QIN DYNASTY (221-206 B.C.)


rightMuch of what came to constitute China Proper was unified for the first time in 221 B.C. In that year the western frontier state of Qin, the most aggressive of the Warring States, subjugated the last of its rival states. (Qin in Wade-Giles romanization is Ch'in, from which the English China probably derived.) The semibarbarous Qin dynasty (221–206 B.C.) established the first centralized imperial system that governed China during stable periods. The Great Wall was begun in this period. [Source: The Library of Congress ; Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

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]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “ The era of disunity, the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods,came to an end in 221 B.C., when the state of Qin conquered all the other states that had grown to independent status within the fragmented polity of the late Zhou. The Qin united China under a single strong government, as had been the case during the Shang and the Western Zhou. The Qin celebrated the power of this government and of its ruler, a supreme autocrat who called himself an “Emperor” rather than a “King.” Because of this name change, we generally speak of China from the Qin until this century as “Imperial China,” while the Classical and earlier eras are termed “pre-Imperial.” The distinction makes some sense – as we will see, the nature of the Chinese state does change very dramatically after 221 B.C. However, the Zhou state was actually no less an “empire” than the Qin later became: both periods saw the rapid expansion of Chinese power into areas that were initially not part of the Chinese polity.

“The Qin Dynasty was not long lived. It was unusually tyrannical in its form of autocracy and was overturned by rebellion only fifteen years after its formal founding. The successor dynasty, the Han, endured, with one interruption, for four centuries. The Western Han (or Former Han), lasted from 206 B.C. until A.D. 220, with a hiatus during years A.D. 8-23. Dramatic changes occurred during the Han, and it forms a bridge between what we may call ancient China, and what is sometimes termed “medieval China.” G380 will only carry us part way into the Han. We will close as the patterns of the ancient era fade into new structures of state and society, about the year 100 B.C.” /+/

In eyes of Chinese classical thinkers, “The era of the Qin, so feared as its advent neared, became with its arrival a new object of hope. There is good reason to believe that many in China were prepared to see in the Qin the will of Heaven in which they had long had faith. But the leaders of the Qin failed to make room for the visions that had shaped the expectations of the future so that they could gradually evolve along with the changes of the times. They declared the Classical vision of the future unlawful, an implicit indictment of the present, and they made a famous effort to wipe it away outright and realize the “Dao de jing”'s ideal of a people with empty minds and full stomachs. This was a key aspect of the Qin failure.” /+/

The Qin Dynasty lastied only a few years beyond Emperor Qin’s death. Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.) Rulers: Qin Shi Huangdi (ruled 221–210 B.C.); Er Shi (ruled (210–207 B.C.). There is some debate as to when the Qin Dynasty began. In 256 B.C. the last ruler of the Zhou dynasty abdicated in favour of the feudal lord of the state of Qin. Some people place the beginning of the Qin dynasty in that year, 256 B.C.; others prefer the date 221 B.C., because it was only in that year that the remaining feudal states came to their end and Qin really ruled all China. There is also some debate over when it ended. Some say it ended after Emperor Qin's death. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Websites and Sources: Qin Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Emperor Qin Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Xian : Wikipedia Wikipedia
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

State of Qin

Qin in the Warring States Period

The territories of the state of Qin were in present-day Shaanxi and eastern Gansu, a peripheral location and transit region, isolated by steppes and deserts to the north and almost impassable mountains to the south. Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: Only between these barriers, along the rivers Wei (in Shaanxi) and T'ao (in Gansu), is there a rich cultivable zone which is also the only means of transit from east to west. All traffic from and to Turkestan had to take this route. It is believed that strong relations with eastern Turkestan began in this period, and the state of Qin must have drawn big profits from its "foreign trade". The merchant class quickly gained more and more importance. The population was growing through immigration from the east which the government encouraged. This growing population with its increasing means of production, especially the great new irrigation systems, provided a welcome field for trade which was also furthered by the roads, though these were actually built for military purposes. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The state of Qin had never been so closely associated with the feudal communities of the rest of China as the other feudal states. A great part of its population, including the ruling class, was not purely Chinese but contained an admixture of Turks and Tibetans. The other Chinese even called Qin a "barbarian state", and the foreign influence was, indeed, unceasing. This was a favourable soil for the overcoming of feudalism, and the process was furthered by the factors mentioned in the preceding chapter, which were leading to a change in the social structure of China. Especially the recruitment of the whole population, including the peasantry, for war was entirely in the interest of the influential nomad fighting peoples within the state. About 250 B.C., Qin was not only one of the economically strongest among the feudal states, but had already made an end of its own feudal system.

