Emperor Qin statue

Qin Shi Huang (ruled 221–210 B.C.), whose tomb with an army of lifelike terra-cotta soldiers is a big tourist attraction in Xian, China, was the first Qin emperor and the first emperor of China. "Shi Huang" in fact means "First Emperor." Qin Shi Huang (Qin Shihuang, Shi Huangdi, Shih Huang Ti, Emperor Qin and other variations and spelling) ended the feudal states and organized China into a system of prefectures and counties under central control. For defense against nomadic Mongol-like tribes to the north, Shi Huang Di connected walls of the feudal states and built new walls to form what became the Great Wall. At the time of the Qin Dynasty, the Yellow River had an irrigation system and extensive cultivation was taking place in the Yangtze Valley. It is estimated that at time China was home to around 40 million people. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Emperor Qin ruled with an iron fist, ordering the buring of the teachings of Confucius and conscripting tens of thousands of people to construct roads, canals, and defensive walls. During the early stages of his rule, Emperor Qin Shi Huang consolidated his power not only among his vassals but also among local gods that presided over the vassal states by making sacrifices to these gods and climbing all the sacred mountains. Qin’s Legalist advisors imposed harsh laws and helped expand the emperor's power by arguing that people were inherently wicked and therefore needed to be controlled by the government. The Qin Dynasty was short-lived, lasting only a few years beyond Emperor Qin’s death.

In an effort to weaken the feudal aristocracy by taking them away from their land Qin transported 120,000 wealthy families from all over his empire to his capital in present-day Xian. In Xian, Qin showed off his power by building replicas of the palaces the aristocrats left behind (it is said Qin built an additional 270 palaces for himself, many of which were built in accordance with the layout of the stars). In all of China Qin, reportedly built 700 palaces, filled with treasures and beautiful women from all over China. Unfortunately from an archeological point of view no remains of any of these palaces have survived.

During the Qin Dynasty China primarily consisted of the agricultural areas along the Yangtze River, Yellow River and middle and lower reaches of the Pearl River. Mostly Han lived in these areas. Other areas were dominated by other ethnic groups, many of which were absorbed in varying degrees by Han Chinese in the centuries after Emperor Qin. Qin recruited competent administrators and ruled his kingdom through a vast network of hierarchal administrations that were overseen by provincial units run by governors appointed from Xian. He also kept a tight rein on the military. Only generals with the Emperor's half of a split bronze tiger received permission to secure weapons and procure troops.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “In 221 B.C. Qin Shi Huang had become emperor of all China. The basic principles of his administration had been laid down long before his time by the philosophers of the Legalist school, and were given effect by his Chancellor Li Si. Li Si was the really great personality of that period. The Legalists taught that the ruler must do as little as possible himself. His Ministers were there to act for him. He himself was to be regarded as a symbol of Heaven. In that capacity Qin Shi Huang undertook periodical journeys into the various parts of the empire, less for any practical purpose of inspection than for purposes of public worship. They corresponded to the course of the sun, and this indicates that Qin Shi Huang had adopted a notion derived from the older northern culture of the nomad peoples. He planned the capital in an ambitious style but, although there was real need for extension of the city, his plans can scarcely be regarded as of great service. His enormous palace, and also his mausoleum which was built for him before his death, were constructed in accordance with astral notions. Within the palace the emperor continually changed his residential quarters, probably not only from fear of assassination but also for astral reasons. His mausoleum formed a hemispherical dome, and all the stars of the sky were painted on its interior. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

The remains of Qin’s palace on the Wei River south Xinyang was excavated in 2003. All Chinese schoolchildren are taught that the palace was a symbol of Emperor Qin’s greed that ultimately brought down his kingdom and led to its demise. It was said to have been the most lavish building ever produced up until that time, with a upper floor gallery capable of seating 10,000 people and a covered walkway that lead all the way to nearby mountains. Excavations by the archeologists however revealed that the palace was never built, the only thing that was completed was the base, perhaps evidence that Qin was not as greedy as he was made out to be.

Good Websites and Sources: Qin Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Emperor Qin Wikipedia Wikipedia ; First Emperor Qin Royalty.nu : Xian : Wikipedia Wikipedia Film: The First Emperor (also known as The Emperor and the Assassin ) by Chen Kaige was made about Emperor Qin's life with $20 million budget and is regarded as over-produced and boring. Not only that Gong Li looks fat. Terra-cotta Army of Emperor Qin Wikipedia Wikipedia ; UNESCO World Heritage Site : UNESCO ; Emperor Qin's Tomb: UNESCO World Heritage Site UNESCO ; Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; Books: "Cambridge History of Ancient China" edited by Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy (1999, Cambridge University Press); "The Culture and Civilization of China", a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); "Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties" by Jessica Rawson (British Museum, 1996); “Early Chinese Religion” edited by John Lagerwey & Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: 2009)

Qin Shi Huang's Empire and the Unification of China

Qin established his capital in Xingyang, near present-day Xian. Frances Wood, curator of the Chinese collection at the British Library, told the BBC."From Mongolia down to Hong Kong, and from the sea right the way across to Sichuan - it's an enormous territory," says "It's the equivalent of the whole Roman Empire added together, if you like. And you've got one man ruling all of it." [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 15, 2012 ==]

Qin ruled the whole of China for little more than a decade but in that time he unified a kingdom in a way that had never been accomplished before. He codified laws, standardized weights, currency and measurements, and mass produced weapons with blast furnaces. He also abolished serfdom, which meant that for the first time Chinese could give themselves surnames. Qin also initiated a system of writing Chinese characters so the language could be understood all over China. In the 3rd century B.C., people in China spoke eight languages and countless dialects. The establishment of a unified writing system around 200 B.C. did as much as anything to unify China.

