Han China and Ancient Rome

All Grades, Arts & Literature, Economics, Government, History, Science/Technology, Society, Curriculum Guide
  • Left: Roman in his toga (Ancient Rome); Right: A pair of horsemen (Eastern Han)

With the participation of teachers from all over the U.S., the Teach China program develops multi-disciplinary curriculum units aligned with national standards.

In July 2001, Teach China conducted a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute, “China and the World.” The institute offered a comprehensive survey of China‘s relations with the non-Chinese world from earliest times to the end of the twentieth century. Historian Morris Rossabi was the main instruscience and technology, the visual arts, literature, and music were some of the specialized areas of focus. Participant teachers designed units for the institute.

Teacher Resources

(Source: Curriculum from China and the World).
Comparing cultures is an important part of studying world history. It’s a skill students can cultivate in class discussion, through reading, by exploring the web, or in writing. Comparing cultures involves the ability to compare and contrast different experiences, beliefs, motives, traditions, hopes, and fears of people from various groups and backgrounds. . . . (National Center 1996: 7)

This lesson, a broad comparison between the Roman Empire and the roughly contemporaneous Han Dynasty in China, is intended to encourage the development of such skills. It discusses topics such as geography, politics, the expansion of empire, and social organization. The last section is a list of suggested sources for teachers and students.

Why is the Roman Empire important? According to Peter S. Wells, The Roman Empire is one of the world’s great unifying forces, linking peoples militarily, politically, economically, and culturally, from Northern Britain and the Straits of Gibralter in the west, to the Upper Euphrates and southern Egypt in the east. Rome’s trade connections reached even further afield – north to Finland, south to sub-Saharan Africa, and east to India. The empire’s effects are apparent in the languages, customs, and legal systems in many European countries. . . . All of the Romance languages – Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian – are descendants of the Latin of the Roman Empire. (Wells 1999: 18-19)

Studying Latin was an essential part of European and American education well into the twentieth century and, for many educated people, Rome represented an ideal. George Washington, for instance, was compared to the Roman statesman and general Cincinnatus (sixth century BCE). Legend says that, like Washington, Cincinnatus left his farm to lead Rome during a period of crisis. When the enemy was defeated, he gave up power and went back to farming.

More than two thousand years ago, the Greek statesman and historian Polybius (c200-c118 BCE) said that there can surely be nobody so petty or apathetic in his outlook that he has no desire to discover by what means and under what system of government the Romans succeeded in bringing under their rule almost the whole of the inhabited world. (Histories 1.78; Kebric 2001: 1)

The center of this multi-ethnic empire was the city of Rome. Like the hub of a wheel, Rome brought together people and goods from all over the world. Even silk from China found its way there. A Roman statesman and orator living during the so-called “Golden Age of the Roman Empire” in the second century CE tells us that Around the [the Mediterranean] lie the continents far and wide, pouring an endless flow of goods [to Rome]… One can see so many cargoes from India, or, if you wish, from Arabia…, that one may surmise that the trees there have been left permanently bare, and that those people must come here to beg for their own goods whenever they need anything. Clothing from Babylonia and the luxuries from barbarian lands arrive… Egypt, Sicily, and the civilized part of Africa are [Rome’s] farms. The arrival and departure of ships never ceases, so that it is astounding that the sea – not to mention the harbor – suffices for the merchantmen… all things converge here, trade, seafaring, agriculture, metallurgy, all the skills which exist and have existed, anything that is begotten and grows. (To Rome 11-13; Kebric 2001: 2)

At the other end of the Eurasian continent, China became a unified empire when the Qin state defeated the last of its rivals in 221 BCE. The dynasty it founded lasted less than two decades. Its successor was the long-lived Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE).

In his Shiji (Records of History, c100 BCE), a book that was the pattern for later dynastic histories, the Han writer Sima Qian (145-c85 BCE) describes the early decades of the dynasty.