Dr. Eno wrote: “The state of Qin was the westernmost of the patrician states of China, and had originally been viewed as a non-Chinese tribe. Its ruler was granted an official Zhou title in the eighth century B.C. in consequence of political loyalty and military service provided to the young Zhou king in Luoyang, the new eastern capital, at a time when the legitimate title to the Zhou throne was in dispute after the fall of the Western Zhou. The sustained reign of Duke Mu during the seventh century did much to elevate the status of Qin among the community of patrician states, but the basic prejudice against Qin as semi-“barbarian” persisted. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Never during the Classical period did Qin come to be viewed as fully Chinese in a cultural sense. Qin produced great warriors, but no great leaders after Duke Mu, no notable thinkers or literary figures. Its governmental policies were the most progressive in China, but these were all conceived and implemented by men from the east who served as “Alien Ministers” at the highest ranks of the Qin court, rather than by natives of Qin. Yet Qin aspired to full membership in the Chinese cultural sphere. Li Si, the Prime Minister who shepherded Qin’s conquest of the other states, captured what must have been a widely held view of Qin in a memorial he sent to the king before his elevation to highest power. “To please the ear by thumping a water jug, banging a pot, twanging a zither, slapping a thigh and singing "woo-woo!"– that is the native music of Qin.... But now you have set aside jar-thumping and pot-banging and turn to the music of Zheng and Wey.” /+/

“However, Qin’s outsider position provided it with certain distinct advantages. Most obviously, its marginal location gave it a defensive security against the other Chinese states, and the valley of the Wei River was more than distant, it was a natural fortress, easily guarded at the great Hangu Pass just south of the Yellow River’s elbow. Qin’s cultural marginality proved an advantage in the long run as well. The far less developed customs of patrician privilege allowed Qin to advance the principles of central government, bureaucratic admi- nistration, and appointment by merit far more rapidly than could any other state. The great service that Shang Yang rendered to Qin in the fourth century was precisely to realize this latent potential in Qin society. And the very fact that Qin did not produce great political minds accustomed rulers and courtiers to accept the need for outside help, and recruit outstanding ministerial talent from among all the states of the east. /+/

“One other advantage that the Qin state possessed by virtue of its peripheral position was the mixed blessing of frequent military encounters with nomad peoples. The western nomad tribes – the groups that had led to the downfall of the Western Zhou, harassed the Qin for many centuries, and while this would surely have seemed a disadvantage at the time, eventually it instilled in Qin systems of military discipline exceeding those of the eastern states. It also brought Qin into frequent contact with non-Chinese methods of warfare, including cavalry warfare and advanced crossbow technology, all of which greatly enriched the generalship that Qin was able to bring to bear in conquering China. /+/

“The combination of a weak patrician class and a strong military tradition in Qin was reflected in an important Qin innovation, a finely graded system of honorary social ranks that was chiefly a reflection of success in war. These non-hereditary ranks, of which there were about eighteen, conferred various types of privileges upon warriors: tax exemptions, government positions, land, and so forth. Although by the late third century these ranks could be purchased, by then the incentives had yielded a firm tradition linking social mobility to valor in battle, a great asset to a state about to launch a decade-long final push for supremacy.” /+/

Early History of the State of Qin

Eighteen kingdoms

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The people of Qin had their roots in the barbarian tribes of Yi from eastern China, but their ancestors later migrated west to Longdong, where they became vassals of the Zhou Dynasty. Elevated to the peerage in Guanzhong, the Qin proceeded to rally the remnants of the Zhou people in western China after the Zhou capital was moved east following devastating nomadic raids, and eventually established hegemony over the western Rong nomadic peoples. Through this process of migration and expansion, the Qin began assimilating different tribes and cultures from a very early stage; as a result, neither the Qin nobility nor the general populace can be said to stem from a single uniform ethnic group. In early years, Qin was heavily influenced by Zhou culture, but later incorporated elements of Rong nomadic culture during the late Spring and Autumn Period to develop the characteristic Qin systems and civilization, the influence of which can be felt to this day. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“Initially, the political status of Qin was quite lowly: Qin Feizi (r. ?-858 B.C.), the founder of the Qin state, was a mere vassal of the Zhou Court, and his great-grandson Qin Zhong (r. 844-822 B.C.) only held the minor court rank of daifu. However, the fortunes of Qin rose as those of the Zhou Dynasty waned. Duke Xiang of Qin (r. 777-766 B.C.) was inducted into the ranks of Zhou nobility, and Duke Mu of Qin (r. 659-621 B.C.) later became one of the Five Hegemons of the Spring and Autumn Period. During the Warring States Period, Lord Huiwen of Qin (r. 338-311 B.C.) assumed the title of King, and enacted a policy of vertical and horizontal alliances to conquer the remaining six states, which ultimately culminated in the emergence of the First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi (r. 247-220 B.C.). The rise in political status closely reflected the expanding power and influence wielded by the Qin state. \=/

“During the Western Zhou Period, the Qin bred horses for the Zhou Kings. Between the Western Zhou and Eastern Zhou periods, the Qin migrated into Guanzhong and became skilled in agriculture and warfare. Duke Xiao of Qin (r. 361-338 B.C.) employed the Legalist statesman Shang Yang as prime minister during his reign, and greatly expanded agricultural land and activity. King Huiwen of Qin then proceeded to annex the lands of Shang Jun to the north, Hanzhong in the south, Ba and Shu in the west, and the rich fields of other states to the east. This led to a flourishing of the arms industry, thus providing a strong agricultural and military basis for the expansion of the Qin Empire. \=/

