Qin Dynasty


published on 22 January 2014
Map of the Qin Empire (Yeu Ninje)

The Qin dynasty was brief in duration (221-206 BCE) but very important in Chinese history. It followed the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE) and it ended when Liu Bang became the king of Han in 206 BCE (the formal beginning of the Han dynasty). Despite its brevity, the Qin dynasty left important marks on Chinese culture. In fact, the name "China" is derived from the name Qin (“Ch’in” in former Romanization systems). Following the Zhou Dynasty, China became involved in a seemingly endless conflict between the various regions for supreme control of the country. This period of conflict has come to be known as The Warring States period (426-221 BCE). A series of victories by the state of Qin towards the end of the Warring States period resulted in their complete conquest of China in 221 BCE when the Qin empire unified China for the first time in its history.

Origins of the Qin Kingdom

During the Zhou dynasty China was never a unified kingdom: The Zhou government bore a strong resemblance to some of the forms of feudalism in medieval Europe, which is why the Zhou age is sometimes referred to as a feudal age. China was composed of a network of city-states loyal to the Zhou king, from which military and political control spread over the surrounding farming villages.

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About 771 BCE, a barbarian invasion drove the Zhou rulers eastwards. During this time, the state of Qin became responsible for guarding the western frontier and they gradually moved eastward and eventually occupied the original Zhou domains. Thus the Qin became a close ally of the Zhou and they also had marriage relations with the Zhou ruling class. King Ping of Zhou (r. 770-720 BCE) transferred titles of the nobility and huge estates to the chief of Qin. Many Chinese historians consider this event as pivotal for the state of Qin. Qin was, at that time, very aware of the fact that they could be a great power. The elevation to nobility of the Qin meant that the Qin could become more ambitious and better fend off attacks from surrounding regions. As a consequence, these centuries spent fighting non-Chinese tribes helped the Qin gain invaluable experience in warfare and territorial expansion.

Of the many Chinese states, Qin had the advantage of a favourable location: Its territory in modern Shaanxi province is well guarded from the east by mountains and gorges and has easy access to the North China plain through the Yellow River passes. No major battle ever took place in Qin’s heartland.

What finally gave the Qin victory over the other states was their ruthlessness in battle.

During the Warring States period, all the states in China were trying to draw more power and prestige to themselves. The states of Qin and Chu were the strongest which was due, in part, to the locations of these two states being able to command vast resources. They were also able to expand their borders without fear of immediate conflict, unlike the other states, and so could obtain still further resources. This benefit, and others such as the size of the Qin army and their expert use of the chariot, contributed to their success in warfare. The Qin had all of the resources and advantages but what finally gave them victory over the other states was their ruthlessness in battle. The Qin statesman Shang Yang (356-338 BCE) advocated total war and a disregard for the polite policies of battle which Chinese generals had always adhered to. His lessons were implemented by Ying Zheng, King of Qin, who emerged victorious from the Warring States period and proclaimed himself Shi Huangti - `first emperor' - of China in 221 BCE. About 230 BCE, when the final campaign to unify China began, it is estimated that Qin controlled one-third of all the land under cultivation in China and one-third of China’s total population.

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Achievements in the Qin Dynasty

Early in the Qin Empire, the practice of Legalism reached its peak in Chinese history. This idea of state policy was devised by Shang Yang who came to Qin as a foreign advisor. Qin was lacking, early on, in skilled intellectuals and politicians and, therefore, had to look beyond its borders for talented people. Shang Yang was one of those foreign talented persons and he would have a lasting influence on the Qin Empire. During his time as minister, Shang Yang radically renovated the policies of government but, in fact, he simply revived a practice which was already present for years: a form of government with a focus on greater efficiency and less adherence to tradition in which strict adherence to the letter of the law was made paramount (hence the name `Legalism'). Emperor Shi Huangti approved of Shang Yang's policies and implemented them across his realm.

The Great Wall of China

This form of government consisted of a collectivization program and the decimation of aristocratic power. Farmers were freed from serfdom and Shi Huangti reduced the power of the aristocracy. The people throughout the empire were now supposed to bear collective responsibility for each other. If a person did not behave according to the rules then others were required to report him. If they did not do this, they were quartered or beheaded. Fear and control were the key features of this political system. In addition, one's personal importance to the empire was also a key element. If you, as a person, meant nothing to the state, you actually meant nothing objectively; your life was meaningless. Those who contributed the most to the state were highly rewarded while those whose lives were considered of no consequence were sent to work as slaves on Shi Huangti's building projects such as the Great Wall of China, the Grand Canal, and the roads which increased ease of trade and travel.

