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The Qin Dynasty ( ) was the ruling Chinese dynasty between 221 and 206 BCE. The Qin state was named because the people of its homeland were called the Qin. The Qin's strength had been consolidated by Lord Shang Yang during the Warring States Period, in the 4th century BCE. In the early third century BCE, the Qin accomplished a series of swift conquests; the state subjugated the Chu, remnants of the Zhou Dynasty, and various other states to gain undisputed control of Chinamarker.

During its reign over China, the Qin Dynasty enjoyed increased trade, agriculture, and military security. This was due to the abolition of landowning lords, to whom peasants had formerly held allegiance. The central government now had direct control of the masses, giving it access to a much larger workforce. This allowed for the construction of ambitious projects, such as a wall on the northern border, now known as the Great Wall of China. The Qin Dynasty also introduced several reforms; weights and measures were standardized, use of currency started, and a better system of writing was established. An attempt to purge all traces of the old dynasties led to the infamous burning of books and burying of scholars incident, which has been criticised greatly by subsequent scholars. The Qin's military was also revolutionary in that it used the most recently developed weaponry, transportation, and tactics, though the government was heavy-handed and bureaucratic.

Despite its military strength, the Qin Dynasty did not last long. When the first emperor died in 210 BC, his son was placed on the throne by two of the previous emperor's advisers, in an attempt to influence and control the administration of the entire country through him. They squabbled among themselves, however, which resulted in both their deaths and that of the second Qin emperor. Popular revolt broke out a few years later, and the weakened empire soon fell to a Chu lieutenant, who went on to found the Han Dynasty. Despite its rapid end, the Qin Dynasty influenced future Chinese regimes, particularly the Han, and from it is derived the modern name for China.


Origins and early development

Feizi, a descendant of the ancient political advisor Gao Yao, was granted rule over Qin City. During the rule of King Xiao of Zhou, the eighth king of the Zhou Dynasty, this area became known as the state of Qin. In 897 BC, under the regency of Gonghe, the area became a dependency allotted for the purpose of raising and breeding horses. One of Feizi's descendants, Duke Zhuang, became favoured by King Ping of Zhou, the thirteenth king in that line. As a reward, Zhuang's son, Duke Xiang, was sent eastward as the leader of a war expedition, where he formally established the Qin.

Qin state first sent a military expedition into central China in 672 BC, though it did not engage in any serious incursions due to the threat of neighbouring tribesmen. By the dawn of the fourth century BC, however, the neighbouring tribes had all been either subdued or conquered, and the stage was set for the rise of Qin expansionism.

Growth of power

Marble bust of statesman Shang Yang
Lord Shang Yang, a Qin statesman, introduced a number of militarily advantageous reforms from 361 BC until his death in 338 BC, and also helped construct the Qin capital, Xiangyang. This latter accomplishment commenced in the mid-fourth century BC; the resulting city greatly resembled the capitals of other Warring States.

Of Shang Yang's reforms, the most notable one was advocating the philosophy of Legalism, which encouraged practical and ruthless warfare. In contrast, during the Zhou Dynasty and the ensuing Warring States Period, the prevalent philosophy had dictated war as a gentleman's activity; military commanders were instructed to respect what they perceived to be Heaven's laws in battle. For example, during the Warring States Period, Duke Xiang of Song was at war with the state of Chu, and had an opportunity to attack the enemy force, commanded by Zhu, while they were crossing a river. Instead, however, he waited for them to finish crossing, and allowed them to marshal their forces. He was decisively defeated in the ensuing battle, and when, later, his advisors admonished him for such excessive courtesy to the enemy, he retorted, "The sage does not crush the feeble, nor give the order for attack until the enemy have formed their ranks." The Qin disregarded this military tradition, taking advantage of their enemy's weaknesses. A nobleman in the state of Wei accused them of being "avaricious, perverse, eager for profit, and without sincerity. It knows nothing about etiquette, proper relationships, and virtuous conduct, and if there be an opportunity for material gain, it will disregard its relatives as if they were animals." It was this legalist thought combined with strong leadership from long-lived rulers, openness to employ talented men from other states, and little internal opposition that gave the Qin such a strong political base.

