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

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It was founded by Shi Huangdi (r. 221-210 BCE) who understood that the Zhou"s plan of a decentralized government had contributed to that is fall and so created a centralized state which decreased the strength of the aristocracy, removed the borders between different states, and operated follow to the precepts that the philosophy of Legalism. It occurred from the state that Qin (pronounced “chin”) which gave its surname to China together it was the westernmost state and also so the one i m sorry western sellers primarily engaged with.

Shi Huangdi"s at an early stage reign focused on consolidating his power and appealing come the reduced classes through efforts such as building projects and also construction that roads and also canals, which make trade and travel much easier and listed employment. Among his accomplishments were an early version of the great Wall of China, the cool Canal, and his enormous tomb guarded by the terracotta warriors.

At the same time, however, he operated to dismantle countless of the social achievements that the Zhou, which the felt had weakened the state, while retaining and also improving upon any kind of Zhou advancements conducive come Chinese warfare or his an individual power. By c. 213 BCE, his require to manage every aspect of his subjects" lives, and fear of rebellion, had actually turned China into a police state in which freedoms were severely restricted and the peasant class was reduced to a level that conscript slavery.

Shi Huangdi"s obsession v immortality, merged with this need for absolute control, destabilized his reign.

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

Zhou dynasty Rise & Fall

The state of Qin was originally just one of many states under the Zhou Dynasty. The Zhou had actually overthrown the earlier Shang empire (c. 1600-1046 BCE) claiming they had end up being corrupt and lost the Mandate that Heaven. The Mandate of sky was a concept an initial conceived of by the Shang (though totally developed through the Zhou) claiming that a monarch was legitimized by the will of the gods who developed a type of contract through him to treatment for his subjects and ensure their prosperity. The king (or dynasty) was taken into consideration to possess the Mandate that Heaven only so long as the was apparent their plans benefited the nation overall, not just themselves; as soon as it came to be clear the the government was perpetuating plans in their own self-interest (evidenced by a absence of prosperity for others), that was interpreted the king had lost the Mandate of Heaven and had to be replaced by a new ruler the gods authorized of.

After toppling the Shang, the Zhou Dynasty created a decentralized state i beg your pardon operated as a feudal culture and to be so effective they were able to greatly increase their territory; at an initial by conquest and also then by enlarging the separate says which had sworn commitment to the king. The Zhou boosted upon cultural innovations the the Shang in areas such as agriculture, writing, education, technology, metallurgy, music, horsemanship, and also construction techniques. The decentralization of the Chinese government, however, encouraged separate claims to seek greater autonomy which ultimately led to its decrease and fall.


The beforehand period, well-known as western Zhou (1046-771 BCE), finished with an invasion of barbarians from the west, probably the world known together Xirong (or Rong) and Zhou government continued in the era well-known as eastern Zhou (771-256 BCE) whose beforehand stage is well-known as the Spring and also Autumn period (c. 772-476 BCE), so-called after the name of the state chronicles the the time, the Spring and also Autumn Annals. This was the moment of the Hundred institutions of Thought and also the advancement of the philosophical schools that Confucianism, Taoism, and also Legalism, amongst others. That was additionally a period of enhancing violence and also chaos, however, as the Zhou government thrived weaker and also the different states, all now stronger 보다 the Zhou, sought to establish themselves together worthy of the Mandate that Heaven.

The Warring says & rise of Qin

The seven states in contention to be Chu, Han, Qi, Qin, Wei, Yan, and also Zhao. Nobody could insurance claim supremacy, however, due to the fact that they each felt the Zhou still had the Mandate of heaven which might only pass to the one who might prove itself the many powerful. This proved an overwhelming because every state provided the same tactics in war and observed the very same rules the chivalry. The well known work The arts of War by Sun-Tzu (l. C. 500 BCE) was an effort to administer a state v an instruction manual for win the war, but it does not seem to have been extensively read, at the very least not at first, and also the incessant battles continued.

The state that Qin initially had the benefit of location and skill in horsemanship. The was claimed to have actually been established by one Gao Yang (also offered as Zhuanxu) one of the legendary, predynastic five Emperors said to have ruled c. 2852-2070 BCE, whose descendants, the Ying family, stayed in the region. Much later, the 8 hours monarch the the Zhou Dynasty, King Xiao (r. C. 872-866 BCE), took notification of a young man of the Ying family, Feizi (d. 858 BCE) that was skilled in breeding horses and rewarded him with lands in the sink of Qin. The Qin state, therefore, involved be associated with horses and also with the high level the horsemanship developed by the Zhou. The Qin also had control of the west lands and, possibly, an association or alliance through the Xirong civilization who were fantastic horseman and fierce fighters.


