page contents

Let's Get Sciency & Techy With The Han Dynasty


Crash Course is an educational YouTube channel started by two brothers namely John Green and Hank Green. The Silk Road and Ancient Trade: Crash Course World History elaborates on the so-called Silk Road, a network of trade routes where goods such as ivory, silver, iron, wine, and yes, SILK were exchanged across the ancient world, from the East to the West.

Alt Text: It depicts Silk Road and the global trade networks within the trade routes during the Han Dynasty, 206CE to 220 AD.


Han Dynasty and the Origins of the Silk Road

From cavemen walking barefooted to traders on camels crossing deserts and travelers flying across the globe in matters of hours, we can see that throughout time, human beings have an innate tendency to move from place to place, near or far. The result of this is trade, an exchange of both tangible goods and intangible goods, which eventually led to an early form of globalization. One of the greatest ancient routes that facilitated globalization is the Silk Road.

Origins of the Silk Road

  UNESCO, Silk Road Map,  The Silk and Spice Routes ,   (n.d.) 

UNESCO, Silk Road Map, The Silk and Spice Routes(n.d.) 


The Silk Road was formally established during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). The Han Dynasty is referred as the golden age of all Chinese imperial dynasties and the Han people enjoyed economic prosperity. Internally, the Han Dynasty had numerous innovations that lead to a stable society. Externally, the trade profits from the Silk Road was able to bring wealth to the country, financially and ideologically in terms of culture and belief. Overtime, strong interwoven maritime routes along Eurasia enabled silk and other tangible goods to be heavily exchanged across the routes.

 Fun Fact about how Chinese merchants were made to wear white garments in  Han Dynasty  China.

Fun Fact about how Chinese merchants were made to wear white garments in Han Dynasty China.

These extensive networks carried commodities and merchandise for sale and further connections with the population brought about the transmittal of knowledge and beliefs which ingeniously impacted the Europeans’ cultures. Therefore, the advances in science and technology in the Han Dynasty, such as the inventions of agricultural tools, the treadle loom and the junk ship, were especially vital to the expansion of the Silk Road; notably, it allowed for connections and exchanges in terms of languages, ideas and cultures.


Agricultural Advancements in the Han Dynasty

China has always focused on agriculture as a key aspect to improve the economy and its people have tried to improve crops through innovations by increasing the quantity and quality of crops.

Before the Han Dynasty, there were some technological advances such as simple irrigation systems, the use of fertilisers, and animal-pulled iron plows. However, the most prominent technological advances and improvements actually happened during the Han Dynasty, which paved the way for better cultivation of crops and economic prosperity. With the development of the alternating fields method, expansion of irrigation projects, and invention of some agricultural tools, the people of the Han Dynasty were able to enjoy food security and even surplus, which enabled the country to prosper.

Development of the alternating fields method

  Author's own work, Jasmine Yeo, Alternative fields method showing the alternating ridges and furrows,  Canva , (27 April 2018)

Author's own work, Jasmine Yeo, Alternative fields method showing the alternating ridges and furrows, Canva, (27 April 2018)

Zhao Guo (趙過) was the superintendent of agriculture in Western Han and he created the system of alternating fields during his term. This “Alternative Fields Method” switched the use of ridges and furrows between every season. This prevented seeds from getting blown off by the wind, and allowed for the roots of plants to be protected from droughts as they grow deeper into the soil. The different steps of planting, watering, weeding and harvesting were made more efficient, and the soils were able to remain fertile and nutritious.

Expansion of irrigation projects

 Fun Fact about  wheelbarrows ! They were initially developed in the Han Dynasty to transport men and supplies during war. It was only later that they were used for agricultural purposes.

Fun Fact about wheelbarrows! They were initially developed in the Han Dynasty to transport men and supplies during war. It was only later that they were used for agricultural purposes.

Han Wu Di, the Han Emperor (140-87 BCE), realised the importance of water control after having many land affected by the annual Yellow River flooding. He placed great emphasis on transport canals and irrigation channels, and several parts of land near the rivers thus became well cultivated for crops. With imperial proclamation and the contribution of tens of thousands of farmers and labourers alike, there were numerous irrigation projects and land reclamation efforts recorded in the Han Dynasty. As Cartwright points out in “Achievements of the Han Dynasty”: “Irrigation was greatly improved by mechanised pumps - worked either by a pedal or using a pole with a counterweighted bucket - and wells were made more efficient reservoirs by lining them with bricks.” The result was an efficient irrigation system throughout the country.