Another advantage of the Qin was that they had a large, efficient army and capable generals. They utilised the newest developments in weaponry and transportation as well, which many of their enemies lacked. These latter developments allowed greater mobility over several different terrain types which were most common in many regions of China. Thus, in both ideology and practice, the Qin were militarily superior.

Finally, the Qin empire had a geographical advantage due to its fertility and strategic situation, protected by mountains that made the state a natural stronghold. Its expanded agricultural output helped sustain Qin's large army with food and natural resources; the Wei Rivermarker canal built in 246 BC was particularly significant in this respect.

Conquest of other states

During the Warring States Period preceding the Qin Dynasty, the major states vying for dominance were Yan, Zhao, Qi, Wei, Han, Chu, and Qin. The Zhou Dynasty was still in place, but had no real power; its only remaining influence was in the east, and the era starting in 771 BC is called the Eastern Zhou Dynasty for this reason. The Dynasty began its decline during this era, due in part to a military defeat against the nomadic tribe Chuan Rong in the west.

During the first half of the era (722–481 BC), known as the Chunqiu Shidai (Simplified Chinese: 春秋时代, Traditional Chinese: 春秋時代), or the Spring and Autumn Period, the allegiance of various territories to the Zhou became purely nominal, with the kings being mere figureheads. The period is named after the title of the earliest surviving work in Chinese history, which records the happenings in the state of Lu during the period.

The latter period is that of the Warring States, lasting from 403–221 BC; in this period, up to a dozen major states, as well as many very small ones, declared themselves independent kingdoms. As noted in the title of the period, they fought amongst themselves for land, changing alliances often. While the leaders of these states fancied themselves kings, rather than the titles of lower nobility they had previously held, none elevated himself to believe that he had the "Mandate of Heaven," as the Zhou emperors had claimed, nor that he had the right to offer sacrifices—they left this to the Zhou rulers.

Before their conquest in the fourth and third centuries BC, the Qin suffered several setbacks. Shang Yang was executed in 338 BC due to a grudge by the leader King Wu over a student who had been executed because of Shang Yang's insistence that law applied even to nobility. There was also internal strife over the Qin succession in 307 BC, which decentralised Qin authority somewhat. Qin was defeated by an alliance of the other states in 295 BC, and shortly after suffered another defeat against the state of Zhao due to the fact that the majority of their army was then defending against the Qi. The aggressive statesman Fan Sui, however, soon came to power as prime minister even as the problem of the succession was resolved, and he began an expansionist policy, which had originated in Jin and Qi, which prompted the Qin to attempt to conquer the other states.

The Qin were swift in their assault on the other states. They first attacked the Han, directly east, and took the city of Yangdi in 230 BC. They then struck northward; the state of Zhao surrendered in 228 BC, and the farthest northern state of Yan followed, falling in 226 BC. Next, their armies launched assaults to the east, and later the south as well; they took the Wei city of Daliangmarker (now called Kaifeng) in 225 BC, and forced the Chu to surrender by 223 BC. Lastly, they deposed the Zhou Dynasty's remnants in Luoyangmarker, and conquered the Qi, taking the city of Linzi in 221 BC.

Dominion of China

Marble statue of Qin Shihuang located near his burial place
When the conquests were complete in 221 BC, the leader of the Qin, King Zheng, who had first assumed the throne of the Qin state at age 13, became the effective ruler of China. He took on the name Qin Shihuang Di (Chinese: 秦始皇帝), meaning "First Emperor of the Qin".World and Its Peoples: Eastern and Southern Asia, p. 36 The newly declared emperor ordered all weapons not in the possession of the Qin to be confiscated and melted down. The resulting metal was sufficient to build twelve large ornamental statues at the Qin's newly declared capital, Xianyangmarker.

