The Han dynasty was the second imperial dynasty of China (202 BC – 220 AD), established by the rebel leader Liu Bang and ruled by the House of Liu. Preceded by the short-lived Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) and a warring interregnum known as the Chu–Han contention (206–202 BC), it was briefly interrupted by the Xin dynasty (9–23 AD) established by the usurping regent Wang Mang, and was separated into two periods—the Western Han (202 BC–9 AD) and the Eastern Han (25–220 AD), before being succeeded by the Three Kingdoms period (220–280 AD).
Spanning over four centuries, the Han dynasty is considered a golden age in Chinese history, and influenced the identity of the Chinese civilization ever since. Modern China’s majority ethnic group refers to themselves as the “Han Chinese”, the Sinitic language is known as “Han language”, and the written Chinese is referred to as “Han characters”.
The emperor was at the pinnacle of Han society. He presided over the Han government but shared power with both the nobility and appointed ministers who came largely from the scholarly gentry class. The Han Empire was divided into areas directly controlled by the central government using an innovation inherited from the Qin known as commanderies, and a number of semi-autonomous kingdoms.
These kingdoms gradually lost all vestiges of their independence, particularly following the Rebellion of the Seven States. From the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BC) onward, the Chinese court officially sponsored Confucianism in education and court politics, synthesized with the cosmology of later scholars such as Dong Zhongshu. This policy endured until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 AD.
Wang Mang was a Han dynasty official and consort kin who seized the Chinese imperial throne from the Liu family and founded the Xin (or Hsin, referring to either the site of Wang’s first fiefdom or meaning “renewed”) dynasty. He ruled from 9 AD to 23 AD.
The Han dynasty was restored after his overthrow, and his rule marked the separation between the Western Han dynasty (before Xin) and Eastern Han dynasty (after Xin). Some historians have traditionally viewed Wang as a usurper, while others have portrayed him as a visionary and selfless social reformer. Though a learned Confucian scholar who sought to implement the harmonious society he saw in the classics, his efforts ended in chaos.
In October 23 AD, the capital Chang’an was attacked and the imperial palace ransacked. Wang Mang died in the battle.
The Han dynasty was re-established in 25 AD when Liu Xiu (Emperor Guangwu) took the throne.