Liu Bang Captures Qin Capital, Founds Han Dynasty

Liu Bang captured Xianyang, toppling the Qin Dynasty and founding the Han Dynasty, which was marked by expansion, the adoption of Confucianism as the state religion, and the institution of a bureaucracy based on merit.

Summary of Event

The first commoner to found a Chinese dynasty, Liu Bang came from Pei in northern China. He served as a village official during the oppressive Qin Dynasty (Ch’in; 221-206 b.c.e.), which had unified China. Widespread rebellions erupted when the feared first emperor of Qin, Shi Huangdi, died in 210 and was succeeded by his weak son. Some rebels were former aristocrats whom the Qin had defeated and degraded and who saw an opportunity to regain their lost power and status; others were ordinary people unable to bear Qin oppression any longer. Xiang Yu (Hsiang Yü), a nobleman whose family had long served Chu (Ch’u), a state in southern China, was an example of the former, and Liu Bang represented the common people. Liu joined Xiang in revolt, and the two men agreed that whoever first reached Guanzhong (Kuan-chung), the strategically important area in which the Qin capital was located, would be proclaimed king. Liu Bang
Xiang Yu

In 206 b.c.e., Liu Bang captured the Qin capital Xianyang (Hsien-yang) in the Guanzhong region and accepted the surrender of the last Qin ruler, thus ending that dynasty and beginning the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.). He treated the Qin royal family kindly, spared the city from looting, and won great popular acclaim by declaring an end to the cruel Qin legal code with a simple order: Those who killed would suffer the death penalty, and those who robbed and injured others would be punished according to the gravity of their offenses. When Xiang Yu reached Xianyang later, he ordered the murder of the Qin royal family and permitted his men to loot and burn that city. As leader of the coalition, Xiang Yu proclaimed himself overall ruler of China and gave Liu Bang, his subordinate general, the title of king of Han, a region in northern China. Soon the two men went to war. Although a brilliant general, Xiang Yu alienated his subordinates with his arrogance and cruelty. He lost the civil war by 202 and committed suicide.

In 202 b.c.e., Liu accepted the title huangdi (huang-ti), or emperor, offered by his confederates, and named his new dynasty the Han, which would last until 220 c.e. At his accession, Liu Ji changed his personal name to Bang but was referred to by his title Gaodi, meaning “high emperor” until his death in 195 b.c.e. (after which he was known as Gaozu). His first acts as emperor won him widespread acclaim. He proclaimed an amnesty, demobilized the troops, gave relief to the poor, freed slaves, and lowered the land tax to one-fifteenth of the crop (down from more than half under the Qin). He chose a site near Xianyang, within the strategic passes of Guanzhong, for the capital city and named it Changan (Chang-an, present-day Xi’an). He retained the Qin government system at the central level, but for the government of the entire empire, he chose a compromise between the Qin system of commanderies (provinces) and counties and the pre-Qin system of feudal states. He established commanderies in central China and appointed officials to rule those regions under the direct control of the imperial government, but he created kingdoms and marquisates in the border regions in the east and north and appointed his allies and relatives to rule them under central government supervision.

In domestic affairs, Gaodi followed a laissez-faire policy of limited and frugal government and low taxes that allowed the people to recover and the economy to rebound. More important, he established the precedent that the ruler should act only on the advice of his ministers, which put a real limit on imperial power. Also, Gaodi recognized that the Qin lost the mandate of heaven (the divine approval of rulership) for not putting the people’s interest first and that his success had been due to popular support. Finally, the defeat of Xiang Yu marked the breakdown of the ancient aristocracy. The aristocratic government that had prevailed up to that time would slowly be replaced by imperial institutions based on a meritocracy.

