Guang Wudi Restores the Han Dynasty

Guang Wudi restored the Han Dynasty afer the interregnum of Wang Mang and his Xin Dynasty, establishing what became known as the Eastern, or Later, Han Dynasty.

Summary of Event

In 25 c.e., Liu Xiu, who received the posthumous title Guang Wudi (shining martial emperor), ascended the throne as the first ruler of the restored Han Dynasty, known as the Eastern, or Later, Han (25-220 c.e.), after the brief interregnum of Wang Mang and his Xin Dynasty (Hsin; 9-23 c.e.). Chinese civilization extended back to the third millennium b.c.e. but was first unified by Shi Huangdi (Shih Huang-ti; 259-210 b.c.e.), who established the Qin Dynasty in 221 b.c.e. It quickly disintegrated after Qin’s death, to be followed by the Han Dynasty under Liu Bang (Liu P’ang; posthumous title Gaodi, r. 206-195 b.c.e.). The era of the Western, or Former, Han, was a glorious period in China’s history, with the Han Empire encompassing much of modern China and extending far into Central Asia. However, internal dynastic quarrels and a series of weak and irresponsible rulers enabled Wang Mang to proclaim himself emperor of the Xin Dynasty. Guang Wudi
Wang Mang
Guo Shentong
Yin Lihua

Wang Mang lacked imperial legitimacy in the opinion of the extensive Liu clan, or the Han family, and although well intentioned, his proposed reforms alienated the wealthy landowners. His difficulties were compounded by natural disasters, notably extensive flooding of the Yellow River, which resulted in the peasant rebellion known as the Red Eyebrows because of the red color they painted on their faces. During the uprising, Wang Mang was murdered in 23 c.e.

Wang’s death, and the termination of his Xin Dynasty, led to an internecine civil war that lasted two years. The Red Eyebrows had gained the support of many members of the Liu-Han family in the uprising, but when the former imperial family could not agree on a single Han candidate to replace Wang Mang, in 25 c.e., Liu Xiu, a provincial landowner, declared himself emperor; he is known to history as Guang Wudi. There were numerous other claimants for the throne, and it took Guang Wudi eleven years to overcome all opposition and consolidate his rule.

The extended violence combined with floods and other natural disasters had severely affected China’s economy, and Guang Wudi’s reconstruction of the irrigation system led to the revival of agriculture. A land survey was initiated, at times in opposition to the largest landholders. To aid the peasants and the general populace, Guang Wudi reduced taxes to less than a tenth of harvests or profits. Agricultural surpluses were set aside to be available for relief in hard times, and the government monopoly was reasserted on liquor, iron, and salt products. Changan (now Xi’an), the old Han capital, was destroyed in the wars, and Guang Wudi moved his capital to Luoyang (Lo-yang), two hundred miles to the east, thus the designation of the Later Han Dynasty as the Eastern Han. With a population of 500,000, Luoyang was the world’s most populous city at the time.

Under earlier Western Han rulers, the ideas of Confucius became paramount to Chinese culture. Guang Wudi strongly identified with Confucianism, and his reign was among the most committed Confucian regimes in China’s long history. The government organized annual ceremonies honoring the memory of Confucius, and Guang Wudi visited Confucius’s birthplace at Qufu. The works of Confucius and the other classic texts were diligently expounded by court-supported scholars, and schools were established with the classic texts from pre-Qin times as the focus of study. Those students who were successful in passing the Imperial Academy examinations were assigned to positions in the lower levels of the government.

Much of the governmental structure had been devastated during the violent upheavals, and Guang Wudi was able to eliminate much of the previously bloated bureaucracy. He was thus better able to center power in his own hands. However, circumstances did not allow him to become an absolute despot. Local and regional government depended on elite families and clans, but under Guang Wudi, some of the formerly powerful families were reduced in influence, and the emperor rewarded members of the lesser gentry, or lesser landlords, with governmental offices and social recognition.