“Qin inherited the systems and customs of Zhou, and rose to prominence during the Spring and Autumn Period. A decline was witnessed between the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods, but Qin managed to revive under the reforms of Shang Yang. These crucial reforms resulted in the abolishment of the Qin aristocracy, the broad recruitment of sages and intellectuals from other states to the Qin Court, and the establishment of a military reward system and a civil punishment system. Moreover, Shang Yang replaced the feudal fiefdoms with commanderies and counties, and designed a centralized bureaucracy that extended from the three chancellors and nine ministers in the central government to the chief administrators, military commanders, and imperial inspectors of the commanderies and counties. A household registration system was also established to record the names and identities of all the common people. Together, these changes created the basis for a strong centralized government that would be essential for the rise of empire.” \=/

Expansion and Governance of the State of Qin

Between 475 and 221 B.C. the Qin (Ch’in) gradually emerged from among warring, regional states to unify China into a system of districts and counties under central control.. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The eastward expansion process of Qin can best be described as "Nine Capitals and Eight Migrations". From a small fiefdom around Xiquanqiu, the Qin migrated through Long to Shaanxi, where they expelled the nomadic Rong tribes and gradually took over the former lands of Zhou. During the Spring and Autumn Period, the Qin based their capital at Yongcheng, but subsequently relocated it to Xianyang during the Warring States Period, in order to better guard the rich Guanzhong area. Eventually, Qin unified the other six eastern states to establish the Qin Empire. This process of gradual annexation and expansion is clearly documented by the numerous artifacts and archaeological sites excavated in the Li, Qingshui, and Gangu Counties of Gansu province, as well as Baoji, Pingyang, Fengxiang, Jingyang, Lintong, and Xianyang in Shaanxi Province. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“The religious and cultural system of Qin developed in concert with the ethnic integration and territorial expansion of the Qin state. Since the days when Duke Xiang of Qin built the Western Altar and Duke Wen of Qin (r. 765-716 B.C.) made the Fu Altar, the Qin had established numerous temples and altars in the west for the worship of the Five Emperors. During the Warring States Period, King Huiwen of Qin led prayers to Mount Hua, and King Zhaoxiang of Qin (r. 306-251 B.C.) made sacrifices to the Heavenly Emperor. Qin Shihuangdi toured the east to perform his fengshan ceremony, where he worshipped the Eight Gods of Heaven, Earth, War, Ying, Yang, the Sun, the Moon, and the Four Seasons, while also dispatching emissaries to seek out immortals in the eastern seas. Generally, these state religious activities primarily served to extend and consolidate control over the daily life and philosophical thought of the Qin Empire.” \=/

Dr. Eno wrote: “The fortunes of Qin seem in retrospect to be very closely tied to the abilities of the foreign ministers that it recruited. Shang Yang was the most prominent but not the first of these – the successes of Duke Mu at a much earlier time had been largely due to an outstanding group of foreign talent that he had assembled in his ministerial staff. In the mid-third century, Qin domestic politics was dominated by Lü Buwei, originally from Han. Lü does not himself seem to have been a remarkably able Prime Minister, for all his success as a schemer, but he provided the great service of recruiting to Qin as his personal retainers a very large group of persuaders (the men who composed "The Almanac of Lord Lü"). Lü’s eventual successor, Li Si, first rose in Qin as a member of Lü’s entourage.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Every feudal system harbours some seeds of a bureaucratic system of administration: feudal lords have their personal servants who are not recruited from the nobility, but who by their easy access to the lord can easily gain importance. They may, for instance, be put in charge of estates, workshops, and other properties of the lord and thus acquire experience in administration and an efficiency which are obviously of advantage to the lord. When Chinese lords of the preceding period, with the help of their sub-lords of the nobility, made wars, they tended to put the newly-conquered areas not into the hands of newly-enfeoffed noblemen, but to keep them as their property and to put their administration into the hands of efficient servants; these were the first bureaucratic officials. Thus, in the course of the later Zhou period, a bureaucratic system of administration had begun to develop, and terms like "district" or "prefecture" began to appear, indicating that areas under a bureaucratic administration existed beside and inside areas under feudal rule. This process had gone furthest in Qin and was sponsored by the representatives of the Legalist School, which was best adapted to the new economic and social situation. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“When the empire had been unified by the destruction of the feudal states, the central government became responsible for the protection of the frontiers from attack from without. In the south there were only peoples in a very low state of civilization, who could offer no serious menace to the Chinese. The trading colonies that gradually extended to Canton and still farther south served as Chinese administrative centres for provinces and prefectures, with small but adequate armies of their own, so that in case of need they could defend themselves. In the north the position was much more difficult.

Li Si: the Architect of the Qin Conquest?

