Qin Dynasty Founded in China

The Qin Dynasty, although brutal and short, unified and centralized China politically and culturally and separated the ancient feudal history from the imperial history of China.

Summary of Event

The Qin (Ch’in), who ruled a poor frontier province during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (Eastern Chou; 770-256 b.c.e.), saw themselves as a hardy warrior people. In the decade before the establishment of the empire in 221 b.c.e., the Qins conquered province after province and defeated all other claimants to succeed the discredited Zhou as rulers of China. Having conquered all the warring states and united southern and northern China for the first time, King Zheng (Cheng) of the Qin proclaimed himself to be Qin Shi Huangdi (first emperor of Qin) and established the Qin Dynasty (221-206 b.c.e.). Shi Huangdi
Li Si

The Qin were strongly influenced by the philosophy of Legalism. Like Confucianism, Legalism offered practical solutions to the problems of government. Unlike Confucianism, the solutions offered were rooted in ruthless practicality and pragmatism rather than the virtues of gentlemanly behavior. Legalism arose as a reaction to the disorder of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, when weak kings allowed invasion, insurrection, and civil war to split China into several warring states. Legalists blamed the weakness of the Zhou kings for the disorder and proposed that the proper remedy to China’s ills was for rulers to hold and practice absolute power. The early advocates of Legalism held that they were followers of Xunzi, who was himself a disciple of Confucius. However, Legalism was actually a number of distinct but related schools of practical thought that coalesced among philosophers and government officials. According to the Legalists, because human nature is evil, the ruler must keep the people disciplined and even suppressed if they are rebellious. The ideal state was an authoritarian state in which the people were well treated but uneducated and barred from dissent. The ruler should appropriate their labor to feed his army and their wealth to fill his coffers. The state should possess as much power as possible and should extend it ruthlessly. All aspects of life were to be regulated in detail by laws designated to promote the economic and military power of the state. Rulers were not to be guided by traditional or Confucian virtues of humanity and righteousness but by their need for power and wealth. They were to root out all intellectual dissent or resistance and all competing political ideas. Legalism was too narrow to compete with Confucianism, but under the Qin Dynasty, all competing philosophies were repressed.

The Qin centralized the Chinese state to a degree without rival in the ancient world. They viewed the nobility as a useless holdover from the past and an undependable challenge to the authority of the emperor. Shi Huangdi forced the nobility to live in the capital and attend court, effectively removing them from local government. Their estates were reorganized into large provinces that the emperor controlled through centrally appointed governors.

During the Qin Dynasty, the textile industry grew, and increased trade led to the growth of cities. However, the traditional distrust of merchants remained and the Qin government focused mostly on the peasants. Large irrigation projects increased agricultural production. The Qin standardized weights, measures, and coinage. Regulations dictating axle widths on carts allowed for improved transportation. The Qin introduced a simplified, standardized set of written characters, which remains in use, with modifications, to the present. A population census, showing the empire contained almost sixty million people, enabled the emperor to anticipate tax revenues and to calculate the force available for military service and state building projects. Peasant land rights were expanded, in part to check the power of the large landowners and also to tie the peasants closer to the land.

Although the first Qin emperor strived to bring unity and prosperity to China, he faced constant peril from the north. The Mongolian plateau to the north of China was harsh terrain but not impassable to the Mongol-Turkic nomadic tribes. For years, the Chinese had pushed northward, driving out the nomads and settling their grasslands. Chinese encroachment on their land endangered the very survival of these nomads, who in retaliation struck back at the Chinese. Mounted horsemen plundered towns and farms, disappearing back into the vast steppes to the north before the Chinese armies could catch them. The northern provinces had been building defensive walls as early as the fourth century b.c.e. The first Qin emperor was more systematic and ordered the various stretches of wall to be linked together in one great fortification, extending from the sea three thousand miles (five thousand kilometers) inland. Hundreds of thousands are thought to have labored to build it, a demonstration of the power and organization of the Qin empire. However, an estimated one million men died from accidents, exposure, disease, and starvation while building the wall. The Great Wall brought some measure of peace to China’s northern frontier, although raids continued on a limited scale. Although the Qin are generally credited with building the Great Wall, scholar Arthur Waldron points out that the Great Wall that exists today was built in the sixteenth century, under the Ming Dynasty, and that the earlier wall was probably earthen rather than stone. Therefore, the exact location of the wall built by the Qin emperor is unknown, and the amount of labor involved may have been exaggerated in order to demonstrate the cruelty and ruthlessness of the first Qin emperor.

