The Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE) to be the very first dynasty of imperial China (defined as the era that centralized, dynastic government in China in between 221 BCE and 1912 CE) which united the separate states adhering to the Warring States period (c. 481-221 BCE), the era the near-constant warfare resulting from the decline of the Zhou empire (1046-256 BCE).

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It was established by Shi Huangdi (r. 221-210 BCE) who taken that the Zhou"s policy of a decentralized government had added to the fall and also so developed a centralized state which decreased the power of the aristocracy, got rid of the borders between different states, and also operated follow to the precepts that the philosophy of Legalism. It developed from the state of Qin (pronounced “chin”) which offered its name to China as it was the westernmost state and also so the one which western merchants primarily engaged with.

Shi Huangdi"s at an early stage reign concentrated on consolidating his power and also appealing come the reduced classes through campaigns such as structure projects and construction that roads and also canals, which do trade and travel less complicated and noted employment. Among his success were an early version of the great Wall of China, the cool Canal, and also his massive tomb guarded by the terracotta warriors.

At the same time, however, he worked to dismantle plenty of of the cultural achievements that the Zhou, which the felt had weakened the state, while retaining and also improving upon any type of Zhou innovations conducive to Chinese warfare or his an individual power. By c. 213 BCE, his require to regulate every aspect of his subjects" lives, and also fear that rebellion, had turned China into a police state in i beg your pardon freedoms to be severely minimal and the peasant course was diminished to a level of conscript slavery.

Shi Huangdi"s obsession through immortality, an unified with this require for absolute control, destabilized his reign.

The emperor"s obsession with immortality, combined with this require for absolute control, destabilized his reign, i m sorry then motivated even much more restrictive procedures as his fear of rebellion and also assassination grew. He passed away in 210 BCE after drinking an elixir that mercury, i beg your pardon he believed would do him immortal, and also court intrigue, combined with the inept preeminence of his son, caused a swift decline of his empire. The critical Qin ruler was assassinated in 206 BCE, and after a vicious civil war for succession, the Han empire (202 BCE - 220 CE) was started which would totally connect itself with the achievements of the earlier dynasties the Qin had actually rejected.

Zhou empire Rise & Fall

The state the Qin was originally just one of countless states under the Zhou Dynasty. The Zhou had overthrown the previously Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BCE) claiming castle had come to be corrupt and also lost the Mandate of Heaven. The Mandate of heaven was a concept an initial conceived of by the Shang (though completely developed through the Zhou) claiming that a monarch was legitimized through the will certainly of the god who developed a sort of contract with him to care for his subjects and ensure their prosperity. The king (or dynasty) was taken into consideration to possess the Mandate of Heaven only so lengthy as it was evident their plans benefited the nation overall, not just themselves; as soon as it came to be clear the the federal government was perpetuating plans in their very own self-interest (evidenced by a lack of prosperity because that others), that was taken the king had actually lost the Mandate the Heaven and had to be changed by a new ruler the gods authorized of.

After toppling the Shang, the Zhou Dynasty established a decentralized state i beg your pardon operated as a feudal society and to be so effective they were able come greatly broaden their territory; at very first by conquest and also then by enlarging the separate claims which had actually sworn commitment to the king. The Zhou improved upon cultural innovations of the Shang in locations such as agriculture, writing, education, technology, metallurgy, music, horsemanship, and also construction techniques. The decentralization of the Chinese government, however, motivated separate says to seek better autonomy which ultimately led to its decrease and fall.


The early on period, known as west Zhou (1046-771 BCE), ended with an invasion of barbarians indigenous 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 at an early stage stage is known as the Spring and also Autumn duration (c. 772-476 BCE), so-called ~ the surname of the state chronicles of the time, the Spring and Autumn Annals. This was the moment of the Hundred institutions of Thought and the breakthrough of the thoughtful schools the Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism, amongst others. It was likewise a duration of increasing violence and also chaos, however, as the Zhou government grew weaker and also the separate states, all now stronger than the Zhou, sought to develop themselves together worthy of the Mandate of Heaven.