Invention of agricultural tools

Furthermore, by 2 BCE, there was the invention of the three-legged iron seed drill, an important achievement which allowed farmers to plant seeds precisely and methodically, rather than the former method of carelessly casting seeds by hand. The heavy mouldboard iron plough1 was also created in the Han Dynasty, which greatly helped with the efficiency of farming, as described by Cui Shi in Si Min Yue Ling.

   Quote by Cui Shi in Si Min Yue Ling , explaining the efficiency of the improved iron plough. Author's own work, Isabel Tan,  Canva , (25 April 2018)

Quote by Cui Shi in Si Min Yue Ling, explaining the efficiency of the improved iron plough. Author's own work, Isabel Tan, Canva, (25 April 2018)


With these improved designs of agricultural tools, it complemented the alternating fields method and improved irrigation systems. This allowed for better crop management to maximise yields in the Han Dynasty. Thus, the people were able to look towards external trade and enjoy the benefits without worrying about the country’s basic needs.

The Invention of the Loom and Silk

Advancement in the silk weaving technology

  Museum of Fine Arts, Painting by Emperor Huizhong of  court ladies weaving, pounding and preparing silk , (19 May 2005)

Museum of Fine Arts, Painting by Emperor Huizhong of court ladies weaving, pounding and preparing silk, (19 May 2005)

Maximised yield from crop management brought about a stable economy in the Han Dynasty, allowing the Han Chinese to explore beyond and engage in the betterment of their science and technology. The treadle loom was subsequently developed in the Han Dynasty, allowing for advancement in the science of silk weaving. The structure of the plain loom2 saw significant technical improvement following the invention of the treadle loom which boosted productivity in silk weaving.

Invention of the treadle loom

  Author’s own work: Isabel Tan, A flowchart about the developmental stage of the looms, Powerpoint, (25 April 2018)

Author’s own work: Isabel Tan, A flowchart about the developmental stage of the looms, Powerpoint, (25 April 2018)

The development of the plain loom followed a three stage process as detailed in the flowchart. Notably, the first stage of modification of the plain looms can be detailed as far back as during the early Neolithic Age (refer to illustration above). Focus will be centred on the treadle loom wherein its stage of advancement notably occurred during the period of the Han Dynasty. However, is it to be noted that there were further advancements of the plain loom and modifications to it did not stop here.

The invention of the treadle loom brought about additions of the heald frame 3 and treadle 4 to the structure of the plain loom. Additionally, the treadle loom can be further divided into three different types of which 5, as seen in the illustrations below. Each kind of treadle loom had different varying additions of the heald frame and treadle. Modifications to the plain loom freed the weaver’s hands from the laborious task of forming a shed 6, allowing weavers to work faster in their wefting 7 and battening 8.

With increased efficiency in silk weaving, brought about by the invention of the treadle loom, the supply of silk increased. Silk was extensively traded with foreign countries and was used as diplomatic gifts of exchanges by the Han Chinese. Thus, silk became one of Han Dynasty’s primary good of export, which led to the formal establishment of the Silk Road.

Silk to extend China’s influence

Notably in 138BCE, the sixth emperor of the Han Dynasty, Emperor Wu Di of Han, utilised silk in his conquest to expand China’s western frontier. Chinese silk was widely used in the trade for camels and horses, a great source of cavalry mounts and long travels of journeys along treacherous terrains. This allowed Emperor Wu Di to expand his influence beyond the Chinese borders in hopes for “the spread among the four seas of Chinese superior civilisation by communicating through many interpreters with the nations holding widely different customs”.

Silk in Rome

  Phaidon, Ancient Romans clad in silk,  Painting of Fresco depicting the reading of the rituals of the bridal mysteries , (October 2012)

Phaidon, Ancient Romans clad in silk, Painting of Fresco depicting the reading of the rituals of the bridal mysteries, (October 2012)

Around the 1st century BCE, silk was introduced to the Roman Empire and became a highly coveted and revered commodity of luxury. However, with the rising popularity of the Chinese fabric, repercussions were brought about following its introduction. Spendings for the Romans spiked as they sought more of the Chinese silk and exhausted an increasing amount of gold and silver to obtain the textile. Growing spendings led to a shortage of precious metals and as a result, imperial edicts had to be issued to control the fluctuations in silk prices.

