An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Qin Dynasty 秦 (221-206 BCE)

The Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BCE) was the first imperial dynasty of ancient China. It was founded by Ying Zheng 嬴政, king of the regional state of Qin who adopted the title of August Emperor (huangdi 皇帝) in 221 BCE. He is known in history as the First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇帝 (r. 246-210 BCE). His armies had conquered the other regional states of the old Zhou kingdom 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE): Han 韓, Wei 魏, Zhao 趙, Chu 楚, Yan 燕 and Qi 齊.

This success had been made possible by successful administrative reforms, a huge standing army whose troops were recruited from among the peasantry, and, finally, a large number of competent and ambitious ministers and generals.

The state doctrine of the Qin kingdom was legalism, a philosophy focusing on the ruler and his skill to make use of a bureaucracy, supported by the quasi-objective effect of laws, standards and regulations.

The territory of the Qin empire was divided into commanderies (jun 郡) that replaced the ancient kingdoms and dukedoms of the Zhou era. Weights and measures, the width of road tracks, and the script were standardized. Households were registered to ensure a sufficient tax revenue and to have at hand lists of peasants that could be recruited for military service or to carry out, as corvée labourers, public construction work like dams and dykes, roads and official buildings, but also—most famously—for the tomb of the First Emperor, the Epang Palace 阿房宮, the Great Wall in the north that was to protect imperial territory against the nomad tribes of the Xiongnu 匈奴, and the renowned terracotta army.

In contrast to the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), when a "hundred schools" of philosophers contended with each other, the Qin regime was rather oppressive towards writings not concerned with legalism, science, medicine or divination. Confucians later charged the Qin counsellor Li Si 李斯 with the crime of having burnt all "useless" books and buried alive Confucians scholars.
Himself believing in the possibility to achieve immortality, the First Emperor died during one of his inspection tours through the empire. Li Si and the powerful eunuch Zhao Gao 趙高 brought secretly their favourite prince to the throne. Envisaged as an eternal empire, the Qin court soon lost control over the empire, where enslaved peasants under the leadership of some former nobles, Chen Sheng 陳勝 and Wu Guang 吳廣, rose in rebellion and in 206 BCE forced the infant ruler of Qin to resign.

The Qin dynasty was in later ages mostly used as a precedent of negative rulership. Mao Zedong 毛澤東, the great chairman of the People's Republic, saw himself as a mirror of the First Emperor. Today, both are still admired as the unifiers of China after decades of incessant warfare.

This chapter of the encyclopaedia gives an overview of the political history of the Qin period, the geography of the empire and its surroundings, provides a list of its rulers, describes the administration and political structure of the empire, its economy, and gives insight into the religion and beliefs of the time, as well as the fine arts (if one may use this term in that historical stage) and the history of technology and inventions.