han dynasty. The Han produced the first Chinese dictionary, the first official history, gave names to the dynasties that preceded them and made a concerted effort to unify China's diverse ethnic groups with a single writing system.

Two of the great Chinese inventions, paper and porcelain, date from Han times. Water clocks and sundials were used; paper was invented; astronomy flourished; and complex mathematical problems were solved. Han scholars wrote detailed histories and collected statistics. Centuries before they were used in the West, the Han were using pulleys and wheelbarrows to transport goods. Water-powered trip hammers were used to crush ores and grain. Bellows pumped air into furnaces; umbrellas collapsed using a designs that remains in use today. Sophisticated astronomical instruments and the invention of a seismograph in 132 A.D. further attest to the technological and scientific achievement of the Han. The A.D. 2nd century han inventor Ding Huan invented a rotary fan for air conditioning, with seven wheels 3 meters (10 feet) in diameter and manually powered.

Many scientific discoveries made during the Han Dynasty include: 1) “broom stars" (comets); 2) solar eclipses occur when the moon blocks our view of the sun; 3) the creation of the seismograph; 4) the first magnetic compass based on the directionality of the lodestone in the Earth's magnetism. The lodestone was always carved into the form of a spoon, with the handle facing South. [Source: Ancient China, Jennifer Barborek, Boston University ^=^]

The ancient Chinese believed that illness happened when the forces of yin and yang in the body were out of balance. The healer's job was the restore this natural balance. Among advancements made here were: 1) acupuncture, the technique for restoring balance by applying thin needles to specific parts of the body; 2) moxibustion, in which a small cone of powdered leaves or sticks is placed on the skin and set on fire to reduce pain and promote healing; 3) the use of a special kind of wine as an anesthetic. The Chinese also learned much about health including the usefulness of a pulse and heartbeat in determining sickness, as well as forming a general understanding of the circulatory system.

Invention of Paper in Han-Era China

The invention of paper took place during the Han Dynasty. Paper has been found in 2nd century B.C. Chinese tombs. Before then some Chinese wrote on bamboo strips, turtle shells, oxen shoulder blades, and sheets of waste silk and Tibetans wrote on the smooth shoulder bones of goats. The earliest known inks for writing were made in China and Egypt at least 2000 years ago.

According to legend, the first sheets of paper were made in A.D. 105 by Ts'ai Lun, a Chinese eunuch at the Imperial Chinese court, from mulberry leaves, old fish nets, hemp, tree bark, and rags. For the ancient Chinese paper was more than a material to write on. From at least the 5th century A.D. the Chinese made hats, shoes, belts, curtains and armor with arrow-resistant pleats from paper.

Paper was so prized In imperial China that it was forbidden to step on it. Describing paper, the third century scholar Fu Hsien wrote, "Lovely and precious is this material/ Luxury but at a small price;/ Matter immaculate and pure in its nature/ Embodied in beauty and elegance incarnate," Truly it pleases men of letter."

Paper is made of fibers that are mixed together when wet and bond when dry. In ancient times, paper was made by pounding rags, hemp, bark and other materials into fibrous pulps, which were dumped in water-filled vats. The fibrous pulps were suspended in the water and collected in a mold by workmen. The mold was then gently shaken, causing the thin layer of fibers to interlock, a process called matting. When the matted material dried it formed paper.

Chinese taken prisoners by Turks and Arabs after the conquest of Samarkand in the A.D. 8th century introduced the art of papermaking to the Muslim caliphs of Baghdad. By the 9th century Chinese paper craftsmen were working out of shops in the Middle East. Paper was not manufactured in Europe until the 11th century, almost 1,200 years after it was first used in China. The process of making it flowed to Europe from the Middle East via Byzantium and Spain.

