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Chinese history – the Qin dynasty

Origin and takeover of the Qin

The Qin were one of the Seven Kingdoms (Han, Wei, Chao, Qi, Yan, Qin, and Chu) that carried out a power struggle for mastery of the empire around 300 B.C.E. The king of the Zhou dynasty was still the imperial spiritual leader, but could not undertake anything against the independent princedoms.

From the west in today’s province of Shaanxi came the Qin. Their state was founded there in the 9th century B.C.E. Originally, the Qin were nobles of but low rank, responsible for breeding the imperial horses. Qin’s reign was founded on a strictly organized power system that was substantially reformed in the 4th century B.C.E. by the Legalist Shang Yang. The Qin advantage lay in its border positioning; they were forced from the beginning to defend themselves against barbarians in the west, and later, after subjugating them, were able to extend their territory toward the west.

In the east, mountain ranges and the Yellow River presented a strategic advantage, in that they made defense easier. The Qin’s troops were able to get beyond these stumbling blocks in 316 B.C.E. to conquer the state of Shu. Through skillful alliances and a well-organized army trained in centuries’ worth of border wars, the Qin gradually found victory over hostile states. In 249, the last Zhou king was deposed. Conquering of the small states followed, and then of Qi (221 B.C.E.) China was united; the Chinese feudal empire with its mutually antagonistic little states was dissolved in favor of a central state with an emperor at its head.

Territorial expansion of the empire

The imperial capital was Xianyang, near modern-day Xian, where the imperial cemeteries were as well. It stretched across the modern province Shaanxi in the west to Shandong in the east and parts of Liaoning in the north.

The rule of the Qin

King Zheng took the title Huang Di and named himself Qin Shi Huang Di as a reference to the Yellow Emperor from the days of yore and as a sign that he intended to break with the traditions of the Zhou dynasty. His advisors were Lu Bu Wei and Li Si (from 237 B.C.E.). Both were Legalists who advocated a realistic governance style (founded by Han Fei and Shang Yang) that was based on the law.

Under the Qin, numerous reforms and standardizations were introduced. Weight and measure were standardized, the justice system reformed, a stiff tax system introduced. Chinese writing also saw standardization via a great reform. No other dynasty was judged so harshly by the traditional, Confucian-influenced historiography: the emperor of the Qin supposedly buried his opposition alive, prescribed a mass burning of Confucian texts and writings, compelled farmers to service in the construction of his palaces and the Great Wall, and introduced a hard, legalistic regime.

The Confucians’ negative criticism surely came about principally due to the latter point. Qin Shi Huang Di refused Confucian moral and governance rules and conformed instead to his advisors, who advocated a realistic and legalistic style of rule. Whether the great book burning of 213 B.C.E. ever took place is disputed through today.

Qin construction projects

Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di was extremely construction-happy. He caused numerous palaces and canals to be built, including exact copies of the palaces belonging to the feudal princes he’d defeated. Among the most famous man-made constructs of the world are the Great Wall and the famous Terracotta Warriors in Xian.

The Chinese Wall already existed at this time, at least in pieces, as part of the defense facilities of the earlier, now splintered empires; these pieces were connected under Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di’s rule. A large number of forced laborers and slaves were mobilized to this end. The border wall, meant to protect the empire from the Huns (xiong nu), consisted of clay with wooden watchtowers. Only in later dynasties was the Wall expanded into the imposing structure it is today.

The Terracotta Warriors are a part of an enormous gravesite of the first emperor; it was just discovered in 1974 by Chinese farmers who were drilling for water. The Warriors belonged to the emperor’s mausoleum, located about one kilometer away. The entire site is therefore probably a much larger area, and has not yet been fully excavated.

Downfall of the dynasty

Qin Shi Huang Di died in 210 B.C.E. during one of his many inspection trips. His oldest son Fu did not inherit the throne, for although he was thought capable, Fu fell victim to a palace intrigue; instead, the younger son did, taking the name Er Shi Huang Di (“second emperor”). He was just twenty-one years old and in thrall to the advisor Li Si. He concentrated on completing his father’s building projects, which led to an uprising of the forced laborers. In 207 he was murdered by the eunuch Chao Gao. Liu Bang, who later founded the Han dynasty and took the name Han Gao Zu, moved into the capital city as ringleader of the farmers’ revolt.

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