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10 - The economic and social history of Former Han

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2008

Nishijima Sadao
University of Tokyo
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This chapter discusses social and economic conditions in China under the Han dynasty (202 B.C.–220 A.D.), when the unified, centralized state that had been achieved by the short-lived Ch'in empire was consolidated into a permanent form which lasted–allowing only for the short break caused by the Hsin dynasty of Wang Mang–for some four centuries.

It was once the common assumption that during the Ch'in and the Han dynasties the social structure and economic conditions, which had undergone the most remarkable and rapid transformations during the Spring and Autumn (722–481 B.C.) and Warring States (403–221 B.C.) periods, settled into set and unchanging forms which persisted through the succeeding two thousand years until the beginnings of the modern period. There is no question that the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods were marked by radical social and economic changes which prepared the stage for the centralized states of Ch'in and Han. But recent studies have proved that gradual changes in the structure of society, and a gradual but nonetheless distinct development of the Chinese economy, continued. Not only did social and economic developments which had begun during the earlier period continue and reach their final form under Han, but entirely new trends and developments can be seen to begin under later dynasties. Of many of the elements which characterize the society and economy of later imperial China, from the T'ang period onward, there was as yet not the slightest sign. The following account has as its primary objective the definition in the most precise possible terms of the place which the Han period holds not in some sterile concept of a stagnant and unchanging society, but in the dynamic and continuous development of China's social and economic institutions.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1986

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