When the Han dynasty came to power, it inherited the evils left by Qin. The able-bodied men were all away with the army, while the old and underaged busily transported supplies for them. There was much hard work and little wealth. The Son of Heaven himself could not find four horses of the same color to draw his carriage, many of his generals and ministers were reduced to riding about in ox carts, and the common people had nothing to lay away in their storehouses. (Watson 1961: 79)

At this time China was exhausted from the rebellion that overthrew Qin and the wars that followed between contenders to the throne. Sima Qian next describes Han society in his own lifetime. Sima lived under the rule of Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE), at a time when China had become prosperous and government power was expanding.

By the time the present emperor had been on the throne a few years, a period of over seventy years had passed since the founding of the Han. During that time the nation had met with no major disturbances so that, except in times of flood or drought, every person was well supplied and every family had enough to get along on. The granaries in the city and the countryside were full and the government treasuries were running over with wealth… Horses were to be seen even in the streets and lanes of the common people… (Watson 1961: 81)

During the reign of Emperor Wu, China expanded its borders north to modern-day Korea and south to what is now Vietnam. It also sought allies and alliances in Central Asia to counter the Xiongnu, its nomadic enemy along the northern frontier. This age of prosperity and expansion could be compared to the Golden Age of the Roman Empire.

One important difference between Rome and the Han period, however, centers on the question of cultural cohesion. Which society established a common culture as a result of its conquests? In the words of Patricia Ebrey, Perhaps because of the Chinese script, it is much easier to talk about a common culture among the elite in Han China than in the Roman Empire. As the influence of Chinese culture increased in frontier areas with the presence of Chinese garrisons and magistrates, members of the local population learned to read Chinese… Even if Latin became a lingua franca in the Roman Empire, other written languages continued to be used… (Ebrey 1996: 85)

One strong argument for Ebrey’s point is the continuity of Chinese civilization: Although the Roman Empire has vanished, Chinese culture still flourishes today, eighteen hundred years after the fall of the Han.

The Han dynasty is a major element in this continuity: The establishment of Chinese cultural, social, and political institutions during Han was so important and enduring an accomplishment that even today the Chinese call themselves “people of Han.”

All materials © 2001 China Institute in America. All rights reserved.

Comparing Two Classical Civilizations

Reading and class discussion comparing Han China with the Roman Empire.

Students will compare aspects of government, economics, and culture in Han China and the Roman Empire. The ultimate objective will be for students to identify the similarities and differences in these two societies in order to understand the nature of cultural continuity, not only in ancient civilizations but as part of the modern world.

Comparing the similarities and differences between Han China and the Roman Empire is an excellent way to develop students’ ability to make historical comparisons and to see how different societies respond to similar global processes.

Introduction to the Unit
A. Display a map of Eurasia and point out the civilizations of the classical period, the time spans involved, and the general characteristics of the classical world (500 BCE to 500 CE).

B. Have students define the term “empire” and identify the major empires of the classical period. Some issues that could be used in creating a working definition of “empire” are:

  • Empires may be made up of different peoples with different cultures.
  • Empires are held together by force but can achieve long periods of peace.
  • Political institutions (legislative bodies, bureaucracies) help empires maintain their power.
  • Roads and other public works (canals, walls, aqueducts) contribute to the making of empires.
  • Military technology defends empires against their neighbors.

Can Han China and Rome both fit under the same definition of “empire?” Which of the above apply equally to China and Rome? Which can be applied only to one?

Development of Lesson
A. Explain to students that they will be comparing the development of the Roman Empire with that of Han China between the years 200 BCE and 200 CE. The teacher will present the main points of similarity and difference using the comparative notes that follow. Teachers may also use a Venn diagram. A “Chronological Table: Important Dates in the History of Han China and the Roman Empire” is included as well to help provide background for the lesson.

B. When the comparison is completed, ask students to predict which culture/empire was more likely to survive over a long period? The teacher may have students write an essay and then discuss their conclusions in class. The “Suggested Sources for Student Research” at the end of this lesson includes a useful list of books, selections from books, and web sites.

Sources Cited in the Previous Sections

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. 1996.
The Cambridge Illustrated History of China.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kebric, Robert B. (ed.). 2001.
Roman People.
Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co.