Another result of the Legalism of Shi Huangti was that scholarship was strongly suppressed and literacy denied to the majority of the populace. Shi Huangti believed that uneducated people were easier to control and so the people should remain stupid so that they would never think to doubt who was in charge of the empire. This policy resulted in the burning of books on a large scale and, in 212 BCE, on the advice of his chief advisor Li Siu, Shi Huangti had scholars executed on a large scale. Books were banned throughout the empire, as was teaching, except for subjects touching upon the re-written history of the Qin Dynasty, Legalism, or the personal glory of Shi Huangti. It was not until the later Han Dynasty that books were recovered from hiding and repaired, and literacy was again available to the people of China.

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Although Shi Huangti and Shang Yang's Legalism (as well as Li Siu's policies) were hated by many at the time (and have been generally frowned upon by scholars of the period), later Qin kings and emperors of China were well aware of the strong impact that Legalism had on the efficiency and strength of the state. Legalism helped to create a superior army, a disciplined bureaucracy, an obediant populace, and the unquestioned authority of a strong central government. This bureaucratic model became the standard for the Chinese government and is still maintained in some form today. Although Confucianism was preferred in later dynasties, Legalism continued to exert a strong influence in China. It was often the case that the harsh Legalism was glossed over with just a different name and, quite often, as `Confucianism'.

The End of the Qin Empire

In the year 210 BCE emperor Shi Huangti died on a journey through the realm. The people were told that these trips were designed for the inspection of the empire but later evidence suggests that the emperor was looking for an elixir of immortality. In his later years, Shi Huangti became obsessed with death and the hope of eternal life. In constant fear of assassination, it is said, he never slept in the same room of his palace two nights consecutively and he ordered the construction of his elaborate tomb (including his terracotta warriors) early on in his reign. The cause of his death is still unknown.

Li Siu (c. 280– 208 BCE), then prime minister of the recently deceased emperor, tried to hide the fact that Shi Huangti was deceased in any possible way. He brought the emperor's body back to the capital along with carts of dead fish to mask the smell of the corpse. Along with Zhao Gao (died 208/207 BCE) Li Siu contrived to place Hu Hai on the throne. Hu Hai was the weak second son of Shi Huangti. Due to the weakness of Hu Hai, the oppressed people of China grew bolder and soon began to revolt.

Through a series of uprisings and rebel alliances, Qin authority was overthrown in the year 206 BCE in the capital of Xianyang. The imperial house was massacred and the Qin dynasty was thus at an end. A complicated series of battles followed for the honour of being the successor to the Qin Dynasty which resulted in the the period known as the Chu-Han Contention in which Xiang-Yu of the state of Chu fought Liu Bang of Han for supremacy. Liu Bang emerged victorious following Xiang-Yu's defeat at the Battle of Gaixia in 202 BCE. Liu Bang (247 BCE- 195 BCE) was applauded as a man of the people and, after his victory, founded the Han dynasty.

Legacy of the Qin Dynasty

As mentioned previously, Legalism had a lasting effect on the entirety of Chinese history. The Qin Dynasty created the standard of bureaucratic government and the Legalistic policies first initiated by the Qin are still seen in China today. In addition, the dynasty left a wonder of ancient artwork: the Terracotta Army in Xi'an. This tomb reflects the character of the Chinese emperor and his unending desire to be immortal. The terracotta army also exemplifies what Chinese society at that time was able to produce once it had been formed as a state. The most famous legacy left by the Qin is The Great Wall of China. Although the present structure does not date from the Qin Dynasty, it was begun under Shi Huangti, as was the Grand Canal, and the roads which today link the cities of China and the countryside. The Qin did more than just found a dynasty in China: they brought a continent together.

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Visual Timeline
  • 259 BCE - 210 BCE
    Life of Ying Zheng of Qin, Shi Huangti, First Emperor of China.
  • c. 246 BCE - c. 247 BCE
    Prince Ying Zheng becomes King of Qin, age 12 or 13.
  • 230 BCE - 221 BCE
    King Ying Zheng of Qin defeats the other warring states, claims Mandate of Heaven to rule China.
  • 221 BCE
    King Ying Zheng assumes the title Shi Huangti, First Emperor of China. Founds Qin Dynasty.
  • c. 221 BCE
    Construction of Northern Frontier wall by Shi Huangti, First Emperor of China, precursor to Great Wall.
  • 221 BCE - 206 BCE
  • 221 BCE - 206 BCE
    Qin Dynasty, Emperor Shi Huangti adopts Legalism as state philosophy and bans all others.
  • c. 218 BCE
    Construction of the Great Wall of China is initiated.
  • c. 213 BCE - 210 BCE
    Shi Huangti increasingly obsessed with death and immortality.
  • 210 BCE
    First Emperor of China Shi Huangti dies, buried with army of 8,000 terracotta warriors in palace tomb.
  • 202 BCE
    The Battle of Gaixia, Chu forces defeated by the Han.
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