The Han Dynasty

Philosophy and Art of the Han Dynasty

Spanning more than four centuries, the Han Dynasty period is considered a golden age in Chinese history. This period was strongly influenced by Confucianism.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the influence of Han philosophy and art on this golden age in Chinese history

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Han Dynasty was an imperial dynasty of China, preceded by the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE) and succeeded by the Three Kingdoms (220–280 CE).
  • The Dynasty is separated into two periods: the Western Han (206 BCE – 9 CE) and the Eastern Han (25–220 CE).
  • The early Western Han court simultaneously accepted the philosophical teachings of Legalism , Huang-Lao Daoism, and Confucianism in making state decisions and shaping government policy.
  • However, the Han court under Emperor Wu gave Confucianism exclusive patronage . In 136 BCE, he abolished all academic chairs not associated with the Confucian Five Classics and encouraged officials to receive a Confucian-based education at the Imperial University that established in 124 BCE.
  • Han Dynasty poetry was dominated by the fu genre , intermediary pieces between poetry and prose in which a place, object, feeling, or other subject is described in detail and from as many angles as possible.

Key Terms

  • Confucianism: An ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher by the same name (551–479 BCE). It emphasizes the ethics of filial piety, harmonious relationships, ritual, and righteousness.
  • Legalism: A utilitarian political and realist reform-oriented philosophy meant to strengthen government and reinforce adherence to the law, stressing a strict system of punishments and rewards to maintain law and order.

Overview: The Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty was an imperial dynasty of China, preceded by the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE) and succeeded by the Three Kingdoms (220–280 CE). It was founded by the rebel leader Liu Bang, known posthumously as Emperor Gaozu of Han. It was briefly interrupted by the Xin Dynasty (9–23 CE) of the former regent Wang Mang, an interim that separates the Han into two periods: the Western Han (206 BCE – 9 CE) and the Eastern Han (25–220 CE). Spanning more than four centuries, the Han Dynasty is considered a golden age in Chinese history. To this day, China’s majority ethnic group refers to itself as the “Han people,” and Chinese characters are referred to as “Han characters”.

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Map of the Han dynasty in 100 BC: The Han Dynasty (seen shaded in purple) was an imperial dynasty of China, preceded by the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE) and succeeded by the Three Kingdoms (220–280 CE).

Han Philosophy

The early Western Han court simultaneously accepted the philosophical teachings of Legalism, Huang-Lao Daoism, and Confucianism in making state decisions and shaping government policy. However, the Han court under Emperor Wu gave Confucianism exclusive patronage.

Confucianism

Confucianism is an ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucious (551–479 BCE). Confucianism originated as an “ethical-sociopolitical teaching” during the Spring and Autumn Periods, but during the Han Dynasty it developed metaphysical and cosmological elements. At the core of Confucian ethics were the virtues of filial piety, harmonious relationships, ritual , and righteousness.

Unlike the original ideology espoused by Confucius , Han Confucianism in Emperor Wu’s reign was the creation of Dong Zhongshu (179–104 BCE). Dong was a scholar and minor official who aggregated the ethical Confucian ideas of ritual, filial piety, and harmonious relationships with the five phases (the natural cycles that governed Heaven, Earth, and Man) and yin-yang cosmologies. Dong’s synthesis justified the imperial system of government within the natural order of the universe.

Education

In 136 BCE, Emperor Wu abolished all academic chairs (boshi 博) not dealing with the Confucian Five Classics and encouraged nominees for office to receive a Confucian-based education at the Imperial University that he established in 124 BCE. The Imperial University grew in importance as the student body grew to over 30,000 by the 2nd century CE. A Confucian-based education was also made available at commander-level schools, and private schools opened in small towns where teachers earned respectable incomes from tuition payments.

Notable Texts

Some important texts were created and studied by scholars during this time. Philosophical works written by Yang Xiong (53 BCE – 18 CE), Huan Tan (43 BCE – 28 CE), Wang Chong (27–100 CE), and Wang Fu (78–163 CE) questioned whether human nature was innately good or evil and posed challenges to Dong’s universal order. The Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Tan (d. 110 BCE) and his son Sima Qian (145–86 BCE) established the standard model for all of imperial China’s Standard Histories, such as the Book of Han written by Ban Biao (3–54 CE), his son Ban Gu (32–92 CE), and his daughter Ban Zhao (45–116 CE). There were dictionaries such as the Shuowen Jiezi by Xu Shen (c. 58 – c. 147 CE) and the Fangyan by Yang Xiong. Biographies on important figures were written by various gentrymen.