Gaodi had a major foreign relations problem with a northern nomadic people called the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu), related to the Huns who later invaded Europe. The Xiongnu had been defeated by the powerful Qin general Meng Tian (Meng T’ien), who, acting under the Qin emperor, linked existing walls along the northern border and extended them to form the Great Wall. The fall of the Qin and the ensuing civil wars resulted in the crumbling of the defenses built under the Qin and allowed the powerful Xiongnu leader Maodun to raid the Chinese-settled lands along the frontier. In 201 b.c.e., Gaodi personally led a campaign against Maodun, but his mainly infantry army was defeated by Maodun’s cavalry, and he narrowly escaped capture. The two sides made a peace treaty, which established borders and regulated trade; the Han also agreed to give the Xiongnu lavish gifts of silk, grain, and gold. Gaodi also promised to give his only daughter by his wife, the empress Lü, in marriage to Maodun. However, because of the strong objection of the empress, the royal couple did not give their daughter but instead accorded a girl of the Liu clan the rank of princess and sent her as a substitute bride. This peace treaty was renewed many times over the next sixty years. Although the terms cost the Han prestige and money and did not end the Xiongnu’s periodic raids, it did allow the Chinese an opportunity to recover from the previous era of exhausting wars.

The establishing of the Han Dynasty marked the end of the dominance of the Legalist philosophy of the Qin, with its absolutist style of government, cruel laws, high taxes, and attempts to control thought through the proscription of Confucian and other philosophies. It marked a gradual triumph for Confucian philosophy. Although not a Confucian himself, Gaodi had Confucians among his advisers and appointed Confucian scholars to teach his sons and to define court ceremonies and rituals to give dignity to the newly formed government. He also ordered his Confucian advisers to recommend young men of learning and good character to serve in his government. This custom expanded to become the examination system that would be regularized and expanded under his successors of the Han and under the leaders of later dynasties.

Gaodi died in 195 b.c.e. while on campaign against a rebel force. He had several young sons and was succeeded by his eldest son, whose mother was Empress Lü and who took the reign name Huidi (Hui-ti). Huidi reigned for eight years but did not rule. He was thoroughly dominated by his mother, who had become Dowager Empress Lü and appointed her brothers and nephews to powerful positions. On her death, members of her clan attempted to seize power, but their plots were foiled by government leaders who had remained faithful to the memory of Liu Bang, and most members of the Lü clan were put to death.


The Han Dynasty that Liu Bang established would last four hundred years. He is remembered by Chinese historians as a good general and humane ruler who set the precedence that rulers should be mindful of the people’s well-being and should heed the advice of ministers and give them credit for successes. Liu Bang is also admired for being the first commoner to establish a dynasty.

Under Gaodi’s successors, the Han Dynasty gradually expanded territorially to include most of modern China, northern Vietnam, and Korea. Chinese power and prestige extended into much of central Asia. This era in Chinese history coincided with the height of Roman power in the Western world: These two contemporary empires thus dominated most of the Eurasian continent.

In establishing an empire that continued the best features of its predecessor’s institutions minus its oppressive Legalist practices and in adopting Confucianism as the guiding philosophy of the Chinese state, with a non-hereditary bureaucracy whose members were recruited on merit through impartially administered examinations based on Confucian doctrines, the Han Dynasty inaugurated ideals and practices that would continue for two millennia and last to the twentieth century. Because of these achievements, even today about 94 percent of the Chinese call themselves people of the Han. These foundations were established by the first humble-born Chinese, Liu Bang, who became king of Han in 206 and emperor in 202 b.c.e.

Further Reading

  • Ch’u, T’ung-tsu. Han Social Structure. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967. Scholarly and readable work, with documents. Bibliography. Index.
  • Jagchid, Sechin, and Van Jay Symons. Peace, War, and Trade Along the Great Wall: Nomadic-Chinese Interactions Through Two Millennia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. An overview of Chinese-nomadic relations, with a large section devoted to the Han Dynasty.
  • Pizzoli-t’Serstevens, Michele. The Han Dynasty. New York: Rizzoli, 1982. Lavishly illustrated, good maps, and well-presented text. Bibliography. Index.
  • Sage, Steven F. Ancient Sichuan and the Unification of China. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992. On the role of Sichuan from antiquity through the Han Dynasty. Bibliography. Index.
  • 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, 1986. The definitive history of the Qin and Han Dynasties. Glossary. Index. Bibliography.
  • Wang, Zhongshu. Han Civilization. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. Richly illustrated account with recent archaeological information. Bibliography. Index.

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