Harvard historian Peter Bol credits Qin Shi Huang with establishing the world's first truly centralised bureaucratic empire. "He set out to unify the procedures and customs and policies of all the states," says Bol. "Writing is reunified. And the fact that Chinese writing remains unified after this point has everything to do with Qin Shi Huang. The axle widths are now all the same, so all the roads may now be passable...He also goes around to famous mountains, where they erect steles, stone monuments, which say that the Emperor's realm is now totally unified." "His idea was that every area should have an able administrator, who was armed with rule books and who would look after the people. The people all knew what the rules were," says Wood. "He collected taxes, he administered justice and he had trained bureaucrats all over China. I think that's an extraordinary achievement." ==

Centralization of the Qin Realm

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The main task of the now gigantic realm was the organization of administration. One of the first acts after the conquest of the other feudal states was to deport all the ruling families and other important nobles to the capital of Qin; they were thus deprived of the basis of their power, and their land could be sold. These upper-class families supplied to the capital a class of consumers of luxury goods which attracted craftsmen and businessmen and changed the character of the capital from that of a provincial town to a centre of arts and crafts. It was decided to set up the uniform system of administration throughout the realm, which had already been successfully introduced in Qin: the realm was split up into provinces and the provinces into prefectures; and an official was placed in charge of each province or prefecture. Originally the prefectures in Qin had been placed directly under the central administration, with an official, often a merchant, being responsible for the collection of taxes; the provinces, on the other hand, formed a sort of military command area, especially in the newly-conquered frontier territories. With the growing militarization of Qin, greater importance was assigned to the provinces, and the prefectures were made subordinate to them. Thus the officials of the provinces were originally army officers but now, in the reorganization of the whole realm, the distinction between civil and military administration was abolished. At the head of the province were a civil and also a military governor, and both were supervised by a controller directly responsible to the emperor. Since there was naturally a continual struggle for power between these three officials, none of them was supreme and none could develop into a sort of feudal lord. In this system we can see the essence of the later Chinese administration. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Owing to the centuries of division into independent feudal states, the various parts of the country had developed differently. Each province spoke a different dialect which also contained many words borrowed from the language of the indigenous population; and as these earlier populations sometimes belonged to different races with different languages, in each state different words had found their way into the Chinese dialects. This caused divergences not only in the spoken but in the written language, and even in the characters in use for writing. There exist to this day dictionaries in which the borrowed words of that time are indicated, and keys to the various old forms of writing also exist. Thus difficulties arose if, for instance, a man from the old territory of Qin was to be transferred as an official to the east: he could not properly understand the language and could not read the borrowed words, if he could read at all! For a large number of the officials of that time, especially the officers who became military governors, were certainly unable to read. The government therefore ordered that the language of the whole country should be unified, and that a definite style of writing should be generally adopted. The words to be used were set out in lists, so that the first lexicography came into existence simply through the needs of practical administration, as had happened much earlier in Babylon. Thus, the few recently found manuscripts from pre-Ch'in times still contain a high percentage of Chinese characters which we cannot read because they were local characters; but all words in texts after the Qin time can be read because they belong to the standardized script. We know now that all classical texts of pre-Ch'in time as we have them today, have been re-written in this standardized script in the second century B.C.: we do not know which words they actually contained at the time when they were composed, nor how these words were actually pronounced, a fact which makes the reconstruction of Chinese language before Qin very difficult.

“The next requirement for the carrying on of the administration was the unification of weights and measures and, a surprising thing to us, of the gauge of the tracks for wagons. In the various feudal states there had been different weights and measures in use, and this had led to great difficulties in the centralization of the collection of taxes. The centre of administration, that is to say the new capital of Qin, had grown through the transfer of nobles and through the enormous size of the administrative staff into a thickly populated city with very large requirements of food. The fields of the former state of Qin alone could not feed the city; and the grain supplied in payment of taxation had to be brought in from far around, partly by cart. The only roads then existing consisted of deep cart-tracks. If the axles were not of the same length for all carts, the roads were simply unusable for many of them. Accordingly a fixed length was laid down for axles. The advocates of all these reforms were also their beneficiaries, the merchants.