Han dynasty poetry was dominated by the fu genre, which achieved its greatest prominence during the reign of Emperor Wu. Fu are intermediary pieces between poetry and prose in which a place, object, feeling, or other subject is described and rhapsodized in exhaustive detail and from as many angles as possible. Classical fu composers attempted to use an extensive vocabulary and included many rare and archaic terms in their compositions . Fu poems employ alternating rhyme and prose, varying line length, close alliteration, onomatopoeia, loose parallelism, and extensive cataloging of their topics.

Burial Goods of the Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty is considered a golden age in Chinese history in which a great deal of art was produced, including burial goods.

Learning Objectives

Describe the materials individuals were buried with during the Han Dyansty

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • One of the most well-known styles of art during the Han Dynasty was burial art, which evolved between the Western and Eastern Han periods.
  • During the Western Han period, burial goods were usually wares and pieces of art that had been used by the tomb occupant during life.
  • During the Eastern Han period, stylistic goods, wares, and artwork found in tombs were usually made exclusively for burial.
  • Common items used for burial during the Eastern Han period included miniature models of ceramic towers, querns, water wells, pigsties, pestling shops, and farm fields with pottery pigs, dogs, sheep, chickens, and ducks.
  • Although many items placed in tombs were commonly used wares and utensils, it was considered taboo to bring objects specified for burial into living quarters or the imperial palace.
  • The Han Dynasty was known for jade burial suits, ceremonial suits made of pieces of jade in which members of the royalty were buried.
  • One of the earliest known depictions of a landscape in Chinese art comes from a pair of hollow-tile door panels from a Western Han Dynasty tomb near Zhengzhou, dated 60 BCE.

Key Terms

  • jade: An ornamental rock used for hardstone carving since prehistoric periods.

Overview: The Han Dynasty

The period of the Han Dynasty spanned more than four centuries and is considered a golden age in Chinese history during which a great deal of art was produced. The dynasty has been divided into the Western Han (206 BCE – 9 CE) and the Eastern Han (25–220 CE) periods. One of the most well-known legacies of the Han Dynasty is burial art, which evolved between the Western and Eastern Han periods.

Art of the Han Dynasty

Burial Goods

During the Western Han period, burial goods consisted of wares and pieces of art used by the tomb occupant when he or she was alive. During the Eastern Han period, however, stylistic goods, wares, and artwork found in tombs were usually made exclusively for burial and not previously used by the deceased.

Common items for burial during the Eastern Han period included miniature ceramic towers—usually watchtowers and urban residential towers—which provide historians with clues about lost wooden architecture. In addition to towers, there were also miniature models of querns (hand mills for grinding grain), water wells, pigsties, pestling shops, and farm fields with pottery pigs, dogs, sheep, chickens, and ducks. Although many items placed in tombs were commonly used wares and utensils, it was taboo to bring objects specified for burial into living quarters or the imperial palace. This ban was lifted once the objects were properly announced at funeral ceremonies , where they became known as mingqi (明/冥, “fearsome artifacts,” “objects for the dead,” or “brilliant artifacts”).

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Model of Han ceramic tomb: A model of a Han ceramic tomb of a multiple-story residential tower with a first-floor gatehouse and courtyard, mid-floor balcony, windows, and clearly distinguished support brackets.

Other Tomb Art

The Han Dynasty was known for jade burial suits, ceremonial suits made of pieces of jade in which members of royalty were buried. One of the earliest known landscape depictions in Chinese art comes from a pair of hollow-tile door panels from a Western Han Dynasty tomb near Zhengzhou, dated 60 BCE. A scene of continuous depth recession is conveyed by the zigzag of lines representing roads and garden walls, giving the impression that one is looking down from the top of a hill. This scene was made by the repeated impression of stamps on the clay while it was still soft, before firing . The oldest known classically painted Chinese landscape is a work by Zhan Ziqian of the later Sui Dynasty (581–618 CE).

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A Han Dynasty Jade burial suit: A Jade burial suit is a ceremonial suit made of pieces of jade in which royal members in Han Dynasty were buried.

Architecture of the Han Dynasty

Remains of Han Dynasty architecture include ruins of brick and rammed earth walls, rammed earth platforms, and funerary stone pillar gates.

Learning Objectives

Describe the building materials, layout, and architectural characteristics of Han palace halls, towers, tombs, and other abodes

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Surviving architecture from the Han Dynasty includes ruins of brick and rammed earth walls (including above- ground city walls and underground tomb walls), rammed earth platforms for terraced altars and halls, funerary stone or brick pillar -gates, and scattered ceramic roof tiles. Timber was the chief building material in Han architecture, used for grand palace halls, multi-story towers, multi-story residential halls, and humble abodes.
  • Walls of frontier towns and forts in Inner Mongolia were typically constructed with stamped clay bricks instead of rammed earth. Thatched or tiled roofs were supported by wooden pillars, since the addition of brick, rammed earth, or mud walls did not actually support the roof. Stone and plaster were also used for domestic architecture.
  • Valuable clues about Han architecture can be found in burial artwork of ceramic models, paintings, and carved or stamped bricks discovered in tombs and other sites.