In 214 BC Qin Shihuang secured his boundaries to the north with a fraction (100,000 men) of his large army, and sent the majority (500,000 men) south to seize still more land. Prior to the events leading to Qin dominance over China, they had gained possession of much of Sichuanmarker to the southwest. The Qin army was unfamiliar with the jungle terrain, and was defeated by the southern tribes' guerrilla warfare tactics with over 100,000 men lost. However in the defeat Qin was successful in building a canal to the south, which they used heavily for suppling and reinforcing their troops during their second attack to the south. Building on these gains, the Qin armies conquered the coastal lands surrounding Guangzhoumarker, and took the provinces of Fuzhoumarker and Guilinmarker. They struck as far south as Hanoimarker. After these victories in the south Qin Shi Huang moved over 100,000 prisoners and exiles to the newly conquered area to colonize them. In terms of extending the boundaries of his Dynasty, the First Emperor was extremely successful in the south.

However, while the empire at times was extended to the north, the Qin could rarely could hold on to the land for long. The tribes of these locations, collectively called the Hu by the Qin, were free from Chinese rule during the majority of the Dynasty. Prohibited from trading with Qin Dynasty peasants, the Xiongnu tribe living in the Ordos region in northwest China often raided them instead, prompting the Qin to retaliate. After several campaigns and much effort, the region was conquered and agriculture was established; the peasants, however, were discontent, and later revolted. The succeeding Han Dynasty also expanded into the Ordos due to overpopulation, but depleted their resources in the process. Owen Lattimore said of both Dynasties' attempts to conquer the Ordos, "conquest and expansion were illusory. There was no kind of success that did not create its own reaction." Indeed, this was true of the dynasty's borders to multiple directions; modern Xinjiang, Tonet, Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, and regions to the southeast were foreign to the Qin, and even areas they had military control over were culturally distinct.

Fall from power

An edict in bronze from the reign of the Second Qin Emperor
Three assassination attempts were made on Qin Shihuang's life, leading him to be paranoid and obsessed with immortality. He died in 210 BCE, while on a trip to the far eastern reaches of his empire in an attempt to procure an elixir of immortality from Daoist magicians, who claimed the elixir was stuck on an island guarded by a sea monster. The chief eunuch, Zhao Gao, and the prime minister, Li Si, hid the news of his death upon their return until they were able to alter his will to place the dead emperor's most pliable son, Huhai, on the throne, who took the name of Qin Er Shi. They believed that they would be able to manipulate him to their own means, and thus effectively control the empire. Qin Er Shi was, indeed, inept and pliable. He executed many ministers and imperial princes, continued massive building projects (one of his most extravagant projects was lacquering the city walls), enlarged the army, increased taxes, and arrested messengers who brought him bad news. As a result, men from all over China revolted, attacking officials, raising armies, and declaring themselves kings of seized territories.

During this time, Li Si and Zhao Gao fell out among themselves, and Li Si was executed. Zhao Gao decided to force Qin Er Shi to commit suicide to his incompetence. Upon this, Ziying, a nephew of Qin Er Shi's, ascended the throne, and immediately executed Zhao Gao. Ziying, seeing that increasing unrest was growing among the people and that many local officials had declared themselves kings, attempted to cling to his throne by declaring himself one king among all the others. He was undermined by his ineptitude, however, and popular revolt broke out in 209 BCE. When Chu rebels under the lieutenant Liu Bang attacked, a state in such turmoil could not hold for long. Ziying was defeated near the Wei Rivermarker in 207 BCE and surrendered shortly after; he was executed by the Chu leader Xiang Yu. The Qin capital was destroyed the next year, and this is considered by Derk Bodde, as well as other historians, to be the end of the Qin empire. Liu Bang then betrayed and defeated Xiang Yu, declaring himself Emperor Gaozu of the new Han Dynasty. Despite the short duration of the Qin Dynasty, it was very influential on the structure of future Dynasties.

Culture and society

Domestic life

The aristocracy of the Qin were largely similar in their culture and daily life. Regional variations in culture were considered a symbol of the lower classes. This idea stemmed from the Zhou, and was seized upon by the Qin, as such variations were seen as contrary to the unification that the government strove for.

Commoners and rural villagers, who made up over 90% of the population, very rarely left the village or farmstead they were born in. Common forms of employment differed by region, though farmers were common almost universally. Profession was hereditary; a fathers' employment was passed to their eldest son after they died. According to the Lüshi Chunqiu, commoners were obsessed with material wealth; instead of the idealism of a man who "makes things serve him", they were "reduced to the service of things".