Emperor Qin, Li Si and Abolition of Feudalism

Li Si

Dr. Eno wrote: After Qin’s conquest in 221 B.C., “the central issue was how the empire of Qin was to be related to the state of Qin. Now that King Zheng occupied the imperial throne, was he to revive the “feudal” structure of the Zhou and guide it towards its next historical stage, or was he to impose upon the empire the radically different political forms that had come to characterize the “Legalist” state of Qin?...At the time of the conquest, some ministers of Qin proposed to the king-turned-emperor that the only feasible way to administer a polity the size of China would be on the model of Zhou feudalism. These men urged the king to do what the Zhou founders had done 800 years earlier: establish his sons as kings in various realms at some remove from the capital and so begin the process of reviving the system of rule by dispersed clan leaders. / [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The minister Li Si, one of the most influential Legalist thinkers, opposed this plan in strident terms. He maintained that the system of bureaucratic autocracy that had been established in the old state of Qin a century before was fully adequate to administer the empire, and, moreover, he believed that only such a system could avoid the dispersion of power that had, in the end, brought down the Zhou and the more traditional ruling houses of the multi-state period: those of Jin and Qi. At the time of the conquest, Li Si did not yet occupy the highest position in the Qin government. His official position was Commandant of Justice; the prime ministership belonged to a man named Wang Wan, about whom we know virtually nothing. Wang proposed to the king-turned-emperor that the only feasible way to administer a polity the size of China would be on the model of Zhou feudalism. He urged the king to establish his sons as kings in various realms at some remove from the capital and so begin the process of reviving the system of rule by dispersed clan leaders.

In Li Si prevailed. capital itself was be relocated; the city of Xianyang, the royal seat of the Qin state, would become the capital of all China. Ironically, Xianyang was the approximate site of the Western Zhou capital, (near the modern city of Xi'an).

Memorial on Annexation of Feudal States by Li Si

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The memorial below by Li Si was recorded by the Han dynasty historian Sima Qian (145?-86? B.C.). It may, therefore, reflect Han bias in either the choice made or the accuracy of the record. However, we have no alternative sources from which to compare the record and investigate the nature and extent of whatever bias may be present. This document must, then, stand as one of the best records we have as to the policies pursued by the Qin ruler in imposing unification on the fragmented Zhou polity. [Source:Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

The “Memorial on Annexation of Feudal States” by Li Si (as recorded by Sima Qian) reads: “He who waits on others misses his opportunities, while a man aiming at great achievements takes advantage of a critical juncture and relentlessly follows it through. Why is it that during all the years that Duke Mu of Qin (659.621 B.C.) was overlord ( ba) among the feudal princes, he did not try to annex the Six States to the east? It was because the feudal lords were still numerous and the power of the imperial Zhou had not yet decayed. Hence, as the Five Overlords succeeded one another, each in turn upheld the House of Zhou. But since the time of Duke Xiao of Qin (361.338 B.C.) the House of Zhou has been declining, the feudal states have been annexing one another, and east of the pass there remain only Six States. [Source: Memorial on Annexation of Feudal States by Li Si (as recorded by Sima Qian) “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 208-210; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“Through military victories, the state of Qin has, in the time of the last six kings, brought the feudal lords into submission. And by now the feudal states yield obeisance to Qin as if they were its commanderies and prefectures. Now, with the might of Qin and the virtues of Your Highness, at one stroke, like sweeping off the dust from a kitchen stove, the feudal lords can be annihilated, imperial rule can be established, and unification of the world can be brought about.

“This is the one moment in ten thousand ages. If Your Highness allows it to slip away and does not press the advantage in haste, the feudal lords will revive their strength and organize themselves into an anti-Qin alliance. Then no one, even though he possess the virtues of the Yellow Emperor, would be able to annex their territories.”

Qin Empire in 210 BC

Commanderies, Counties and Relocation of the Patrician Clans

Dr. Eno wrote: Li Si’s plan resulted “in a transformation of China that was may have been the most sudden, widespread, fundamental, and long lasting social revolution in history. During the first months of Qin rule, a new administrative map of China was drawn, which divided the land into 36 military districts called “commanderies.” Each commandery was administered by a military governor, whose principal attentions were devoted to regulating his portion of a system of garrisons constructed throughout the empire, with particular attention to regions subject to attack by non-Chinese nomads. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Within each of the 36 commanderies a much larger number of counties were demarcated. Each county was administered by a chief magistrate, who supervised subordinate magistrates in every city, town, and significant village within his domain. The city magistrate was the lowest level of government appointed administrator, but his locally recruited staff and representative headmen designated for neighborhoods and small villages also served the central government. /+/

“To ensure that no wealthy clans who represented existing sources of local power could rival the government’s influence in the counties, the Qin court financed a massive removal of the patrician clans to the region surrounding Xianyang, where they could be closely supervised. The historical annals tell us that 120,000 clans were relocated in this way, and provided with incomes that would keep them uninterested in fomenting revolt. The walls of their former estate fortress-cities were demolished, both the inner walls surrounding their palaces and the outer walls of military defense, and a massive program to collect and melt down weapons was instituted – there was to be no more civil war in China!” /+/

Creation of a Nationwide Bureaucracy

Dr. Eno wrote: “With the states abolished and the hereditary patrician class curtailed, the Qin needed to put into place new forms of administrative management that would allow them to control so large a country as China. The forms that they created became a basis for later generations of imperial Chinese governments. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Qin government can be conceived as an interlocking of four elements: the emperor at the apex; a nationwide civil and military bureaucracy that was managed by the civil ministers at court through their well-staffed bureaus; a group of nine to eleven palace chamberlains, who managed an extensive and compartmentalized palace bureaucracy; district officers and clerks selected from the local populace by low-level civil officials.” Put another way the 1) The Emperor was at the top. 2) Under him were General-in-Chief, Prime Minister and Chief Censor Chamberlains. 3) Under them were the capital bureaus and palace bureaus. 4) Under them were the commanderies and 5) below them were the counties, headed by locally appointed officers.