The Warring claims & rise of Qin

The seven says in contention were Chu, Han, Qi, Qin, Wei, Yan, and also Zhao. None could claim supremacy, however, since they each felt the Zhou still had the Mandate of heaven which can only pass to the one who might prove chin the most powerful. This proved daunting because each state provided the same tactics in war and observed the same rules the chivalry. The famed work The arts of War by Sun-Tzu (l. C. 500 BCE) was an attempt to administer a state v an instruction manual for win the war, however it does no seem to have been commonly read, at the very least not at first, and also the incessant battles continued.

The state the Qin initially had the advantage of location and also skill in horsemanship. The was claimed to have been started by one Gao Yang (also offered as Zhuanxu) among the legendary, predynastic five Emperors claimed to have ruled c. 2852-2070 BCE, whose descendants, the Ying family, stayed in the region. Much later, the 8th monarch that the Zhou Dynasty, King Xiao (r. C. 872-866 BCE), took notice of a young male of the Ying family, Feizi (d. 858 BCE) that was experienced in reproduction horses and also rewarded him with lands in the sink of Qin. The Qin state, therefore, involved be connected with horses and also with the high level the horsemanship arisen by the Zhou. The Qin likewise had regulate of the western lands and, possibly, an association or alliance with the Xirong world who were excellent horseman and fierce fighters.


Even these benefits could not pointer the battle in Qin"s favor, however, until they adopted the policies of among their very own statesmen, Shang Yang (d. 338 BCE), who promoted for complete war and victory at any cost, ignoring all the old rule of armed forces chivalry. Even if it is Shang Yang had read Sun-Tzu is unknown, yet their philosophies match closely. Yang"s theories to be either unread or ignored, however, until the young Qin king Ying Zheng enforced them and also defeated the various other six states in rapid succession. Han fell first in 230 BCE, climate Zhao in 228 BCE, Wei in 225 BCE, Chu in 223 BCE, Yan in 222 BCE, and also Qi in 221 BCE; afterwards, Ying Zheng proclaimed himself Shi Huangdi (“first emperor”) and established the Qin Dynasty.

Policy & Tyranny

Shi Huangdi"s initial plans were directed at unification and consolidation of strength in a strong main government. Chronicler Will Durant comments:

simplified main ceremonies, issued a state coinage, split most of the feudal estates, prepared for the prosperity of China by establishing a peasant proprietorship of the soil, and also paved the method for unified by building an excellent highways in every direction native his capital…Traveling in disguise and unarmed, that made note of abuses and disorders, and then issued unmistakable order for your correction. He encouraged science and discouraged letters. (696)

In order to safeguard his people from intrusion by the nomadic Xiongnu that the north, the decreed a wall surface built along the country"s borders. The stones of the walls which supplied to divide the separate claims were at first used for this purpose and also would kind the very first version that what would certainly later become the an excellent Wall of China. He ordered every the claims to surrender their weapons which he had melted down and also made into artworks and statues celebrating the new state. Canal job-related was additionally decreed, i m sorry at first provided employment simply as the great Wall did, result in an early version of the grand Canal.

His beforehand reign seems, at an initial glance, a design for any type of monarch in true leadership and also care because that his people yet Shi Huangdi only construed the Mandate of sky in terms of his own power and self-importance; his topics were a method to one end, no an end in themselves. Those who functioned on the wall, the canal, and also other publicly projects, if they even were initially paid, quickly became conscripts taken native their homes to job for scraps the food and communal lodgings.

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The an excellent Wall that China in Snow
Steve Webel (CC BY-NC-SA)

The thoughtful school of Legalism (an at an early stage version of i m sorry was promoted by Shang Yang and also later arisen by Han Feizi, l. C. 280-233 BCE) notified the law and also dictated how people dressed, spoke, and interacted with each other. Legalism maintained that people were only motivated by self-interest and so regulations needed to it is in strict and narrow to regulate the populace and punish infractions.

