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Qin Dynasty

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  • Dates: 221-206 BCE
  • Chinese/Japanese: 秦 (Qín / Shin)

The Qin Dynasty is counted as the first imperial dynasty to rule a united China. Though short-lived, lasting for only two generations of emperors, from 221 to 206 BCE, the Qin represents the beginnings of a great many customs and standards in Chinese Imperial history. Further, it is from the name "Qin" that the word "China" is derived.

Prior to the unification of China under the First Emperor of Qin, the State of Qin was one of a number of states which battled for territory and prominence in China's Warring States Period. Qin began to gain successes in conquering its neighbors in the late 4th century BCE, annexing the State of Shu in 316 BCE, and the State of Chu four years later.

However, it was not until nearly a century later, after a lengthy series of battles and campaigns, that the king of Qin defeated the last of his enemies in 221 BCE, abandoning the title "king" (王, wáng), and adopting for the first time the title huángdì (皇帝), today translated as "emperor." As a result, he has come to be known as Qin Shihuangdi, or "First Emperor of Qin." The Qin capital was at Xianyang, on the opposite side of the Wei River from the later imperial capital of Chang'an. Founded during the Warring States period, Xianyang remained the capital after unification, and was expanded under Qin Shihuangdi.

The period saw numerous reforms and institutional establishments, including the institution of universal military service, and the end of Zhou feudalism. Nobles' estates were redivided into prefectures, called xiàn (県), and were placed under the control of administrators appointed from the center (rather than semi-independent nobles), thus establishing one pillar of an early form of Chinese imperial bureaucracy. This also weakened the ability of nobles to coordinate successful rebellions. The tax system was reorganized to be based on the individual household, rather than by estate, thus more effectively capturing tax revenues from each household. Many of these innovations were not truly new, but were adapted from the practices of states the Qin had conquered. The Qin also employed corvée labor, drawn up from across the realm, to build roads, canals, the Great Wall, and the First Emperor's tomb, among other public works projects. The rule of the First Emperor also saw the standardization of weights and measures, of the writing system, and so forth across the realm, where previously each of the warring states had followed its own separate system.

The Qin Dynasty operated chiefly on the ideology of Legalism, in which people were rewarded for good behavior, and harsh punishments were meted out according to the rule of law, along with Taoism; Confucianism was harshly suppressed, and only became established as the standard political philosophy of Imperial China beginning in the Han Dynasty.

Reputation

Due to the way Chinese histories traditionally describe former dynasties as corrupt or tyrannical in order to explain their loss of the Mandate of Heaven, as well as due to the dynasty's genuinely harsh policies, the Qin, and Qin Shihuangdi in particular, has acquired a particularly negative reputation as cruel and authoritarian.

The Han Dynasty scholar Jia Yi (201-c. 168 BCE) is among the more oft-quoted sources on the character of the Qin. He emphasizes the First Emperor's policy of burning books and burying scholars, i.e. destroying rival ideologies, characterizing his rule as one of weakening the people and working to keep them ignorant, and accusing him of abolishing the ways of the ancient Sage Kings. Other writings on the Qin emphasize the heavy burden of conscript labor imposed upon the country by the First Emperor, and the harsh legal code, which often punished an entire family for the wrongdoing of one of its members; however, historians today point out that this was not actually that much harsher than many other regimes, and that the legal code also prioritized seeking actual evidence over confessions by torture.

Though widely acknowledged as quite harsh, many historians today present a more balanced view, emphasizing the need for strong control following such a lengthy and chaotic period of Warring States, and emphasizing too the many positive reforms and institutional precedents set by the Qin.

Emperors of the Qin Dynasty

Preceded by:
Warring States Period
Qin Dynasty
221-206 BCE
Succeeded by:
Han Dynasty

References

  • Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 30-31, 47-51.
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