Romans, Han Dynasty Were Greenhouse Gas Emitters

human lamp

“A 200-year period covering the heyday of both the Roman Empire and China's Han dynasty saw a big rise in greenhouse gases, according to a study that challenges the U.N. view that man-made climate change only began around 1800," Alister Doyle of Reuters wrote. “A record of the atmosphere trapped in Greenland's ice found the level of heat-trapping methane rose about 2,000 years ago and stayed at that higher level for about two centuries. [Source: Alister Doyle, Reuters, October 3, 2012]

Methane was probably released during deforestation to clear land for farming and from the use of charcoal as fuel, for instance to smelt metal to make weapons, lead author Celia Sapart of Utrecht University in the Netherlands told Reuters. "Per capita they were already emitting quite a lot in the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty," she said of the findings by an international team of scientists in the journal Nature. Rates of deforestation "show a decrease around A.D. 200, which is related to drastic population declines in China and Europe following the fall of the Han Dynasty and the decline of the Roman Empire," the scientists wrote.

Mankind's emissions 2,000 years ago, when the world population was an estimated 300 million, were discernible but tiny compared with current levels caused by a population of 7 billion. Sapart estimated that methane emissions until 1800 were about 10 percent of the total for the past 2,000 years, with 90 percent since the Industrial Revolution.

Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas behind carbon dioxide, emitted by human burning of fossil fuels. Methane is generated from human sources including burning of forests and fossil fuels, rice paddies, livestock or landfills. Natural sources include wetlands, wildfires or mud volcanoes. The findings by Sapart's team questioned the view by a U.N. panel of climate scientists that man-made climate change started with the surge in use of fossil fuels during the Industrial Revolution. "The pre-industrial time was not a natural time for the climate - it was already influenced by human activity," she said. "When we do future climate predictions we have to think about what is natural and what did we add. We have to define what is really natural," she said.

The scientists, in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, the United States and France, noted a second rise in methane in Medieval times, coinciding with a warm period from 800 to 1200 that also saw Europe's economy emerge from the Dark Ages. That spike might be because population growth in Asia and Europe led to more deforestation for farming. Rates then fell, perhaps partly because factors such as the Black Death cut the population. Methane levels rose a third time around the start of a cool period known as the Little Ice Age in the 1500s, perhaps also reflecting strong population growth after the plague.

The scientists used variations in the chemical make-up of methane in the ice to try to distinguish background natural sources from man-made emissions. Ice cores from Greenland - made up of layers of compacted snow that give a year-by-year record - found concentrations of methane rose from about 600 parts per billion around 2,000 years ago to above 700 ppb by 1800. They are now at about 1,800 ppb.

Supernova Seen by Ancient Chinese Observers

The oldest recorded supernova was from A.D. 185: a "guest star" observed in ancient China for eight months before disappearing. In 2011 astronomers announced they had discovered they were witnessing a massive supernova 8,000 light-years away. New infrared observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) have revealed how the first supernova ever recorded occurred and how its shattered remains ultimately spread out to great distances.

In October 2011, AFP reported: “The findings show that the stellar explosion took place in a hollowed-out cavity, allowing material expelled by the star to travel much faster and farther than it would have otherwise. The Spitzer Telescope doesn't just spot supernovae, but also planetary collisions

"This supernova remnant got really big, really fast," said Brian Williams, an astronomer at North Carolina State University and lead author of a new study detailing the telescope's findings online in the Astrophysical Journal."It's two to three times bigger than we would expect for a supernova that was witnessed exploding nearly 2,000 years ago. Now, we've been able to finally pinpoint the cause," he added.

In 185 A.D., Chinese astronomers noted a "guest star" that mysteriously appeared in the sky and stayed for about eight months. By the 1960s, scientists had determined that the mysterious object was the first documented supernova.Later, they pinpointed the object, known as RCW 86, as a supernova remnant located about 8,000 light-years away but remained puzzled at how the star's spherical remains were larger than expected. "With multiple observatories extending our senses in space, we can fully appreciate the remarkable physics behind this star's death throes, yet still be as in awe of the cosmos as the ancient astronomers," said Bill Danchi, Spitzer and WISE program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Image Sources: Flying Horse, Brooklyn University; Han tomb, University of Washington; Musicians, All; Accupuntcure needle, University of Washington ; Others Nolls website, Wikipedia, Palace Museum Taipei, CNTO; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.