In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Imperial China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • The Birth of Empire and Its Legitimation
  • Political Philosophy of the Imperial State
  • Politics and Administration
  • Legal System
  • Social Structure and Daily Life
  • Popular Beliefs
  • Literature and Historiography
  • Imperial Expansion and Frontiers
  • Foreign Relations

Chinese Studies Early Imperial China
Wicky W. K. Tse
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0192


The year 221 BCE is of particular symbolic significance in the history of China. It was the year that the kingdom of Qin 秦 formally concluded centuries of warfare with conquest of all rival states at the eastern end of the Eurasian landmass and thus achieved unification of the Chinese realm. The Qin monarch subsequently declared himself the First Emperor, with the hope that his dynasty would last for myriad generations, and proclaimed the establishment of a centralized territorial empire, hence marking the beginning of China’s imperial age that stretched for over two millennia. Contrary to the First Emperor’s expectations, the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE) collapsed shortly after his own death. The institutional foundation that it laid, however, left an indelible impact on and constituted the backbone of the Chinese imperial apparatus that all the subsequent dynasties were to follow fundamentally. It is also said that the name “China” is derived from Qin since it was the first polity that unified the land and spread its fame afar in the ancient world. The immediate succeeding dynasty known as Han 漢 had been one of the power contenders in a civil war that toppled the Qin empire, but it embraced faithfully the Qin institutional legacy. The Han dynasty was commonly subdivided into two halves, namely, the Western/Former Han (202 BCE–9 CE) and the Eastern/Later (used conventionally, but some scholars adopted the term “Latter”) Han (25–220 CE), by an interregnum of the usurper Wang Mang 王莽, who had served as the regent of the Western Han dynasty and eventually created his own that was named Xin 新 (9–23 CE). The two Han dynasties, and the Xin dynasty as well, had their own characters, sometimes quite contrasting, but together their nearly four-century reign further consolidated the imperial bureaucratic system, delineated the core territory of historical China, entrenched the ideological pursuit of a unified China, and fostered the Chinese cultural and ethnic identities. The name Han is to this day used to identify the largest Chinese ethnic group, and their language and script. Given the institutional continuity between the Qin and Han dynasties, which is also a widely discussed topic among modern scholarship, Chinese historiography conventionally pairs them as one epoch as Qin-Han; meanwhile, a kind of modern periodization frames the period with the term “Early Imperial China” to emphasize its formative role in the history of imperial China.

General Overviews

The history of the Qin and Han defines the period of early imperial China, but it also constitutes a crucial component of “Early China,” the long period from the very beginning of the Chinese civilization to the end of the Eastern Han dynasty in early 3rd century CE. The ascendancy of Qin resulted not from a one-stroke military victory but from a series of reforms that the Qin state had carried out since the mid-4th century BCE, when Qin was still a member of the multi-state system with origins tracing back to earlier centuries. Historical overviews of early imperial China therefore should not be limited to the aftermath of 221 BCE but also be extended to things which happened before that remarkable year, in order to understand the background that gave rise to the early empires. To serve this purpose, there are some well written and easily accessible general histories in the field. Li 2013 gives a concise introduction with a long-term perspective to the social and cultural development from Neolithic period to the Han dynasty. Goldin 2018 is a useful handbook for the study of early China in general, containing essays that deal with various aspects of the field. Loewe 2008 serves as a good starting point of studying the institutional connection between pre- and early imperial China. Although still being the most comprehensive account of the Qin-Han period in English language, Twitchett and Loewe 1986 is somewhat outdated in certain topics by the fast-growing archaeological discoveries that have changed the field drastically; Nylan and Loewe 2010 is an attempt to supplement it with newly excavated materials. Lewis 2007 and the three chapters relating to the Qin-Han period in Xiong and Hammond 2019 are also good introductory works. Watanabe 2019 provides a handy and up-to-date account and bibliography of Japanese scholarship. Both Bielenstein 1954 and de Crespigny 2017 are the most detailed studies in general dealing with the Eastern Han dynasty.

  • Bielenstein, Hans. “The Restoration of the Han Dynasty (volumes I, II, III, and IV).” Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 26 (1954).

    Continued in Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 31 (1959), 39 (1967), and 51 (1979). By far the most detailed book-length study of the early history of Eastern Han dynasty. It covers topics on the historiography of the dynasty’s official history (Vol. 1), the civil war that brought down the Wang Mang regime and gave rise to the founding emperor of Eastern Han (Vols. 1–2), social structure and foreign relations (Vol. 3), and the institutions of government (Vol. 4).

  • de Crespigny, Rafe. Fire over Luoyang: A History of the Later Han Dynasty 23-220 AD. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004325203

    The only English-language comprehensive narrative history of Eastern Han written by a senior historian in the field. It provides a chronological account of the rise and fall of the dynasty.

  • Goldin, Paul R. Routledge Handbook of Early Chinese History. London: Routledge, 2018.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315773605

    A collection of essays that gives multidisciplinary treatment of Chinese history from the Neolithic period to the end of the Eastern Han empire, written by a number of experts in the field. In addition to the three chronological chapters on the Qin, Western Han, and Eastern Han dynasties, the topical studies also deal with a wide range of subjects related to the period.

  • Lewis, Mark Edward. The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.

    An introductory work that provides a comprehensive picture of Qin-Han China, covering topics on geographical setting, government, urban and rural life, foreign relations, kinship, religion, literature, and law.

  • Li, Feng. Early China: A Social and Cultural History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    An accessible general history of early China drawing on recent scholarship and archaeological discoveries. It provides a concise account of the long-term social and cultural development of pre-imperial China that finally led to the rise of the early empires. Four chapters of it touch on the Qin and Han dynasties, covering political, military, social, cultural, ideological, and art history.

  • Loewe, Michael. “The Heritage Left to the Empires.” In The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC. Edited by Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy, 967–1032. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    An in-depth chapter examines how the Qin and Han empires adopted and adapted the institutions and intellectual resources that initiated in the pre-imperial times.

  • Nylan, Michael, and Michael Loewe, eds. China’s Early Empires: A Re-appraisal. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    As a supplement to Twitchett and Loewe 1986, this topical volume draws heavily on recent archaeological findings and thus provides new discussions on a range of topics, especially religious, legal, and literary.

  • Twitchett, Denis, and Michael Loewe, eds. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 1, The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 B.C.–A.D. 220. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    The most authoritative English-language overview of the Qin (Wade–Giles: Ch’in) and Han dynasties by the leading scholars at the time. It provides a chronological account of the political development of Qin-Han period and specific topics on foreign relations, institutions, society, economy, intellectual movements, and religious beliefs.

  • Watanabe Yoshihiro 渡邉義浩. Kan Teikoku—400 nen no kōbō (漢帝国—400年の興亡). Tokyo: Chūōkōron-shinsha, 2019.

    A succinct general history of the four-century reign of Han, and a handy reference to Japanese scholarship of the field. Intellectual movements constitute the main thread of the work that runs through the political and cultural development of the two Han dynasties, with particular focus on the theme of the formation of Classical China and Confucian state.

  • Xiong, Victor Cunrui, and Kenneth J. Hammond. Routledge Handbook of Imperial Chinese History. London: Routledge, 2019.

    A handbook that gives concise treatment of the history of imperial China, from 221 BCE to 1912 CE. Three chapters are on the early imperial period, namely, “The Qin dynasty” (by Charles Sanft, pp. 12–24), “The Western Han” (Liang Cai, pp. 25–39), and “The Eastern Han” (by Rafe de Crespigny, pp. 38–53), followed by a bibliography listing some essential modern scholarship.

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