Founded in 206 BC, the Han Dynasty followed the collapse and disintegration of the Qin Empire, which had been established only fifteen years earlier by China’s First Emperor, Qinshihuangdi.

At its height it was one of the most powerful empires of the ancient world, as great in population and power as the Early Roman Empire.

Following the death of the First Emperor after only 10 years of rule a great battle for supremacy followed. It was Liu Bang, a rebel leader from the region of Pengcheng, modern Xuzhou, who emerged victorious and reunified the empire, founding the Han dynasty.

This time the centre held. Apart from a brief gap that lasted from AD 9 to 25, the Han dynasty ruled over a unified empire for over four hundred years, creating an example of strong and successful leadership that all later dynasties would seek to emulate.

The Han left a lasting impact on China, founding many of the basic elements still used in Chinese society today: the Chinese language is Hanyu, the Chinese script is Hanzi, and over ninety percent of the population today call themselves Han Chinese – Hanren.

Much of the central character of what has come to be considered the Chinese ‘way of life’ came to be in the Western Han period (202 BC– AD 9):

  • a system of imperial government through areas of command and counties
  • the adoption of ‘Confucian’ principles of respect and duty in court life and administration, giving rise to a civil service based on academic merit rather than birth
  • a mixed state–private economy, including long distance trade; a qualified openness to foreign ideas, arts and beliefs
  • a conception of the emperor as the unique object of beneficence from ‘heaven’ (tian), and having a semi-divine right to rule.

Under the steady rule of the Imperial state China entered a golden age for culture and scholarship.

The study of literature and history flourished; scholars gathered and analysed historical records, openly debating different approaches to government, human nature and the like.

China’s already millennium-long literary tradition was codified in the first imperial library (26 BC) and studied in the imperial university (founded 124 BC).

Science, technology, the arts and crafts – more closely connected in China than anywhere – continued to flourish, reaching levels of technical and artistic excellence that match any in the ancient world.