Li Si

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Li Si (d. 208 B.C.) was, along with the Legalist philosopher Han Fei (d. 233 B.C.), a student of Xunzi (c. 310.c. 219 B.C.) and an official for the kingdom of Qin. When Qin conquered the remaining feudal states of the Zhou dynasty and built a new, centralized empire, Li Si was prime minister to the first emperor, Qin Shihuang. As prime minister, Li Si had the opportunity to bring Legalist political philosophy to bear on the task of uniting and ruling the patchwork of newly-conquered feudal states of the former Zhou kingdom.” [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Dr. Eno wrote: “Li Si, whom many regard as the true architect of the Qin conquest, was originally from the town of Shangcai in the state of Chu. He was a man of humble background, and as an ambitious youth he sought to better himself by traveling to Qi to study under the Confucian Xunzi, who was the senior master at Jixia. After some time spent in Qi, Li determined that the future lay with Qin rather than in his native Chu, and he traveled west to seek his fortune as a persuader. Like his “classmate” Han Feizi, he chose not to follow the idealistic program of Confucianism, with its dictum to avoid political engagement in times of immorality, and instead gravitated towards the doctrines and methods of Legalism, an appropriate set of wares to peddle in Qin.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Li Si arrived in 247 B.C., a year of transition in Qin. The young King Zhuangxiang, the former Prince Zichu, died that year, and the fortunes of Lü Buwei rose to new heights with the installation of the new boy king, Zheng. King Zheng was only thirteen upon his enthronement, and was under the thumb of his merchant prime minister (whom the “Shiji” identifies as his father). Lü Buwei was impressed with his newly arrived retainer Li Si and before long he introduced him to the king, who appointed him to a major government position. Over the next decade, Li became increasingly active in the Qin government, and his role at the Qin capital of Xianyang seems to have increasingly involved service to the king rather than to Lü Buwei. Thus when Lü met his downfall in 237 B.C., Li Si seems to have weathered the event well, initially suffering no ill effects. /+/

“But within months, the native patricians of Qin, long weak and subject to domination by alien ministers, made a move to regain power they had lost over a century earlier. The affair of Lü Buwei’s transgressions, combined with the state of Han’s attempt to sabotage Qin military preparedness through the affair of the Zheng Guo Canal, prompted the native elite to persuade the king to abandon the Qin tradition of recruiting foreigners to high positions. The danger of treachery had grown, they argued, and Qin would now need to rely on its own resources. /+/

“The king accordingly issued an order to banish all foreigners from Qin, and Li Si was caught in the net. However, Li Si promptly composed a long and eloquent memorial to the throne, reviewing the many goods that Qin had derived from its tradition of recruitment. This memorial, much admired by later writers, led the king to reverse his orders. Li was reappointed, and seems from this time on to have become indispensable to the king. Although he did not actually occupy the position of prime minister until after the unification of China in 221 B.C., from 237 B.C. on he appears to have had unparalleled influence. King Zheng was now twenty-two, and he and Li Si formed an energetic axis of political energy that brought the institutions of Qin to higher levels of efficiency than had ever before been achieved. The final campaign to conquer China began shortly thereafter. /+/

“Traditional histories have portrayed Li Si as one of the great villains of the Chinese past. Rather than marvel at the way that he was able to systematically apply Legalist principles to engineer the Qin conquest and the establishment of a revolutionary new form of government in the Qin Imperial state, they have quibbled over his slight misdeeds. For example, historians have deplored his treachery to his friend Han Feizi – whom he jealously slandered so that Han Feizi would be sentenced to execution – largely ignoring the fact that Li Si thoughtfully sent his jailed former classmate poison so that Han Feizi could die with honor (also sparing him the pain of learning who had slandered him). Or they have fussed over Li Si having persuaded the First Emperor of the Qin to order all non-Legalist texts, with a few exceptions, to be burnt, so that people would no longer have the understanding to challenge the government. They have even gone so far as to take him to task for the massive slaughter of Confucian scholars, who were, so it is said, buried alive in huge pits. /+/

“We should recognize, however, that without Li Si, the First Emperor would surely never have been able to channel his megalomaniac talents into so productive an outlet as the establishment of perhaps the largest successful tyranny ever seen, and the revolution of the Chinese state that the Qin Dynasty represented might never have occurred, or would at least have been seriously delayed. And in this regard, Li Si must surely be regarded as in a class by himself among the Legalists.” /+/

Political Role of the Qin Military

colored terracotta warrior

Dr. Eno wrote: “Li Si is often given the greatest amount of credit for the Qin conquest of China. The conquest campaigns began in earnest in 230 B.C. and required only nine years to complete, the conditions for victory having been slowly established over the preceding century. Much is made of the fact that Li Si implemented an extensive program of diplomatic bribery between 237 B.C., when his power first crested, and the commencement of the conquest wars: hundreds of thousands of gold pieces were slipped into the pockets of high ministers in the eastern states to secure intelligence and policies friendly to Qin at those patrician courts. These measures, coupled with a tightening of Qin administration, were essential to Qin’s eventual success. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“But Li Si fought no battles – he was neither a warlord minister nor a military tactician. The success of the armies of Qin was due in large part to an outstanding group of military leaders. It is a remarkable feature of Qin politics that these generals do not appear to have used their military prestige to attempt to gain personal influence at court, and so their impact on the history of Qin remained limited to their accomplishments in the field. The apolitical conduct of these generals was of great benefit to Li Si. /+/

