Qin–Han dynasties 221 B.C.–A.D. 220
In the contentious Warring States period during the late Eastern Zhou dynasty, the state of Qin
launched a series of conquests in the fourth century B.C. After securing the prosperous Sichuan region as an economic
base, the Qin defeated rival states across central China, leading to final unification and the beginning of China's
imperial era in 221 B.C. The conquering ruler, King Cheng, was well aware of his unique place in history and
proclaimed himself the "First Emperor of the Qin dynasty" (Qin shi huangdi; literally the "First Supreme Ruler of Qin").
The consolidation of the empire led to a centralization of government authority and efforts to unify the written
script, units of measurement, and monetary currency, as well as standardization of road construction and axle
lengths. Qin conquest was partly enforced by the building of palace replicas in the architectural styles of
the subjugated states at the Qin capital at Chang'an where the defeated aristocracies were relocated. The
authority of Qin rule was also pronounced in calligraphy inscribed in stone on what may be the earliest
commemorative steles, and erected at famous mountain sites.
The First Emperor also commanded mass conscriptions for major building projects during his
reign. The various sections of defensive walls in northern China were linked together to form the
Great Wall, impressive palaces were built at the capital, and the Lishan necropolis, the First
Emperor's massive tumulus and funerary complex including the famed terracotta army, were all
built in a short period of time at an enormous cost. The hardship caused by these building
endeavors, along with his efforts to burn books and bury scholars in an effort to censor
knowledge, has tainted the legacy of the First Emperor. In total, the empire only
lasted fifteen years, from 221–206 B.C., falling early in the reign of the Third Emperor.
Han Dynasty 206 B.C.–A.D. 220
Following the fall of the Qin dynasty, the Han dynasty was established by Liu Bang, a
man of humble origins whose posthumous title was Gaozu (259–195 B.C.). Lasting over
four hundred years, the Han is divided into three historical periods: the Western or Former
Han (206 B.C.–A.D. 9), when the capital was located to the west at Chang'an, near
modern Xi'an, Shaanxi province; followed by the Xin dynasty, an interregnum by the usurper
Wang Mang (9–24); and concluding with the Eastern or Later Han (25–220) when the Liu imperial house was reestablished and the capital moved east
to Luoyang in Henan province.
The Western Han began with a period of political consolidation building on the centralized
administrative institutions and legal system of statutes and ordinances inherited from the
Qin dynasty. Within the structure of the central and provincial governments, a civil service
system was instituted that emphasized the learning of the Confucian Classics and other
texts as a means for testing candidates for office. Besides providing moral and ethical
standards of social and government conduct, the Classics also became the source for
aesthetic judgment in later periods. In calligraphy, because clerical script
had been used to transcribe and explain the Classics, it was adopted as the official
scribal style for government, official documents, and often used for public monuments.
Paper was invented in the Han, but most books, documents, and paintings were brushed on
bamboo or wood strips tied in the form of rolls, on silk scrolls or banners, or directly
on stones, walls, or screens.
Within China's borders, revenues were generated by government monopolies in iron, salt,
coinage, and mining. These monopolies grew to include the manufacture of many artifacts for daily or funerary
use, including bronzes, ceramics, lacquers, stonework, and textiles. Workshops were set up to
produce such items, leading to greater specialization and mass production techniques. Clay
figures of animals, people, and models, such as buildings or wellheads, were individually
sculpted or produced from molds. Bronzework continued to utilize late Zhou dynasty casting practices,
and were often inlaid with gold, silver, and gemstones, or developed new polychromatic effects
by casting different colored alloys in successive stages. Bronze artifacts included ritual and
everyday vessels, lamps, mirrors, belt hooks, and figural sculpture. Silk weaving also became
a major industry and the geometric and cloud textile patterns influenced lacquerware designs.
Lacquer production was refined in the Han and became so highly valued that bronzes and ceramics
were sometimes painted to imitate lacquerware.
During the reign of the Wudi emperor (140–87 B.C.), military campaigns and colonization expanded
the Han dominion into areas of south and southwest China and Vietnam, northeast into Korea, and
west into parts of Central Asia. Territorial expansion was accompanied by the opening of overland
trade routes through Central Asia known as the Silk Routes, and by sea to Burma and India. Interaction
with Central Asian, Iranian, Hellenistic, and Roman cultures led to opportunities for the mutual
introduction of new artistic, commercial, intellectual, and religious ideas. Metal, glass, and
ceramic vessel types, ornamental designs, and musical instruments were introduced. Within
China's borders, government officials were posted to various regions of the country, including
frontier garrisons, and many may have brought local artisans and traditions with them. This
relocation, along with interregional trade, may partially explain the process whereby many
common stylistic motifs and thematic designs are to be found in many areas even when separated
by vast distances.