Replica of Empero Qin's throne at Forbidden City Gardens in Katy Texas

“Under this scheme, which was likely derived from Shang Yang’s reforms in Qin, the prime minister held enormous power. The office of the Censorate was commissioned as an investigative arm of the government, empowered to evaluate the conduct of all officeholders and report directly to the emperor. This function was a potentially powerful one, and it became so at certain periods during the Han and later. In the Qin, however, the Censorate does not seem to exercise a great deal of power. /+/

“The Prime Minister, Chief Censor, and General-in-Chief were termed the “Three Dukes,” and enjoyed the highest of state ranks. The “Nine Chamberlains” were, in some cases, more intimate with the emperor and could exercise influence beyond their apparent function. During the Han, these positions often became stepping stones to the prime ministership. /+/

“We know virtually nothing about the process through which these various positions were staffed. Our operating assumption is that personal connections and irregular solicitations of regional recommendations were employed to find talented men for government service. Our texts have not preserved the names of men who rose from the lower ranks of government. Those with whom we are familiar, such as Li Si, had generally held high office prior to the conquest. It is certain, however, that as in all governments influence was not tied strictly to office. The eunuch Zhao Gao who, as we shall see, did more than any other man to corrupt the Qin court for his own advancement, took control of events even though his official post was only Supervisor o

Economic and Legal Standardization and Writing Reform

Dr. Eno wrote: “During this period, the Qin also set out to erase the diversity that had distinguished the various regions of China. Massive programs intended to unify standards and customs were instituted. Carts and carriages were hereafter to be constructed with uniform axle measurements so that roads throughout the empire would be suitable for travel by vehicles from any place. Old forms of locally minted currency were taken out of circulation in favor of universally distributed imperial coinage. Weights and measures were unified so that goods produced and marketed were in all places priced and taxed equivalently. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

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f the Palace Carriages. /+/

The Qin system of law was now enforced in all regions of the empire. This meant the promulgation of vast codes of administrative regulations, directives concerning proper forms of criminal investigation and prosecution, and norms for sentencing. The mutual responsibility system that registered five families together as legal units was extended to all regions, and the Qin systems of official appointments and salaries regulated all levels of offices. In addition, the system of eighteen ranks was extended. All official designations of social prestige and privilege were now to be regulated according to this non-hereditary ranking of merit, based on contributions to the state. /+/

“Li Si’s name is connected with all these reforms, but most closely with one particular feature of Qin universalization that was entirely new. During the Classical period, the various regions of China had evolved different versions of written script, sometimes making documents unintelligible across state borders. Li Si supervised a project to rationalize the Zhou scripts and create an entirely new version, suitable for use throughout the empire. This new script became a legal standard for all official documents and for instruction, and is the ancestor of modern Chinese characters. More than any other reform, the standardization of script symbolized the cultural unity that Qin intended to bring to the empire.” /+/

Emperor Qin and Public Works

A number of public works projects were also undertaken to consolidate and strengthen imperial rule. These included building a network of roads that fanned in out in all directions from the capital of Xian and constructing a network of canals that grew into greatest inland water communication system in the world. He even fixed the length for carriage axles so the wheels of carts would fit into the ruts of the roads.

Zhengguo Canal

Dr. Eno wrote: “In addition to the programs of standardization, the Qin began a massive program of internal improvements intended to modernize China and facilitate commercial and military strength. This program took two principal forms: road building and wall building. During the brief span of the Qin, the government sponsored the construction of over 4000 miles of highways. These highways were to be designed for rapid transit; they were built to high specifications, broad and tree-lined, constructed to last. Derk Bodde has noted that in terms of length, the Qin in fifteen years constructed a highway system far lengthier than the famous roads of Rome. Like the Roman roads, these highways were so durable that many stretches remain clearly visible today.It is even more remarkable to realize that these highways were built at the same time as the Qin was erecting the Great Wall. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Emperor Qin conquered what is now Sichuan and oversaw the construction of a mountain road between Xian and present-day Chengdu. A third of its length is said to have been constructed on a five-foot wide wooden balcony supported on wooden brackets driven into the sides of cliffs. Under Qin, 6,000 kilometers of roads were built, including 13-meter-wide highways with a central lane reserved for the Emperor and his family.