“There were probably a number of factors that allowed a militaristic state like Qin to maintain so clear a separation between civilian and military authority. The Qin armies had, from an early time, been firmly under centralized control. With its weak patrician class, Qin did not have the history of private warlord power centers that had plagued Jin and Qi, and the reforms of Shang Yang had enhanced the control that the king exercised over all military operations. Moreover the linkage of military success to social standing fostered by the Qin system of ranks meant that the leaders of the armies were more likely to be men trained in military skills rather than persuader skills or military theory. These were men less likely to be comfortable with ministerial assemblies and royal audiences, or with the politics of court intrigue. /+/

“It is possible to picture the military success of Qin as solely a product of an effective political “system,” over which Li Si was steward. But there is at least one other critical fact to consider: the character of King Zheng, whom we may now refer to using the title by which he is famous: the First Emperor. /+/

Suddenness of the Qin Wars of Conquest

Dr. Eno wrote: “The wars of conquest that brought the Qin Dynasty into being were surprisingly brief, lasting under a decade. They are not recorded in great detail, perhaps a function of the extreme social dislocations of the times, which may have hampered communications and militated against detailed chronicles being kept outside of Qin, a state not known for literary attention. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The swiftness of this final close to half a millennium of political fragmentation and competition may be an indication of simple failure of will – so bankrupt had the contention of the patrician lords come to appear, that unification under any ruler, even one so greatly feared in the east as the ruler of Qin, may have seemed less dreadful than a continuation of what had come before. When Qi finally surrendered in 221 B.C., the last barrier to a reunified empire, surely a great sigh of relief must have followed from ordinary people throughout China. /+/

“All traditional histories of China agree in portraying the sudden final conquest by Qin as an event viewed as a catastrophe by the people of the time. For the generation of the time, nothing must have seemed so sure as that the new order that was to be created would be one governing the lives of their children and descendants for many generations to come. Heaven had never invested its trust in a short-term dynasty.” /+/

Impact of the Qin Wars of Conquest

Dr. Eno wrote: “In understanding the nature of the early Chinese empire, that is, the years following the Qin conquest, it is important to consider the impact of the events of the 220s B.C. That decade had begun with the dissolution of the old state of Han by the armies of Qin. This represented the first extinction of a major power by military force since Yue had annihilated Wu almost 250 years earlier, and the event surely shook the security of the elite in every state in eastern China. Yet all the other major powers still remained in place, their weakness not yet evident. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“It is true that both Wei and Chu had suffered serious encroachments from Qin during the preceding decades, but individual states had become strong in the manner of Qin many times in the former centuries. Even men who proclaimed that the end was near were surely thinking in terms of a generation or two, rather than nine short years. The decade was perhaps the greatest cataclysm in Chinese history. One after another, the five hundred year-old ruling houses of the Eastern Zhou states fell before the armies of Qin – the state that had been least regarded as a possible heir to the Zhou and the sage kings of antiquity. /+/

“For centuries, the people of China had anxiously looked for the coming of the future – has any culture ever awaited the coming of a New Age with more patience? It had always been understood that the era that replaced the bloody age of war we call Classical China would be a utopian one, where China was reunited under a sage ruler who would be the successor, if not of Yao and Shun, then of Yu, Tang, and Wen, the dynastic founders. Now, suddenly, the future had arrived, and whatever the reputation of Qin as a barbarian and legalistic state, and of its ruler as a ruthless patrician lord, the Ying clan of Qin was now in receipt of the Mandate. /+/

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: In addition to their conquest within China, the rulers of Qin had pushed their frontier far to the north. The nomad tribes had been pressed back and deprived of their best pasturage, namely the Ordos region. When the livelihood of nomad peoples is affected, when they are threatened with starvation, their tribes often collect round a tribal leader who promises new pasturage and better conditions of life for all who take part in the common campaigns. In this way the first great union of tribes in the north of China came into existence in this period, forming the realm of the Xiongnu under their first leader, T'ou-man. This first realm of the Xiongnu was not yet extensive, but its ambitious and warlike attitude Qinmade it a danger to Qin. It was therefore decided to maintain a large permanent army in the north. In addition to this, the frontier walls already existing in the mountains were rebuilt and made into a single great system. Thus came into existence in 214 B.C., out of the blood and sweat of countless pressed labourers, the famous Great Wall. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Qin Empire in 210BC