The people"s stays under the Qin became harsh, narrow, and more uncertain 보다 they had been throughout the Warring States duration because federal government officials can take everyone they want to job-related on the emperor"s projects, no issue their social class or occupation. Just the emperor"s males were enabled weapons so there to be no armed resistance feasible and, also if arms had been available, Shi Huangdi"s network the spies, secret police, and informants would have revealed a plot before it had actually a possibility to it is in put right into action.

The burn of the Books

There were other means to withstand the Chinese emperor"s tyranny, however, and this come in the kind of Confucian scholars and intellectuals of other schools composing treatises and tracts criticizing the regime by comparing it with previous dynasties, notably the glory the the beforehand Zhou Dynasty. At its height, the Zhou had actually operated ~ above the policy of fengjian (“establishment”), a feudal device of a decentralized government and also separate says each exhilaration in their own interests but loyal to the king and a collection hierarchy which permitted each individual to recognize their location and duty in society. This policy, the scholar would have actually noted, had resulted in prosperity and also happiness for those of all social classes. Shi Huangdi, vice versa, had confused the pecking order by undercutting the strength of the noble and turning the other classes – merchants, laborers, and also peasants – right into slaves, skip the Mandate of sky to treatment for his people above himself.

Shi Huangdi suppressed all freedom of speech, had actually the legal password rewritten, & burned publications & executed scholars.

In 213 BCE, the element minister Li Siu (also offered as Li Si, l. C. 280-208 BCE) argued to Shi Huangdi that all backgrounds of past empires be gathered and destroyed except for the history of the State the Qin and that any type of who sought to hide and also preserve them have to be executed. Any kind of works express the concepts from the period of the Hundred institutions of assumed should additionally be ruined including the traditional educational texts well-known as the 4 Books and also Five classics from the Zhou Dynasty. Anyone speaking on such topics should be killed and also any policemans or officials who heard of such conversations and did no report them have to be likewise. The just exemptions were works on medicine, science, agriculture, divination, and also other practical matters.

Shi Huangdi authorized this plan instantly. All philosophical schools were outlawed other than for Legalism. Shi Huangdi suppressed all flexibility of speech, had actually the legal password rewritten to adhere more closely with his own an individual vision, and, as per Li Siu"s suggestion, melted the books and also executed the scholars and anyone who refused to turn over their publications or tried come hide them. Although some modern historians insurance claim these events did no occur precisely as castle are defined by the chronicler Sima Qian (l. 145/135-86 BCE), no one has actually yet denied the they did, in fact, happen.

Decline & Fall

From 213 BCE on, Shi Huangdi ended up being increasingly paranoid and erratic. 3 attempts to be made to assassinate him, which only increased his anxiety and also encouraged even much more restrictive policies. He adjusted the room the slept in every night, was always armed, and also increased his security. His are afraid of imminent death encouraged an obsession v immortality, and he tasked trusted officials with finding that some way to live forever and also went top top journeys to areas where an elixir seemed promising. At the exact same time, he committed more sources to the initiative of building his grand tomb, as huge as a city, and complete v its very own army, native which that planned to proceed his power in the afterlife.

Shi Huangdi died on among his trips by drink an elixir that mercury. Even if it is this to be a effective assassination or his unintentional self-destruction is unknown but his fatality is traditionally considered accidental. Afterwards, Li Siu covert the emperor"s death, happen his body ago to the funding in a caravan the dead fish to conceal the odor of the corpse, till he could have Shi Huangdi"s will, which called his eldest kid Fusu (d. 210 BCE) as successor, changed to surname the younger son, Hu Hai. Fusu was a solid and commanding personality that was friends through the general Meng Tian (d. 210 BCE) and, if he became emperor, Li Siu would almost certainly be replaced. Hu Hai, ~ above the other hand, to be a spoiled child, coddled by his teacher, the chancellor Zhao Gao, and would be straightforward to manipulate.