Key Terms

  • pillar: A large post, often used as supporting architecture.
  • crenellations: The battlements of a castle or other building.
  • dougong: A unique structural element of interlocking wooden brackets, one of the most important elements in traditional Chinese architecture.
  • rammed earth: A construction material made by compressing dirt.

Surviving architecture from the Han Dynasty includes ruins of brick and rammed earth walls (including above-ground city walls and underground tomb walls), rammed earth platforms for terraced altars and halls, funerary stone or brick pillar-gates, and scattered ceramic roof tiles that once adorned timber halls. Sections of the Han-era rammed earth Great Wall still exist in Gansu province, along with the frontier ruins of thirty beacon towers and two fortified castles with crenellations .

Building Materials

Timber was the chief building material in Han Dynasty architecture, used for grand palace halls, multi-story towers, multi-story residential halls, and humble abodes. However, due to the rapid decay of wood over time and its susceptibility to fire, the oldest wooden buildings found in China (which include several temple halls of Mount Wutai) date no earlier than the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE).

Walls of frontier towns and forts in Inner Mongolia were typically constructed with stamped clay bricks instead of rammed earth. Thatched or tiled roofs were supported by wooden pillars, since the addition of brick, rammed earth, or mud walls did not support the roof. Stone and plaster were used for domestic architecture. Tiled eaves projecting outward were built to distance falling rainwater from the walls; they were supported by dougong brackets that were sometimes elaborately decorated. Molded designs usually decorated the ends of roof tiles, as seen in artistic models of buildings and in surviving tile pieces.

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The Gaoyi Que, a stone-carved pillar-gate (que): A stone-carved pillar-gate, or que (闕), 6 m (20 ft) in total height, located at the tomb of Gao Yi in Ya’an, Sichuan province, was built during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE). Notice the stone-carved decorations of roof tile eaves, despite the fact that Han Dynasty stone que (part of the walled structures around tomb entrances) lacked wooden or ceramic components (but often imitated wooden buildings with ceramic roof tiles).

Styles of Architecture

Tombs and Houses

Valuable clues about Han architecture can be found in an artwork of ceramic models, paintings, and carved or stamped bricks discovered in tombs and other sites. Han tombs were laid out like underground houses, comparable to the scenes of courtyard houses found on tomb bricks and in three-dimensional models. Han homes had a courtyard area (some had multiple courtyards), with slightly elevated halls connected by stairways. Multi-story buildings included the main colonnaded residence halls built around the courtyards as well as watchtowers. The halls were built with intersecting crossbeams and rafters usually carved with decorations; stairways and walls were plastered over to produce a smooth surface and then painted.

Tower Architecture

There are Han-era literary references to tall towers in the capital cities. They often served as watchtowers, astronomical observatories, and religious establishments meant to attract the favor of immortals . It is unknown whether miniature ceramic models of residential towers and watchtowers found in Han Dynasty tombs are faithful representations of such timber towers; nevertheless, they reveal vital clues about lost timber architecture.

Only a handful of ceramic models of multi-story towers exist from the pre-Han and Western Han eras, though hundreds of existing models were made during the Eastern Han period. Model towers could be fired as one piece in the kiln or assembled from several different ceramic pieces. Each model is unique, yet they share common features such as a walled courtyard at the bottom, a balcony with balustrades and windows for every floor, and roof tiles capping and concealing the ceiling rafters. There were also door knockers, human figures peering out of the windows or standing on the balconies, and model pets such as dogs in the courtyard. Perhaps the most direct evidence to suggest that miniature ceramic towers represent of real-life Han timber towers are the tile patterns. Artistic patterns found on the circular tiles that cap the eave-ends on the miniature models are exact matches of patterns found on roof tiles excavated at sites such as the royal palaces in Chang’an and Luoyang.

Other Types of Buildings

Other ceramic models from the Han burial sites reveal a variety of building types. These include multi-story storehouses such as granaries, courtyard houses with multi-story halls, kiosks, walled gate towers, mills, factories and workshops, animal pens, outhouses, and water wells. Even models of single-story farmhouses show great detail, including tiled roofs and courtyards. Models of granaries and storehouses had tiled rooftops, dougong brackets, windows, and stilt supports raising them above ground level. Han models of water wells sometimes feature tiny tiled roofs supported by beams that house the rope pulley used for lifting a bucket.