The Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) was the first dynasty of Imperial China (defined as the era of centralized, dynastic government in China between 221 BCE and 1912 CE) which united the separate states following the Warring States Period (c. 481-221 BCE), the era of near-constant warfare resulting from the decline of the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE). It was founded by Shi Huangdi (r. 221-210 BCE) who understood that the Zhou’s policy of a decentralized government had contributed to its fall and so established a centralized state which decreased the power of the aristocracy, eliminated the borders between different states, and operated according to the precepts of the philosophy of Legalism. It arose from the state of Qin (pronounced “chin”) which gave its name to China as it was the westernmost state and so the one which western merchants primarily engaged with.
Shi Huangdi’s early reign focused on consolidating his power and appealing to the lower classes through initiatives such as building projects and construction of roads and canals, which made trade and travel easier and provided employment. Among his accomplishments were an early version of the Great Wall of China, the Grand Canal, and his enormous tomb guarded by the terracotta warriors.
At the same time, however, he worked to dismantle many of the cultural achievements of the Zhou, which he felt had weakened the state, while retaining and improving upon any Zhou innovations conducive to Chinese warfare or his personal power. By c. 213 BCE, his need to control every aspect of his subjects’ lives, and fear of rebellion, had turned China into a police state in which freedoms were severely limited and the peasant class was reduced to a level of conscript slavery.
SHI HUANGDI’S OBSESSION WITH IMMORTALITY, COMBINED WITH THIS NEED FOR ABSOLUTE CONTROL, DESTABILIZED HIS REIGN.
The emperor’s obsession with immortality, combined with this need for absolute control, destabilized his reign, which then encouraged even more restrictive measures as his fear of rebellion and assassination grew. He died in 210 BCE after drinking an elixir of mercury, which he believed would make him immortal, and court intrigue, combined with the inept rule of his son, led to a swift decline of his empire. The last Qin ruler was assassinated in 206 BCE, and after a vicious civil war for succession, the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE) was founded which would fully connect itself with the achievements of the earlier dynasties the Qin had rejected.
Zhou Dynasty Rise & Fall
The state of Qin was originally just one of many states under the Zhou Dynasty. The Zhou had overthrown the earlier Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BCE) claiming they had become corrupt and lost the Mandate of Heaven. The Mandate of Heaven was a concept first conceived of by the Shang (though fully developed by the Zhou) claiming that a monarch was legitimized by the will of the gods who formed a kind of contract with him to care for his subjects and ensure their prosperity. The monarch (or dynasty) was considered to possess the Mandate of Heaven only so long as it was evident their policies benefited the country overall, not just themselves; when it became clear that the government was perpetuating policies in their own self-interest (evidenced by a lack of prosperity for others), it was understood the king had lost the Mandate of Heaven and had to be replaced by a new ruler the gods approved of.
After toppling the Shang, the Zhou Dynasty established a decentralized state which operated as a feudal society and was so successful they were able to greatly expand their territory; at first by conquest and then by enlarging the separate states which had sworn loyalty to the king. The Zhou improved upon cultural innovations of the Shang in areas such as agriculture, writing, education, technology, metallurgy, music, horsemanship, and construction techniques. The decentralization of the Chinese government, however, encouraged separate states to seek greater autonomy which eventually led to its decline and fall.
The early period, known as Western Zhou (1046-771 BCE), ended with an invasion of barbarians from the west, possibly the people known as Xirong (or Rong) and Zhou government continued in the era known as Eastern Zhou (771-256 BCE) whose early stage is known as the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 772-476 BCE), so-called after the name of the state chronicles of the time, the Spring and Autumn Annals. This was the time of the Hundred Schools of Thought and the development of the philosophical schools of Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism, among others. It was also a period of increasing violence and chaos, however, as the Zhou government grew weaker and the separate states, all now stronger than the Zhou, sought to establish themselves as worthy of the Mandate of Heaven.
The Warring States & Rise of Qin
The seven states in contention were Chu, Han, Qi, Qin, Wei, Yan, and Zhao. None could claim supremacy, however, because they each felt the Zhou still had the Mandate of Heaven which could only pass to the one who could prove itself the most powerful. This proved difficult because each state used the same tactics in war and observed the same rules of chivalry. The famous work The Art of War by Sun-Tzu (l. c. 500 BCE) was an attempt to provide a state with an instruction manual for winning the war, but it does not seem to have been widely read, at least not at first, and the incessant wars continued.
The state of Qin initially had the advantage of location and skill in horsemanship. It was said to have been founded by one Gao Yang (also given as Zhuanxu) one of the legendary, predynastic Five Emperors said to have ruled c. 2852-2070 BCE, whose descendants, the Ying family, lived in the region. Much later, the 8th monarch of the Zhou Dynasty, King Xiao (r. c. 872-866 BCE), took notice of a young man of the Ying family, Feizi (d. 858 BCE) who was skilled in breeding horses and rewarded him with lands in the Valley of Qin. The Qin state, therefore, came to be associated with horses and with the high level of horsemanship developed by the Zhou. The Qin also had control of the western lands and, possibly, an association or alliance with the Xirong people who were excellent horseman and fierce fighters.
