So much opposition was generated to the Qin's centralization measures and its heavy requisitions for war and public works projects that it in turn was overthrown by the Han dynasty (202– 220). The Han established a stable and highly centralized government on the Qin model, but it was somewhat more sensitive to the welfare of the peasantry, a perennial Confucian concern. The apogee of Han power was reached under Han Wudi (Han Wu-ti, r. 140–87), who waged war against the nomadic Hsiung-nu tribes to the north, moved westward to Central Asia to gain control of the Silk Road upon which goods passed between China and the Roman world, and established a Chinese colony in northern Korea.

Han dealings with barbarian neighbors, as well as subsequent Chinese relations with these peoples, were conducted within the tribute system. Under this system China granted diplomatic recognition and trading privileges only to those states and peoples acknowledging its superiority, symbolized by a payment of tribute. If Qin saw the triumph of Legalism, Han saw the advancement of Confucian doctrine to preeminence. Bureaucratic candidates were examined in Confucian wisdom, fulfilling the Confucian dictum that only morally superior men were fit for office. Under the Han, China began to outstrip other civilizations in technology, developing the first true paper, protoporcelain, and a primitive seismograph.

The end of the Han came largely as the result of economic woes — powerful landlords had shifted too much land from the tax rolls, thereby making unbearable the tax burden on the poorer farmers — and intense political factionalism at court. The resulting economic hardships and governmental disintegration led to massive peasant rebellion and the dissolution of the empire. Then commenced 300 years known as the Period of Disunion (220–589), during which North China was ruled by a series of semi-Sinicized barbarian peoples and the South was settled by Chinese colonial regimes.

With the breakdown of the Han order came a disillusionment with Confucian emphasis on the selection of morally upright men for office and a return to aristocratic domination of government. Although the period was one of deteriorating administrative quality, fierce racial tensions, and physical destruction, it was also notable for cultural developments, especially the transformation of Indian Buddhism into a Chinese religion. Technological innovations included the invention of the wheelbarrow and gunpowder.

 

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