Part of a flourishing scientific tradition, the Han combine devotion to discovery with a robust imperial military.

Although the end of China’s Warring States period was marked in 221 BCE by Qin victory, their dynasty would only outlive its founder, Shi Huangdi, by three years. After a brief interval of armed revolt, Liu Bang seized control of the newly unified empire in 206 BCE, stabilizing the state and paving the way for his Han successors. The powerful political and administrative system that they established and the long period of stability that followed made the Han dynasty a flourishing period of scientific progress.

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The first Han rulers (206–9 BCE) seized power following a revolt against Shi Huangdi's brutal centralization policies. They inherited a "dual state" grouping together both imperial territories and regional kingdoms. Gradually bringing these territories under a single administrative system was the chief preoccupation of early Han rulers, and resulted in the first unified Chinese empire by the middle of Emperor Wu's reign (147-87 BCE). Later Han rulers (25–220 CE) would draw strength from this bureaucratic and ideological legacy to restore their dynasty after the short-lived Xin interregnum (9–23 CE). Wu's reign represented the high point in the Han dynasty. Ruler over the largest empire ever to have existed at the time, he controlled territory stretching from the north of modern Vietnam to the northern loop of the Yellow River, and from the Korean peninsula to the steppes of present-day Kyrgyzstan. Encompassing both the Yangtze and Huang He drainage basins, the empire was able to feed almost 60 million subjects through farming. Large-scale military campaigns led in the north against the Xiongnu gave China access to the trade routes of central Asia, along the paths of what would later become the Silk Road. Many centuries of institutional stability created favorable conditions for scientific endeavors. Great compendiums on astronomy, mathematics, and medicine were widely copied and distributed for use by the political elite and officials.

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The Han period saw a spectacular increase in iron and cast iron production, and the state held a monopoly over these resources. The use of blast furnaces and the perfection of metal-refining processes, then new, enabled the Han to produce iron objects of unrivalled quality.