In 221 BC, Ying Zheng (嬴政), King of the powerful state of Qin (秦), completed the conquest of its rivals and created a unified empire in the central and northern part of present-day China.
With the aid of his advisors, King Zheng set about consolidating and centralizing his power. He thus established the foundations of China’s bureaucratic structure, which would become one of its most defining characteristics.
In this article I shall briefly examine the rise of the Qin state, the founding of the unified empire under its control, and the formation of its centralized administration.
Table of Contents
- Overview of the Period
- The State of Qin and Legalist Institutional Reforms
- King Zheng Forges a Unified Empire
- The Fall of the Qin Dynasty
- The Legacy of Qin
Overview of the Period
The Zhou (周) dynasty lasted from about 1050 BC to 256 BC. It originated in what is now Shaanxi province in northwestern China. After a series of territorial conquests, it established an empire ruling over much of northern China.
The Zhou state can be described as a feudal system based on clan loyalty and rigid social hierarchy, where power was in the hands of the nobility. Bonds of obligation derived from common kinship and ancestry.
After about two centuries, the Zhou dynasty began to decline. In 771 BC, the capital was sacked by non-Chinese tribes, and the rulers established a new capital in the east, marking the beginning of the so-called Eastern Zhou period. But the dynasty was weakened. The feudal states, though nominally still vassals of the Zhou, were de facto independent.
The Eastern Zhou period is divided into the Spring and Autumn period (722-481 BC) and the Warring States period (403-221 BC). Over the course of these two eras, rival feudal states fought against each other for dominance. Despite the turmoil, this was a time of great social, cultural and economic advances such as the development of iron, money, private ownership of land and infantry armies. Old class barriers began to break down. Culture flourished, with the emergence of competing philosophies.
The most important philosophies were Confucianism, Legalism, Mohism and Daoism.
Confucius (551-479 BC) and his followers Mencius (ca. 370-ca. 300 BC) and Xunzi (ca. 310-ca. 215 BC) emphasized the preservation of tradition, moral cultivation, and family ideology. The Mohists’ thought centred around frugality, discipline, and universal love. The Legalists, such as Lord Shang and Han Feizi, promoted a strong centralized state, obedience to authority, military prowess, and a system of rewards and strict punishments. The Daoists preached a return to the “Dao” (道, Way), the natural state of humanity that had been lost in the process of civilization. The remarkable intellectual fervour of the age was encapsulated in the phrase “the Hundred Schools of Thought” (see Ebrey 2009, pp. 1-2).
During the Warring States period, seven kingdoms emerged as the most powerful, vying with one another for supremacy:
- The state of Qi (齊) was located in northwest China, roughly corresponding to present-day Shandong province and Hebei province. It became a centre of the Hundred Schools of Thought when King Xuan of Qi (r. 319-301) invited scholars to the famous Jixia academy in the capital Linzi.
- The state of Chu (楚) was located in the mid-Yangtze River valley, covering most of present-day Hubei, southern Henan, Anhui and parts of Jiangsu and Zhejiang.
- The state of Han (韓) occupied the southeast of modern Shanxi and central Henan. It was smaller and weaker than the other major states and often played the role of a buffer zone between them.
- The state of Yan (燕) comprised the far northeast, covering parts of present-day Hebei province, Liaoning province, and the northeast corner of Shanxi province.
- The state of Wei (魏) was a large and powerful state occupying parts of present-day Shanxi province and Henan province. Its wealth derived from fertile land and trade, as it held some of the major trading cities. It was one of the most advanced states, implementing institutional reforms, and building large-scale infrastructure as well as irrigation projects. However, it was encircled from all sides by rival kingdoms and often had to fight on multiple fronts.
- The state of Zhao (趙) covered the northern half of modern Shanxi province and the southern part of Hebei province. It was a frontier state, less wealthy and populous than its southern neighbours. Zhao was engaged in wars of territorial expansion with the nomadic tribes to its North. In 307 BC, King Wuling (武靈) introduced a highly mobile light cavalry based on that of the nomads.
- The state of Qin (秦) was the westernmost state, in present-day Shanxi province. It lay in a fertile valley surrounded by hills, a strategic location which provided both wealth and protection from enemy incursions. Qin began as a domain of the Zhou dynasty, tasked with raising horses and fighting off the tribes beyond the frontier. It expanded its territory and became the preeminent regional power, yet it was considered less culturally advanced than other kingdoms.