Even these advantages could not reminder the war in Qin"s favor, however, until they embraced the policies of among their very own statesmen, Shang Yang (d. 338 BCE), who advocated for complete war and also victory at any type of cost, ignoring all the old rules of armed forces chivalry. Whether Shang Yang had read Sun-Tzu is unknown, however their philosophies match closely. Yang"s theories were either unread or ignored, however, till the young Qin king Ying Zheng implemented them and defeated the various other six claims in rapid succession. Han fell first in 230 BCE, then Zhao in 228 BCE, Wei in 225 BCE, Chu in 223 BCE, Yan in 222 BCE, and Qi in 221 BCE; afterwards, Ying Zheng proclaimed himself Shi Huangdi (“first emperor”) and also established the Qin Dynasty.

Policy & Tyranny

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

simplified main ceremonies, authorize a state coinage, divided most that the feudal estates, ready for the prosperity that China by establishing a peasant proprietorship of the soil, and paved the means for unit by building great highways in every direction indigenous his capital…Traveling in disguise and unarmed, he made keep in mind of abuses and also disorders, and then authorize unmistakable order for their correction. He encouraged science and discouraged letters. (696)

In bespeak to defend his civilization from intrusion by the nomadic Xiongnu the the north, that decreed a wall built follow me the country"s borders. The stones that the wall surfaces which provided to divide the separate claims were at first used for this purpose and would type the very first version that what would later become the great Wall of China. That ordered all the states to surrender their weapons which he had actually melted down and made right into artworks and statues celebrating the new state. Canal job-related was also decreed, i m sorry at first provided employment simply as the an excellent Wall did, result in an early version the the cool Canal.

His early reign seems, at an initial glance, a version for any kind of monarch in true leadership and also care because that his people however Shi Huangdi only understood the Mandate of sky in terms of his own power and self-importance; his topics were a means to an end, no an finish in themselves. Those who worked on the wall, the canal, and also other windy projects, if they also were at first paid, quickly came to be conscripts taken from their houses to labor for scraps of food and communal lodgings.

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

The thoughtful school of Legalism (an beforehand version of i m sorry was advocated by Shang Yang and later occurred by Han Feizi, l. C. 280-233 BCE) informed the law and also dictated how civilization dressed, spoke, and interacted with each other. Legalism preserved that civilization were only urged by self-interest and also so legislations needed to it is in strict and also narrow to regulate the population and punishment infractions.

The people"s resides under the Qin came to be harsh, narrow, and more uncertain than they had been during the Warring States duration because government officials might take anyone they want to occupational on the emperor"s projects, no issue their social class or occupation. Only the emperor"s guys were enabled weapons for this reason there to be no armed resistance feasible and, even if arms had been available, Shi Huangdi"s network of spies, mystery police, and also informants would have actually revealed a plot prior to it had a possibility to it is in put into action.

The burning of the Books

There to be other ways to stand up to the Chinese emperor"s tyranny, however, and also this come in the form of Confucian scholars and intellectuals of other schools writing treatises and tracts criticizing the routine by comparing the with previous dynasties, especially the glory of the beforehand Zhou Dynasty. At its height, the Zhou had actually operated ~ above the plan of fengjian (“establishment”), a feudal mechanism of a decentralized government and separate claims each exhilaration in their very own interests but loyal come the king and a collection hierarchy which enabled each individual to recognize their place and role in society. This policy, the scholars would have actually noted, had actually resulted in prosperity and also happiness for those of all social classes. Shi Huangdi, vice versa, had perplexed the hierarchy by undercutting the power of the nobles and turning the various other classes – merchants, laborers, and peasants – right into slaves, skip the Mandate of heaven to treatment for his people above himself.

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

In 213 BCE, the prime minister Li Siu (also offered as Li Si, l. C. 280-208 BCE) said to Shi Huangdi that all backgrounds of past empires be gathered and also destroyed other than for the background of the State of Qin and also that any who sought to hide and also preserve them must be executed. Any kind of works expressing the concepts from the period of the Hundred institutions of thought should likewise be damaged including the typical educational texts well-known as the 4 Books and also Five standards from the Zhou Dynasty. Anyone speaking on together topics should be killed and also any officers or officials that heard of together conversations and did no report them need to be likewise. The just exemptions were works on medicine, science, agriculture, divination, and also other helpful matters.

Shi Huangdi authorized this setup instantly. All philosophical schools to be outlawed other than for Legalism. Shi Huangdi suppressed all flexibility of speech, had actually the legal codes rewritten to adhere much more closely v his own an individual vision, and, together per Li Siu"s suggestion, burned the books and executed the scholars as well as anyone that refused to revolve over their books or tried to hide them. Although some modern-day historians claim these events did no occur specifically as castle are explained by the historian Sima Qian (l. 145/135-86 BCE), no one has yet denied that they did, in fact, happen.