National Center for History in the Schools. 1996.
National Standards for History.
University of California, Los Angeles: National Center for History in the Schools.

Watson, Burton (tr.). 1961.
Records of the Grand Historian of China,Vol.2.
New York: Columbia University Press.

Wells, Peter S. 1999.
The Barbarians Speak — How the Conquered Peoples Shaped Roman Europe.
Princeton: Princeton University Press.

(Source: Curriculum from China and the World).

Comparing Two Classical Civilizations

This set of notes should serve as a teacher’s guide and as a point of departure for further study and reading. Teacher and students (individually or in teams) should develop a chart or table of similarities and differences based on their own research, using the list of suggested sources.

rome_10Pic:Head of a Roman woman

Size and Location
In the second century CE, China controlled about 1.5 million square miles of territory.

In the second century CE, Rome controlled about 1.7 million square miles of territory.

China’s first recorded census (2 CE) gives a figure of 58 million; Rome’s population was about the same.

Rome’s heartland was confined to Italy, with a population of some 3 million. Ethnically speaking, the rest of the empire was largely non-Roman.

During Han, most of the population lived on the North China Plain. The census figure given above, derived from counting peasant households, is restricted to Chinese.

Pic: Chariot with a man carrying a battle-axe (Eastern Han)

Government and Rulership
Before 27 BCE, Rome was a republic. In theory, power resided with the people who elected magistrates. In reality, the government of Rome would have been accurately described as an oligarchy run by the Senate. Although it could not pass laws or elect magistrates, the Senate was the main governing body.

During the late Republic, the Senate’s power was challenged by the rise of military strong men. Competition between generals led to civil war (49 BCE) and the eventual fall of the Republic. One of these generals, Julius Caesar, became dictator of Rome in 44 BCE. His adopted great-nephew, Octavian, brought peace to Rome and became its first emperor.

Han was heir to the short-lived Qin state that had succeeded in unifying China in 221 BCE. The first ruler of Qin established the title that we refer to in English as “emperor.” In theory, the power of a Chinese emperor was absolute; in reality, however, he was subject to various checks on his authority by both high officials and members of the imperial family.

The Romans practiced emperor worship solely in the case of dead emperors. In addition, only certain emperors were accorded divine honors, and always after death.

In other parts of the Empire, however, local customs merged with Roman ones. In Egypt, for instance, emperor worship was practiced more widely. This was because the Roman office of emperor combined with the Egyptian notion of Pharoah-as-sun-god.

Chinese emperors were not considered divine beings. The emperor was called the “Son of Heaven” and was responsible for conducting sacrifices to both Heaven and Earth, the only forces possessing power greater than his. The word “Heaven” referred more or less to what we would call “nature”: the cycles of the seasons, the succession of day and night, the motions of the stars and planets. During the first millenium BCE, the concept of the “Mandate of Heaven” was applied to the ruler: If an emperor oppressed the people, Heaven could withdraw a dynasty’s right to govern.

Expansion and Empire
By the early second century CE, Rome controlled the entire Mediterranean coastline. In the west, Roman rule extended northwards to “barbarian” territory, mostly using prominent geographic features to establish boundaries. The Roman frontier along the Danube River in northern Europe was an important example. The Danube enabled Roman ships to supply border garrisons along the river. In the east, client kingdoms such as Armenia were interspersed between Roman provinces and barbarian territory.

During the Former Han (206 BCE- CE 9), colonies were established in what later became Korea. There was also a Chinese military presence in the Red River valley of present-day northern Vietnam. In addition, the Han set up military outposts along China’s northern frontiers and in Central Asia.

The Han empire’s greatest adversaries were the nomadic Xiongnu people living along its northern frontiers. During the second century BCE, expensive military campaigns were mounted in order to control them. Chinese records tell us that hundreds of thousands of soldiers were involved.

The Germanic tribes that attacked Rome never united, but their great numbers made them difficult to assimilate into the Empire.

