The Qin Dynasty established the first empire in China, starting with efforts in 230 B.C., during which the Qin leaders engulfed six Zhou Dynasty states. Their reign over Imperial China existed only briefly—from 221 to 206 B.C.—but the Qin Dynasty had a lasting cultural impact on the dynasties that followed.
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Capital of Qin Dynasty
The Qin (pronounced “chin”) region was located in modern-day Shaanxi province, north of the Zhou Dynasty territory—Qin served as a barrier between it and the less civilized states north of it. The capital of the Qin Dynasty was Xianyang, which was extensively enlarged after Qin dominance was established.
Qin itself had been considered a backwards, barbarian state by the ruling Zhou Dynasty. This distinction had to do with its slow pace in embracing Chinese culture, for instance, lagging behind the Zhou in doing away with human sacrifice.
The ruling class of Qin nonetheless believed themselves to be legitimate heirs to the Zhou states, and through the centuries they strengthened their diplomatic and political standing through a variety of means, including strategic marriages.
It was during the rule of Duke Xiao from 361 to 338 B.C. that the groundwork was laid for conquest, primarily through the work of Shang Yang, an administrator from the state of Wey who was appointed Chancellor.
Shang Yang was a vigorous reformer, systematically reworking the social order of Qin society, eventually creating a massive, complex bureaucratic state and advocating for the unification of Chinese states.
Among Shang Yang’s innovations was a successful system to expand the army beyond the nobility, giving land as a reward to peasants who enlisted. This helped create a massive infantry that was less expensive to maintain than the traditional chariot forces.
Following Duke Xiao’s death, Shang Yang was charged with treason by the old aristocrats in the state. He attempted to fight and create his own territory but was defeated and executed in 338 B.C. with five chariots pulling him apart for spectators in a market. But Shang Yang’s ideas had already laid the foundation for the Qin Empire.
The state of Qin began to expand into the regions surrounding it. When the states of Shu and Ba went to war in 316 B.C., both begged for Qin’s help.
Qin responded by conquering each of them and, over the next 40 years, relocating thousands of families there, and continuing their expansionist efforts into other regions.
Ying Zheng is considered the first emperor of China. The son of King Zhuangxiang of Qin and a concubine, Ying Zheng took the throne at the age of 13, following his father’s death in 247 B.C. after three years on the throne.
Qin Shi Huang
As the ruler of Qin, Ying Zheng took the name Qin Shi Huang Di (“first emperor of Qin”), which brings together the words for “Mythical Ruler” and “God.”
Qin Shi Huang began a militarily-driven expansionist policy. In 229 B.C., the Qin seized Zhao territory and continued until they seized all five Zhou states to create a unified Chinese empire in 221 B.C.
Advised by the sorcerer Lu Sheng, Qin Shi Huang traveled in secrecy through a system of tunnels and lived in secret locations to facilitate communing with immortals. Citizens were discouraged from using the emperor’s personal name in documents, and anyone who revealed his location would face execution.
Qin Shi Huang worked quickly to unify his conquered people across a vast territory that was home to several different cultures and languages.
One of the most important outcomes of the Qin conquest was the standardization of non-alphabetic written script across all of China, replacing the previous regional scripts. This script was simplified to allow faster writing, useful for record keeping.
The new script enabled parts of the empire that did not speak the same language to communicate together, and led to the founding of an imperial academy to oversee all texts. As part of the academic effort, older philosophical texts were confiscated and restricted (though not destroyed, as accounts during the Han Dynasty would later claim).
The Qin also standardized weights and measures, casting bronze models for measurements and sending them to local governments, who would then impose them on merchants to simplify trade and commerce across the empire. In conjunction with this, bronze coins were created to standardize money across the regions.
With these Qin advances, for the first time in their history, the various warring states in China were unified. The name China, in fact, is derived from the word Qin (which was written as Ch'in in earlier Western texts).
Great Wall of China
The Qin empire is known for its engineering marvels, including a complex system of over 4,000 miles of road and one superhighway, the Qinzhidao or “Straight Road,” which ran for about 500 miles along the Ziwu Mountain range and is the pathway on which materials for the Great Wall of China were transported.
The empire’s borders were marked on the north by border walls that were connected, and these were expanded into the beginnings of the Great Wall.
Overseen by the Qin road builder Meng Tian, 300,000 workers were brought to work on the construction of the Great Wall, and on the service roads required to transport supplies.
Qin Shi Huang's Monuments
Qin Shi Huang was noted for audacious marvels of art and architecture meant to celebrate the glory of his new dynasty.
Each time Qin made a new conquest, a replica of that state’s ruling palace was constructed across from Qin Shi Huang’s Palace along the Wei River, then linked by covered walkways and populated by singing girls brought in from the conquered states.
Weapons from Qin conquests were collected and melted down, to be used for the casting of giant statues in the capital city Xianyang.
Qin Shi Huang Tomb
For his most brash creation, Qin Shi Huang sent 700,000 workers to create an underground complex at the foot of the Lishan Mountains to serve as his tomb. It now stands as one of the seven wonders of the world.
Designed as an underground city from which Qin Shi Huang would rule in the afterlife, the complex includes temples, huge chambers and halls, administrative buildings, bronze sculptures, animal burial grounds, a replica of the imperial armory, terracotta statues of acrobats and government officials, a fish pond and a river.
Less than a mile away, outside the eastern gate of the underground city, Qin Shi Huang developed an army of life-size statues—almost 8,000 terracotta warriors and 600 terracotta horses, plus chariots, stables and other artifacts.
This vast complex of terracotta statuary, weapons and other treasures—including the tomb of Qin Shi Huang himself—is now famous as the Terracotta Army.
Excavation of the tomb of Qin Shi Huang has been delayed due to high levels of toxic mercury at the site—it’s believed that the emperor had the liquid mercury installed in the tomb to mimic rivers and lakes.
Death of Qin Shi Huang
Qin Shi Huang died in 210 B.C. while touring eastern China. Officials traveling with him wanted to keep it secret, so to disguise the stench of his corpse, filled up 10 carts with fish to travel with his body.
They also forged a letter from Qin Shi Huang, sent to crown prince Fu Su, ordering him to commit suicide, which he did, allowing the officials to establish Qin Shi Huang’s younger son as the new emperor.
End of the Qin Dynasty
In two years time, most of the empire had revolted against the new emperor, creating a constant atmosphere of rebellion and retaliation. Warlord Xiang Yu in quick succession defeated the Qin army in battle, executed the emperor, destroyed the capital and split up the empire into 18 states.
Liu Bang, who was given the Han River Valley to rule, quickly rose up against other local kings and then waged a three-year revolt against Xiang Yu. In 202 B.C., Xiang Yu committed suicide, and Liu Bang assumed the title of emperor of the Han Dynasty, adopting many of the Qin dynasty institutions and traditions.
READ MORE: China: A Timeline
The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han. Mark Edward Lewis.
Early China: A Social and Cultural History. Li Feng.
Emperor Qin’s Tomb. National Geographic.
Qin Dynasty. World History Encyclopedia.