   Quote by Seneca the Younger  regarding the usage of silk as materials to clothe the body, Isabel Tan,  Canva , (25 April 2018)

Quote by Seneca the Younger regarding the usage of silk as materials to clothe the body, Isabel Tan, Canva, (25 April 2018)

Reportedly, the Chinese silk was claimed to be “worth more than its weight in gold in Rome” and the finest Chinese silk, valued as much as 300 denarii, was a year’s worth of salary for a Roman soldier. While silk was associated with wealth, power and the elite, the Chinese textile also faced repercussions as well as cultural and moral backlash. Due to the translucent property of silk and hence its inability to fully cloth one’s body, silk was viewed as a decadent and immodest garment. Silk brought to Rome a financial and cultural crisis as backlash and growing favouritism for it were at conflict.

Silk and its influence on connections and exchanges

As rolls of Chinese silk traveled across the Silk Road, different exchanges and connections were exchanged and established with different cultures of which included the western frontier and the Romans. An array of languages, philosophies and cultures were introduced to these communities. In the conquest of the trade in the Chinese silk, different parts of the world were then opened to new cultures, beliefs and philosophies.

Transportation Advancement in the Han Dynasty

Silk was China’s main trade commodity and with such large quantity, transportation was an important factor contributing to Han Dynasty’s prosperous success in the silk road. Advancements in naval technology brought maritime travel more efficiency than before. Complex shipbuilding techniques allowed larger, faster, and stronger ships for carrying goods up for trade. One of the most successful ship designs used until today is called the Junk.

According to maritime expert H.Warington Smyth:  “As an engine for carrying man and his commerce upon the high and stormy seas as well as on the vast inland waterways, it is doubtful if any class of vessel is more suited or better adapter to its purpose… and it is certain that for flatness of sail and handiness, the Chinese rig is unsurpassed.” 

Technical aspects of the Junk

The Junk is a versatile sailing vessel fit for trade or combat, originally developed during the Han Dynasty. Junks incorporated multiple technical advances that made it efficient and sturdy, with the ability to handle even the roughest seas. Even after the Han Dynasty, the Junk continued its improvement with multiple rigged sails, multi compartment hull9, and stern mounted axial rudders10. The stern is the rear part of the ship, where the “axial” or adjustable rudder is placed.

  Rock Bros & Payne,  Junk Ship , (20 May 1848)

Rock Bros & Payne, Junk Ship, (20 May 1848)


For the most part of the Han dynasty, most Junks have only one sail. They mainly relied on scull11 for propulsion and steering. The new stern mounted axial rudders were still a clay model prototype. Nevertheless it was the first time such ship existed and it was deemed a major development. Junks use a flexible rigged sail design in which the angle and position of the sails are movable. The sails are also reinforced with the use of “battens”12. This sail design allowed the ship to sail against the wind by directing wind into each other. Additionally, it can be adjusted for different wind strengths which will prevent tearing of the sail. By reinforcing the sails with battens, a cloth of lower quality and cost could be used instead, thus lowering the cost of producing the Junks.

Moreover, the design of the ships hull utilised watertight compartments that will allow free flow of the water currents, acting like a ballast that will stabilise the ship during rough seas. It will also reduce flooding in the event where the hull might be breached by high tides. The stern-mounted axial rudders permitted ease of maneuvering large, high freeboard ships; it’s design also allowed adjustment according to the depth of the water they sailed through.

Impact to Trade

 Fun Fact about  Zheng He’s Junk ! The size of his Junk is HUGE   in comparison to Vasco De Gamma's ship.

Fun Fact about Zheng He’s Junk! The size of his Junk is HUGE in comparison to Vasco De Gamma's ship.

Despite the late introduction of junk ships near the end of the Han Dynasty, this design proved great efficiency. It significantly reduced the need for manpower as the need for using steering oars/sculls was no longer required. The Junk ships have ultimately allowed the Chinese to venture far, safely and reliably. Historians were able to find iron, glass, silk and other textile fabrics along with other articles between Red sea ports and Indo-China Ports, and also between Mesopotamia and Xi’An.