The Romans inherited the concept of citizenship — the idea that the state extends legal protection to certain people in exchange for taxes and other services — from the Greeks. Originally Roman citizenship was limited to those who lived in the city of Rome. It was gradually granted to subject peoples, beginning with most of Italy during the first century CE.

In 212 CE, universal citizenship was granted to all freeborn members of the Empire. By that time, however, the value of citizenship was greatly eroded. More important was the distinction between members of the upper class (honestiores) and those of the lower class (humiliores).

The concept of “citizenship” and “citizens” was a new idea imported to China from the West in the second half of the nineteenth century. It became an important topic of discussion among reformist thinkers who contrasted it to the web of family and local loyalties that had held pre-modern Chinese society together.

Chinese agriculture was based on the production of crops such as wheat and rice. In Han times, state-sponsored irrigation and plows with features that would be unknown in Europe until the Middle Ages increased output. The wheelbarrow first came into use during Han. This important tool was unknown in Europe until after 1000 CE.

In order to escape heavy tax burdens, small farmers often gave their land to powerful magnates and became tenants on their estates. This happened with even greater frequency during the last century of Han rule, when famine, floods, and warfare disrupted the lives of the common people.

Pic:Farmers sowing seed and harvesting (Eastern Han)

In general, Roman agriculture of the same period was far less advanced than in China. Except in Egypt, irrigation was seldom employed.

Slave labor was an essential feature of Roman society and economy from the second century BCE onward. Slaves were employed in many ways. They could be menial agricultural laborers or perhaps tutors in upper-class families. Owners could even give slaves the capital to start up businesses. Slavery gave the upper classes the necessary leisure to maintain their lifestyle.

Although slavery existed in Han China, its importance was slight compared to its role in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Trade was always considered a second-rate occupation compared to landholding, although it was practiced in all periods of Roman history. Senators, for instance, were strictly forbidden from participating in commerce, but devised ways to get around the prohibition.

Some areas specialized in the production of certain goods (Egypt had a monopoly on the production of papyrus, for instance), but most of the Empire was independent, divided into self-sufficient agricultural units.

Pic: Residence of a government official (Eastern Han)

Trade in luxuries such as silk and spices was mainly confined to providing for the elite. Silk imported across Central Asia from China was coveted by the Roman upper classes. The government’s interest in the movement of goods was confined to grain and other supplies for the city of Rome and for army units stationed throughout the Empire. The “grain dole” for the common people was an essential element of domestic policy.

In China, agriculture was called the “fundamental occupation.” Trade, by contrast, was officially disparaged. Merchants amassed fortunes but were looked upon as people whose wealth enabled them to transgress social boundaries. The Han government instituted monopolies on key products such as salt and iron that impeded the growth of private enterprise.

The Spread of Chinese and Roman Culture
Roman civilization emerged from the multicultural environment of the Italian peninsula. During the first millennium BCE, Latin was only one of the Italic languages spoken in Italy. During this time, Rome’s development was deeply influenced by the Etruscans, a highly urbanized north Italian people, and by the Greeks, who established trading colonies in southern Italy.

The multi-state system that preceded the unification of China in 221 BCE encouraged people to assert separate ethnic identities as well as to display cultural allegiance to the so-called “Central States” along the Yellow River valley in the north. This northern culture was represented by the culturally brilliant but politically and militarily insignificant Zhou kings.

In the second half of the first millennium BCE, Chinese writers showed a well-developed sense of how various groups differed from the Chinese in language and customs, how some were fully “barbarian” and others less so. One state, that of Chu in the south, was as cultured, prosperous, and powerful as any of the “Central States.”

During this time groups previously considered “barbarian” gradually came to adopt Chinese values and institutions.

The establishment of military colonies throughout the empire helped spread Roman and Hellenistic culture. The Latin language was a unifying feature, at least at the bureaucratic level. Latin was especially important among people in the provinces, many of whom wished to increase their social standing by identifying with the Empire.