Even these advantages could not tip the war in Qin’s favor, however, until they adopted the policies of one of their own statesmen, Shang Yang (d. 338 BCE), who advocated for total war and victory at any cost, ignoring all the old rules of military chivalry. Whether Shang Yang had read Sun-Tzu is unknown, but their philosophies match closely. Yang’s theories were either unread or ignored, however, until the young Qin king Ying Zheng implemented them and defeated the other six states in quick succession. Han fell first in 230 BCE, then Zhao in 228 BCE, Wei in 225 BCE, Chu in 223 BCE, Yan in 222 BCE, and Qi in 221 BCE; afterwards, Ying Zheng proclaimed himself Shi Huangdi (“first emperor”) and established the Qin Dynasty.
Policy & Tyranny
Shi Huangdi’s initial policies were directed at unification and consolidation of power in a strong central government. Historian Will Durant comments:
Shi Huangdi] simplified official ceremonies, issued a state coinage, divided most of the feudal estates, prepared for the prosperity of China by establishing a peasant proprietorship of the soil, and paved the way for unity by building great highways in every direction from his capital…Traveling in disguise and unarmed, he made note of abuses and disorders, and then issued unmistakable orders for their correction. He encouraged science and discouraged letters. (696)
In order to protect his people from invasion by the nomadic Xiongnu of the north, he decreed a wall built along the country’s borders. The stones of the walls which used to divide the separate states were initially used for this purpose and would form the first version of what would later become the Great Wall of China. He ordered all the states to surrender their weapons which he had melted down and made into artworks and statues celebrating the new state. Canal work was also decreed, which at first provided employment just as the Great Wall did, resulting in an early version of the Grand Canal.
His early reign seems, at first glance, a model for any monarch in true leadership and care for his people but Shi Huangdi only interpreted the Mandate of Heaven in terms of his own power and self-importance; his subjects were a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Those who worked on the wall, the canal, and other public projects, if they even were initially paid, quickly became conscripts taken from their homes to labor for scraps of food and communal lodgings.
The philosophical school of Legalism (an early version of which was advocated by Shang Yang and later developed by Han Feizi, l. c. 280-233 BCE) informed the law and dictated how people dressed, spoke, and interacted with each other. Legalism maintained that people were only motivated by self-interest and so laws needed to be strict and narrow to control the population and punish infractions.
The people’s lives under the Qin became harsh, narrow, and more uncertain than they had been during the Warring States Period because government officials could take anyone they wanted to work on the emperor’s projects, no matter their social class or occupation. Only the emperor’s men were allowed weapons so there was no armed resistance possible and, even if arms had been available, Shi Huangdi’s network of spies, secret police, and informants would have revealed a plot before it had a chance to be put into action.
The Burning of the Books
There were other ways to resist the Chinese emperor’s tyranny, however, and this came in the form of Confucian scholars and intellectuals of other schools writing treatises and tracts criticizing the regime by comparing it with past dynasties, notably the glory of the early Zhou Dynasty. At its height, the Zhou had operated on the policy of fengjian (“establishment”), a feudal system of a decentralized government and separate states each acting in their own interests but loyal to the king and a set hierarchy which enabled each individual to recognize their place and function in society. This policy, the scholars would have noted, had resulted in prosperity and happiness for those of all social classes. Shi Huangdi, conversely, had confused the hierarchy by undercutting the power of the nobles and turning the other classes – merchants, laborers, and peasants – into slaves, ignoring the Mandate of Heaven to care for his people above himself.
SHI HUANGDI SUPPRESSED ALL FREEDOM OF SPEECH, HAD THE LEGAL CODES REWRITTEN, & BURNED BOOKS & EXECUTED SCHOLARS.
In 213 BCE, the prime minister Li Siu (also given as Li Si, l. c. 280-208 BCE) suggested to Shi Huangdi that all histories of past dynasties be gathered and destroyed except for the history of the State of Qin and that any who sought to hide and preserve them should be executed. Any works expressing the concepts from the period of the Hundred Schools of Thought should also be destroyed including the standard educational texts known as the Four Books and Five Classics from the Zhou Dynasty. Anyone speaking on such topics should be killed and any officers or officials who heard of such conversations and did not report them should be likewise. The only exemptions were works on medicine, science, agriculture, divination, and other practical matters.
Shi Huangdi approved this plan instantly. All philosophical schools were outlawed except for Legalism. Shi Huangdi suppressed all freedom of speech, had the legal codes rewritten to adhere more closely with his own personal vision, and, as per Li Siu’s suggestion, burned the books and executed the scholars as well as anyone who refused to turn over their books or tried to hide them. Although some modern historians claim these events did not occur exactly as they are described by the historian Sima Qian (l. 145/135-86 BCE), no one has yet denied that they did, in fact, happen.