Qin’s projects required enormous levies of manpower and resources, not to mention repressive measures. China experienced great upheaval as it switched from a feudal to a bureaucratic system and undertook these grand projects. Under Emperor Qin, the state owned everything and peasants had to give up 50 percent of their harvest in taxes, compared to 3 percent later under the Han emperors. Emperor Qin financed many of his projects with the sale of surplus grain grown in fields irrigated by the Min River and Zheng Guo Canal. These costs to the Qin regime were high. Revolts broke out as soon as the first Qin emperor died in 210 B.C. His dynasty was extinguished less than twenty years after its triumph. The imperial system initiated during the Qin dynasty, however, set a pattern that was developed over the next two millennia.

Emperor Qin and the Great Wall of China

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Early Great Wall
Emperor Qin is credited with building the Great Wall of China by joining together a series of scattered fortifications, walls and ramparts that had been erected earlier in northern China and then building more walls and structures on a scale and at a rate that far exceeded anything that took place before.

To fend off barbarian intrusion, the fortification walls built by the various warring states were connected to make a 5,000- kilometer-long great wall. What is commonly referred to as the Great Wall is actually four great walls rebuilt or extended during the Western Han, Sui, Jin, and Ming periods, rather than a single, continuous wall. At its extremities, the Great Wall reaches from northeastern Heilongjiang Province to northwestern Gansu.

There are many stories about the building of the Great Wall and Emperor Qin. According to one, Meng, the husband of a beautiful woman named Wan, was put to work on the Great Wall for having a view that differed from that of Emperor Qin. When Wan went to look for Meng in the winter to bring him some warm clothes, she discovered he had died from exhaustion. She looked so distraught on hearing the news that the Great Wall took sympathy on her and collapsed to reveal her husbands bones. After giving him a descent burial she leaped into the sea, killing herself.

The main threat in the early years of the Great Wall came from the Hu, a horse-riding nomadic people from Central Asia. They were mentioned in the Warring States period (303-221 B.C.) and the Qin dynasty (221-207 B.C.). They periodically raided China even after Qin’s wall was built and the easily skirted the wall.

Dr. Eno wrote: “Although the wall that was constructed by the Qin was neither as long nor as solidly built as the currently existing wall, which is a Ming Dynasty restoration only about five hundred years old, it still represented the greatest single construction feat recorded up to that time. Recall that China had always been distinguished from its neighboring peoples by the social activity of wall-building, which dated from the third millennium B.C. with the rise of Longshan Culture. The presence of Chinese culture was signaled by the erection of city walls in regions to which the Shang and Zhou peoples emigrated, and we have seen that accounts of the Classical city include mention not only of outer walls, but of the inner fortress walls, and neighborhood walls. Successive layers of family, community, and political space was demarcated in early China by the erection of walls. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

The Qin wall is generally viewed as an expression of China’s desire for cultural insularity and military security – it was intended to wall out the non-Chinese tribes of the north and west, the only significant military threats to the Chinese state. But when we consider the construction of the Great Wall in combination with the Qin policy of destroying the patrician-built walls within China, it seems just as much a matter of defining by wall the essentially unitary political entity that the Qin wished to create – a walling in of the homogenous social space of the new empire.” /+/

Building the Great Wall of China Under Emperor Qin

Great Wall of Emperor Qin

Beginning in 221 B.C., walls first built between 770 and 450 B.C. by small independent, often warring, kingdoms were linked together and reinforced under orders from Emperor Qin. Made mostly from compacted earth and rubble, the walls were extended by some estimates to roughly 1,500 miles. The 180 million cubic meters of material used now lies at core of many sections of the wall.

Hundreds of thousands of workers took part in the project and perhaps tens of thousands of them died. Some were slaves, convicts and peasants conscripted to build the wall. Many were political prisoners who were sentenced to ten years of hard labor. By the time work was completed under Qin the wall was also known as "the longest cemetery in the world."

Dr. Eno wrote: ““The greatest of the Qin generals, Meng Tian, was entrusted with the task of supervising the construction of the wall and of the branches of the road system that would serve it. Meng Tian’s plan was to make use of extensive sections of defensive walls that had been constructed earlier by all four Classical states that defined China’s northern borders: Qin, Wei, Zhao, and Yan. He was empowered to recruit up to 300,000 men to serve as a standing army of construction workers. The logistics of the task were forbidding. The lands where the wall was to stretch were distant from the centers of Chinese population and agriculture. Massive amounts of food and goods would need to be shipped long distances. The wall was erected not over fertile plains, but over very steep mountain ridges and desert wastes, where construction difficulties were maximized. And the length of the wall stretched over 2,000 miles, which was not only a huge area to supervise, but which was also precisely the line along which China was vulnerable to raids by nomads, who, as we will see, were now well organized in a complex and powerful polity known as the Xiongnu. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Military Expansion and Colonization During the Qin Dynasty

