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A brief history of the Chinese Qin dynasty, the first dynasty to conquer the rival Warring States and unify ancient China into a single empire.

As the first Chinese dynasty, the Qin dynasty plays a pivotal role in the history of China and East Asia. Although the dynasty lasted only 15 years, it established a sizable legacy. This dynasty created some of the most beloved monuments in Chinese history, including both the terracotta soldiers and the Great Wall. But how was the Qin dynasty started and why was their reign so short?

The Qin dynasty started by aggressively expanding its borders, taking over surrounding territories. This allowed them to build an impressive military. Once they took over a new province, they tried to create social assimilation. This came through a strong belief in Legalism, which enforced a strict set of laws.

This article focuses on the history of the culture and civilization of ancient China’s Qin dynasty — ranging from the cultural practices and societal structure that allowed it to conquer all neighboring states, their lasting geographic influence on China’s landscape, and how the dynasty ultimately fell shortly after its brutal ruler’s death.

Who Are the People of the Qin Dynasty?

The Qin dynasty was made of the previously disparate populations of the rival kingdoms that dotted the Chinese landscape. This was at a time when the “Han Chinese” ethnic identity that has permeated Chinese history into the modern day had not yet been established. With the unification brought about by Qin’s conquests, these groups also began to coalesce into, more or less, the modern majority population of China.

Origins of the Qin Dynasty

The precursor to the Qin dynasty was the independent Qin state that first emerged between 771 and 221 BCE. During this period, China was not a single country, but was divided into smaller feudal states. Originally, the Qin state was based in the northwest part of the country along the Wei River.

Over the years that would follow, the leaders of Qin would start to centralize their power. Rules become more rigid and aggressive policies toward nearby states. In the 3rd Century BCE, this would culminate in Qin setting its sights on the neighboring kingdoms to the south — Ba (Chongqing) and Shu (Sichuan). 

Like Qin, Ba and Shu were considered frontier states to the central and “more civilized” states in the Chinese heartland along the Yellow River. Not only did this make them a prime, weaker target ripe for conquest in the Qin rulers’ eyes, but they also contained vast farmlands that could be used to support a growing population. In 316 BCE, Qin invaded Ba and Shu, securing these resources and more than doubling Qin’s territory.

In 246 BCE, the young Ying Zheng became the ruler of the Qin state. Despite only being a young boy at the time, the greatest conquests of the Qin began. This allowed them to start increasing the size of the area that they controlled. By the end of 221 BCE, the Qin Empire had been formed, and Ying Zheng took the ceremonial title Qin Shi Huangdi (秦始皇帝) or “First Emperor of Qin”.

Qin Dynasty Name Origins

The Qin dynasty is named after both its predecessor, the Qin state as well as the honorific title given to the “First Emperor ” Qin Shi Huangdi. His namesake dynasty rule would be short-lived after his death and would be succeeded by the Han dynasty, from which the modern Chinese ethnic identity gets its name. However, Qin’s name would go on to outlive perhaps even his wildest expectations.

Qin’s name not only went to his domain and ruling dynasty during his rule, but it would eventually become the name by which much of the world would know this fledgling country nearly 2000 years later. The modern English word “China” and all of its variations in languages around the world are commonly thought to have come from Emperor Qin.

Culture and Beliefs of the Qin Dynasty

One of the biggest elements of the Qin dynasty was a desire to unify the country. To achieve this, they put a range of measures into place. This brought a range of cultural benefits. For example, they tried to ensure that everyone in the empire had the same system of writing. They also ushered in standardized measurements. This made it easier to communicate.

Legalism in the Qin Dynasty

The defining cultural philosophy of both the Qin state and later Qin dynasty was Legalism. Often referred to as the anti-Confucianism, the core of the Legalist philosophy is that people are more inclined to do bad things than good, largely because of an inherent selfish nature. Morality plays no role in the way that people make a decision and the rights of the government and the state must be placed above those of ordinary citizens

Therefore, it is the state’s role to use strict laws to ensure societal harmony and advocates a centralized, top-down model for rule. Only by doing this would we be able to overcome our basic instincts and make a positive contribution to the world.

If citizens didn’t follow these laws, there would be strict penalties. The lesser of these penalties included the need to pay harsh fines or loss of status and wealth. The harsher penalties included forced labor, body mutilation (such as scarring or castration), and went as far as the death penalty.