Li Siu"s arrangement worked, the fatality of the emperor was announced after ~ Li Siu and the chancellor Zhao Gao (d. 207 BCE) had Hu Hai readjust the will, had Fusu and also Meng Tian eliminated, and installed Hu Hai as Emperor Qin Er Shi (r. 210-207 BCE), through Li Siu and also Zhao Gao"s an effective positions secure. Qin Er Shi showed himself a weak king and the government"s hold on the people steadily loosened under his reign. He was well known for his poor temper, bespeak the fatality of anyone who carried him poor news, and also his lasting tradition is the beginning of the saying “Don"t kill the messenger” about a an adverse reaction to receiving unwelcome information.

Zhao Gao rotate on Li Siu afterwards, accused that of treason, and also had the executed. He then required Qin Er Shi, who had approved that Li Siu"s death, come commit self-destruction or confront dishonor because that his function in changing the will, Fusu"s death, and essentially usurping the throne, every one of which Zhao Gao appears to have actually threatened to disclose.

Zhao Gao then mounted Fusu"s child Ziying (d. 206 BCE) together emperor, thinking to regulate him, but Ziying cheat him and had the killed together with his whole family. Ziying walk no much better at restoring Qin authority than Qin Er Shi, however, and full-scale rebellion broke out in 206 BCE which became led through the noble Xiang Yu of Chu (l. 232-202 BCE) and the commoner Liu Bang that Han (l. C. 256-195 BCE). In 206 BCE, Liu Bang reached the Qin capital at Xianyang very first and accepted Ziying"s surrender. Xiang Yu, showing up afterward, had Ziying and his family executed and so ended the Qin Dynasty.


Xiang Yu and also Liu Bang then turned on every other, both pursuing a policy of complete war, in the conflict known together the Chu-Han Contention (206-202 BCE) which cost thousands that lives. Liu Bang lastly gained the top hand through kidnapping Xiang Yu"s concubine, Lady Yu, who was the great love that his life, and luring the Chu pressures into a hopeless instance at the fight of Gaixia (202 BCE). Lady Yu committed suicide and Xiang Yu, ~ burying her, combated his means out however was pursued and also killed himself rather than be taken. Liu Bang then created the Han Dynasty, judgment as the Emperor Gaozu (r. 202-195 BCE).

Although the Qin dynasty is often referenced positively together the an initial political reality to unite China and give it the name it is known by in the West, the regime of Shi Huangdi and his inept son and grandson to be a dark time for the civilization who were impoverished, brutalized, and also kidnapped native their homes to offer the ego the the emperor. The is a telling information that the Qin dynasty is the shortest, only 15 years, in the background of imperial China fan to its brutality and also blatant denial of the central value that the Mandate the Heaven that a ruler care for the people above any personal considerations.

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Shi Huangdi, after ~ his early gestures, gone after a course in straight defiance of the mandate, epitomized in the burning of the people"s books and also the execution the those who tried to keep their heritage and the hope for the future. Over there is no way of knowing how numerous texts from the Hundred institutions of thought were burned but, considering Shi Huangdi"s comprehensive reach v his network the spies, the numbers space thought to have been quite high, representing a incredible loss of social history, Chinese philosophy, and Chinese literature.

Shi Huangdi"s insistence ~ above the preferably of the Qin, and his own rule, encouraged his attempts come erase the far-ranging achievements that the Zhou empire which likewise represented the tradition of the Shang. In divorcing his empire from those that the past, the emperor sought to protect against what he experienced as their weaknesses and also mistakes yet rejected their strengths and accomplishments as well. The background of the Qin dynasty should be construed as a cautionary tale in denying the past, even if it is on a personal, national, or global level, in do the efforts to develop a existing which must ultimately be untenable since it has no foundation on which come stand.

Editorial ReviewThis post has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and also adherence to scholastic standards before publication.


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A freelance writer and former part-time Professor of philosophy at Marist College, brand-new York, Joshua J. Mark has actually lived in Greece and also Germany and also traveled through Egypt. He has actually taught history, writing, literature, and philosophy at the college level.