Dr. Eno wrote: “Legalist ideology conceived the goals of the state and its ruler solely in terms of increases in wealth and in territory. Now that China was a unified state, the imperative to increase territory took on a new meaning. Whereas it had previously been conceived entirely in terms of the competition among the patrician rulers of the Chinese polity, it now meant extension of that polity itself. Although the Qin enforced a policy of domestic peace and internal disarmament, it also maintained a large network of standing armies and garrisons on the borders. The militaristic culture of the Qin was now simply turned outward rather than in. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The north and west. In the north and west, the Xiongnu had brought into political coherence many of the previously isolated tribes of the steppes. These were nomadic peoples, whose way of life was constrained by the settling of an agricultural population at the northern extreme of the Chinese cultural sphere. The Xiongnu seem to have had no designs on the major territories of China, but raiding and border warfare, at which their swift cavalry was extremely effective, was a part of the rhythm of life alongside the edge of China, and the Xiongnu were a constant military threat. This was particularly true once the Qin made it clear, by means of the Great Wall project, that China meant to lay permanent claim to lightly settled regions of land from the Ordos plain within the great loop of the Yellow River in the west to the mountains of Korea in the east. /+/

chariot archers

“The Xiongnu were formidable adversaries. They were united under the political leadership of a ruler known as the shanyu (sometimes there were more than one) who was viewed by the Xiongnu as the peer of the Chinese emperor. Strong shanyu were able to coordinate military operations among various tribal constituents of the Xiongnu confederacy along a very long border territory. General Meng Tian, whose duties, in addition to overseeing the Great Wall project, included control of the Xiongnu and pacification of northern lands so as to allow migration and settlement there of a portion of China’s farming population, was forced to maintain large standing armies in the field, in addition to his quarter million-plus wall builders. /+/

“The south and east. The Qin actively pursued policies of expansion into areas that had previously been, for China, terra incognita. Some of these regions were unsettled pockets within the reach of the traditional settled lands of China. For example, the First Emperor ordered the removal of 30,000 families to the coastal region along the south of the Shandong peninsula, which had been for centuries homeland to tribes known as the Eastern Yi. But the most dramatic resettlement projects were designed to extend the borders of China far to the south. /+/

“So successful were these southern settlement efforts during the decade and a half of Qin rule that Chinese administration was established south of the Yangzi in the fertile rice-growing areas along the branches of the West River, all the way to modern Canton. Chinese magistrates operated in areas as remote as northern Vietnam, and the mountain fastnesses of the southeast coastal regions were for the first time explored. Under the Qin, the total area under at least some form of Chinese control was increased by perhaps forty percent, even as an internal restructuring of unprecedented extent was being carried out.” /+/

Emperor Qin Shi Huang and the Confucians

Dr. Eno wrote: “ The First Emperor, who seems to have been fond of adopting the customs of the state of Qi (perhaps to escape the taint of his regional origins) established at his court a new ministerial position that the rulers of Qi had employed. This office, the title of which meant “broad-studied shi” is usually rendered in English as “Erudite.” The First Emperor recruited seventy erudites for his court. The erudites were a consultative body of men who were supposed to represent a wide range of learned viewpoints. Their function at the Qin court was advisory, and they were assembled at the pleasure of the emperor. Among the erudites whose names and skills are familiar to us, there appear to have been two groups: Confucians and fangshi. This lack of diversity is only apparent, however, for the term fangshi covers practitioners of a very broad range of pseudo-scientific arts. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The presence of Confucians in this entourage is significant. One of the most basic tenets of Confucian tradition in the Classical period had been that the man truly devoted to the Dao of the ancient sages did not serve at courts of debased rulers, both to protect the Tao from being manipulated for immoral ends (as in the case of Mencius in Qi) and to protect himself and his school against the whims of arbitrary rulers who might retaliate against those who admonished them for their misdeeds. That Confucians were willing to serve the First Emperor is a reflection both of the emperor’s desire to confirm the universality of his rule, and of the Confucian’s recognition that, however unexpected Tian’s long-awaited decision concerning the Mandate may have been, the Mandate had indeed been bestowed and the future had arrived. /+/

In 213 B.C., the presence of Confucians led to a disaster to that school of unprecedented scale. According to the “Shiji”: The First Emperor held a ceremonial banquet at the Xianyang Palace. The seventy erudites all stood before him and pledged him long life. The Master of Archery Zhou Qingchen stepped forth and praised the emperor with these words: “In former times, the lands of Qin did not exceed 1000 li square, but through your majesty’s spirit-like intelligence and brilliant sagacity, all within the four seas has been settled in peace and the barbarians of the south and east have been driven away. Wherever the sun and moon shine, all have submitted as subjects of Qin. The patrician domains have been transformed into commanderies and counties and every person finds spontaneous peace and happiness therein, free from distress of war and strife. May this continue for 10,000 generations! From the beginning of time, there has never been one whose awesome virtue equals your majesty’s!” [Source: “Shiji” 6.254 -]

“The First Emperor was pleased. But an erudite from Qi named Chunyu Yue stepped forward and spoke. “I have heard that the kings of the Yin and Zhou Dynasties ruled for a thousand years and more by allocating domains to their younger brothers and sons, and to their meritorious ministers, that they might serve as supports to the throne. Now your majesty possesses all within the seas, but your sons and brothers are mere commoners. If usurpers such as Tian Chang or the former high ministers in Jin were suddenly to appear, you would be without any aid or support – how could anyone save you? I have yet to hear of any ruler who did not take the past as his teacher but was yet able to endure for long. And now Qingchen has spoken like a toady to render the error you are making even graver. He is no loyal subject!”“ -