Apart from the large states, there was also a number of smaller ones, such as Lu (魯), the birthplace of Confucius, and Zou (鄒), the birthplace of Mencius (see Dillon 2016; Ebrey 1999, p. 60; Loewe et al. 1999, pp. 594-597, Hui 2005, p. 73).
The State of Qin and Legalist Institutional Reforms
In order to develop their state, Qin rulers started to recruit advisors, strategists and diplomats from rival kingdoms. Most importantly, Qin resorted to a particular group of political thinkers who espoused the doctrines of Legalism. In 361, the Legalist philosopher and politician Shang Yang (商鞅), often referred to as Lord Shang, moved to Qin and became minister. He implemented reforms aimed at strengthening the state and increasing the power of the ruler (Ebrey 1999, p. 60).
The Legalists put the interests of the state above both moral concerns and the well-being of the population. They rejected the Confucian belief in traditional family values, humanity and righteousness. Instead, they wanted to strengthen the ruler and the state, and make the people submissive and disciplined. Moreover, they sought to destroy the old feudal system, because it limited the absolute power of the ruler.
The state would be ordered by laws defining the duties and responsibilities of the people; severe punishments would discourage misbehaviour; rewards would inspire obedience and dedication to the state. Intellectual freedom had to be restricted. The economy would be based on agriculture, while commerce would be limited (De Bary et al. 1960, pp. 122-123).
The Book of Lord Shang (商君書), written in the 3rd century BC, states:
“A weak people means a strong state and a strong state means a weak people. Therefore, a country, which has the right way, is concerned with weakening the people. If they are simple they become strong, and if they are licentious they become weak. Being weak, they are law-abiding; being licentious, they let their ambition go too far; being weak, they are serviceable, but if they let their ambition go too far, they will become strong …
“If the people live in humiliation they value rank; if they are weak, they honour office, and if they are poor, they prize rewards. If the people are governed by means of punishments, they enjoy service …”
Under the influence of Legalism, the Qin government instituted a set of honorary ranks with privileges such as exemptions from labour services and taxation. The purpose was to create a new loyal elite to replace the old feudal one.
The common people were allowed to buy and sell land, which stimulated agricultural production. Merchants and artisans were relegated to a lower status.
In order to foster obedience and break up the traditional loyalty to the family, which it viewed as a threat to state supremacy, the regime divided the population into units consisting of five to ten households. Each individual’s crime was considered as the responsibility of the entire unit. This system incentivized people to report a crime to the authorities so as to avoid harsh punishment to all members of the unit (Fairbank et al. 2006, p. 55).
Measures such as these increased agricultural productivity, created an efficient tax system that brought revenues to the government, and instilled in the people fear of the authority (Ebrey 1999, p. 60).
King Zheng Forges a Unified Empire
In 247 BC, King Zheng ascended the throne of the state of Qin at the age of nine. He relied on the advice of his two most important ministers: Lü Buwei (呂不韋) and Li Si (李斯). From 230 to 221, King Zheng led a series of successful military campaigns, defeating one rival after another (Ebrey 1999 p. 60).
The states of Han, Zhao, Wei, Chu, Yan and Qi were all subjugated, and King Zheng gave himself the title of First Emperor (始皇帝, Shi Huangdi). The word Huangdi (Emperor) was a combination of the words “august” and “lord”, which had been used by the legendary sage kings of the past (ibid., pp. 60-61).
The First Emperor set about absorbing the conquered kingdoms into the strong, centralized Qin state based on Legalist principles.
He abolished the old feudal states and the aristocratic clans. The country was divided into thirty-six commanderies, each commandery subdivided into counties. He appointed administrators to every regional unit. Regulations and harsh punishments for lawbreakers were instituted.
He established a common currency, standardized weights and measures as well as a uniform Chinese script – the use of local varieties was declared an act of treason.
In order to prevent rebellions, he prohibited the private possession of weapons and ordered that all noble houses move to the capital Xianyang, near present-day Xi’an (ibid., p. 61).
Legalists had an anti-intellectual streak, a suspicion of philosophy and learning. They viewed knowledge as legitimate only insofar as it was instrumental in strengthening the monarch and the state.