Legalists and the Qin Government

Key Qin ideologists adhered to the Legalist philosophy, which taught that only harsh punishments could keep people in line and provide effective government. Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The first principle of the Legalist school, a principle which had been applied in Qin and which was to be extended to the whole realm, was that of the training of the population in discipline and obedience, so that it should become a convenient tool in the hands of the officials. This requirement was best met by a people composed as far as possible only of industrious, uneducated, and tax-paying peasants. Scholars and philosophers were not wanted, in so far as they were not directly engaged in work commissioned by the state. The Confucianist writings came under special attack because they kept alive the memory of the old feudal conditions, preaching the ethic of the old feudal class which had just been destroyed and must not be allowed to rise again if the state was not to suffer fresh dissolution or if the central administration was not to be weakened. In 213 B.C. there took place the great holocaust of books which destroyed the Confucianist writings with the exception of one copy of each work for the State Library. Books on practical subjects were not affected. In the fighting at the end of the Qin dynasty the State Library was burnt down, so that many of the old works have only come down to us in an imperfect state and with doubtful accuracy. The real loss arose, however, from the fact that the new generation was little interested in the Confucianist literature, so that when, fifty years later, the effort was made to restore some texts from the oral tradition, there no longer existed any scholars who really knew them by heart, as had been customary in the past. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Although the early Legalist adherents in Qin did not possess sufficient power to destroy all the hereditary patrician clans of the state, in the century before the Qin unified China, they were able to strengthen the Qin monarchy greatly and diminish the role of the aristocrats. More and more Qin territory came under the direct control of the Qin rulers, rather than being aristocratic fiefs, and within those royal territories, officers of state were appointed directly by the ruler, on the basis of their qualifications, rather than the social standing of their families. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Legalists were also known for the stress they laid on well designed codes of administrative and criminal law. They believed that the well designed state did not need to depend on the virtue or good will of its citizens. Rather, if carefully structured legal codes were written to control people’s behavior, if the people were clearly informed of what the codes said, and if the codes provided absolute standards of reward for good behavior and strictly enforced punishments for violations, people would be so motivated by greed for rewards and fear of certain punishment that they would simply obey the law in all respects. The goal was, in essence, to design a state that would be entirely predictable, because all human initiative had been reduced to obedience to explicit rules, motivated by fear of certain punishment, and desire for reward. /+/

A famous example by a prominent Legalist thinker illustrates the way a Legalist ruler should enforce this type of system: Once Marquis Zhao of Han got drunk and fell asleep. The keeper of the royal hat, seeing that the duke was cold, laid a robe over him. When the marquis awoke, he was pleased and asked his attendants, “Who covered me with a robe?” “The keeper of the hat,” they replied. The marquis thereupon punished both the keeper of the royal hat and the keeper of the royal robe. He punished the keeper of the royal robe for failing to do his duty, and the keeper of the hat for overstepping his office. It was not that he did not dislike the cold, but he considered the trespass of one official upon the duties of another to be a greater danger than cold. /+/

“By enforcing narrowly framed rules in this way, without allowing personal sentiment or favoritism to influence the function of the system, the ruler, himself and through his officers, could control his state with little effort – so little effort, in fact, that some Legalists portrayed the art of rulership in the Legalist ideal state as a form of Daoist "wuwei", despite the fact that this spontaneously functioning society was not guided by the natural forces of the cosmos, but instead by the well crafted legal policies of the state government. /+/

“Legalism was a highly mechanistic portrait of government. Its ideas and institutions were, in fact, the earliest fully developed form of bureaucracy in world history. Because it advocated a tightly designed hierarchy of governance and valued merit over heredity, it shared some features in common with Confucianism. However, Legalism had no use at all for ritual "li" or the precedents of history, and was a completely amoral philosophy, aiming not at ethically good people or even an ethically good government, but only at a large and powerful state and a ruling house with the wealth necessary to preserve and enjoy power. Where Confucians pictured a future utopia of good people ruled by sages, the Legalists pictured obedient subjects, working feverishly for their ruler’s own benefit out of fear of punishment and a greed for reward. For this reason, Confucians viewed Legalists as the enemies of the good. Even more distressing, the Legalist policies of Qin had yielded the results that the early Legalists had predicted. Qin had become a strong, wealthy, organized state, free of a self-serving aristocracy and obedient to the ruler’s direction.” /+/

Qin Dynasty Art

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““The Qin people were originally from China's western frontiers and rose to power after the early Spring and Autumn period. Established on the old site of the Zhou Dynasty, the area around Kuan-chung in Shaanxi, the Qin was heavily influenced by Western Zhou culture and thus able to preserve their traditional bronze styles and writing forms. The individual style of the Qin gradually took shape after the middle of the Spring and Autumn period. However, the extent of change was small when compared to that of the other six states at the time.

“At the end of the Warring States period, the Qin had succeeded in uniting all the states. As a result, the garlic-head vase unique to the Qin grew in popularity. A monumental stele with an inscribed imperial mandate recorded the standardization of lengths, capacities, and weights throughout the country. However, like the imperial seals of Qin, they vanished in the ashes of the empire shortly thereafter., [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

The art of the Qin Dynasty is best represented in the famous terra-cotta Army of Emperor Qin, which consists of 10,000 or so life-size figures found in three massive pits with ramps used for putting the soldiers in their places. Most of the figures are armed warriors, meant to accompany to Emperor Qin to the after-life and protect him in heaven from his enemies. When it was unearthed by a man digging a well in 1974 in rural China, the Terracotta Army took the world by storm to become one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time.