The Qin behaved in an imperial fashion, extending Chinese rule over most of what is modern-day China, to the coast of the South China Sea and into northern Vietnam. The Qins created a highly centralized, powerful state, with a vast and highly trained imperial bureaucracy. The high level of centralization in the state established by the Qin became a characteristic of Chinese government that was retained to the present day. Shi Huangdi tolerated no dissent. According to later accounts, he buried alive several hundred scholars who had questioned his policies. He ordered that all books except official manuals and chronicles be burned. The destruction of most history and philosophy books ran counter to deep currents in Chinese culture but ensured that official policies would have no intellectual competition.

Because of high taxes, incessant demands for forced labor, and the countless deaths and misery caused by the massive building projects, the Qin were unpopular rulers. Their attacks on Confucianism and scholars brought great resentment from much of the educated classes. When Shi Huangdi died in 210 b.c.e., Li Si tried to keep news of his death a secret. Bypassing the more aggressive first son and heir, he installed the more pliable second son as a puppet emperor. However, massive revolts occurred after knowledge of the death of the first emperor became widely known. Li Si was killed in 208 b.c.e. by police, supposedly because he lacked the travel permits his own laws required. The Qin Dynasty survived only four years after the death of its founder.

Following a short period of struggle, the Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.), was established. The Han maintained the centralized state structure of the Qin Dynasty but eased the more oppressive facets of the Qin system of governing. The political and social stability that followed, along with the wealth brought by trade, gave China an unparalleled period of peace and prosperity during the height of the Han Dynasty.


The Qin Dynasty was short-lived but momentous in the development of the Chinese state. The name China itself comes from a corruption of the name Qin. The first Qin ruler took the title of emperor, and thus the ascent of the Qin Dynasty marks the beginning of the Chinese empire. The Qin Dynasty ruled China roughly halfway between the origins of Chinese civilization under the perhaps mythical Xia Dynasty (Hsia; c. 2100-1600 b.c.e.) to the present. Under the Qin, Chinese rule extended over most of what is modern-day China, and China began the long practice of establishing tributary relations with neighboring states. The removal of the hereditary nobility from local government ended feudalism in China and allowed the development of a meritocracy under succeeding dynasties.

Further Reading

  • Bodde, Derk. China’s First Unifier: A Study of the Ch’in Dynasty as Seen in the Life of Li Ssu. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1967. Bodde focuses on Li as the true architect of the Chinese empire.
  • Sima, Qian. Records of the Grand Historian. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. A traditional Chinese history of pre-Qin, Qin, and early Han China, written by a court historian of the Han Dynasty.
  • Xuequin, Li, Hsueh-Chain Li, and K. C. Chang, trans. Eastern Zhou and Qin Civilizations. Early Chinese Civilizations Series. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. A good introduction to the chaos of the late Zhou Dynasty and the reaction against that chaos that allowed the oppression during the Qin Dynasty.
  • Yang, Yuan, and Xiao Ding. Tales of Emperor Qin Shihuang. Chicago: Foreign Language Press, 1999. A compilation of surviving official contemporary histories of the first emperor as well as legends and stories of the first emperor from later periods.
  • Zhongyi, Yuan, et al. Terra-Cotta Warriors and Horses at the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang. Beijing: Cultural Relics Publishing House, 1983. Official Chinese government guide to relics excavated from the tomb of the first emperor. This book, with text in both English and Chinese, is a visually oriented work, filled with color and black-and-white photos of the terra-cotta warriors.

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