One of the key elements in the spread of Chinese culture was the Chinese writing system. Local peoples who learned to read and write Chinese tapped into a common elite culture regardless of the local dialect or language that they spoke.

The Han dynasty adopted Confucianism as state orthodoxy. Its values, particularly the importance attached to filial piety, helped link central government to both local elites and the common people.

In addition, the idea that human beings were part of an orderly, interconnected universe, and that good government echoed the regular workings of such a universe, cemented the notion of a single shared world — what the Chinese called “All-Under-Heaven.” Although these values became widespread, they never totally replaced local beliefs based on folklore, magic, and age-old custom.

Rome was culturally pluralistic. The diverse societies that Rome colonized would eventually take part in creating the map of early medieval Europe.

Even before Rome became an empire, it began to absorb and appropriate Greek culture. Eventually Rome controlled Greece and, further afield, areas that had been under Greek cultural influence since the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE. This region was truly multicultural, many places retaining a high degree of Greek culture.

The subject peoples of Rome were widely divergent in nearly every way. Rome was, in general, tolerant of local cultures and governments. This extended even to non-Roman religious beliefs as long as their practice exhibited no disobedience toward the empire. Refusal by the early Christians, for instance, to sacrifice to the emperor or to Roman gods was considered disrespectful.

Social Organization
The Roman elite was a landed gentry living on the income provided by their estates. They dominated society and staffed the government of the Empire.

Roman society placed a great value on loyalty both to the family and to the state: The term pietas (“dutifulness”) describes these virtues. A member of the elite was constantly exhorted to be mindful of his father’s and grandfathers’ achievements and, if possible, to exceed them. At a Roman funeral, ancestors’ masks were displayed and their deeds described and praised.

Individuals could win honor only in the context of public service. During the second and first centuries BCE, most of the magistrates and members of the Senate came from the same core of noble families. These families controlled the operations of the state through the Senate.

Early Chinese thinkers divided society into four social classes: the literate elite who served as government bureaucrats, farmers, merchants, and craftsmen. The vast majority of the population were farmers.

During the Han, social prestige and political power became closely associated with Confucian values and learning. The Confucian classics became the standard for public and private behavior. Filial piety — the respect and obedience owed to parents by their children — was at the core of the Confucian value system. These values remained unchallenged until the early twentieth century.

The Han was a large empire and required a bureaucracy to govern it. Official posts were filled in a variety of ways. Although people in government service could recommend relatives for office, it was also possible for those who didn’t come from official families to obtain posts. In Confucian terms, the ideal governing class was based on merit rather than birth or wealth.

Chronology of the Traditional Chinese Dynasties

1000 BCE
Early villages occupy site of Rome.

753 BCE
Traditional date for the founding of Rome.

750-550 BCE
Greek colonies spread throughout the Mediterranean.

One of the main reasons for Greek expansion was trade, particularly for raw materials such as metals.

Early seventh century BCE
Etruscans develop an alphabet based on Greek.

The Etruscans established the first major civilization on the Italian peninsula. The Romans inherited aspects of Etruscan religion and art, as well as their alphabet.

Seventh to sixth century BCE
The earliest examples of the Roman alphabet date from this period.

The Roman alphabet is the most widely used writing system in the world.

616-510 BCE
The Etruscans rule Rome.

Eastern Zhou: 770-256 BCE
771 BCE
Barbarian invasions cause the capital to be moved east.

Eastern Zhou is traditionally divided into the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods. During these centuries, the power of the Zhou kings gradually diminishes and they become mere figureheads.

Spring and Autumn Period: 722-479 BCE
China is divided up into many small states, constantly at war with one another.

551-479 BCE
Master Kong (Kongfuzi, known in the west as “Confucius”) lived at the end of the tumultuous Spring and Autumn period.

Confucius contrasted the political violence of the Spring and Autumn period with what he saw as a Golden Age of Chinese history: the Western Zhou dynasty, c. 1000 BCE. The rulers of that time were models of political unselfishness.

Confucius and his followers were teachers of a new class of men who arose at this time. They were the people who filled the bureaucracies needed to govern the increasingly large states that developed during the following centuries.

