The First Dynasty of China

The Qin Dynasty

The Qin Dynasty created China’s first empire. They began the establishment with efforts in the year 230 B.C. This was when they took six states of the Zhou Dynasty. The empire lasted only a brief period from 221 – 206 B.C. Yet the Qin had a continuing cultural impact on the other dynasties that soon followed.

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Beginnings of the Qin Kingdom

During the Zhou era, China never became a unified kingdom. The Zhou government displayed a strong similarity to some forms of feudalism during medieval Europe. This is why the Zhou period was sometimes called the feudal age.

China was made up of a collection of city states faithful to the Zhou king. This was where political and military control expanded. Their control included the surrounding farming villages as well.

In 771 BCE, a barbarian attack drove the Zhou leaders to the east. During this period, the state of Qin was in charge of protecting the west frontier. They slowly moved east then soon took over the original Zhou domains. With that, the dynasty became a close associate of the Zhou. There were also marriage relations with their ruling class.

King Ping of Zhou transferred titles of huge states and the nobility to the leader of Qin.

Government and Military Under the Qin Dynasty

The Qin government was entirely bureaucratic. An order of officials governed the Qin Empire and they served the First Emperor. The dynasty focused on practicing the teachings of Han Feizi. It let the First Emperor manage all his territories, including the newly conquered areas. All elements of life were regulated. From language and measurements to more realistic details like the length of chariot axles and the like.

The states made by the emperor were designated to officials who were dedicated to the job. This was instead of putting the burden on those from the royal family. Zheng and his advisers introduced new practices and laws ending feudalism in China. A bureaucratic and centralized government replaced feudalism.

The first emperor established this type of government. Other dynasties that followed also used this. It was to structure their government. Under this system, the military and government developed as talented individuals. They could be easily identified during the changed society.

Later, Chinese dynasties mirrored the Qin for its efficiency. This is despite being damned by Confucian philosophy. There were incidents of abuse, yet an example was recorded in the “Records of Officialdom”. One commander named Hu commanded his men to assault peasants.

It was to boost the number of “bandits” he killed. His superiors, who also wanted the same, allowed this.

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Ancient China

Warring States Period

During the Warring States era, all states in the country were attempting for more prestige and power. The states of Chu and Qin were most powerful due to their locations. They had vast control over resources and could expand borders confidently. This benefit contributed to their endless and notable success in warfare.

The empire had all resources and advantages. However, they claimed victory over the other states due to their ruthlessness in battles. The Qin statesman Shang Yang encouraged total war. He also disregarded the polite policies of battle which Chinese generals always followed.

The King of Qin enforced lessons for Shang Yang. The former was victorious from the Warring States period. He called himself Shi Huang Di – the first Chinese emperor. In 230 BCE, when the campaign for unification started, the empire had full control of 1/3 of all lands under cultivation in China. There were also 1/3 of the country’s total population.

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Innovations of Emperor Shi Huang Di

The first emperor divided the country into provinces. He also had military and civil officials in a level of ranks. He created the Lingqu Canal that joined the Yangtze River basin. It led to the Canton area through the Li River. This canal aided in sending half a million troops to acquire the southern lands.

Qin Shi Huang regulated writing. This was a vital factor to overcome cultural barriers amidst provinces. He was able to regulate systems of currency, measures, and weights.

The emperor administered a census of his people. Aside from that, he established intricate irrigation and postal systems. He also created efficient highways.


Emperor Qin Shi Huang

Qin Shi Huang or Shi Huang Di was China’s first emperor who unified the country. He ruled from 246 to 210 BCE and managed to establish huge construction projects. The emperor also caused intellectual, cultural growth, and much destruction in China.


Burn Books then Bury the Scholars

Despite the contributions to China, Qin Shi Huang was a tyrant. To prevent people from thinking freely, he burnt books which he feared would influence people’s thinking. In his second year, he learnt of the discussions of scholars about his arrogance. As a result, he had 460 of them buried alive.

In history, these events were called ‘To Burn the Books and Bury the Scholars Alive’.

“The reason why China suffers bitterly from endless wars is because of the existence of feudal lords and kings.”

~ Qin Shi Huang

Literature and Philosophy during the Qin Dynasty

Just like the Zhou Dynasty, the written language used by the Qin was logographic. The prime minister of this period, Li Si, made uniform sizes and shapes a standard in the written language. This formed a unifying effect on the Chinese culture for the following years.

As for philosophy, there were a lot of influential schools of thought. These included Confucianism and Daoism. Another is the Mohism which was eradicated for unknown reasons.

Straight Roads and the Great Wall

The Qin Empire is popular for its engineering works. These include a complex system of more than 4,000 miles of roads and a superhighway.

This was the Straight Road which ran about 500 miles. It passed along the Ziwu Mountain Range. This is also where materials for the Great Wall passed.

The empire’s borders were marked by border walls. These were connected and spread into the Great Wall’s beginnings. Overseen by the road builder, Meng Tian, 300,000 laborers were taken to work on the walls’ construction. Also, transportation of supplies required the service roads.

