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Chinese History - 25-220 AD - Eastern Han Dynasty

China History Map - Dong Han / Later HanThe history of the Han dynasty must be divided into two portions. The earlier or Western Han, as it is called, lasted from BC 206 to AD 25 and was mainly a period of prosperity and peace at home and military success abroad. It was in this period that the great generals carried the arms of China into Western Asia, caused the banners of the Eastern Empire to meet the banners of Rome on the shores of the Caspian, and made a way for the merchants of China to carry their silk and iron into the markets of Europe. The Western Han had their capital in the city of Changan.

Aggressive expansion came at a cost, and the country found its many resources strained. Measures were undertaken to give greater authority to regional officials, and a professional army replaced the army of conscripted peasants. This new army was tested by unrest on the borders, as outlying states warred with the Empire. Also the Yellow River again flooded and, combined with other natural disturbances, caused many to question the Emperor's Heavenly Mandate.

The Later or Eastern Hans removed the capital to Loyang and maintained their sway from AD 25 to AD 220. The first ruler of the line, Liu Hski, made himself popular in a time of famine by selling corn to the people at a cheap rate. Then, taking up arms against his Emperor, he fought a series of bloody battles and ascended the throne under the title of Kuang Wu Ti.

The period is mainly one of unrest and decadence, although it includes the life of Yang Chen. "The Confucius of the West," famous for the response made to those who tempted him to obtain wealth by fraud. They told him that no one would know of it, to which he answered, "Heaven knows it, Earth knows it, you know it, I know it; how say you then that no one will know it?" Mention also should be made of that sturdy old warrior, Ma Yuan, known as the " Generalissimo Queller of the Waves," who from his youth up was a faithful defender of the national honor on the northern frontier. He rode erect in his saddle to the last, and died at an advanced age in the field against the barbarian tribes of Hunan. "It is more meet," he said, "that a commander be brought to his home as a corpse wrapped in his horse's hide than that he should die in his bed surrounded by boys and girls."

The most important event in the history of the Empire of the Eastern Hans is the introduction of Buddhism about A. D. 67. Traditions exist of an earlier acquaintance in China with the religion of Gautama. One story speaks of the coming in BC 217 of an Indian priest, who is called Li Fang, with seventeen companions. Another relates that one of the Han generals, Ho Ch'u-ping, after gaining brilliant victories in Turkestan, about BC 123, brought back as a trophy a golden image which has been supposed an image of a Buddha. The commonly accepted account, however, connects the first proclamation of the Indian faith with the second Eastern Han Emperor, Ming Ti (Liu Chuang), who reigned from AD 58 to 76. This king had a dream in which he saw a golden image standing in the palace court yard with two arrows in its right hand. The dream, interpreted by his brother, was understood to refer to a great ruler in the West.

Possibly the interpreter had already heard of the great victories gained by Buddhism in Central Asia and connected the two arrows with the ideograph for Fu - the Chinese name for Buddha. Ming Ti at once sent his emissaries, eighteen in number, to learn about the faith of Sakya Muni. They returned in AD 67, accompanied by two Indian teachers, Kashiapmadanga and Gobharana, who brought with them the books and images necessary for the propagation of the new religion. A temple was built within the walls of the capital, Loyang (the present Honanfu), and in this way Buddhism obtained its footing in the Celestial Empire. For some time progress was very slow, but from the fourth century onward the Chinese were permitted to take vows as monks, and some of these monks became famous as travelers and scholars.

The last years of the Eastern Han dynasty were years of almost unintermittent turbulence. The various problems of the times had forced a migration of peasants southward; eighteen million or more made the trek in the first two centuries of the new millennium. Strained by these migrants, the people of the south and east rebelled.

The commander of the forces, Tung Cho, was summoned to the capital by the Empress' brother, Ho Tsin, in order to deliver the young Emperor out of the control of the palace eunuchs. He arrived at Loyang only to find Ho Tsin murdered and at once set himself to gain the supreme control. The eunuch faction was overcome, the Emperor and his brother seized, and the latter, under the name of Hsien Ti, was chosen as the puppet to occupy the throne. From this moment Tung Cho displayed an almost unexampled ferocity of temper. Among other acts of tyranny, he deported the whole population of Loyang to the older capital of Changan, and burned the whole of the deserted buildings over an area of fifty square miles. Nemesis overtook him in the form of a conspiracy which led to his assassination in AD 192. The most prominent figure in this conspiracy was Ts'ao Ts'ao, a soldier of obscure origin who, immediately after Tung Cho's death, seized and imprisoned the boy Emperor and assumed royal power under the title of the Duke of Wei.

Meanwhile his pretensions to power were most energetically opposed by another famous soldier of the time, Liu, Pel, a man who had risen from the position of a seller of straw mats and sandals and was now loyally supported by two warrior brothers and a sagacious statesman. The statesman was Chu-leo Liang, who has, in explanation of the celerity of his movements, been credited with anticipating certain modern inventions, through the mention of "oxen of wood and mechanical horses." Some, however, suppose that these magical machines were nothing but - wheelbarrows! The two brothers were Chang Fei and Kuan Yti. The latter is now better known as Kuan Ti, the Chinese God of War. He was in early life a seller of bean curd, and obtained deification on account of his bravery. Beheaded in AD 219, he was canonized under the Sungs in AD 1128 and was made a god under the Mings in AD 1594. By the help of such auxiliaries Liu Pei established himself as ruler in the present province of Szechwan and founded a short-lived dynasty known as the Minor Han or Shu Han.

In AD 220 the Emperor surrendered his throne to Ts'ao-P'i, who declared himself the first Emperor of the Wei Dynasty. Not only had 400 years of Han ended, but the empire it ruled was split in thirds, each governed by its own emperor.

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Page last modified: 02-07-2012 18:29:07 ZULU