Intellectual activities, literature, and art flourished during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.), which was also known for its military might. The writing brush and paper and ink came into wide use and the manufacture of porcelain had its beginnings in this period. Many classic texts were edited, and the first dictionary was compiled. One of China's greatest historians, Sima Qian, flourished during the reign of Wu Ti. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed]

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 metmuseum.org]

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: Han Dynasty Wikipedia ; Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ;

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 metmuseum.org \^/]

“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 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]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: Many books of philosophy were written in the Han period, but most of them offer no fundamentally new ideas. They were the product of the leisure of rich members of the gentry, and only three of them are of importance. One is the work of Dong Zhongshu (Tung Chung-shu), already mentioned. The second is a book by Liu An called Huai-nan Tzu. Prince Liu An occupied himself with Taoism and allied problems, gathered around him scholars of different schools, and carried on discussions with them. Many of his writings are lost, but enough is extant to show that he was one of the earliest Chinese alchemists. The question has not yet been settled, but it is probable that alchemy first appeared in China, together with the cult of the "art" of prolonging life, and was later carried to the West, where it flourished among the Arabs and in medieval Europe. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Another important book of the Han period was the Lun Hêng (Critique of Opinions) of Wang Chung, which appeared in the first century of the Christian era. Wang Chung advocated rational thinking and tried to pave the way for a free natural science, in continuation of the beginnings which the natural philosophers of the later Zhou period had made. The book analyses reports in ancient literature and customs of daily life, and shows how much they were influenced by superstition and by ignorance of the facts of nature.

“There were great literary innovations in the field of poetry. The splendour and elegance at the new imperial court of the Han dynasty attracted many poets who sang the praises of the emperor and his court and were given official posts and dignities. These praises were in the form of grandiloquent, overloaded poetry, full of strange similes and allusions, but with little real feeling. In contrast, the many women singers and dancers at the court, mostly slaves from southern China, introduced at the court southern Chinese forms of song and poem, which were soon adopted and elaborated by poets. Poems and dance songs were composed which belonged to the finest that Chinese poetry can show—full of natural feeling, simple in language, moving in content.

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 sort 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.

Plethora of Encyclopedias and Historical Works During the Han Dynasty

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “With the development of the new class of the gentry in the Han period, there was an increase in the number of those who were anxious to participate in what had been in the past an exclusively aristocratic possession—education. Thus it is by no mere chance that in this period many encyclopaedias were compiled. Encyclopaedias convey knowledge in an easily grasped and easily found form. The first compilation of this sort dates from the third century B.C. It was the work of Lu Pu wei, the merchant who was prime minister and regent during the minority of Qin Shi Huang. It contains general information concerning ceremonies, customs, historic events, and other things the knowledge of which was part of a general education. Soon afterwards other encyclopaedias appeared, of which the best known is the Book of the Mountains and Seas (Shan Hai Ching). This book, arranged according to regions of the world, contains everything known at the time about geography, natural philosophy, and the animal and plant world, and also about popular myths. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

This tendency to systemization is shown also in the historical works. The famous Shiji, one of our main sources for Chinese history, is the first historical work of the modern type, that is to say, built up on a definite plan, and it was also the model for all later official historiography. Its author, Sima Qian (born 135 B.C.), and his father, made use of the material in the state archives and of private documents, old historical and philosophical books, inscriptions, and the results of their own travels. The philosophical and historical books of earlier times (with the exception of those of the nature of chronicles) consisted merely of a few dicta or reports of particular events, but the Shiji is a compendium of a mass of source-material. The documents were abbreviated, but the text of the extracts was altered as little as possible, so that the general result retains in a sense the value of an original source. In its arrangement the Shiji became a model for all later historians: the first part is in the form of annals, and there follow tables concerning the occupants of official posts and fiefs, and then biographies of various important personalities, though the type of the comprehensive biography did not appear till later.

“The Shiji also, like later historical works, contains many monographs dealing with particular fields of knowledge, such as astronomy, the calendar, music, economics, official dress at court, and much else. The whole type of construction differs fundamentally from such works as those of Thucydides or Herodotus. The Chinese historical works have the advantage that the section of annals gives at once the events of a particular year, the monographs describe the development of a particular field of knowledge, and the biographical section offers information concerning particular personalities. The mental attitude is that of the gentry: shortly after the time of Sima Qian an historical department was founded, in which members of the gentry worked as historians upon the documents prepared by representatives of the gentry in the various government offices.

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.

Han Dynasty Map

Mawangdui Map is a Han Dynasty topographic map dated to before 168 B.C. Found in Hunan, it is made of ink on silk and measures roughly one by one meter. Eric A. Powell wrote in Archaeology magazine: In 168 B.C., a lacquer box containing three maps drawn on silk was placed in the tomb of a Han Dynasty general at the site of Mawangdui in southeastern China’s Hunan Province. The general was most likely the son of Li Cang, the ruler of the Changsha Kingdom — a fiefdom of the Han Empire — whose own well-appointed tomb lay nearby. [Source: Eric A. Powell, Archaeology magazine, May-June 2019]

“Each map presents a section of the Changsha Kingdom. One map, now largely in tatters and difficult to read, seems to show a city or mausoleum. Another focuses on the locations of military garrisons in a region that lay near Changsha’s frontier with a fractious neighboring kingdom. The third map, shown here, illustrates the mountains, rivers, and important settlements of the southern half of Changsha.

“The Mawangdui maps demonstrate a high degree of standardization, especially in their use of abstract signs, such as squares to symbolize cities, says Cordell Yee, a cartographic historian at St. John’s College in Annapolis. He points out that the maps are so sophisticated that they were likely produced according to long-established cartographic traditions. “This suggests mapmaking was already well developed in China by this time,” says Yee. The maps were undoubtedly indispensable for administrative and military planning purposes, but they may also have been enjoyed as works of art. Next to depictions of a prominent mountain range, the Jiuyi Shan, or Nine Beguiling Mountains, the dark area at the far left, the mapmaker carefully drew in shadowy images that may depict the reflection of the peaks in a nearby lake.”

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.

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.

Image Sources: Flying Horse, Brooklyn University; Han tomb, University of Washington; Musicians, All Posters.com; 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 afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; 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 August 2021

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