Emperor Qin on Tour

Emperor Qin’s Burying of Confucian Scholars

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Among the most infamous acts of the First Exalted Emperor of the Qin were the “burning of books,” ordered in 213 B.C., and the “execution of scholars,” ordered in 212 B.C. The execution of some 460 scholars was an attempt to eliminate opposition to the emperor by ruthlessly destroying all potentially “subversive” elements in his entourage. The two measures taken together suggest something of the habit of mind of the First Emperor, as he was influenced by advisers like Li Si but, again, it is significant that the following document comes down to us from the ensuing Han period.” [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Historian Xun Zhou told the BBC: "The scholars were talking behind his back. And of course being a paranoid person, he didn't like that. So he ordered the arrest of over 400 scholars and buried them...He got rid of anybody who showed opposition or didn't agree with him. He was paranoid. He was constantly in fear of how he could control this vast new territory with so many cultures and so many different groups of people." Peter Bol told the BBC: "Ideologically speaking, the Qin make the argument, 'We don't want to hear people criticise the present by referring to the past. The past is irrelevant. History is irrelevant. And so you have the burning of books, you have the burying of scholars, of scholarly critics." [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 15, 2012]

Dr. Eno wrote: “Few events of the Qin are more famous than the emperor’s orders to burn all the books in China and bury alive all the Confucians. The first of these was probably far more limited in scope than the histories suggest. The second may never have occurred, and if it did, was directed against fangshi rather than Confucians. Yet the reputations that Li Si and the First Emperor widely share as essentially evil men derives principally from the reports of these two incidents.[Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Emperor Qin and the Burning of Books

Emperor Qin ordered all books burned except those that praised the emperors (one reason why historical records before the Qin Dynasty are scarce). Among the primary targets of this order were all books associated with the Confucians. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: The “burning of books,” ordered in 213 B.C., was an effort to achieve thought control through destroying all literature except the Classic of Changes, the royal archives of the Qin house, and books on technical subjects, such as medicine, agriculture, and forestry. The measure was aimed particularly at the Classic of Documents and the Classic of Odes. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Dr. Eno wrote: “After the observation made by Chunyu Yue (see Emperor Qin and the Confucians above), “The emperor referred Chunyu Yue’s views to his high ministers for consideration, and Li Si replied with a blistering memorial. The gist of his response was to defend the abolition of Zhou feudalism (which had initially been his own proposal) and to attack the very notion that imperially sanctioned measures should be subject to evaluation by any but those officers charged with the responsibility of governance. Li said that the views that Chunyu Yue expressed showed no appreciation of a basic tenet of Legalism, that as times change forms of government must change as well. Instead, men like Chunyu Yue, whom Li Si called “adherents of private teachings,” employ the ideas of the past, in which they have a vested interest, to oppose and subvert the necessary policies of the present. “The climax of Li Si’s memorial was the following proposal, intended to eliminate the source of the private teachings that Li viewed as the enemy of progress. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

According to the Shiji, Li said: “I request that apart from the annals of Qin all the records kept by scribes be burnt. Any in the empire, other than those who hold the office of Erudite, possessing copies of the “Book of Songs”, “Book of Documents”, or the teachings of any of the Hundred Schools should be required to deliver them to their local wardens or commanders in order that they be burnt. Should any person dare to cite the “Poetry” or “Documents”, he should be executed in the marketplace. Anyone who cites precedents from antiquity to criticize present policies should be executed along with his entire family. Any officer with knowledge of such crimes who fails to report them should suffer a similar punishment. Anyone who fails to submit banned works for burning within thirty days of the promulgation of this order should be tattooed as a criminal and sent off to forced labor. Books concerning medicine, divination, and agriculture are to be exempted. Anyone wishing to study laws and statutes shall hereafter be permitted to do so only with an officer of state as his teacher.” [Source: “Shiji” 6.255]

Eno wrote: This proposal, which was clearly directed principally at Confucian defenders of the Zhou system, was approved by the emperor and made law. This is the great Qin burning of the books. There is no doubt that this policy was implemented. The loss of ancient texts through this event is the single most dramatic fact facing scholars of early China. There has been much recent debate over the scope of enforcement of this edict and the nature of its effects, but whatever the outcome of those discussions, the simple fact is that the First Emperor, together with Li Si, the student of a Confucian, attempted to destroy the fundamental traditions of Confucianism and the memory of the Zhou Dynasty and create a new cultural norm that viewed the past as irrelevant and the authority of the reigning emperor the sole standard of value and action. No action in Chinese history better captured the soul of Legalism. /+/

Memorial on the Burning of Books by Li Si

Burning of the Books and Burying of scholars

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The memorial below by Li Si was recorded by the Han dynasty historian Sima Qian (145?-86? B.C.). It may, therefore, reflect Han bias in either the choice made or the accuracy of the record. However, we have no alternative sources from which to compare the record and investigate the nature and extent of whatever bias may be present. This document must, then, stand as one of the best records we have as to the policies pursued by the Qin ruler in imposing unification on the fragmented Zhou polity. [Source:Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

