Dallas L. McCURLEY

The Terracotta Army at Xi’an, built for the tomb of the first Qin emperor Shi Huangdi (also known as Shi Huang). PHOTO BY PAUL AND BERNICE NOLL.

Although the Qin dynasty lasted for a scant fifteen years and was repressive, it was China’s first imperial dynasty and developed a centralized administration and a model of government that subsequent emperors followed for centuries.

Although it lasted only fifteen years, the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE) was China’s first imperial dynasty. It developed a centralized administration and a model of government that later emperors followed until the emperor of the final dynasty, the Qing (1644–1912), abdicated in 1912. In fact, the name of China was probably derived from the word Qin (pronounced “chin”). The Qin rulers achieved their successes, however, by harsh, totalitarian acts that hastened their dynasty’s fall.

Rise of the Dynasty

After the Western Zhou dynasty (1045–771 BCE) fell, the state of Qin emerged as one of many small states that formed in the absence of a strong ruling house. The people of the Qin state, living in present-day Shaanxi Province among various nomadic tribes in the far west of early China, had long been fierce warriors. Rich deposits of iron ore found in their region aided their weapons industry. The Qin began their rise to prominence during the Warring States period (475–221 BCE), when Shang Yang (d. 338 BCE), a politician and scholar, took reforms that had been initiated by other states to their logical conclusion. His reforms concentrated on rural dwellers, who previously had played no part in the workings of the state and who were now to be granted land in return for performing agricultural labor and military service and for paying taxes. Under Shang Yang this reform was extended to all adult males in Qin, a development that required replacing the feudal aristocracy with a central government to administer a large population. Positions in this new bureaucracy were granted on the basis of merit rather than inheritance, as earlier. Fajia (legalism), a philosophy that stressed that rulers should have absolute power and should govern with the help of a strict legal code that favored no single class, pervaded Shang Yang’s concept of government.

The rise of the Qin state culminated in the years after 260 BCE, by which time only seven large states were left in the struggle for supremacy. A man who would be known posthumously as “King Zhuangxiang” (an early Chinese custom gave rulers posthumous names by which they would henceforth be known) ruled Qin. Lü Buwei was the chancellor or prime minister. He compiled guidance from classical texts for a system that was aligned to the cosmos and that would serve to govern a proposed imperial state. The thirteen-year-old Zheng (c. 259–210 BCE) came to the throne in 245 BCE; seven years later he instigated a palace coup to depose the regent who had ruled in his name. Between 230 and 221 BCE the Qin—who had once been regarded as too barbaric to pose a serious threat because they had absorbed various central Asian invaders into their state—annihilated their rivals. By 221 BCE Zheng had unified all the states that had emerged from the feudal rule of the once-mighty Western Zhou dynasty. Zheng,having survived various assassination attempts, most notoriously one by the folk hero Jing Ke, proclaimed himself “Shi Huangdi” (first [literally, commencing] august emperor). He moved to the new capital of Xianyang in a region of the North China Plain associated with former dynastic capitals and took control of his territories.

Fall of the Dynasty

A morbid occurrence attended the end of Shi Huangdi’s reign. He died in 210 BCE in eastern China, but his death was not announced for two months more, during which time the imperial entourage traveled back to the capital at Xianyang. Senior minister Li Si, who had been a companion to the emperor on his journey, had decided to withhold news of the emperor’s death until members of the government could regroup, lest the news cause uprisings because of Shi Huangdi’s widespread unpopularity. Thus, the glittering cortege, the dead emperor in tow, trundled through the countryside while his subjects remained unaware of his demise.

Li Si was again at the center of intrigue concerning the question of succession. Shi Huangdi’s first son, Fusu, for a time had been exiled by the emperor at Li Si’s urging. Fearing for his life if Fusu come take the throne, Li Si and the chief eunuch, Zhao Gao, convinced Fusu that his father had ordered him to commit suicide. Thus disposing of Fusu, Li Si and Zhao Gao installed the emperor’s eighteenth son on the throne. Revolts broke out almost immediately among imperial laborers. The second emperor was essentially a puppet. Zhao Gao made all decisions. Two rebel armies were advancing on the capital by 207 BCE. Zhao, facing blame as the main architect of the disaster, tricked the second emperor into committing suicide. The throne then passed to a boy who was formally entitled “child-emperor.” In an intrigue of his own, during the coronation ceremony the boy assassinated Zhao. Butwithin a couple of months the child-emperor was forced to surrender to the invading Han king Liu Bang and was not spared. With its child-emperor dead and his capital destroyed, the Qin dynasty ended in 206 BCE, just fifteen years after it had begun.