The Legalist scholar Han Feizi (韓非) wrote:
“[T]he intelligence of the people is not to be relied upon any more than the mind of a baby …
“[M]en became naturally spoiled by love, but are submissive to authority … That being so, rewards should be rich and certain so that the people will be attracted by them; punishments should be severe and definite so that the people will fear them …
“When many attend to learning, the law will come to naught … In the state ruled by an enlightened sovereign, one would find no recorded literature and the law would supply the only instruction; … killing of the enemy would be regarded as the only courageous deed. As a result, the people in the state would all conform to the law in their discourse, would aim at meritorious achievement in their actions, and would offer their services to the army out of bravery …” (De Bary et al. 1960, pp. 129-136).
Han Feizi went so far as to declare that “learned men” who “exalt the ways of the early kings and make a show of humanity and righteousness” were a “vermin” of the state who had to be eliminated (ibid.).
The influence of the Legalists is visible in the Qin ruler’s desire to dominate public discourse. He only allowed education imparted by government officials for the purpose of serving the state. When his advisor Li Si denounced scholars who criticized the Emperor, he ordered that all writings, except for useful manuals on practical topics like agriculture and divination, be collected and burnt. According to tradition, not only books, but also scholars – 460 of them – were burnt as a warning to anyone willing to defy the Emperor (Ebrey 1999, p. 63).
The common people, too, experienced the emperor’s iron fist. The state rewarded informants who reported crimes. Lawbreakers faced harsh punishments, from forced labour to mutilation and execution. Even the innocent were arbitrarily called into forced labour. Both conscripted and penal labour were used to build large projects such as palaces, roads, canals and fortifications. Hundreds of thousands of people were drafted to construct a new palace in 212 BC as well as parts of what would later become the Great Wall (ibid.).
The Fall of the Qin Dynasty
Although the Legalists and the First Emperor thought that they were creating a strong state with a subservient population, in fact they sowed the seeds of its own destruction. The Qin empire relied too heavily on the personality and ability of the monarch. The harshness of the government, instead of crushing the will of the people, led to widespread resentment, which burst into violence as soon as an opportunity arose.
The First Emperor ruled from 221 to 210 BC. His oldest son and heir, Fusu (扶蘇), is said to have opposed his father’s policies and the influence of Legalism, including the burning of books. When Fusu ascended the throne, prime minister Li Si and the powerful palace eunuch Zhao Gao (趙高) conspired to kill both the ruler and his favourite General, Meng Tian (蒙恬). Thereupon they installed Fusu’s younger brother, 21-year-old Huhai (胡亥), as the new Emperor with the title Qin Er Shi (秦二世; lit. ‘Second Generation of the Qin’) in 210 BC. The Second Emperor was a puppet of Zhao Gao, who later conspired to have Li Si executed (Kerr 2013, chapter 2).
Qin Er Shi’s rule would soon crumble. In 209 BC, a group of conscripted peasants were on their way to join a frontier garrison, but bad weather delayed their journey. Failure to report for duty on time was punished by execution. Rather than face the cruel penalty, two of the officers, Chen Sheng (陳勝) and Wu Guang (吳廣), decided to launch a rebellion. They soon found out that there were thousands of disgruntled people willing to join them. Though they assembled an army of 10,000 men, they were defeated by Qin troops.
Discontent with conscripted labour was widespread, and more revolts erupted. Zhao Gao tricked the Emperor into believing that his palace was under attack by rebel troops and forced him to commit suicide. He handed the throne over to Ziying (子嬰), a brother of Qin Er Shi’s, but was himself murdered by the new ruler. As Qin generals defected and old noble families rose up, Liu Bang (劉邦), a former low-rank functionary in the Qin administration, captured the capital Xianyang.
The Qin dynasty collapsed in 206 BC after just fifteen years. Liu Bang took the title of King of Han (漢), and in 202 BC he defeated his main rival, General Xiang Yu. Liu Bang, later known as the Gaozu Emperor (高祖, r. 202-195 BC), moved the capital to Chang’an, establishing a dynasty that would last for about four hundred years (206 BC-220 AD) (Ch’ien 2021, pp. 662-663; Kerr 2013, chapter 2; Ebrey 1999, pp. 63-64).
The Legacy of Qin
There is no doubt that the state of Qin and the First Emperor had an enormous influence on Chinese and world history. Nevertheless, the legacy of the dynasty was controversial in its own time. The brutality of Qin rule caused a reaction, a shift towards a more humane, less tyrannical form of government. Confucianism became a counterbalancing intellectual force to the discredited doctrines of Legalism.
