By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
The Han dynasty, starting with the rule of Liu Bang, marked China’s first golden age. The dynasty began around 200 BCE and lasted 400 years. Liu Bang balanced tradition with new political ideas.
The Han dynasty was China’s second imperial dynasty, following the Qin. A common soldier named Liu Bang won the throne, finally accepting the final Qin emperor’s surrender and defeating his former allies. He became emperor in 202 BCE. While many felt that a decentralized government was vital, Liu Bang wasn’t so sure. He adopted many of his predecessors’ traditions while trying to please those who wanted a government spread out.
He ruled the western part of China himself but appointed relatives and friends as kings to rule the east on his behalf. Gradually, he concentrated power back in the capitol, but aristocratic clans remained and served as a counterweight to Liu Bang.
Thanks to tomb excavation in recent decades, the lives of the Chinese nobility in the Han dynasty are finally being studied. In his video series Understanding Imperial China: Dynasties, Life, and Culture, Dr. Andrew W. Wilson, Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College, expands on how they lived.
What Was the Han Dynasty like for Royals?
According to Dr. Wilson, the tomb of a noblewoman named Xin Zhui—who was known as Lady Dai due to her husband, the Marquis of Dai—offers a valuable insight into the life of Han royalty, which included a veritable feast of food, from venison and rabbit to duck and pheasant. Other archaeological findings round out the picture.
“From Lady Dai’s tomb it’s easy to imagine what a banquet of nobles in the state of Chu must have been like,” Dr. Wilson said. “Long lines of fine chariots queuing up to unload bejeweled and silk-robed passengers at the front gates of the huge, two-story Dai mansion, which rivaled the imperial palaces in [then-capital] Chang’an.”
The findings at Lady Dai’s tomb suggest that she would prepare for her company in a suite of luxurious apartments, having her hair and makeup done by servants, while guests would sit in a majestic main hall at long, low tables. Entertainment included musicians, dancers, acrobats, and storytellers. Of course, food was a major part of imperial life, as well.
What Part Did Nobility Play in the Han Dynasty?
“The nobility had been critical to Liu Bang’s victory in the post-Qin civil wars, and in his early attempts to consolidate his new dynasty, but they also represented a challenge,” Dr. Wilson said. “They created alternative centers of political and military power, and set up a powerful tension between the imperial center and the nobility of the regions. Balancing that tension was essential to dynastic durability.”
On one end of the political spectrum was the imperial extremism of the Qin dynasty—a view of big government that, according to Dr. Wilson, appealed to activist emperors. It was an ideological and institutional extremism that was also seen to be amoral. On the other end was a political ideology favored by regional elites, focused on small government and a moral philosophy inspired by Confucius.
“The Qin model, sometimes called legalism, was obviously attractive to someone trying to unify China,” he said. “But the rapid implosion of the Qin dynasty gave credence to the Confucian small government approach. The ways that this tension was managed, was balanced, had a significant impact on how a dynasty’s lived their daily lives.”
Understanding Imperial China: Dynasties, Life, and Culture is now available to stream on Wondrium.