Changes Made by Shi Huangdi

After Shi Huangdi was in power as the first emperor he made sweeping changes to consolidate and support Qin authority. Some elements of Confucianism, such as the importance of ancestor worship and filial duty, were still emphasized; however, in organizational matters Shi Huangdi observed the philosophical tenets of legalism as modeled by Shang Yang. The empire was divided into thirty-six commanderies. Authority was carefully distributed to prevent too much power in any one man’s hands. Each commandery thus was ruled by a civilian governor who was assisted by a military governor. An inspector reported to the central government on the activities of both governors. The emperor enforced a strict penal code and relocated Zhou aristocratic families to the capital of Xianyang, where they could be monitored in mansions built for that purpose.

Shi Huangdi extended the military reforms of Shang Yang to the entire empire. His rule brought a number of technical innovations in warfare. For example, the imperial army was supplied with crossbows and lamellar armor (rows of overlapping leather plates sewn together). Swords were improved and distributed in large numbers. A nationwide system of canals and roads was established to enable troops to move quickly to quell revolts and to facilitate trade. Currency and weights and measures were standardized. The newly uniform width of axles allowed carts and carriages to travel the ruts dug to accommodate them on the freshly built highways. For both administrative and commercial reasons Shi Huangdi also supervised unification of the writing system, which had developed multiple regional variants during the Warring States period (475–221 BCE). These variants were regularized in a new script called xiao zhuan ti (small seal script), which was to be used for official documents throughout the empire.

The armies of the Qin dynasty expanded the empire’s borders by invading lands to the south. To the north they repulsed attacks by nomads from central Asia such as the Xiongnu but were unable to defeat them
. As a result, huge numbers of peasants were drafted to build a long wall to defend the northern frontier. Over time most of the Qin wall, built of mud, crumbled, but it remained an inspiration for later dynasties, which initiated their own construction and reconstruction projects. The Great Wall of China is south of Shi Huangdi’s wall and was completed by the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

Cultural Developments

The Qin apparently staged competitive martial displays known during the Warring States period as jueli, which combined the word jue (literally, horn/horning, suggesting an aggressive attacking quality) and the word li (strength). These ritual displays fell under the category of wu, which is normally translated as “martiality” but had a cosmic dimension lacking in the English word. Wu connoted the nature of the cosmos during the months of decay and death in autumn and winter as opposed to the life-giving months of spring and summer. The staging of acts of ritual violence during the winter was thought to bring the social order into accord with the cosmos itself. Jueli were great occasions of state and included chariot handling, archery, a team sport of kickball, as well as wrestling and strength competitions that pitted man against man, man against animal, and animal against animal. These displays were as much entertainments as they were religious rites. The Qin changed the term to juedi (horning-resisting), perhaps implying the to-and-fro of combat, and arguably made the dimension of entertainment more explicit. At the imperial retreat of Ganquan the second emperor was said to have enjoyed juedi and youpai (performers or entertainers such as musicians, jesters, singers, dancers, and acrobats). Such entertainments may not have originated on the North China Plain. The first emperor certainly enjoyed songs, music, and dance that were familiar to him from the former homeland in the far west with its nomadic contacts. A recently discovered bell that had been left behind by looters on the grounds of Shi Huangdi’s mausoleum was marked with the words Qin yuefu. The word yue refers to song-dance forms, and fu means “institute.” As documented for the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) office of the same name, this institute would have had as its purpose theenrichment of court music and dance by incorporating forms from cultures, including nomadic ones, outside the borders of the empire.

Quest for Immortality

Shi Huangdi, seeking to deny death, sent thousands of youths in search of Peng Lai, the mythical islands of immortality, which were said to lie in the East China Sea. Some scholars believe that this search resulted in the settling of an area of Japan by the youths, who not surprisingly (because they faced execution if they failed on their mission) never returned to their homeland. The Qin founder claimed as an ancestor the mythical founder of the ancient Chinese people, Huangdi (yellow emperor; Huang here refers to a different Chinese character than the one in the first emperor’s name meaning “August”). This Huangdi reputedly never died but instead rose to tian (heaven) in a chariot pulled by dragons. Shi Huangdi employed alchemists to find the secret to immortality and took long journeys to sacred mountains, where he practiced sacrificial rituals for the same purpose. At Mount Tai he conducted the mysterious sacrifices known as feng and shan, also in the hope of cheating death. Ironically, Shi Huangdi was said to have died after ingesting mercury-based concoctions that, alchemists declared, held the key to eternal life (alchemists continued to peddle the claim for centuries, evidence to the contrary).

Shi Huangdi was buried just east of the modern-day city of Xian. Judging from the part of the imperial tomb complex excavated so far, it is apparent that the complex was planned as the final resting place of a man whose life would be continuing on some grand scale. The dimensions are impressive: The complex is 515 meters north to south and 485 meters east to west. The mausoleum itself, enclosed by a thick outer wall with a tower at each corner, is divided into an east vault and a west vault, of which the former has been largely uncovered. Here have been found royal chariots and horses sculpted in bronze and in 1974, most famously, an army of seven thousand life-sized terracotta figures representing the imperial guard, cavalry, infantry, and chariot drivers. Each figure was sculpted wearing the uniform and carrying the weapons appropriate to his branch of service; remarkably, each face was individually molded. The figures were lined up in processional formation, as if setting out on a military campaign; the army presumably was to act as Shi Huangdi’s escort and protector. In the west vault as many figures again are believed to remain hidden.