Decline & Fall
From 213 BCE on, Shi Huangdi became increasingly paranoid and erratic. Three attempts were made to assassinate him, which only increased his anxiety and encouraged even more restrictive policies. He changed the room he slept in each night, was always armed, and increased his security. His fear of imminent death encouraged an obsession with immortality, and he tasked trusted officials with finding him some means to live forever and went on journeys to areas where an elixir seemed promising. At the same time, he devoted more resources to the effort of building his grand tomb, as large as a city, and complete with its own army, from which he planned to continue his reign in the afterlife.
Shi Huangdi died on one of his trips by drinking an elixir of mercury. Whether this was a successful assassination or his unintentional suicide is unknown but his death is traditionally considered accidental. Afterwards, Li Siu concealed the emperor’s death, bringing his body back to the capital in a caravan of dead fish to conceal the smell of the corpse, until he could have Shi Huangdi’s will, which named his eldest son Fusu (d. 210 BCE) as successor, changed to name the younger son, Hu Hai. Fusu was a strong and commanding personality who was friends with the general Meng Tian (d. 210 BCE) and, if he became emperor, Li Siu would almost certainly be replaced. Hu Hai, on the other hand, was a spoiled child, coddled by his teacher, the chancellor Zhao Gao, and would be easy to manipulate.
Li Siu’s plan worked, the death of the emperor was announced after Li Siu and the chancellor Zhao Gao (d. 207 BCE) had Hu Hai change the will, had Fusu and Meng Tian eliminated, and installed Hu Hai as Emperor Qin Er Shi (r. 210-207 BCE), with Li Siu and Zhao Gao’s powerful positions secure. Qin Er Shi proved himself a weak king and the government’s hold on the people steadily loosened under his reign. He was famous for his bad temper, ordering the death of anyone who brought him bad news, and his lasting legacy is the origin of the saying “Don’t kill the messenger” regarding a negative reaction to receiving unwelcome information.
Zhao Gao turned on Li Siu afterwards, accused him of treason, and had him executed. He then forced Qin Er Shi, who had approved of Li Siu’s death, to commit suicide or face dishonor for his role in changing the will, Fusu’s death, and essentially usurping the throne, all of which Zhao Gao seems to have threatened to disclose.
Zhao Gao then installed Fusu’s son Ziying (d. 206 BCE) as emperor, thinking to control him, but Ziying tricked him and had him killed along with his entire family. Ziying did no better at restoring Qin authority than Qin Er Shi, however, and full-scale rebellion broke out in 206 BCE which came to be led by the noble Xiang Yu of Chu (l. 232-202 BCE) and the commoner Liu Bang of Han (l. c. 256-195 BCE). In 206 BCE, Liu Bang reached the Qin capital at Xianyang first and accepted Ziying’s surrender. Xiang Yu, arriving afterward, had Ziying and his family executed and so ended the Qin Dynasty.
Xiang Yu and Liu Bang then turned on each other, both pursuing a policy of total war, in the conflict known as the Chu-Han Contention (206-202 BCE) which cost thousands of lives. Liu Bang finally gained the upper hand by kidnapping Xiang Yu’s concubine, Lady Yu, who was the great love of his life, and luring the Chu forces into a hopeless situation at the Battle of Gaixia (202 BCE). Lady Yu committed suicide and Xiang Yu, after burying her, fought his way out but was pursued and killed himself rather than be taken. Liu Bang then established the Han Dynasty, ruling as the Emperor Gaozu (r. 202-195 BCE).
Although the Qin Dynasty is often referenced positively as the first political entity to unite China and give it the name it is known by in the West, the reign of Shi Huangdi and his inept son and grandson were a dark time for the people who were impoverished, brutalized, and kidnapped from their homes to serve the ego of the emperor. It is a telling detail that the Qin Dynasty is the shortest, only 15 years, in the history of Imperial China owing to its brutality and blatant rejection of the central value of the Mandate of Heaven that a ruler care for the people above any personal considerations.
Shi Huangdi, after his initial gestures, pursued a course in direct defiance of the mandate, epitomized in the burning of the people’s books and the execution of those who tried to preserve their heritage and the hope for the future. There is no way of knowing how many texts from the Hundred Schools of Thought were burned but, considering Shi Huangdi’s extensive reach through his network of spies, the numbers are thought to have been quite high, representing a tremendous loss of cultural history, Chinese philosophy, and Chinese literature.
Shi Huangdi's insistence on the primacy of the Qin, and his own rule, encouraged his attempts to erase the significant achievements of the Zhou Dynasty which also represented the legacy of the Shang. In divorcing his dynasty from those of the past, the emperor sought to avoid what he saw as their weaknesses and mistakes but rejected their strengths and accomplishments as well. The history of the Qin Dynasty should be understood as a cautionary tale in denying the past, whether on a personal, national, or global level, in attempts to create a present which must finally be untenable because it has no foundation on which to stand.
Durant, W. Our Oriental Heritage. Simon and Schuster, 2014.
Man, J. The Terracotta Army. Bantam Press, 2007.