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A Tale of Two Powers

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By Mike EdwardsPhotographs by O. Louis Mazzatenta

As mighty in the East two thousand years ago as the Romans were in the West, the Han emperors—brilliant, cunning, and cruel—left a mark on China that endures today.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

"At last the whole world is mine," the first Han emperor, Liu Bang, is said to have declared as he claimed the imperial throne in 202
B.C., the first of 27 Lius to reign. Far from the whole world, his writ extended across a territory only about half as large as today's China. Tough, and common as his surname—China swarms with people named Liu—he despised learned Confucians, whom he readily identified by their distinctive peaked hats. According to an incident recounted by a famous Han historian, Sima Qian, when Liu Bang encountered one of these worthies he "immediately snatches the hat from the visitor's head and pisses in it."
Liu Bang had been a minor official in the previous dynasty, the Qin (or Chin, from which "China" derives). The Qin was the first dynasty to weld China's oft-warring kingdoms into a single state. It was also cruel and soon collapsed. With the throne up for grabs, Liu Bang raised an army. His most formidable opponent, a general named Xiang Yu, captured Liu Bang's father and sent Liu Bang an ultimatum: "Surrender or I will boil your venerable sire alive!"
Liu Bang replied merely: "Send me a cup of the soup."
Bravado won out; Dad wasn't stewed, and Liu Bang finally crushed Xiang Yu, who then, to deal with the humiliation, committed suicide with his one remaining concubine.
The victor put his capital in the city of Changan ("eternal peace"), whose ruins lie today in the suburbs of its bustling, tourist-packed successor, Xian ("western peace"). In those ruins on a June afternoon, I stood atop a mound 50 feet (20 meters) high—the site of Liu Bang's palace. Portions of Changan's city wall, which encompassed 13 square miles (33 square kilometers), poked from fields where peasants were reaping wheat, some with scythes, some at the wheels of combines.
Liu Bang, also known as Gaozu, "high ancestor," (symbolic names were often posthumously conferred on emperors) called his palace Lasting Joy. Joy? I thought I heard screams from the ruins. After his death in 195
B.C. his empress, Lu Zhi, tried to hijack the empire for her own family. She had several Liu Bang sons born to concubines murdered and for good measure mutilated his favorite mistress and had her tossed into a privy.
Routing other Liu kin and loyal generals from their fiefdoms—the spoils of rulership—she replaced them with her own relatives. Fifteen years passed before the Liu clan managed to regain control, enthroning a surviving Liu Bang son, Emperor Wen. The Lius then wiped out all the empress's kin they could get their hands on.
Oh, the Han women! This wouldn't be the last time an empress or concubine colluded in a dangerous political game.

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Flashback to 1920s China when a kang, a heated masonry platform possibly originating from the Han dynasty period, served as a seat by day and a warm bed by night.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Many of us recognize the black-and-white circular yin and yang symbol. But where does it come from? And what is the philosophy behind it? The roots of this philosophy grew in ancient China around the third century B.C. as an attempt to explain the cyclical nature of the universe. During the Han dynasty many people believed that a single principle, composed of two opposing forces, yin and yang, compelled change in the world.
Yin does not exist without yang. Each completes the other. Yin represents the dark, passive, female principle, and yang the light, active, male principle. Alternating pressures of yin and yang exist in a harmonious balance, like the waxing and waning of the moon, or the ebb and flow of the tide. Life and death can be explained as an unceasing cycle, just like seasonal plants flower, decay, and enrich the soil for future plants and trees.
The Han wanted to make philosophical sense of the natural world. At some point yin and yang cosmology blended with another school of thought, which viewed the world in terms of five distinct elements. These five elements—metal, wood, water, fire, and
earth—represented the five forces of the natural world. It was thought that the alternate pressures of yin and yang occur within these five stages. The Han tried to understand change in the physical and celestial worlds so they could better explain reversals in the human world.
Yin and yang philosophy still permeates Chinese thought today in areas like astrology, literature, art, and medicine.
—Christy Ullrich
Did You Know?

Related Links
China Institute Programs for Educators
This website includes a lesson plan for high school teachers, and offers some interesting comparisons between the Han and Roman Empires.

Han Dynasty Historical Website
Explore the history, art, and cultural artifacts from the Han dynasty.
Han Dynasty Emperors
Discover the ruling styles of various Han emperors.


Ch'en, Kenneth. Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey. Princeton University Press, 1964.

Fairbank, John King. China: A New History. Harvard University Press, 1992.

Fairbank, John King, Edwin O. Reischauer, and Albert M. Craig. East Asia: Tradition and Transformation. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973.

Powers, Martin J. Art and Political Expression in Early China. Yale University Press, 1991.

Soucek, Svat. A History of Inner Asia. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Twitchett, Denis, and Michal Loewe, eds. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. I. Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Watson, Burton, ed. Records of the Grand Historian of China: From the Shih Chi of Ssuma Ch'ien. Columbia University Press, 1961

Yeng, Xiaoneng, ed. The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology. Yale University Press, 1999.

Zhongshu, Wang. Han Civilization. Yale University Press, 1982.


NGS Resources
Mazzatenta, O. Louis. "Rising to Life: Treasures of Ancient China," National Geographic (October 2001), 48-67.

Mazzatenta, O. Louis. "A Chinese Emperor's Army for an Eternity," National Geographic (August 1992), 114-30. 

Madden, Robert W. "China Unveils Her Newest Treasures," National Geographic (December 1974), 848-57.


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