Republic: 509-31 BCE
Ancient historians believed that the Republic began with the overthrow of the last of seven kings, an evil tyrant. The Romans replaced the last king with two elected officials who were called “consuls.”

272 BCE
Rome becomes the major power in Italy.

264-241 BCE
First Punic War fought between Rome and Carthage.

Carthage was a great commercial city in North Africa. Its sphere of influence in Sicily collided with the expansion of Rome. This was the start of Rome’s empire building.

229 BCE
Romans establish themselves in Asia Minor.

218-201 BCE
Second Punic War. Hannibal invades Italy by crossing the Alps.

202 BCE
Hannibal is defeated.

149-146 BCE
Third Punic War. Carthage is destroyed and North Africa becomes a Roman province.

146 BCE
Roman rule is extended to Greece.

133 BCE
Rome controls entire Mediterranean.

82-78 BCE
Sulla is dictator.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla won Rome’s first civil war and became dictator. His reforms strengthened the Senate and Republic.

58-49 BCE
Caesar conquers Gaul; invades Britain.

46-44 BCE
Caesar is dictator.

44 BCE
Julius Caesar is assassinated.

The name “Caesar” comes down to us meaning a supreme ruler: “kaiser” in German, “tsar” in Russian, “qaysar” in the Islamic world.

Warring States Period: 479-221 BCE
There are now seven large states compared to the hundreds that existed during the Spring and Autumn. It was a time of almost constant warfare that ended with one state, the Qin, unifying China in 221.

Commerce and the use of money expands. Regions connected by newly built or improved roads become economically interdependent.

During this period the major strands of Chinese philosophy — Confucian, Daoist, and Legalist — developed their ideas and argued over which body of thought could bring peace to the world.

Fourth century BCE
Shang Yang initiates economic and political reforms that make the state of Qin powerful.

The reforms of Shang Yang, focusing on “enriching the state and strengthening the military,” would come to be called “Legalism.” They involved systematic collection of taxes on agriculture and a household registration system enabling the state to mobilize the entire population for state projects. These would eventually enable Qin to unify China.

Roman Empire: 31 BCE-476 CE

27 BCE
Octavian becomes Augustus Caesar, first emperor of Rome.

Octavian was responsible for the Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”), a period lasting from his reign to that of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE). His reorganization of the Empire allowed it to survive for centuries.

Virgil and Ovid, two of Rome’s greatest writers, lived during the reign of Augustus. Virgil wrote the Aeneid, the Roman national epic telling of the founding of the city. Ovid’s most famous work is the Metamorphoses, a long poem based on mythological sources.

9 CE
Battle of the Teutoborg Forest.

This disastrous defeat of Roman legions in Northern Germany causes the Empire to establish its borders along the Rhine River and not push further east.

Death of Augustus.

c. 30
Crucifixion of Jesus.

Conquest of Britain.

Reign of Nero. Nero was the fifth emperor. His name is synonymous with personal extravagance. When Nero was overthrown, rival generals put forth their own candidates for emperor, and civil war ensued.

First persecution of Christians.

Destruction of Jerusalem.

Pompeii and Herculaneum destroyed by eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

Conquest of lands between Upper Rhine and Danube Rivers.

Reigns of the Five “Good” emperors, beginning with Trajan.

The Empire reaches its greatest extent and remains stable for about 150 years.

More than twenty generals are raised to the throne by their troops.

This was a period of constant war and invasion.

First large-scale barbarian invasions.

Raids by Germanic peoples such as the Goths caused the Romans to pull back their frontiers.

Reign of Diocletian.Diocletian reformed the military as well as the tax system that paid for it. In 286, he divided the Empire into East and West to make defense easier.

Christianity becomes the official religion under Constantine.

Capital moved to Constantinople.

c. 370
The migration of the Huns from the East pushes other tribal peoples against the Empire’s frontiers.

The Visigoths, under Alaric, pillage Rome.

The Visigoths attacked the Roman Empire and established kingdoms in what is modern-day France and Spain.

