Qin Dynasty

Terracotta army from Qin dynasty
Terracotta army from Qin dynasty

The Qin state was founded in 897 b.c.e. during the Zhou (Chou) dynasty; it became an important state in contention for leadership in unifying China the in mid-fourth century b.c.e. The Qin lasted only 15 years as a national dynasty between 221 and 206 b.c.e. but left a lasting impact for inaugurating the imperial era in Chinese history. The rise of Qin paralleled that of Zhou almost 1,000 years earlier.

Both were frontier states toughened by wars against barbarian tribes, and both were far from the refined court. It was located in the northwest frontier in modern Gansu (Kansu) Province west of the Wei River, protected from enemies in the east by mountains and gorges.

It first gained national attention in 770 b.c.e. when Duke Xiang (Hsiang) of Qin provided protection for the Zhou court against the Rong (Jung) barbarians as it moved from Hao to the eastern capital at Luoyang (Loyang). After the 600s b.c.e. Qin moved its capital several times, finally to Xianyang (Hsienyang) close to Hao and the modern city Xi’an (Sian) in 350 b.c.e.

Qin led China in developing an extensive irrigation system that made its rich soil productive. When Qin conquered Sichuan (Szechuan) in the upper Yangtze Valley its engineers built an intricate water control and irrigation system in the rich Chendu (Chengtu) Plain, which is still operating now.

A surplus of food allowed it to divert manpower to the army when Qin embarked on campaigns to conquer its rivals. Qin was also open to employing talented people, regardless of their origin. In 356 b.c.e. it appointed a man from the state of Wei, named Shang Yang (better known as Lord Shang), chief minister.

He served until 338 b.c.e. and developed a political philosophy called Legalism that his successors Han Fei and Li Si (Li Ssu) continued. Their reforms included the abolition of feudalism, bringing land under central government control, administered by bureaucrats appointed and promoted on merit.

Serfdom ended, making tillers tax-paying owners of their land on the assumption that free people worked and fought harder. Therefore, hard-working farmers and disciplined soldiers were esteemed, and merchants and scholars were suspected as unproductive and perhaps subversive.

Legalists emphasized law to uphold the state’s power and promulgated severe laws, uniformly applied, to encourage good conduct and deter wrong-doing. These measures made Qin the strongest among the states during the late Warring States era.

In 256 b.c.e. Qin destroyed the Zhou ruling house. Its final drive for unification began in 246 b.c.e. when a young man born in 259 b.c.e. mounted the throne as King Zheng (Cheng). At first his mother and a former merchant, chief minister Lu Buwei (Lu Pu-wei) acted as regents.

He ruled alone after 238 b.c.e., with Li Si as chief minister; together they completed the defeat of all rival states and established a unified empire called the Qin dynasty in 221 b.c.e. King Zheng became Qin Shihuangdi (Ch’in Shih Huang-ti), which translates as "first emperor of the Qin".

Qin Shihuangdi - first emperor of the Qin
Qin Shihuangdi - first emperor of the Qin

He was so confident that China (our name for the country derives from Ch’in) would be governed by his family for all time that he ruled that his descendants would only need a numeral to distinguish them, for example, as the second emperor.

The first emperor and Li Si were responsible for changing the course of China. They extended many of Qin state’s reforms to the whole country, abolishing feudalism and organizing the empire into a number of commanderies (provinces) and subdividing them into counties. This system persists to the present.

No office except that of the ruling house would be hereditary, and all officials would be appointed by the central government and promoted or demoted on merit. All serfs were freed. Standardization was their watchword and was applied to the width of roads, weights and measures, laws, coinage, and even the written script. Thought was also controlled.

Only Legalism could be taught, all other philosophies were banned, and all books except technical ones and the history of the house of Qin were to be burned (only one copy of all banned books were to be kept in the imperial library, accessible to officials alone). The emperor had 460 scholars buried alive for opposing him and had his eldest son, the crown prince, banished to duty along the Great Wall of China for having defended them.

The first emperor also embarked on massive construction projects. He ordered General Meng Tian (Meng T’ien) to connect existing walls into one Great Wall to guard against the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu) nomads.

A network of roads were built to facilitate troop movements, likewise a system of canals to connect the lower Yangtze Valley with Guangzhou (Canton) in the south to transport troops and supplies for their conquest of southern China and present-day northern Vietnam. Xianyang became a grand capital with sumptuous palaces and residences, and outside the city a massive mausoleum was built as his resting place.

The first emperor died suddenly in 210 b.c.e., and his will designated the exiled crown prince as successor. However, Li Si and chief eunuch Zhao Gao (Chao Kao) changed the will, ordered the crown prince and Meng Tian to commit suicide (which they did) and installed a weakling younger prince as second emperor.

Zhao Gao then had both Li Si and the second emperor killed and installed another prince on the throne. Soon spontaneous rebellions were everywhere, and by 206 b.c.e. the Qin dynasty was gone.

The Qin state unified China and briefly ruled as a national dynasty. Its rise was due largely to Legalism; its fall discredited Legalism forever. Although the dynasty was short lived, it inaugurated the imperial era in Chinese history, and many of its reforms would remain.