Globalisation, and the Silk Road

Extensive trade networks in the Silk Road, facilitated with technological advances, have led to highly interconnected maritime routes. Unmistakably, invention and improvements of the agricultural tools brought about greater crop cultivation and increased agricultural revenues for the farmers. Higher quality and more sophisticated inventions such as the treadle loom and the Junk have brought about facilitated trade on the silk road. Silk and its influence in China had led to exchanges in Rome and such progress established along trade routes in the Silk Road had led to Han Dynasty China's incredible prosperity.

Therefore, Han Dynasty and the various processes along the routes had revolutionised from a sheer trading route to one that is dynamic and open to a diversity of goods and culture, where ideas, language and beliefs were exchanged.


Bin Li, Anding Liu, Qiang Li, Xiaoming Yang, Study of the Evolution of looms in ancient China, (2012, December 27)

Cartwright, Mark. "Achievements of the Han Dynasty." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, (14 Sep 2017)

Casson, Lionel (1973, August 13) Illustrated History of Ships and Boats.

Craig Benjamin, Quote by Seneca the Younger, (2018)

Daniel C. Waugh, Han Narrative Histories, (1999)

Ivon A. Donnelly. (1925, April) Early Chinese Ships and Trade. The China Journal of Science & Arts. Vol. III, No. 4, pp. 190-198

Lewis, Mark Edward, and Mark Edward LEWIS. The Early Chinese Empires : Qin and Han, Harvard University Press, (2009) ProQuest Ebook Central  

MA, Debin., The Great Silk Exchange, (2005)

National Geographic, The Surprisingly simple Origins of the Silk Road

Needham, Joseph, F.R.S., F.B.A. (2004) Science and Civilisation in China. VOLUME 4 • PHYSICS AND PHYSICAL TECHNOLOGY PART I: PHYSICS

New World Encyclopedia, Junk (ship) (N.D.)

Sheringham, Michael, “The Way of Water and Waterways in China”, (19th Nov. 2013)

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, About the Silk Road, (N.D.)

United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, The Silk and Spice Routes

UNRV Roman History, Silk in the Roman Empire, (N.D.)

Washington, Horses and Camels, (N.D.)

Wikiwand, “Han Dynasty”, [Creative Commons], Accessed 27 April 2017


  1. Iron plough: a large farming implement with one or more blades fixed in a frame, drawn over soil to turn it over and cut furrows in preparation for the planting of seeds.
  2. The treadle loom and the plain loom are different. The treadle loom is part of the development stage of the plain loom.
  3. Weaving heald frame is one of the most important components of a loom. It aids in the processing of yarn in the weaving loom with the help of shedding mechanism. Most of the modern day looms have heald frame accessories which separate and raise some warp yarns above others.
  4. A treadle is a lever worked by the foot and imparting motion to the weaving machine. Instead of lifting the warp by a heddle rod by hand as on a backstrap loom, the warp on a treadle loom is lifted mechanically by a series of foot pedals. Thus, the process of weaving on a treadle loom is much faster than weaving on a backstrap loom.
  5. Types of treadle looms: (1) single-heald and single-treadle loom, (2) single-heald and two-treadle loom, (3) two-heald and two-treadle loom
  6. In weaving, the shed is the temporary separation between upper and lower warp yarns through which the weft is woven.
  7. Weaving is a method of textile production in which two distinct sets of yarns or threads are interlaced at right angles to form a fabric or cloth. Namely, the longitudinal threads are called the warp and the lateral threads are the weft or filling.
  8. In weaving, battening is the usage of a beater to push the weft yarn securely into place. Loom beaters typically take the form of a bar mounted across the loom.
  9. The hull of a ship is the most notable structural entity of the ship. To define the hull, it can be said that it is the watertight enclosure of the ship, which protects the cargo, machinery, and accommodation spaces of the ship from the weather, flooding, and structural damage.
  10. A rudder is a flat piece hinged vertically near the stern of a boat or ship for steering. It is part of the steering apparatus of a boat or ship that is fastened outside the hull, usually at the stern. The most common form consists of a nearly flat, smooth surface of wood or metal hinged at its forward edge to the sternpost.
  11. Sculls are also known as steering oars.
  12. Battens are basically wooden planks placed horizontally.