Rome sacked by the Vandals, a Germanic people who ruled in North Africa during the fifth century.

Western Empire completely controlled by barbarians.

Qin:221-206 BCE

221 BCE
Qin defeats its last rival. The King of Qin becomes “First August Emperor” upon unification of China.

During the third century Qin waged almost constant warfare with its rivals.

Its bureaucracy enabled Qin to collect taxes and mobilize large numbers of people. Qin laws excavated from a third century tomb give the impression that the state intended to micromanage the lives of its people.

c. 209-174 BCE
Reign of Maodun, ruler of the Xiongnu confederation.

The Xiongnu were a nomadic pastoral people living along China’s northern frontiers. During the Han, Xiongnu raids were China’s major foreign policy problem.

Western (or Former) Han: 202 BCE-9 CE

202 BCE
Liu Bang (Han Gaozu, r. 202-195), a commoner, founds dynasty.

Qin lasted only 14 years. Its harsh laws resulted in widespread dissatisfaction and rebellion.

151 BCE
Xiongnu empire splits into an eastern and western horde.

141-87 BCE
The reign of Emperor Wu.

Emperor Wu’s aggressive policies extended Chinese influence to southern China and areas of modern day Korea and Vietnam. He sought allies and alliances in Central Asia to counter the Xiongnu. During his reign, Confucianism is adopted as state orthodoxy.

136 BCE
Academic posts established for scholars specializing in the Five Confucian Classics.

104 BCE
The Grand Inception Astronomical Reforms enable prediction of eclipses and planetary motion.

2 CE
Total registered population is over 57 million.

The majority of Chinese live in the north, particularly on the Yellow River plain.

Centuries of agriculture and the drainage of swampland so modify the landscape that man is now the dominant mammal on the North China Plain.

9 CE
Wang Mang proclaims the end of Han rule and takes the throne.

Wang Mang was related to the imperial family by marriage. He rose to power by taking advantage of the inability of the imperial family to enthrone a strong emperor (of fifteen Eastern Han rulers, eight were children).

First century
The Yellow River overflows its banks and large parts of the north China plain are under water. This disaster contributed to Wang Mang’s fall.

Overthrow of Wang Mang.

Restoration of dynasty under Emperor Guangwu.

Eastern (or Later) Han: 25-220
For most of the first century, the restored dynasty was politically stable and prosperous.

Xiongnu empire disintegrates.

First evidence of the practice of Buddhism in China.

The end of the first century marks the beginning of Han decline. Government was weakened by power struggles between officials, the families of emperor’s wives, and palace eunuchs.

The invention of paper is reported to the throne.

Yellow Turban uprising.

The Yellow Turbans were a Daoist-inspired anti-dynastic movement which rose in response to famine, epidemics, natural disasters, and the political decline of the dynasty.

Powerful families and officials unite to massacre palace eunuchs.

Abdication of last Han emperor.

The last Han emperor was a figurehead controlled by one of the military strongmen that arose during the second century.


(Source: Curriculum from China and the World).

Comparing Two Classical Civilizations


Pic:Two tigers (Western Han)


  • The Costumer’s Manifesto. Ancient Roman Empire Costume Links (http://costumes.org/pages/romanlnx.htm)
    This site lists dozens of sources on Roman dress, textiles, armor and weapons, jewelry, etc.
  • The Dalton School. Rome Project. (http://www.dalton.org/groups/Rome).

    This large site includes sections on literature, the military, archaeology, political life, geography, etc.

  • DIR. De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors. (http://www.roman-emperors.org/)

    De Imperatoribus Romanis means “On the Roman Emperors.” This site contains biographical essays, maps, and links to other sites. It is still under construction, but will eventually be an on-line encyclopedia of all Roman rulers.