A series of weak emperors, combined with court intrigue, misguided land-use policies and natural
disasters, engendered widespread dissatisfaction in the late Western Han. In A.D. 5, Wang Mang,
the nephew of the Empress Dowager, was appointed regent for the new child emperor. Upon the
young ruler's death in A.D. 9, Wang Mang seized the throne, proclaiming the Xin dynasty. During
his brief reign, Wang Mang attempted to change the structure of government, issue new coinage,
and institute social and land reform measures. In imperially sponsored cultural projects and
building efforts, he tried to legitimize his rule through imitation of historical and ritual
precedents. His policies met with strong opposition and ended with his capture and death in A.D. 23.
The Liu imperial family was restored to dynastic power in A.D. 25 by Liu Xiu, a distant cousin
of the last Western Han emperor whose posthumous title was Guang Wudi (reigned 25–57). This marked
the beginning of the Eastern Han dynasty, when the capital was moved eastward to Luoyang. During
the early Eastern Han, Chinese influence was again reasserted in the south, as well as briefly to
the west into Central Asia, reopening foreign trade routes. Early efforts to strengthen central
governmental authority gave way in the second century to struggles over imperial succession and
rivalries between powerful landowning families, palace eunuchs, and imperial consort families.
Constant local rebellions and messianic movements also forced the court to delegate greater
authority to provincial authorities. Along with factional infighting, these factors all contributed
to the downfall of the dynasty and national division in A.D. 220.
The Western and Eastern Han capitals were located at the eastern terminus of several overland
trading routes through the deserts of Chinese Turkestan, also known as Chinese Tartary, Eastern
Turkestan and Serindia. Passing through the western regions of Bactria and Samarakand to the
west, these Silk Routes also permitted an exchange of goods and ideas. This was one of the
principle routes by which Buddhism infiltrated China during the Eastern Han period. Buddhism
also appears to have entered China by sea trading routes in this period.
Funerary arts and tomb structures in the Han dynasty reflect evolving views of the afterlife
from merely supplying the needs of the tomb occupant to notions of a hierarchical underworld
bureaucracy and belief in immortal paradisiacal realms. The design of tombs may reflect
these changing notions by being designed as cosmological models of the realms of life and
afterlife. From early vertical pit tombs built of wood, burial structures began to be
increasingly constructed of large hollow bricks in the early Han that were often decorated
with stamped designs. In the middle Han, small solid brick tomb construction with vaulted
ceilings became prevalent, and in the Eastern Han period, some tombs began to be built
using stone slab construction. It is this transition from wood to masonry funerary
construction in the Han that has given rise to the misleading generalization that
Chinese architecture for the living is built of wood, and underground funerary
architecture for the dead are built of stone.
Inside tombs, the walls were often decorated in stamped, painted, or carved relief
pictorial images illustrating scenes of legendary rulers, paragons of filial piety and
loyalty, historical and mythological stories, and scenes of feasting, homage, processions,
and other subjects as patterns of life and afterlife. A paradigm for Han pictorial carved
stone funerary art has been the so-called Wu Family Shrines. Also found inside Han tombs
were ritual jade and bronze artifacts, and tomb furnishings increasingly included ceramic and metal replicas and
miniatures. More than just supplying the needs of the dead, the tomb layout, pictorial images,
and burial artifacts can all be seen functioning as exemplary models picturing or
embodying the universe of the living and the dead.
Han dynasty sumptuary codes regulating the size, design, and embellishment of art and
architecture reflected the social and political hierarchy. However, with the gradual
dissipation of central authority in the latter half of the Eastern Han, extravagant
burials exceeding acceptable propriety and decorum flourished, and numerous moral
condemnations and proscriptive laws were enacted in attempts to curb the excess.
The adherence or transgression of these codes and proscriptions are reflected in
the story of art in the Han dynasty.
Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China (New York : Harry N. Abrams with the Asia Society, 2001).
Li, Jian, Eternal China: Splendors from the First Dynasties (Dayton, Ohio: Dayton Art Institute, with the cooperation of Administrative Bureau of Museums and Archaeological Data of Shaanxi Province, People's Republic of China, 1998).
Cary Y. Liu, Michael Nylan, Anthony Barbieri-Low, et al., Recarving China's Past: Art, Archaeology, and Architecture of the "Wu Family Shrines" (Princeton: Princeton University Press; distributed by Yale University Press, 2005).
Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe, eds., The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 BC–AD 220. Vol. 1 of Cambridge History of China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
Wang, Zhongshu, Han Civilization (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).
Sima Qian (ca. 145–ca. 86 B.C.), Records of the Grand Historian, translated by Watson Burton, revised ed., 2 vols. (New York: Renditions-Columbia University Press, 1993).