His branch of the Liu family had escaped the persecution of Wang Mang (r. 9–23 c.e.), but in the aftermath of the Red Eyebrow Rebellion, and as Wang Mang’s power was collapsing, Guangwu had risen in revolt also and was proclaimed emperor in 25 c.e. Civil war continued until 36 c.e., before all rebels and other claimants to the throne were defeated.
Because Chang’an (Ch’ang-an) lay in ruins from the civil war, Guangwu established his capital in Luoyang (Loyang) to the east, which had been the capital of the Eastern Zhou (Chou) dynasty (771–256 b.c.e.). It was also near to his home and power base.
Thus, the reinstated Han dynasty became known as the Eastern Han or Later Han (25–220 c.e.), as distinct from the former, Western Han that ruled from Chang’an (202 b.c.e.– 9 c.e.). Luoyang was a planned city of half a million residents with a huge city wall pierced by 12 gates, surrounded by a moat, and connected by canal to the east.
Guangwu devoted his reign to consolidation and reconstruction. He appointed his sons and supporters to key positions, took a land census, reduced taxes, and stabilized prices by buying surplus grains during years of abundant harvest for relief in years of want. As a result, the economy recovered.
A supporter of Confucian ideology, he built schools and enlarged the state university at Luoyang until it had 30,000 students under his successors. He also strengthened the examination system to recruit qualified officials.
However, he sought to protect himself from powerful officials by relying on an inner secretariat whose staff was mainly drawn from the families of his consorts. The legacy of this practice, as during the Western Han dynasty, was power struggles and intrigues between members of different consort families during later reigns.
In foreign policy he reasserted Chinese power to its traditional borders, to Seoul in Korea in the northeast and to northern Vietnam in the south.
His reign saw the beginning of emigration of Chinese from the north-western borderlands southward to the Yangtze (Yangzi) River valley. He strengthened lines of defensive walls in the north to protect against the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu).
By a stroke of good fortune, dissension among the Xiongnu led the southern faction among them to surrender to China in 50 c.e.; they were allowed to settle in the Ordos region and in present-day northern Shanxi (Shansi) and part of Gansu (Kansu) Provinces.
Due perhaps to war weariness Guangwu made a mistake in not taking advantage of the northern Xiongnu’s weakness by launching an expedition to dislodge them from their stronghold. It was during his grandson’s reign that northern Xiongnu power was broken, and they were sent in flight westward, making China supreme in the eastern regions.