The “Memorial on the Burning of Books” by Li Si (as recorded by Sima Qian) reads: “In earlier times the empire disintegrated and fell into disorder, and no one was capable of unifying it. Thereupon the various feudal lords rose to power. In their discourses they all praised the past in order to disparage the present and embellished empty words to confuse the truth. Everyone cherished his own favorite school of learning and criticized what had been instituted by the authorities. [Source: “Memorial on the Burning of Books” by Li Si (as recorded by Sima Qian). “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 208-210; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“But at present Your Majesty possesses a unified empire, has regulated the distinctions of black and white, and has firmly established for yourself a position of sole supremacy. And yet these independent schools, joining with each other, criticize the codes of laws and instructions. Hearing of the promulgation of a decree, they criticize it, each from the standpoint of his own school. At home they disapprove of it in their hearts; going out they criticize it in the thoroughfare. They seek a reputation by discrediting their sovereign; they appear superior by expressing contrary views, and they lead the lowly multitude in the spreading of slander. If such license is not prohibited, the sovereign power will decline above and partisan factions will form below. It would be well to prohibit this.

“Your servant suggests that all books in the imperial archives, save the memoirs of Qin, be burned. All persons in the empire, except members of the Academy of Learned Scholars, in possession of the “Classic of Odes”, the “Classic of Documents”, and discourses of the hundred philosophers should take them to the local governors and have them indiscriminately burned.

“Those who dare to talk to each other about the “Odes” and “Documents” should be executed and their bodies exposed in the marketplace. Anyone referring to the past to criticize the present should, together with all members of his family, be put to death. Officials who fail to report cases that have come under their attention are equally guilty. After thirty days from the time of issuing the decree, those who have not destroyed their books are to be branded and sent to build the Great Wall. Books not to be destroyed will be those on medicine and pharmacy divination by the turtle and milfoil, and agriculture and arboriculture. People wishing to pursue learning should take the officials as their teachers.”

Did Emperor Qin Really Bury the Confucian Scholars?

Dr. Eno wrote: “While we are assured of the historicity of the Qin book burning, the incident of the burying of the scholars seems quite likely to be an invention by later Confucians, hoping to further blacken the image of the Qin. If the incident did occur, it was an example of the First Emperor’s wrath being directed not against Confucians, but against their competitors, the fangshi. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“In 212 B.C., the emperor learned that some of his most valued fangshi, tired of living in fear of his whims, had fled the court. This incident brought to a head the emperor’s many dissatisfactions with the magicians and immortalists upon whom he had increasingly placed his hopes. He was furious to hear that some among the fangshi were speaking ill of him and that others whom he had sent off on missions in search of magic herbs had never returned or sent word. And Xu Fu, still complaining about that fish which shielded the isle of Penglai, was asking for more money! /+/

“In his pique, the emperor is said to have ordered an investigation of all the fangshi at court, and apparently each fell all over himself in his rush to slander some other practitioner. Of the several colorful accounts of what next ensued, the following first century B.C. account, which pictures the victims as Confucians, is surely the most imaginative. /+/

According to “Shiji zhengyi”: “The emperor ordered that melons be planted thick in a damp area of a ditch near Li Hill (where the emperor’s tomb was under construction). When the melons ripened, he summoned his erudites and learned men to explain how they came to grow there. No two explanations were alike, so the scholars were ordered to go to Li Hill to investigate. Now a trap had been set at Li Hill where these scholars and eminent Confucians were led. When they descended into the ditch and began to argue endlessly with one another the trap was sprung. Masses of earth came tumbling down upon them from above and they suffocated one and all until, in the end, not a sound could be heard.” [Source: “Shiji zhengyi” 121 (3117 n.1)]

Mao and the Legacy of Qin Shi Huang

rightAmong Emperor Qin’s greatest admirers was Mao Zedong. When Mao was a young he wrote, "I considered the emperor as well as most officials to be honest, good and clever men." In 1958, Mao compared himself to Qin Shi Huang. "He buried 460 scholars alive - we have buried 46,000 scholars alive," he said in a speech to party cadres. "You [intellectuals] revile us for being Qin Shi Huangs. You are wrong. We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold."

Harvard's Peter Bol told the BBC sees parallels with today's China. Like Qin Shi Huang, the Communist Party tolerates debate about tactics - but not about the general direction of travel, he says. "They argue that it is the only possible approach to governing China." Historian Xun Zhou concurs. "In Communist China, we adopted the imperial model. The emperor is absolute. And the only way to rule such a vast empire is ruthlessness," she says. [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 15, 2012]

On the parallels between Mao and Qin Shi Huangdi, Robert N. Bellah, one of the world's foremost sociologists of religion and author of “Religion in Human Evolution," told the New York Times that Qin Shi Huangdi was a follower of the Legalist philosophy, which taught that only harsh punishments could keep people in line and provide effective government. Qin Shihuangdi's short-lived reign proved that tyranny doesn't work, Mr. Bellah ites in “Religion in Human Evolution": "Somehow a moral basis of rule was necessary after all." [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times December 28, 2011]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Unify Characters, Ohio State University;

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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