To help Legalism spread, the Qin Empire actively discouraged anyone from following other ideologies. The Qin authorities even resorted to book burning and execution of literature and people that promoted ideas deemed to be sacrilegious. This caused some social friction because of how it conflicted with the previous religion of Confucianism, the doctrine which would go on to define Chinese society until modern times.

Centralization During the Qin Dynasty

There was another underlying reason for the book burning and purging of competing intellectuals. Like many kings throughout the ages, Qin Shi Huang wanted history to start with him, the “First Emperor”. While some controversial materials were stored away in royal archives, most copies in the greater population were destroyed. Some texts that were exempt from these policies, such as literature that could serve a practical purpose, for example, medical books.

This reflected the need for strong centralization that Legalism required. Emperor Qin did away with the system of feudal lords that had persisted in the rival Chinese kingdoms for centuries. In this system, the kings would delegate power to regional nobles who would collect taxes and administer the local communities. However, as time went on, these nobles would amass more and more influence for themselves, as they controlled local armies and agriculture. Oftentimes, they would eventually be competing with the ruling monarch. 

The centralization of Qin’s Legalist philosophy abolished this system and replaced it with direct rule from the central authority, a top-down system from the Emperor himself.

Standardization During the Qin Dynasty

To administer such a centralized system from over as vast and culturally diverse an area as ancient China, all industries, bureaucracies, and projects became highly standardized. This standardization included social practices such as laws and penalties, civil service examinations, and taxes. They also included material standardizations, such as units of measurement, coins, roads, and transportation.

Perhaps most importantly, the Qin rulers created the first standard writing system for all of China. 

Consider for a moment that, even in modern China, residents of different provinces will oftentimes be unable to understand each other. This is due to the vast divergence in the Chinese dialects that have evolved over the many centuries. Even now, as standard Mandarin is taught in schools and broadcast over national media (and has been for decades), most Chinese citizens prefer to speak their local dialects in daily conversation.

This same problem existed over 2000 years ago during the Qin dynasty, when all the disparate warring states engaged in their own regional languages and writing systems. While these writing systems were all derived from the same Shang dynasty writing system from over 1000 years before, many regions have developed their own characters for a large number of words.

The Qin rulers standardized each character into a simple and quick writing system now called the Small Seal Script. This standardization of the writing system meant that these people speaking highly differing dialects in the far-flung corners of the empire could now understand each other’s documents and literature, even if they couldn’t understand their speech.

This common wiring system, along with the new standard units of measure, currency, and tax laws allow commerce and bureaucracy to flourish throughout the empire in a way that it never had in the previous eras.

History of the Qin Dynasty

Expansion of the Qin Dynasty

One of the benefits of Legalism was that it allowed the military to become more efficient. In a standardized world, it became a lot easier to spot who had potential and who didn’t. This let the military recruit and train the best and brightest minds.

The soldiers in the Qin dynasty also had access to a range of advanced weaponry. For example, they had some of the strongest iron swords in the region. They also had powerful crossbows. These were capable of firing over 2,600 feet. It’s believed that these played a huge role in the expansion of the dynasty. 

As the empire expanded, the Emperor favored putting officials in control of conquered provinces rather than members of the royal family. This made the expansion a lot easier to manage. However, it hurt the people living in these cities. The officials became eager to impress the king. Because of this, some of them tried to artificially increase their results. There are reports of civilians being murdered so officials could report they had killed more bandits.

Building the Great Wall

One of the biggest achievements of the Qin dynasty was beginning the construction of what would become the Great Wall of China. Upon recognizing the longstanding threat of the tribes to the north of China, and not wielding the authority and raw manpower to do something about it, Emperor Qin ordered the building of long sections of wall to line the north of his kingdom.

According to remaining documents, Qin had ordered to build the Wall “according to topographical conditions and to make precipitous cliff a part of the wall.” This was realized in different sections of the Great Wall being built with vastly differing construction methods. For example, clay (sometimes bound with reeds and twigs) was used through the flat plains and deserts north of the Yellow River, while stones were used to build in the mountains.

Sections of the Great Wall were constructed as a way to protect from invasions, as well as a way of delineating territory ownership. They were designed to be able to withstand attacks from arrows and spears. To achieve this, they were primarily constructed of stone, with gravel fill between the boarded frames. In other sections, rammed earth was used to build structures as solid as stone.