Peasants were rarely figured in literature during the Qin Dynasty and afterwards; scholars and others of more elite status preferred the excitement of cities and the lure of politics. One notable exception to this was Shen Nong, the so-called "Divine Father", who taught that households should grow their own food. "If in one's prime he does not plow, someone in the world will grow hungry. If in one's prime she does not weave, someone in the world will be cold." The Qin encouraged this; a ritual was performed once every few years that consisted of important government officials taking turns with the plow on a special field, to create a simulation of government interest and activity within agriculture.


Warring States-era architecture had several definitive aspects. City walls, used for defense, were made longer, and indeed several secondary walls were also sometimes built to separate the different districts. Verticality in federal structures was emphasised, to create a sense of authority and absolute power. Architectural elements such as high towers, pillar gates, terraces, and high buildings amply conveyed this.

Philosophy and literature

The written language of the Qin was logographic, as that of the Zhou had been. As one of his most influential achievements in life, prime minister Li Si standardized the writing system to be of uniform size and shape across the whole country. This would have a unification effect on the Chinese culture for thousands of years. He is also credited with creating the "lesser-seal" (Chinese: 小篆, Pinyin: xiǎozhuàn) style of calligraphy, which serves as a basis for modern Chinese and is still used in cards, posters, and advertising.

During the Warring States Period, the Hundred Schools of Thought was comprised of many different philosophies proposed by Chinese scholars. In 221 BCE, however, the First Emperor conquered all the states, and governed them using a single philosophy, Legalism. At least one school of thought, Mohism, was eradicated, though it is not known exactly why; despite the Qin's state ideology and Mohism being similar in certain regards, it is possible that Mohists were sought out and killed by the state's armies, due to paramilitary activities.

Confucius's school of thought, called Confucianism, was also influential during the Warring States Period, as well as throughout much of the later Zhou Dynasty and early imperial China. This school of thought had a so-called Confucian canon of literature, known as the "six classics": the Odes, Documents, Ritual, Music, Spring and Autumn Annals, and Changes, which embodied Chinese literature at the time.

During the Qin Dynasty, Confucianism was suppressed, along with all other non-Legalist philosophies, by the First Emperor; early Han Dynasty emperors did the same. Legalism, the state-adopted school of thought, denounced the feudal system, and encouraged severe punishments, particularly when the emperor was disobeyed; individual rights were devalued when they conflicted with the government or the ruler's wishes, and considered merchants and scholars unproductive, fit for elimination. One of the more drastic measures employed to accomplish the eradication of the old schools of thought was the infamous burning of books and burying of scholars incident, which almost singlehandedly gave the Qin Dynasty a bad reputation among later scholars. The First Emperor, in an attempt to consolidate power, ordered the burning of all books on non-Legalist philosophical viewpoints and intellectual subjects. This decree was passed in 213 BCE, and also stipulated that all scholars who refused to submit their books to be burned would be executed by premature burial. Only texts considered productive by Legalists were preserved, most on pragmatic subjects, such as agriculture, divination, and medicine.

Government and military

The Qin government was highly bureaucratic, and was administered by a hierarchy of officials, all serving the First Emperor. The Qin put into practice the teachings of Han Fei, allowing the First Emperor to control all of his territories, including those recently conquered. All aspects of life were standardized, from measurements and language to more practical details, such as chariot axles. Zheng and his advisers also introduced new laws and practices that ended feudalism in China, replacing it with a centralized, bureaucratic government. Under this system, both the military and government thrived, as talented individuals could more easily identified in the transformed society. Later Chinese Dynasties emulated the Qin government for its efficiency, despite it being condemned by Confucian philosophy. Such a system, however, could be manipulated by power-hungry individuals; one example of such an occurrence was documented in the Records of Officialdom. A commander named Hu ordered his men to attack peasants, in an attempt to increase the amount of "bandits" he had killed; his superiors, likely eager to inflate their records as well, allowed this.

Qin Shihuangdi also improved the military, despite the fact that it had already undergone extensive reforms. The military used the most advanced weaponry of the time. The invention of the sword during the Warring States Period was a huge boon. It was first used mostly in bronze form, but by the third century BCE, the Qin were using stronger iron swords. The demand on metal this produced resulted in improved bellows. The crossbow had been introduced in the fifth century BCE, and was more powerful and accurate than the compound bows used earlier. It could also be rendered ineffective by removing two pins, which prevented enemies from capturing a working crossbow.
The Terracotta army.
The Qin also used improved methods of transportation and tactics. The state of Zhao had first replaced chariots with cavalry in 307 BCE, but the change was swiftly adopted by the other states due to the fact that cavalry had greater mobility over the terrain of China.

The First Emperor developed plans to fortify his northern border, to protect against the nomadic Xiongnu. The result was the construction of the Great Wall of China, which would be expanded and rebuilt multiple times by later dynasties, also in response to threats from the north. Another monument built during Qin Shihuang's rule was the Terracotta armymarker, intended to protect the emperor after his death. As opposed to the Great Wall, which is visible from space, the Terracotta army was inconspicuous due to its underground location, and was not discovered until 1974.


The dominant religious belief in China during the reign of the Qin, and, in fact, during much of early imperial China, was focused on the shen (roughly translating to "spirits"), yin ("shadows"), and the realm they were said to live in. The Chinese offered sacrifices in an attempt to contact this other world, which they believed to be parallel to the earthly one. The dead were said to simply have moved from one world to the other. The rituals mentioned, as well as others, served two purposes; to ensure that the dead journeyed and stayed in the other realm, and to receive blessings from the spirit realm.

Religious practices were usually held in local shrines and sacred areas, which contained a sacrificial altar. During a sacrifice or other ritual, the senses of all participants and witnesses would be dulled and blurred with smoke, incense, and music. The lead sacrificer would fast and meditate before a sacrifice to further blur his senses and increase the likelihood of perceiving otherworldly phenomena. Other participants were similarly prepared, though not as rigorously.

Such blurring of the senses was also a factor in the practice of spirit intermediaries, or mediumship. Practitioners of the art would fall into trances or dance to perform supernatural tasks. These people would often rise to power as a result of their art—Luan Da, a Han Dynasty medium, was granted rule over 2,000 households. Noted Han historian Sima Qian was scornful of such practices, dismissing them as foolish trickery.

Divination—to predict and/or influence the future—was yet another form of religious practice. An ancient practice that was common during the Qin Dynasty was cracking bones or turtle shells to gain knowledge of the future. The forms of divination which sprang up during early imperial China are diverse, though observing natural phenomena was a common method. Comets, eclipses, and droughts were considered omens of things to come.

Sovereigns of Qin Dynasty

Note: King Zhaoxiang of Qin (秦昭襄王) had already been ruling Qin for 51 years when Qin annihilated the Zhou Dynasty; however the other six warring states were still independent regimes. Historiographers thus used the next year (the 52nd year of King Zhaoxiang of Qin) as the official continuation from Zhou Dynasty.

Qin Shi Huang was the first Chinese sovereign to proclaim himself "Emperor", after reunifying China in 221 BC. That year is therefore usually taken as the start of the "Qin Dynasty".

Posthumous names / title Chinese family names and given name Period of Reigns
Convention: "Qin" + posthumous name
Zhaoxiang Ying Ze (嬴則 qíng zé or Ying Ji, 嬴稷 yíng jì) 306 BC–250 BC
Xiaowen Ying Zhu (嬴柱 yíng zhù) 250 BC
Zhuangxiang Ying Zichu (嬴子楚 yíng zi chǔ) 249 BC–247 BC
Shi Huangdi (始皇帝 Shǐ Huángdì) Ying Zheng (嬴政 yíng zhèng) 246 BC–210 BC
Er Shi Huangdi (二世皇帝 Èr Shì Huángdì) Ying Huhai (嬴胡亥 yíng hú hài) 210 BC–207 BC
Ziying was often referred using personal name orQin Wang Ziying (秦王子嬰 qín wáng zi yīng)
Did not exist Ying Ziying (嬴子嬰 yíng zi yīng) 207 BC

See also



  1. The first emperor of the Qin had boasted that the dynasty would last 10,000 generations; it lasted only about 15 years. (Morton 1995, p. 49)
  2. The modern city of Tianshui stands where this city once was.
  3. Lewis 2007, p. 17
  4. Lewis 2007, pp. 17–18
  5. Lewis 2007, p. 88
  6. Morton 1995, p. 45
  7. Morton 1995, p. 26
  8. Not to be confused with any Duke of the Song Dynasty of a later period.
  9. Morton 1995, pg. 26
  10. Time-Life Books 1993, p. 86
  11. Kinney and Clark 2005, p. 10
  12. This was due to the large workforce available as a result of their landowning policies (implemented by Shang Yang), described in the "Culture and society" section.
  13. These, along with the weaponry, are elaborated upon in the section describing the Qin's military and government.
  14. Morton 1995, p. 45
  15. This was the heart of the Guanzhong region, as opposed to the region of the Yangtze River drainage basin, known as Guandong. The warlike nature of the Qin in Guanzhong evolved into a Han Dynasty adage: "Guanzhong produces generals, while Guandong produces ministers." (Lewis 2007, p. 17)
  16. Lewis 2007, pp. 18–19
  17. Lewis 2007, p. 10
  18. Morton 1995, p. 24
  19. Morton 1995, p. 25
  20. The dozen states were later reduced to the seven listed due to conquests of smaller states by larger ones.
  21. Morton 1995, p. 25
  22. Lewis 2007, pp. 38–39
  23. Lewis 2007, p. 10
  24. His personal name was Yíng Zhèng.
  25. This title was later abridged to Qin Shihuang, because it is uncommon for Chinese names to have four characters.
  26. Morton 1995, p. 47
  27. Formerly known as Canton.
  28. Morton 1995, p. 47
  29. Lewis 2007, p. 129
  30. Breslin 2001, p. 5
  31. Lewis 2007, p. 5
  32. Borthwick, p. 10
  33. Kinney and Hardy 2005, p. 13-15
  34. This was largely caused by regional differences which survived despite the Qin's attempt to impose uniformity.
  35. Bodde 1986, p. 84
  36. The first emperor of the Qin had boasted that the dynasty would last 10,000 generations; it lasted only about 15 years. (Morton 1995, p. 49)
  37. Meaning "High Progenitor".
  38. Morton 1995, pp. 49–50
  39. Lewis 2007, p. 11
  40. Lewis 2007, p. 102
  41. Lewis 2007, p. 15
  42. A text named for its sponsor Lü Buwei; the prime minister of the Qin directly preceding the conquest of the other states.
  43. Lewis 2007, p. 16
  44. Lewis 2007, p. 15
  45. Lewis 2007, p. 75–78
  46. World and its Peoples: Eastern and Southern Asia, p. 34
  47. Bedini 1994, p. 83
  48. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 61
  49. The term "Confucian" is rather ill-defined in this context—many self-dubbed Confucians in fact rejected tenets of what was known as "the Way of Confucius," and were disorganized, unlike the later Confucians of the Song and Yuan Dynasties.
  50. Lewis 2007, p. 206
  51. Borthwick, p. 17
  52. Morton 1995, p. 47
  53. Borthwick, p. 11
  54. Borthwick 2006, pp. 9–10
  55. Guidi, pp. 80-81
  56. Borthwick 2006, p. 10
  57. Morton 1995, p. 26
  58. Morton 1995, p. 27
  59. The Great Wall is generally not visible to the naked eye, even in low-earth orbit. However, photos taken from the International Space Station have been determined to show sections of the wall.
  60. Sacrifices were always animals, human sacrifice had been abolished in ancient China.
  61. Mystics from the state of Qi, however, saw sacrifices differently—as a way to become immortal.
  62. Lewis 2007, p. 178
  63. Lewis 2007, p. 186
  64. Lewis 2007, p. 180
  65. Lewis 2007, p. 181


  • Bodde, Derk. (1986). "The State and Empire of Ch'in," in The Cambridge History of China: Volume I: the Ch'in and Han Empires, 221 B.C. – A.D. 220. Edited by Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521243270.

Further reading

  • Bodde, Derk. (1986). "The State and Empire of Ch'in," in The Cambridge History of China: Volume I: the Ch'in and Han Empires, 221 B.C. – A.D. 220. Edited by Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521243270.

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