The Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) can arguably be considered the most influential of the dynasties that ruled all or parts of China, although this particular dynasty was interrupted for about 16 years by the rule of Wang Mang and his Xin Dynasty. As the attached eNotes essay on Liu Bang notes, Wang Mang’s temporary overthrow of the Han Dynasty resulted in the latter often being discussed in two distinct phases. For purposes of this discussion, however, the Han Dynasty will be discussed as one continuous phase in Chinese history.
While each of Chinas ancient imperial clans would leave a mark on that country’s long history, the Han deserve special attention for the more enlightened concept of monarchical rule it represented. The period of the Han saw major developments in politics, the arts, education, and geography. One of the Han Dynasty’s most enduring contributions to modern government is the development of a merit system in which civil servants had to demonstrate proficiency in the tasks for which they would be responsible, as well as knowledge of the humanities, a legacy practiced in many modern governments today, for example, the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service examination. In addition, it was during the Han Dynasty that Confucianism was institutionalized as a the governing philosophy.
In the area of science, the Han essentially invented paper, which facilitated the administration of the government by providing for a more efficient means of communicating over distances. Chinese astronomers were instrumental in mapping the night sky and in identifying anomalies that would identified as planets and meteors. The practice of medicine and the development of the agricultural industry were also greatly advanced during this period of Han rule. The Han Dynasty also saw the development of iron casting, which would presage the later evolution of the industrial revolution in the west.
Of the enduring legacies of the Han Dynasty, one of the most important would involve reference to its two – including the aformentioned brief interregnum for the Xin Dynasty – falls from power. The ambitious programs advanced by the Han required financial resources that exceeded that which it had on hand, which resulted in the implementation of taxation policies that disproportionately hurt the poor – in China a very large category of individual. The political turbulence that resulted from these tax policies would precipitate the Han Dynasty’s collapse not once but twice.