With the resulting order and increasing prosperity in China, Guang Wudi pursued an activist foreign policy, launching military campaigns against China’s neighbors and perceived foes. Vietnam and Korea had experienced Chinese invasions in the past, and as a result of Guang Wudi’s campaigns, his forces reportedly obtained the release of Chinese slaves held in those two regions, an intimation that the Han incursion had met with considerable opposition, as it did under the Trung sisters in Vietnam. Another threat came from the northwest of China proper, or what later became much of the modern-day province of Xinjiang. The Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu), nomads of Turkic origin, had been a threat to civilized China for centuries, one of the reasons for the construction of what later became known as the Great Wall of China. In reality, the Great Wall was a series of walls built over a long period of time as a barrier to invading nomads, beginning as far back as the third century b.c.e., construction on which continued periodically through into the sixteenth century c.e. The wall known as the Great Wall today was built during the Ming Dynasty, in the sixteenth century. During Guang Wudi’s reign, China was able to keep the Xiongnu at bay, thus ensuring trade from the famous Silk Road as well as securing other trade routes to the states of Southeast Asia and India and to the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Internally, peace and order were often maintained throughout China’s long history by royal alliances to powerful families or clans through concubinage and marriage. All Chinese emperors, including Guang Wudi, had concubines. During the Western Han era, there were about three thousand concubines in the royal harem. Among the concubines there were numerous ranks, which Guang Wudi reduced to three: honorable lady, beautiful lady, and chosen lady. A southerner, Guang Wudi, for political reasons, married Guo Shentong, a northerner, who bore him five sons. He later married a southerner, Yin Lihua, possibly because he no longer needed as much northern support. The recurrent danger was that the families of wives and favorite concubines would use their female relatives to gain political influence and economic rewards, often in bitter rivalry with the numerous court eunuchs, and generally to the detriment of the authority of the emperor. However, during his lifetime, Guang Wudi successfully retained control, limiting the ambitions and the threats of both consort families and the eunuch class, a practice that was continued by his eldest son and his heir, Liu Yang, known as the emperor Mingdi (brilliant emperor).


During the Han restoration undertaken by Guang Wudi, order and considerable prosperity returned to China after the decline that had occurred under the last Western Han emperors and Wang Mang of the Xin Dynasty. During Guang Wudi’s reign, China further extended its influence into southern parts of China and beyond, and there was a significant population movement of many Chinese to the south. A combination of military force and a diplomatic policy of divide and conquer reduced the threat of the Xiongnu in the northwest.

However, it took a strong individual such as Guang Wudi to maintain peace and prosperity. Under his successors, particularly after the reign of his son, Mingdi, the long decline of the Eastern Han began. A series of young emperors became subject to the ambitions of dowager empresses and consort families, who gained an overweening influence on the affairs of state. Eunuch power increased, and violence at court was not uncommon. Wealth became overly concentrated in the hands of the agricultural elite at the expense of the peasants. The continuing military costs of defending the frontiers weakened the government’s financial position, and natural disasters again led to peasant uprisings. By 189 c.e., the Han Dynasty had largely collapsed, although its final end did not occur until 220.

Further Reading

  • Harrison, James P. The Communists and Chinese Peasant Rebellions. New York: Atheneum, 1969. A discussion of how Chinese communists have interpreted peasant rebellions, including that of the Red Eyebrows during Guang Wudi’s reign.
  • Paludan, Ann. Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998. A well-written and useful summary of China’s history through biographies of its many emperors.
  • Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens, Michele. The Han Dynasty. Translated by Janet Seligman. New York: Rizzoli, 1982. A general study of Han China.
  • Twitchett, Denis, and John K. Fairbank, eds. The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 b.c.a.d. 220. Vol. 1 in The Cambridge History of China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978. The classic account of Chinese history in fifteen volumes, with the first volume including discussions of the Eastern Han.
  • Wang Zhongshu. Han Civilization. Translated by K. C. Chang. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. A series of lectures on various aspects of the Han Dynasty.

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