The Collapse of the Han Dynasty and 350 Years of Disunity

Episode 20: The Age of Disunity

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

According to Benjamin, the last decades of the Han Dynasty were characterized by corruption and infighting between the three groups of competing elites: the emperor’s eunuchs, the hereditary nobility and the Confucian bureaucrats. Simultaneously there was also substantial peasant unrest, most notably the Yellow Turban Rebellion (184-205 AD). Ultimately the empire was overrun by militarized nomads, just as Rome was.

After the last Han emperor was deposed in 220 AD, power fell into the hands of regional governments and warlords. Cao Cao, one of the most powerful, is best known for settling landless peasants on state forms. After employing Xiongu horse archers as mercenaries, he also resettled them in Shanxi province in northern China.

Several warlords attempted to reunify China, only to be thwarted by their rivals. In 220 AD Cao Cao’s son Cao Pi unsuccessfully attempted to reunify China as the Wei Dynasty.

Significant historical periods include

  • 230 – 280 AD – Three Kingdoms period, with the rival Wei kingdom in the North, Shu kingdom in the West and Wu kingdom in the East.
  • 265 AD – the Jin Dynasty captures the Wei kingdom, ruling until 420 AD. They very briefly rule the other two kingdoms as well, but the fleeting Jin Empire collapses due to a conflict with their own civil service.
  • 281 – 305 AD – brutal civil war involving all of China.
  • 311 AD – Xiongnu nomads take advantage of continuing civil unrest, to sack the former capitol of the Eastern Han Dynasty at Luoyang. In 316, they sacked Changan.
  • 304 – 437 AD – era of the 16 kingdoms, characterized by o one of continual war with Xiongu nomads.
  • 420 – 589 AD – Period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties, featuring significant in southern China, previously isolated from the major dynasties.
  • 439 – 534 AD – Shaanxi settlers from Manchuria adopt Han culture and re-established the Wei Dynasty in northern China.
  • 581 AD – militarily superior Sui Dynasty finally reunifies China. The first Sui emperor Wendi, also China’s first Buddhist emperor,* eliminates many of the cruel punishments enacted under the Legalist dynasties.** His son Yangdi builds the Grand Canal linking the Yellow and Yangtze River.

*Buddhism first reached China during the first century AD. During the Age of Disunity, many Chinese Buddhists  temples and monasteries and made pilgrimages to India. Chinese Buddhists periodically experienced vicious attacks by Confucian elites. The celibacy practiced by Buddhist monks was viewed as “unfilial” (under Confucianism, one has a duty to parents and ancestors to produce an heir).

**Legalism was a school of political philosophy that competed with Confucianism and Daoism during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). See China: Ancient Civlization Born in Isolation

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

Ancient China at War with the Xiongu Nomads and Collapse of the Han Dynasty

Episode 10: The Han Dynasty and the Xiongu at War

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

This lecture provides excellent background on early Chinese history they never teach in school.

Harl describes how Wudi, the first Han emperor (141 – 87 BC), weary of sending tribute to the Xiongu steppes nomads,* undertook military action against them. A strong advocate of Confucian imperial expansion, Wudi also aspired to gain control of the Gansu Corridor between the steppes and the Tibetan plateau and the Tarim Basin with its rich caravan cities.**

As the Chinese infantry with their chariots and crossbows was no match for Xiongu mounted archers with composite bows, he hired Xiongu mercenaries from rebel tribes.

in 127 BC, Wudi launched the first of seven years of campaigns. He attacked the Xiongnu settlements (tent cities) centered around the trade routes to the north of China, driving the Xiongnu north into Mongolia. He then launched one campaign into the Gansu corridor and the Tarim Basin (which ultimately became the present Uighur Autonomous Area). Harl maintains the outcome fell short of true military occupation. Although the caravan cities submitted to the presence of a few Chinese garrisons and paid tribute, there was no real Chinese presence in the region for many centuries.

Wudi also made two expeditions to Ferghana (modern day Tajikistan) on the other side of the Tarim Basin, as well as exploiting a civil war between two Xiongnu brothers. This resulted in a formal Chinese alliance with the southern Xiongu tribes.

These final campaigns bankrupted the Han Empire, resulting in its collapse in 9 AD.

Wudi’s successor, an interloper named Wang Mang (9 – 25 AD), lost control of the Tarim Basin and Gansu Corridor. Han descendant Gurangwu overthrew him in 25 AD restoring the Han dynasty until 220 AD. The latter launched military campaigns into Korea, Vietnam; resumed military control of the Gansu Corridor and Tarim Basin and decimated the northern Xiongnu confederacy.

In 250 AD, Han military adventurism would cause a final collapse of the dynasty into three warring states: Wei, Shu and Wu. Wei, a strong military state owing to their regular confrontation with Xiongu nomads, would eventually reunite China. Shu was the main, seat of silk, Confucianism and power.

*Unable to conquer them militarily, previous Han emperors had prevented Xiongu raids by sending them tribute and royal brides. See How Steppes Nomads Influenced Early Chinese Civilization

**A caravan city is a city located on and deriving its prosperity from its location on a major trans-desert trade route.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.