Qin Shi Huang’s Tomb and the Terracotta Army

Main article: Architecture Profile: Ancient China’s Pyramid Tombs

Another important element of the Qin dynasty was the creation of the terracotta army. It’s believed that work on this monument began shortly after the Emperor took to the throne at the age of 13. The tomb was believed to be a spectacular place. For example, there is evidence that mercury was used to simulate flowing rivers.

But the greater work began on the work on the Terracotta army. This was an impressive force of 8,000 soldiers. There were 130 chariots and 500 horses. There were also non-military figures. These are believed to be prominent cultural figures like poets and officials. The Emperor believed that this army would allow him to protect himself in the afterlife.

Geography of the Qin Dynasty

At its peak, the Qin dynasty had amassed a large territory. It was based around two of China’s largest river systems Yellow River (Huang He) and Yangtze River (Chang Jiang). It extended as far as the Gobi desert. In the South, the land stretched to the Xi River.

The Qin Dynasty on the Northern Border

Throughout the centuries of China’s many successive emperors and dynasties, a common thread has always been the threat posed by the nomadic tribes in the steppes to the north in modern-day Mongolia. 

The Mongols themselves are certainly the most famous of these collections of tribes. But, they were actually one of the latest. Before the Mongols of Genghis Khan swept through the entire continent from China to Europe, others such as the Uyghurs and the Xiongnu (the Huns) were threatening China’s northern border.

In contrast to the settled agricultural communities found along China’s great rivers, the Xiongnu and the later inheritors of the steppe did not remain long in permanent towns. They would instead raid Chinese villages for resources and tribute. 

This persistent threat encouraged the First Emperor to use his unprecedented power to build the first sections of the Great Wall of China along the empire’s northern border. This order began a project that would be carried on by his successors for over 1000 years.

The Qin Dynasty in Far West China

The Qin State originated in the traditional northwestern region of the Chinese heartland. However, their influence in the far west did not reach the distances that their successors, the Han dynasty, would by opening up the Hexi Corridor. 

That said, it is the Qin that laid the foundations that would enable and encourage the Han dynasty to move forward into the western frontier. The building projects of the Qin, particularly that of the Great Wall would be extended and further fortified by the Han to safeguard travellers through the Hexi Corridor, marking the beginning of trade by way of the legendary Silk Road.

What Happened to the Qin Dynasty?

The Qin dynasty made a number of notable achievements to definitively secure its place in Chinese history. However, the dynasty was ultimately short-lived and did not last long after its founder’s death. 

A few different factors are thought to have contributed to the Qin dynasty’s downfall. Ranking high among these is the notorious tyranny of Qin Shi Huangdi. This reputation seems well-earned. From his early days as a warlord, he was known for employing raw, sometimes genocidal violence during his conquests. 

Later in his life, he made harsh demands of his subjects for massive construction projects. These projects were not only for the nation’s defense, like the Great Wall, but also for his own glory, such as his mausoleum.

This brutal reputation was one of the leading factors to the dynasty’s overthrow. The peasant and lower classes who had endured this treatment finally revolted, a trend that would continue over the course of Chinese history, bringing an end to many other dynasties after Qin.

Historians also largely attribute the weakening of the dynasty to Qin Shi Huang’s successor, Qin Er Shi. After the First Emperor died, his advisors conspired to put Qin Er Shi on the throne because they thought they could control him more easily. To do this, they forged a letter from the Emperor to his eldest son, encouraging him to kill himself

However, Qin Er Shi turned out to be inept. He embraced large-scale building projects. To fund these projects, he raised taxes. This caused a lot of social unrest. Because of this, officials started to rise up and declare themselves kings. Eventually, Qin Er Shi was killed, ending the Qin dynasty only 4 years after Qin Shi Huang’s death.

Cities of the Qin Dynasty

Xianyang
Shaanxi, China
GPS: 34.3292, 108.7092

Shu (modern Chengdu)
Sichuan, China
GPS: 30.65677, 104.06593

Ba (modern Chongqing)
Chongqing, China
GPS: 29.56308, 106.58054

Luoyang
Province, Country
GPS: 34.62118, 112.45468

Monuments of the Qin Dynasty

Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum
Shaanxi, China
GPS: 34.38148, 109.25422

Terracotta Soldiers
Shaanxi, China
GPS: 34.38431, 109.28134

Ling Canal
Guangxi, China
Multiple Locations

The Great Wall of China
Multiple Provinces, China

Dujiangyan Irrigation System
Sichuan, China
Multiple Locations

Fast Facts

Name: Qin Dynasty
Origin: Conquest of all Chinese ‘Warring States” by the Qin state in 221 BCE
Language: Chinese dialects
Ideology: Legalism
Period/Era: 221-206 BCE
Location: Mainland China
Capital: Xianyang (modern Shaanxi Province)
Decline: The empire’s provinces began rebelling after the Emperor’s death.

