QinHan dynasties 221 B.C.A.D. 220

Selections from the Collection

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.

Further readings

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).

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Anonymous, Chinese
Sword-bearer lamp
China, Eastern Zhou or Warring States period or Western Han dynasty, 4th to 2nd centuries B.C.
Bronze with cast and engraved designs
h. 33.8 cm., h. to top of skull ca. 28.5 cm.
Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund