Qin Dynasty: The First of Imperial Rulers

With the ascendancy of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC to 206 BC), Chinese history entered its imperial phase. The dynasty lasted for just 15 years, but within this short momentous period, it led the real foundation of the China as a nation and its reckoning as a power by creating a unified, centralized, and multinational state.

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, has been immortalized in history for the construction of the Great Wall and the majestic Xian Terracotta Army Tomb. The Qin eulogy was also visible in the development of philosophy, literature, art and economy.

A Short History

China entered a phase of military conflicts, known as the Warring States Period, following the decline of the Zhou Dynasty. The Qin Dynasty ruling from Xianyang in the modern day Shaanxi Province grew in power following military reforms by Shang Yang and its strategic location. In 246 BC, Shi Huang ascended the Qin throne. With a large army, he began his military conquests 16 year later and defeated all six powerful states, Zhao, Chu, Qi, Wei, Han and Yan, to create a unified state.

The highly authoritarian regime and strict legalism led to popular uprisings soon after Shi Huang died. Liu Bang, the founder of the Han Dynasty, and Xiang Yu, general, led rebels and defeated the Qin army in 207 BC. Liu captured capital Xianyang in 206 BC ending the Qin rule.

The Achievements

Unification of China

The unification of China and introduction of imperial lineage is the biggest achievement of the Qin rulers. The Qin military juggernaut decimated almost all major ethnic states and brought them under their control. A multi-ethnic and centralized state emerged for the first time under a powerful ruler that far surpassed the achievements of pre-imperial dynasties in magnitude, acceptance and exhibition of statecraft. China was divided into administrative units called Jun or commanderies ending loose federation of alliances previously seen.

The Economy

Qin Shi Huang laid the foundation of Chinese economic system that followed for thousand years after him. Notable calligraphist and Prime Minister Li Si introduced standard weights and measure units throughout the Qin Empire. New currency system was also introduced during the Qin Dynasty making Ban Liang coin became currency of unified China. Trade activities got a boost with construction of road networks.

The Script

The Qin rulers introduced the unified script throughout the dominated regions leading to development of standard Chinese script. The official script was enforced throughout the country and all regional scripts were banned. This led to development of a national language and communication system.

The Great Wall

The construction of the Great Wall began by the Qin Dynasty to prevent recurrent attacks by the Xiongnu tribesmen. The defensive wall connected all state walls built previously and ran over thousands of miles covering rivers, mountain cliffs. It is still considered the biggest man-made structure on earth. The Great Wall attests the greatness of Qin Shi Huang and his imperial power till today.

Public Projects

The Qin rulers undertook massive public projects, including canals and roads. Lingqu Canal, a 34-km waterway connecting the Xiang and Li Rivers, was constructed by Qin Shi Huang. It led to trade across 1500-mile long waterway from the present day Beijing to Pearl River Delta. The Qin ruler also constructed the 500-mile Straight Road and road networks of 4200 miles.

Qin Dynasty - Terracotta Warriors

The Tomb of Terracotta Warriors

Located in Xi’an, Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum is one of the greatest architectural feats the world ever witnessed. Began during the life time of the emperor, it was shaped by 720,000 men, more than any city population of that time. The Qin Dynasty tomb houses an entire terracotta army (see photo), including 7,500 infantry, 40,000 bronze weapons and chariots. Each chamber is differently decorated and the tomb has 100 rivers made of mercury.

Culture During Qin Dynasty

Standardization of script led to development of literature. But the burning of books and prosecution of scholars in the name of suppressing political dissent caused invaluable loss to Chinese literary history. Architecture received a new impetuous with construction of walls, towers, pillars, gates and palaces. Legalism, a philosophy advocating strict discipline, was encouraged and given primacy over other schools. Advanced metallurgy technology was devised to strengthen the military weapons. The E Pang Palace of Xi'an stands testimony to lavish art and architecture patronized by the Dynasty.

The Legacy

The Qin Dynasty laid down the edifice of a unified China that followed until now. The totalitarian state under the present Chinese Communist system resembles the Qin Dynasty rule where obedience to state preceded everything and political dissent was banned. The Lingqu Canal continues to an important waterway facilitating trade. Travelers to China are indebted to the Qin Rulers for the majestic Great Wall.

Read more about Chinese Dynasties.

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