The Terracotta Army

The Guards to the Afterlife

Just a mile away from the underground city’s east gate, Qin Shi Huang had an army of life-sized statues built. A total of 8,000 terracotta warriors, 600 terracotta horses, chariots, stables, and different artifacts

Another of his most impressive projects was the preparation for his own demise. He had a massive tomb built for himself on Mount Li. It was near today’s Xi’an and had himself buried there upon his death. His tomb had thousands of life-sized terracotta soldiers to guard him even in the afterlife.

This army was rediscovered in the 20th century. Each soldier was carved featuring different faces, and those armed carried real weapons. This huge complex of terracotta statues, and treasures including Qin Shi Huang’s tomb, is now known as the Terracotta Army.

Domestic life

The aristocracy of the Qin was similar in their daily lives and culture. Regional differences in culture were treated as a sign of lower classes. This came from the Zhou and was mirrored by the empire. Variations were seen as conflicting to the unification that the government aimed to achieve.

Rural villagers and commoners made up more than 90% of the population. They rarely left the farmsteads or villages they were born in. Forms of employment were distinct by region, though farming was a common job.

Sons inherited their fathers’ professions after the latter’s death. The Lushi Chunqiu gave examples of how commoners were with material wealth. They were obsessed with material wealth, instead of the idea of someone who “makes things serve him”. They were “lessened to the account of things”.

Shen Nong – The Divine Father

Peasants were rarely mentioned in literature during this dynasty. This was due to scholars and the elite being more concerned over cities and lure of politics. A notable exception was Shen Nong, the claimed “Divine Father”.

He stated that households should produce their own food. “If in his prime does not plow, someone will grow hungry. If in her prime does not weave, someone will be cold.

The Qin Dynasty encouraged this, so people performed rituals once every couple of years. This consisted of government officials who took turns plowing on a special field. This created a simulation of the government’s interest and activities in agriculture.

Religion under the Qin Dynasty

The dominant religious belief during the rule of the Qin was focused on the Shen, Yin, and the realm they dwell in. Shen roughly translates to “Gods” or “Spirits” while Yin for “shadows”.

The Chinese offered sacrifices to try and contact the other world. They believed this to be aligned to the earthly one. The Chinese also said the dead have moved from this world to the other.

The rituals and others well served two purposes. One was to guarantee that the dead traveled and stayed within the other realm. Second was to acquire blessings from the spirit world.

Shrines and Sacred Spots

Religious practices were commonly held in local sacred spots and shrines. These often featured sacrificial altars. During a sacrifice or other rituals, all senses of participants and witnesses were blurred and dulled by incense and music.

The head sacrificer would fast then meditate before any ritual to blur his senses. It was to also increase the chances of perceiving otherworldly occurrences. Other participants prepared similarly but not as rigorously as the head.

The process of blurring the senses was an aspect of mediums or spirit intermediaries’ practice. Practitioners of this art fall into trances or dances to perform supernatural activities. They often rose to power because of their craft.

Divination was another form of religious practice. One would predict or influence the future. A traditional practice that was common during the Qin was cracking turtle shells or bones. This was to acquire knowledge for the future.

The types of divination that appeared during the early periods were diverse. Observing natural occurrences was a usual method. Comets, droughts, and eclipses were considered as omens of things to come.

Fall of the Qin Dynasty

Emperor Qin was unreasonable about his death. And due to this, the emperor was able to survive a lot of assassination plots against him. He became very obsessed with everlasting life, so he employed a lot of sorcerers and alchemists.

Ironically, Qin Shi Huang died due to poisoning in the year 210 BCE. This was when he drank his “immortality potion.” The very first ruler’s tyranny and brutal methods created resistance among everyone. This was mostly with the forced farmers and peasants whose labors created the empire.

Upon the first emperor’s demise, China immersed in civil war and aggravated by droughts and floods. In 207 BCE, the son of Qin Shi Huang was murdered, and the dynasty completely crumbled. Chaos ensued until 202 BC, when a petty official named Gaozu became the general. He then reunited the country under the Han Dynasty.

In two years, almost the entirety of the empire revolted against this new emperor. It created a common atmosphere of retaliation and rebellion. The warlord Xiang Yu successfully defeated the Qin army in battle. He also executed the emperor, devastated the capital, and separated the empire into 18 states.

Liu Bang, who was gifted the Han River Valley to lead, immediately rose against other local leaders. He then waged a three-year uprisings against Xiang Yu. In 202 B.C., Xiang Yu took his own life. Liu Bang took the title as the Han Dynasty’s emperor. He adopted a lot of the Qin’s traditions and institutions.

Legacy of the Qin Dynasty

The Qin is the shortest main dynasty in China. However, it was probably one of the most influential, politically. Its legacy can still be experienced today via sites and relics it left behind. Its most notable legacy would be the Terracotta Warriors. This is an army of 8000 soldiers who would protect Qin Shi Huang after his death.

Qin’s actual tomb still remains unopened, yet is said to be encircled by a river of mercury. A collection of rigged crossbows that would fire at anyone who enters guards the area. Buried with the emperor were all his concubines and 700,000 men who created the tomb. All of them were buried alive.  

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