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Han Dynasty writing on wooden slip.

Background to Ancient Dunhuang

Dunhuang was established in a formative period in China's history.

In 206 BC, the Han (pronounced "harn") Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) came to power after the overthrow of the Qin Dynasty by a peasant uprising following the death of China's First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang (259 - 210 BC). Although short lived, Qin Shi Huang's rule changed the destiny of China with the crushing of other existing states and the unification of the vast country into a single state under centralised rule. He imposed many revolutionary reforms as well as building the Great Wall and his vast Mausoleum which incorporates the Entombed Terra-cotta Army of Warriors and Horses.

Lasting for 400 years, the ensuring Han Dynasty was an age of economic and political expansion which consolidated Qin Shi Huang's reforms into the political patterns of later Chinese governments. Based on a peasant uprising the Han Dynasty knew it couldn't rule by force alone. The governmental structures of the Qin was generally carried on, but without the former harshness. The Han emperors encouraged agriculture and greatly reduced land tax and compulsory labour service bringing a stable life for the peasants, population growth, rapid economic development and general prosperity.

The Xiongnu

Throughout the early Han Dynasty, the nomadic Xiongnu tribes (also known as the Hun) to the north and the west were an ongoing problem, making frequent raids into Han areas destroying crops, seizing farm animals and taking prisoners as slaves. At first, the Han were too weak to resist so various stratagems were used including giving Han princesses in marriage to Xiongnu tribal chiefs and a favourable exchange of goods such as silk and porcelain for Xiongnu animals, furs and skins.

The fourth Han emperor, Wudi (147 - 87 BC, pronounced "woo dee") heard of a tribe far to the west who had resisted Xiongnu domination and in 138 BC sent an exploratory expedition to the "Western Regions" seeking to forge an alliance against the Xiongnu. Led by Zhang Qian, the party was quickly captured in the Gansu Corridor by the Xiongnu. After 10 years in captivity Zhang Qian escaped and eventually made contact with the targeted tribe who declined to accept Wudi's proposal. However on his return to the Emperor, he delivered a detailed report on the geography and peoples of the Western Regions.

Mounting large-scale campaigns, Han armies pushed back the Xiongnu and secured the Gansu Corridor in 121 BC. In 119 BC, the Xiongnu were defeated in the Mongolian desert to the north. In ridding itself of the Xiongnu in the west, overland routes were discovered and contact was made with foreign peoples and the development of trade occured. The Silk Road came into being by 80 BC.

Han Dynasty Great Wall in Gansu

During Emperor Wudi's reign, Great Wall extensions were undertaken starting in 120 BC. In Gansu Province, a Great Wall was built along the north of the Gansu Corridor stretching 300 km from Jiayuguan in the east to Yumenguan (Jade Gate Pass) and then as far west as Lop Nor, the salt lake on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. In 111 BC Dunhuang was established as a Prefecture.

A link is provided to a map of the region around, and to the west of, Dunhuang.

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