Archaeological excavations of the future will be able to test the accuracy of the description of the mausoleum provided by China’s first great historian, Sima Qian. Sima, writing during the Han dynasty, observed that the massive and elaborate tomb was under construction from 245 to 210 BCE, that is, from when Zheng became king at age thirteen until the year of his death. Many laborers literally were worked to death building the tomb, and all surviving laborers were buried with the emperor. Sima described a huge central chamber with a ceiling studded with pearls and other precious stones to represent the sun, moon, and stars; snaking across the floor (the Earth), mercury “replicas” of the Yangzi (Chang) and Huang (Yellow) rivers flowed into a miniature ocean also made of mercury, the metal said to have such great regenerative powers. Lighting was provided by burning whale oil, the longest-burning fuel at the time. Within this and other chambers of the compound, which represented palaces, temples, and offices, armed crossbows were set, primed to fire on any intruders from this world.

Reign of Shi Huangdi

As mentioned, the reign of the second emperor brought breakdown and disorder rather than much that could be called “constructive.” Most of the achievements of the Qin dynasty occurred during the rule of the first emperor in just eleven years but came at the cost of harsh and repressive laws established to regulate his subjects in large, disciplined bodies. Overworked peasants not only served as agricultural laborers but also doubled as soldiers and as builders of the lavish architectural projects undertaken by the ruler. Prison sentences and maiming punishments commonly were meted out to dissenters or to those unfortunate enough to gain the emperor’s disapproval. Shi Huangdi reportedly executed officials who were late to their assigned tasks, even if their lateness was the result of weather conditions that made travel impossible. Shi Huangdi also made enemies among aristocrats who in the new meritocracy no longer were entitled to inherited court office. In 213 BCE, eight years into his reign, hisgrowing fear of the power of intellectual debate resulted in an order for the execution of hundreds of Confucian scholars and the burning of all books except those on the subjects of medicine, forestry, divination, and agriculture. A single copy of each of the condemned books was held in the imperial library—which itself was burned by the invading Han forces in 206 BCE. Fortunately for subsequent records of Chinese history, the brevity of the Qin dynasty meant that after its fall scholars lived on and were able largely to reconstruct the classical texts, which they had memorized.

As one might expect, Shi Huangdi lived in fear of attempts on his life and took great precautions to thwart assassins. He employed doubles of himself as decoys. An extensive network of tunnels connected his palaces, and he was said to have moved throughout this network, sleeping in diffe
rent locations each evening. Death was the punishment for anyone who revealed Shi Huangdi’s whereabouts.

In their compilation The Crimes of Qin Han scholars condemned legalism and the ruler who had embodied its tenet stating that the law should be obeyed through fear rather than through respect. The consensus Confucian view was summarized in an essay entitled “The Faults of Qin,” written by the statesman-scholar Jia Yi. In this influential essay Jia ascribes the collapse of the Qin dynasty to the widespread discontent caused by Shi Huangdi’s harshness in pursuit of his grand ambitions. Nonetheless, although the Han replaced legalism with other ideological systems (Confucianism, Daoism, and a variety of state cults), the Han largely maintained and built on the military, economic, and political structures it inherited from the Qin. In fact, the traditional image of Shi Huangdi as a tyrannical monster recently has been giving way, in China and elsewhere, to a more nuanced assessment that from several perspectives seeks to set his ruthlessness of method against his lasting accomplishments as “China’s first unifier.”

Further Reading

Bodde, D. (1938). China’s first unifier: A study of the Ch’in dynasty as seen in the life of Li Ssu. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.

Kern, M. (2000). The stele inscriptions of Ch’in Shih-Huang: Text and ritual in early Chinese imperial representation. New Haven, CT: American Oriental Society.

Lewis, M. E. (1990). Sanctioned violence in early China. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Lewis, M. E. (2007). The early Chinese empires: Qin and Han. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Li Xueqin & Linduff, K. (1985). Eastern Zhou and Qin civilizations (Chang Kwangshih, Trans.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Loewe, M. (2000). A biographical dictionary of the Qin, former Han and Xin periods, 221 BC–AD 24. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill Press.

Nienhauser, W. H. (Ed.). (1994). Shiji: The grand scribe’s records (Caifa Cheng and Chan Chiuming, Trans.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Source: McCurley, Dallas L.. (2009). Qin Dynasty. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1827–1831. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Qin Dynasty (Qín Cháo ??)|Qín Cháo ?? (Qin Dynasty)

Download the PDF of this article