The Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) was one of the most significant and prosperous periods of cultural change and discovery in the annals of Chinese history. The period saw, in particular, the birth of the Silk Road, the invention of paper, and a revitalised, and more formalised, vigour for Confucian teachings.
The Birth of the Silk Road
The first incarnation of what later became known as the Silk Road was established following the visit of an imperial envoy to regions as far West as modern Afghanistan, in around 130 BC. This early Silk Road stretched from the Han capital of Chang’an, all the way to regions such as India and Parthia. Though a wide range of materials and products were exchanged along the route, the most sought-after commodities at each end were unsurprisingly silk, and perhaps more surprisingly, horses.
Art and Power
As a result of such relative economic and political stability, the Han dynasty was also marked by a number of especially impressive and unique works of art, in particular, those discovered in imperial tombs. Arguably most striking of all the art found in Han dynasty tombs were the jade burial suits uncovered in tombs such as those of Prince Li Sheng of Zhongshan and his wife Dou Wan. The suits were made up of hundreds of jade plaques, fitted together with gold wire or silk thread, and designed to cover the entire body of the deceased. It is thought that the intention was to protect the body from corruption both physically and spiritually, ensuring the occupant of the tomb a sense of immortality. Belief in the positive qualities of jade carried such a weight in Chinese culture that they remain extremely valuable, both monetarily and sentimentally, to this day.
The Invention of Paper
The invention of paper has also been attributed to this period, supposedly realised by a court official and presented to the emperor. Though this story has been somewhat debated, that paper was, at the very least, a relatively new discovery during the Han dynasty would have had a major impact on the dissemination of Han literary and artistic culture.
New Confucianism Teachings
In 136 BC, the Five Classics associated with Confucius became the official foundation of education and scholarship in China for the first time. Though many had followed the teachings and beliefs of Confucius in the preceding centuries, it was only in the Han dynasty that Confucianism received state sponsorship and took a clearer shape as a philosophy, to some extent resembling a religion. So what impact did this have on the functioning of day-today affairs in the Han dynasty? Not solely the preserve of scholars, the new treatment of Confucianism provided moral guidelines for political as well as personal conduct, making loyalty, benevolence and respect for hierarchy an entrenched part of the new political and educational culture.