After Emperor Qin

The Qin dynasty lasted only five years after Emperor Qin’s death. His children were murdered in a palace intrigue not long after he died. The emperor that followed Qin was also murdered and so was the one that followed him. Many believe that most of Emperor's Qin’s children were executed by Hu Hai, the son who succeeded the first emperor after Qin.

In his deathbed Emperor Qin is said to have decreed that his eldest son, Ying Fusi, should inherit his throne. Qin’s powerful and ambitious main counselor Zhao Gao was disappointed by the decision. He had hoped that a weaker heir would be named so he could rule behind the scenes. Zhao is thought to have been behind the delayed announcement of Qin death so he could have time to scheme his way into a behind-the-scene role by having power transferred to Yung Hubai, Qin’s younger, weaker son. In the end Zhao was unable to maintain order. Qin’s kingdom descended into civil war and Zhao was killed.

Qin’s second son lost his life in what the Communists later called "The first peasant insurrection in Chinese history" in which peasants in 206 B.C. armed themselves with crossbows, spears, arrows and pikes taken from 6,000 terra-cotta soldiers. Seventeen graves with the remains of decapitated bodies have been found near the tomb of Emperor Qin. Some have suggested they may belong to Emperor's Qin’s children.

Zhao Gao, the Scheming Eunuch

tomb of Emperor Qin

Dr. Eno wrote: “The story of the final years of the Qin is dominated by the eunuch Zhao Gao, who was able to use his knowledge concerning the events of the First Emperor’s death to manipulate his fellow conspirators. While the influence of Zhao and others in his party was corrupting the Qin from within, widespread discontent with the burdens that Qin had imposed on the people of the empire gave rise to attacks from without. In the end, even the skills of Qin’s superb corps of generals prolonged the life of the dynasty by merely a few months. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, based on “The Shinji” (94 B.C.) by Sima Qian, /+/ ]

“When the First Emperor’s heir apparent received the forged letter from his father ordering him to commit suicide along with Meng Tian, he went to notify the general. Meng Tian was suspicious of the letter and he urged the prince to send a messenger to the emperor to confirm that it was genuine. “When a father tells his son to die,” replied the prince, “how can the son ask for a confirming letter?” Then he proceeded to carry out what he believed to be his father’s order. Meng Tian was unwilling to follow suit, and he was therefore transported back to the capital. He was put in prison in one of the capital districts, and eventually he died there by swallowing poison that had been officially sent to him by the court. /+/

“Once news of the crown prince’s death was confirmed, the death of the First Emperor was officially announced, along with the forged testament naming Huhai as his successor. Huhai was enthroned as the Second Emperor, and Zhao Gao promoted to the office of Chief of Palace Attendants. Over the course of the next year, Zhao Gao’s personal influence over the Second Emperor allowed him to gain increasing control of events. He employed this influence to arrange for a mass slaughter of the emperor’s brothers, who could have challenged his claim to the throne, and to urge the emperor to tighten the laws still further. Li Si, dissatisfied with the course of policy and discovering himself increasingly denied access to the emperor, began making desperate attempt to reverse the course of government.” /+/

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: Emperor Qin’s “death was the signal for the rising of many rebellious elements. Nobles rose in order to regain power and influence; generals rose because they objected to the permanent pressure from the central administration and their supervision by controllers; men of the people rose as popular leaders because the people were more tormented than ever by forced labour, generally at a distance from their homes. Within a few months there were six different rebellions and six different "rulers". Assassinations became the order of the day; the young heir to the throne was removed in this way and replaced by another young prince. But as early as 206 B.C. one of the rebels, Liu Chi (also called Liu Pang), entered the capital and dethroned the nominal emperor. Liu Chi at first had to retreat and was involved in hard fighting with a rival, but gradually he succeeded in gaining the upper hand and defeated not only his rival but also the other eighteen states that had been set up anew in China in those years. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Revolt of Chen She

Dr. Eno wrote: “In the late summer of 209 B.C., a minor officer named Chen She initiated the first military challenge to Qin rule in China since the founding of the empire. Chen’s revolt was unplanned. During the summer, Chen and a fellow officer were fulfilling normal duties and transporting a band of convicts to garrison labor on the frontier when they encountered torrential rains that blocked their progress until it was too late for them to keep to their assigned schedule. The punishment for failure to meet such a transport schedule was death. Realizing that he had nothing to lose, Chen She convinced his colleague to join with him and transform their convict band into a private army for the purpose of rebellion. So great was dissatisfaction with the Qin, that in a matter of weeks, Chen’s troops were swelled with volunteers from many adjacent regions. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, based on “The Shinji” (94 B.C.) by Sima Qian, /+/ ]

“Li Si and Zhao Gao took contrary positions on the matter of the rebellion. Li was an advocate of immediate mobilization and a redirection of Qin military efforts from the border to the regions in revolt. But the revolt had taken place in the east, distant from the capital, and reports of its dimensions were vague. Zhao argued that there was no need to dispatch more than a minor corps of soldiers to suppress the uprising, which he insisted on characterizing as an outbreak of banditry. /+/

“Apart from making these arguments, Zhao contrived to convince the emperor that the militant group led by Li Si was attempting to undermine the security of the state in order to gain power for themselves and ultimately seize the throne. In 208 B.C., after submitting a strongly worded memorial to the emperor, Li Si was thrown in prison. He was sentenced to be cut in two at the waist along with his son, whom Zhao Gao had managed to implicate in Li Si’s “plot” in order to avoid the threat of a family vendetta. As Li Si and his son walked from the prison to the execution grounds, it is said that his thoughts turned back to his home town in Chu. “How I’d like to join you once more, leading our dog out through the east gate of Shangcai to hunt the crafty hare. But there is little hope of that now, isn’t there!”