Glossary

Han dynasty 汉朝
The ruling dynasty of China from 202 BCE – 220 CE. Han doctrine was characterized by economic prosperity through outside trade via the Silk Road creating the earliest sense of a single Chinese “Han” identity.

Hexi Corridor 河西走廊
A narrow geographic region between the Gobi Desert and the Tibetan Plateau in western China that was an important path on the Chinese end of the Silk Road. The Han dynasty secured and fortified the Hexi Corridor, allowing trade caravans to become more common.

Legalism
A philosophy from ancient China centered on the belief that people are inherently bad and that harsh laws must be put in place to ensure society runs properly. It was adopted by the Qin dynasty as their driving philosophy.

Mandate of Heaven 天命
The Chinese belief that the rulers are chosen by Heaven due to their righteousness. If a ruler becomes unworthy, Heaven would show signs through natural disasters and the rulers would be overthrown. 

Mongols
Nomadic ethnic group native to the steppe north of China

Qin dynasty 秦朝
Chinese dynasty established in 221 BCE by Qin Shi Huang after conquering and united all rival Chinese states. Modern China derives its name from this dynasty, which is significant for being the first unified Chinese state. The Qin dynasty lasted until 206 BCE and was soon succeeded by the Han dynasty.

Qin Shi Huang 秦始皇
The “First Emperor” of China who created the Qin dynasty by conquering all rival Chinese states and unifying China for the first time in 221 BCE.

Qin state
One of the Chinese Warring States that lasted from ~9th Century BCE to 221 BCE, when it conquered the rival states and was declared the Qin Empire.

Silk Road
A vast trade network connecting China to India, the Middle East, and Europe through Central Asia that was responsible for the intercultural spread of goods and ideas. Although trade began along these routes prior to the Qin dynasty, it began flourishing during the Han dynasty when they secured the Hexi Corridor.

steppe
The grassy flatland that makes up Central Asia to the north and west of China.

Terracotta Army
A buried army of ceramic soldiers, horses, and chariots excavated near the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang.

Warring States Period 战国时代
A period preceding the Qin dynasty (c. 475 to 221 BCE) that saw many rival kingdoms throughout China.

Xiongnu
Nomadic ethnic group originating from the steppes along the northwestern border of China, and presumed to be the ancestors of the Huns. The Xiongnu raided the Chinese borders and trade routes along the early Silk Soad.

Sources

· Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “Qin dynasty”, Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 Nov. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Qin-dynasty

· Emily Mark, “Legalism”, World History Encyclopedia, https://www.worldhistory.org/Legalism/?visitCount=1&lastVisitDate=2021-4-7&pageViewCount=2#:~:text=Legalism%20in%20ancient%20China%20was,laws%20to%20control%20their%20impulses.

· “Legalism (Chinese philosophy)”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legalism_(Chinese_philosophy)

· Chen Guidi; Wu Chuntao (2007). Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China’s Peasants. Translated by Zhu Hong. PublicAffairs. ISBN 978-1-58648-441-5.

· “Great Wall of China”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Wall_of_China#Han_Great_Wall

· “Geography”, The Qin Dynasty, https://haifasqin.weebly.com/geography.html#:~:text=The%20Qin%20Dynasty%20was%20located,is%20warmer%20and%20more%20humid.

· “Qin Dynasty”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qin_dynasty#Fall_from_power

· “Qin Dynasty”, History.com, https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-china/qin-dynasty

· “Terracotta Army”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terracotta_Army

· “Who Built the Terracotta Army and Why – the First Emperor’s Army”, Fercility Jiang, Mar. 18, 2021, China Highlights, https://www.chinahighlights.com/xian/terracotta-army/who-and-why-built.htm

· “10 Major Achievements of the Qin Dynasty of China”, Leonardo Newtonic, https://learnodo-newtonic.com/qin-dynasty-achievements

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

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