  • Highlands Ranch High School. Mr. Sedivy’s History Classes: Ancient Rome. (http://members.tripod.com/~mr_sedivy/rome.html)
    This is a world history unit on ancient Rome that includes class activities.
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art. Timeline of Art History. (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/04/nc/ht04nc.htm)
    The timeline includes artwork from the museum’s collection.
  • Seattle Art Museum. Hidden Treasures: Han Dynasty Tomb Artifacts. (http://www.svam.org/Exhibits/han_artifacts/han_html/han_main.html)

    Part of the museum’s “Hidden Treasures Gallery,” it shows various Han bronze and ceramic artifacts.

  • Thinkquest. Empires Past: Reference Library. (http://library.thinkquest.org/16325/infofr.html)

    This site presents material on ancient Egypt and the Aztecs, as well as China and Rome.

Pic:Roman Footwear


Cobblestone Publishing. 1998. “The Han Dynasty.” Calliope 8, No. 5 (May/June).

Calliope is “the world history magazine for readers aged 9-14.” This is a survey of the Han period that includes a project for making paper.

Arthur Cotterell (ed.). 1996. The Penguin Encyclopedia of Classical Civilizations. New York: Penguin Books. Contains brief articles covering not only Greece and Rome, but also Persia, India, China, and the relations between them.

Anne Birrell. 1993. Popular Songs and Ballads of Han China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. These vivid and beautiful poems come as close as we can get to the life of the common people.

F.R. Cowell. 1961. Life in Ancient Rome. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group. Brief accounts of subjects such as housing, family life, food, clothes, shops and markets, etc.

Robert B. Kebric (ed.). 2001. Roman People. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co.
A history of ancient Rome based on primary sources by famous and not-so-famous people.

Chronology of the Traditional Chinese Dynasties


Shang or Yin c1766-1040/1045? BCE
Western Zhou 1045/1040?-771
Eastern Zhou 771-256
Spring and Autumn period 722-479
Warring States period 479-221
Qin 221-207
Former Han 202 BCE-9 CE
Xin (usurpation of the throne by Wang Mang 9-23 CE
Latter Han 25-220
Period of Disunion: Three Kingdoms & Six Dynasties 220-589
Sui 589-618
Tang 618-907
Five Dynasties 907-960
Song Northern Song 960-1126; Southern Song 1126-1279
Yuan 1276-1368
Ming 1368-1644
Qing 1644-1911

(Source: Curriculum from China and the World).

Programs for Educators: Curriculum Materials From China and the World

From July 2-27, 2001, the Teach China program conducted a summer institute called China and the World. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and based at Columbia University, it brought together thirty humanities teachers from all over the United States.

The institute offered a comprehensive survey of China’s relations with the non-Chinese world from earliest times to the end of the twentieth century. Historian Morris Rossabi was the main instructor. In addition, a wide array of guest speakers gave China and the World a decidedly multi-disciplinary spin: Geography, society and culture, religion, science and technology, the visual arts, literature, and music were some of the specialized areas of focus.

Some of the attendees were inspired to write curriculum material in response to this course of study. We present several of them here and hope teachers will find them of use in the classroom.

The units are: Han China/Ancient Rome


These materials benefited from the advice and contributions of the following educators:

  • Laurel Fulkerson (Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL)
  • Roberta Koza (Paul Robeson High School, Brooklyn, NY)
  • Florence Musiello (Ardsley School District, Ardsley, NY)
  • Conrad Schirokauer (Senior Scholars Program, Columbia University)
  • Rhoda Weinstein (consultant to the Chancellor’s District, New York City Public Schools).

Generous funding for China and the World was made available by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Resource Type: Curriculum Guide
Caterogy: All Grades, Arts & Literature, Economics, Government, History, Science/Technology, Society, Curriculum Guide


Teach China Team

Teach China is a comprehensive professional development program offered by China Institute to provide a wealth of opportunities for K-12 educators to enhance their knowledge of China, past and present. We take an interdisciplinary approach consistent with national and state-mandated standards in order to help educators incorporate the teaching of China into all subjects and grade levels, including Mandarin language learning, the humanities, social studies, and the arts. Teach China promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use and creation of authentic materials, the presentation of balanced perspectives, and the fostering of enduring connections between educators around the world.