“Upon Li Si’s death, Zhao Gao was appointed to succeed him as prime minister. Unfortunately for him, however, Chen She’s uprising was spreading too rapidly for the Second Emperor to be further deceived. Zhao became increasingly anxious that the reports arriving at the capital about the extent of the revolt would reach the emperor’s ears. He determined to take action before that happened, and he enlisted a group of his closest companions, all now high ranking officials of the Qin, to plan a coup d’état. /+/

End of the Qin Dynasty

Dr. Eno wrote: “In 207 B.C., Zhao set his forces in motion. Claiming that rebel agents had penetrated the palace, Zhao’s forces rushed past the emperor’s guard and chased the emperor from the throne room. Pursuing him to the top of a tower, they cornered him there. Left with no alternative, the Second Emperor killed himself. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, based on “The Shinji” (94 B.C.) by Sima Qian, /+/ ]

“The final act in the Qin drama was a succession of melodramatic scenes. Zhao Gao, now holding absolute power but without any possible claim to the throne, chose to enthrone a grandson of the First Emperor named Ziying. After the Second Emperor had been buried in a common grave, Zhao ordered Ziying to repair to one of the ritual pavilions of the palace and undergo the rites of purification appropriate before a coronation. /+/

“Then Zhao, recognizing publicly for the first time the threat of the rebel forces, declared that the empire had already been effectively dissolved, and that Ziying would not be crowned as Third Emperor, but rather as the king of Qin. Ziying, who was engaged in the requisite five days of fasting in the ritual pavilion, was informed of this. He was also told that the impetus for this proclamation was that Zhao Gao had made arrangements with the rebels to divide the empire, and that he himself was destined to rule a new state in the region formerly commanded by the feudal state of Qin. Zhao’s plan was to murder Ziying during the coronation ceremony and receive the crown himself. /+/

“When the day for the coronation arrived, Zhao and the other high officers of the Qin waited at court while a messenger was sent to summon Ziying from the ritual pavilion. Again and again, the messenger returned saying that Ziying declined to come. At last, Zhao Gao himself walked to the pavilion to escort Ziying. But when he confronted Ziying, Ziying with his own hand stabbed him to death. Then, marching with his own comrades to the throne room, he announced his deed, ordered the annihilation of Zhao’s family, and took the throne. /+/

“But after only forty-six days, the troops of the rebel armies marched up to the walls of Xianyang. They were led not by Chen She, who had been killed some time before, but by another man of lowly origins named Liu Bang, who was one of a number of military leaders pressing the rebellion to all regions of the empire. When Liu, hoping to avoid bloodshed, sent a messenger to request a peaceful surrender, Ziying tied a noose around his neck, collected the various insignia of the Son of Heaven, loaded them all into a plain white carriage, and drove it out through the gates of Xianyang to the rebel camp, where he surrendered himself and his office to the protection of Liu Pang, and so brought the Qin Dynasty to a close.” /+/

Qin Shi Huangdi’s tommb with the terra-cotta army was raided. Based on the damage of the clay in the tomb, researchers believe that the dynasty collapsed suddenly. Smithsonian reported. Rebellious forces may have raided the pits where clay soldiers stood sentry, setting fires, striking down warriors and stealing their real weapons.

Legacy of Qin Culture

Terracotta army

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Although the Qin Dynasty fell after just two emperors, it left an extraordinarily rich historical legacy that comprised the fruits of innovation of more than 500 years, beginning from the founding of the Qin State. Of the bureaucracies, commanderies, peerages, religions, writing systems, weights and measures, and legal systems of later dynasties, there are indeed few that do not bear the mark of systems and standards established by the Qin. The history, culture, and systems of the Qin form the basis of modern Chinese civilization.” [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Dr. Eno wrote: ““No turning point in Chinese history was a more decisive pivot than 221 B.C. In many respects, the Qin conquest and subsequent reshaping of the Chinese state was the most dramatic social and political revolution in human history. Yet, in many ways, none involved a more delicate balance of unstable political and personal factors. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Summing up the Communist Party line on Emperor Qin, Chinese historian and archeologist Yuan Zhongyi told National Geographic, "Qin Shi Huang gave impetus to all Chinese history. He did some bad things, yes; but he did more good than bad." The modern party line in Mao is similar.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Qin Dynasty map, St Martin edu.

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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