Jia Yi (賈誼, c. 200 – 169 BC), a famous Confucian scholar and poet, denounced the Qin dynasty as tyrannical and proposed an alternative model of rule by virtue instead of rule by force. In his essay The Faults of Qin (過秦論), Jia Yi explains the collapse of Qin from a Confucian standpoint:
“With its superior strength Ch’in [=Qin] pressed the crumbling forces of its rivals … Following up the advantages of its victory, Ch’in gained mastery over the empire and divided up the land as it saw fit …
“[Qin Shihuangdi] discarded the ways of the former kings and burned the writings of the hundred schools in order to make the people ignorant. He destroyed the major fortifications of the states, assassinated their powerful leaders, collected all the arms of the empire, and had them brought to his capital at Hsien-yang [Xianyang] where the spears and arrowheads were melted down to make twelve human statues, all in order to weaken the people of the empire … When he had thus pacified the empire, the First Emperor believed [that] he had established a rule that would be enjoyed by his descendants for ten thousand generations …
“Ch’in, beginning with an insignificant amount of territory, reached the power of a great state and for a hundred years made all the other great lords pay homage to it. Yet after it had become master of the whole empire and established itself within the fastness of the Pass, a single commoner opposed it and its ancestral temples toppled, its ruler died by the hands of men, and it became the laughing stock of the world. Why? Because it failed to rule with humanity and righteousness and to realize that the power to attack and the power to retain what one has thereby won are not the same.”
Even though Qin cruelty was reviled, the system of centralized government and its administration were not entirely discarded. Indeed, the Han dynasty would find it necessary to build upon them, laying the foundations for the development of the bureaucratic state, as we shall see in a future article.
Thank you for reading!
If you have enjoyed this article, please consider supporting my work with a donation on Ko-fi. Alternatively, you can take a look at some of my books and translations:
Ch’ien, S. (2021). The Grand Scribe’s Records, Volume VII.
De Bary, W. T., Chan, W., Watson, B. (Eds.) (1960). Sources of Chinese Tradition, Volume I.
Dillon, M. (2016). Encyclopedia of Chinese History.
Ebrey, P. B. (1999). The Cambridge Illustrated History of China.
___ (2009). Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook.
Fairbank, J. K., Goldman, M. (2006). China. A New History.
Hui, V. T. (2005). War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe.
Kerr, G. (2013). A Short History of China.
Loewe, M., Shaughnessy, E. L. (1999). The Cambridge History of Ancient China. From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B. C.
Very interesting. I agree with the idea that the use of draconian written law in the philosophy of Legalism sowed the seeds of the Qin dynasty’s downfall and that the perceived immorality of Qin rule inspired later dynasties to be more humane. Great article.
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Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed the article!
It seems to me that what the population did and what the elites made of it in their records aren’t quite the same thing. To those who actually rebelled as described here, rebellion was a matter of opportunity to escape a life on the edge of survival, or to escape severe punishment, or both. To the Confucians, the rulers’ failure was a matter of principle (an inevitable result of personal imperial “inhumanity”, the rulers’ offense against members of the elite (burning books and scholars), etc..
This really adds meaning to the question of who are “the makers of history”, doesn’t it?
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Thank you for your comment!
Yes, it is true. The written sources reflect the perspective of the literate elites and the people in power. This is the fundamental issue with written sources, especially before mass literacy and media allowed for the dissemination of a wide variety of different perspectives.
In spite of that, I find value both in historical accounts as stories; and in the viewpoints expressed in the sources, particularly in what historians and the elites thought worth telling and preserving. I am conscious of the limitations of the sources. I wish we knew about the experiences and opinions of those who could not write their own stories. But we have to do with the information that is available to us and make the most of it.
As to the “makers of history” debate, I choose a middle ground between the two theories. Obviously, the vast majority of the population makes history. On the other hand, political power and individual decision-making does matter. One thing that both the written sources and archaeology show is that the Qin state was very autocratic and centralized, and its laws were harsh. What I find interesting about the literati reaction to the Qin dynasty is the stress on ethics, rituals and standards to make rulership more humane and predictable. In the context of pre-industrial, agrarian societies, the bureaucratic Confucian-Legalist state was remarkably successful.
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