Decline & Fall

From 213 BCE on, Shi Huangdi became increasingly paranoid and erratic. 3 attempts to be made to assassinate him, i m sorry only increased his anxiety and also encouraged even more restrictive policies. He adjusted the room that slept in every night, was always armed, and also increased his security. His are afraid of imminent death encouraged one obsession v immortality, and also he tasked trusted officials through finding the some way to live forever and also went on journeys to locations where an elixir appeared promising. In ~ the same time, he committed more resources to the effort of structure his cool tomb, as big as a city, and complete through its own army, indigenous which the planned to proceed his reign in the afterlife.

Shi Huangdi passed away on one of his trips by drinking an elixir the mercury. Even if it is this was a successful assassination or his unintentional self-destruction is unknown yet his fatality is traditionally considered accidental. Afterwards, Li Siu concealed the emperor"s death, happen his body earlier to the funding in a caravan of dead fish to conceal the odor of the corpse, till he could have Shi Huangdi"s will, which called his eldest son Fusu (d. 210 BCE) together successor, adjusted to surname the younger son, Hu Hai. Fusu was a strong and commanding personality who was friends with the basic Meng Tian (d. 210 BCE) and, if he came to be emperor, Li Siu would practically certainly be replaced. Hu Hai, top top the various other hand, was a spoiled child, coddled by his teacher, the chancellor Zhao Gao, and also would be easy to manipulate.


Li Siu"s setup worked, the death of the emperor to be 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 also installed Hu Hai together Emperor Qin Er Shi (r. 210-207 BCE), with Li Siu and Zhao Gao"s an effective positions secure. Qin Er Shi confirmed himself a weak king and also the government"s hold on the world steadily loosened under his reign. He was famed for his bad temper, notified the fatality of anyone who carried him poor news, and his lasting heritage is the origin of the speak “Don"t death the messenger” about a an unfavorable reaction come receiving unwelcome information.

Zhao Gao turned on Li Siu afterwards, accused that of treason, and had the executed. The then required Qin Er Shi, who had approved of Li Siu"s death, to commit suicide or challenge dishonor because that his role in changing the will, Fusu"s death, and essentially usurping the throne, every one of which Zhao Gao appears to have threatened come disclose.

Zhao Gao then installed Fusu"s kid Ziying (d. 206 BCE) as emperor, thinking to manage him, however Ziying tricked him and also had him killed in addition to his whole family. Ziying did no better at restoring Qin authority 보다 Qin Er Shi, however, and also full-scale rebellion damaged out in 206 BCE which happened led by the noble Xiang Yu of Chu (l. 232-202 BCE) and the civilian Liu Bang of Han (l. C. 256-195 BCE). In 206 BCE, Liu Bang reached the Qin capital at Xianyang first and accepted Ziying"s surrender. Xiang Yu, arriving afterward, had Ziying and also his family executed and also so ended the Qin Dynasty.


Xiang Yu and Liu Bang climate turned on every other, both follow a policy of complete war, in the problem known as the Chu-Han Contention (206-202 BCE) which expense thousands the lives. Liu Bang lastly gained the top hand by kidnapping Xiang Yu"s concubine, Lady Yu, who was the good love that his life, and also luring the Chu forces into a hopeless case at the battle of Gaixia (202 BCE). Lady Yu committed suicide and Xiang Yu, after ~ burying her, dealt with his way out but was pursued and also killed himself rather than it is in taken. Liu Bang then developed the Han Dynasty, judgment as the Emperor Gaozu (r. 202-195 BCE).

Although the Qin empire is often referenced positively as the an initial political entity to hold together China and give the the name it is known by in the West, the power of Shi Huangdi and also his inept son and also grandson to be a dark time because that the world who to be impoverished, brutalized, and also kidnapped from their homes to serve the ego the the emperor. That is a telling information that the Qin empire is the shortest, just 15 years, in the background of royal China fan to its brutality and also blatant denial of the central value of the Mandate of Heaven the a ruler treatment for the people above any an individual considerations.

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Shi Huangdi, after his early stage gestures, sought a food in direct defiance that the mandate, epitomized in the burn of the people"s books and also the execution of those that tried to maintain their heritage and also the hope because that the future. There is no means of learning how countless texts from the Hundred institutions of believed were melted but, considering Shi Huangdi"s substantial reach with his network of spies, the numbers room thought to have actually been rather high, representing a remarkable loss of cultural history, Chinese philosophy, and also Chinese literature.

Shi Huangdi"s insistence on the primacy of the Qin, and his very own rule, motivated his attempts to erase the far-ranging achievements the the Zhou dynasty which likewise represented the tradition of the Shang. In divorcing his empire from those the the past, the emperor search to prevent what he experienced as your weaknesses and mistakes but rejected their strengths and success as well. The history of the Qin dynasty should be taken as a cautionary tale in denying the past, whether on a personal, national, or global level, in make the efforts to create a existing which must lastly be untenable because it has actually no structure on which to stand.

Editorial ReviewThis write-up has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to scholastic standards before publication.


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