Civilization: The Qin Dynasty of Ancient China


Origins of the Qin dynasty

Qin conquests

The Qin empire

The fall of the Qin dynasty

Further study

The Origins of the Qin dynasty

Qin was one of the leading states in the “Warring States” period. Its origins can be traced back to the beginnings of the Eastern Zhou period, to 771 BC. At that date one of the great catastrophes of Chinese history had just occurred when the capital of the Western Zhou dynasty was sacked by a coalition of barbarian invaders and Chinese rebels. In the aftermath, a lord loyal to the Zhou drove the barbarians back beyond the frontiers. In gratitude, the new Zhou king gave him lands around the old capital as a fief. He was also given a promise that he and his successors could keep any other lands that they were able to take from the barbarians.

At this time the area was beset by hostile barbarian tribes, and this prince and his successors had to fight hard to keep their land. However, little by little they drove the barbarians back. Their fief gradually expanded in size to take its place amongst the many principalities of later Zhou China. Thus the state of Qin came into being. Like other states on the frontiers, it was regarded as semi-barbarian by the states of eastern China. While its rulers and people may have lacked culture and refinement, however, they were tough soldiers, and this would stand them in good stead in the future.

For a long time Qin continued to expand its territory by conquering neighbouring barbarian tribes. It was only in the mid-4th century BC that it began to engage in wars with other Chinese states.

Legalist reforms

A very capable man called Shang Yang became chief minister of Qin sometime in the 350s BC. Shang Yang was a follower of the Legalist school of thought, and set about strengthening the Qin state through a series of sweeping reforms, which focussed the state’s institutions towards military ends. He created a unified code of laws, and an efficient bureaucracy, operating according to strict rules and regulations. He carried out economic measures to increase the wealth of the state, especially by large-scale irrigation projects which greatly expanded agricultural production.

Marble Bust of Statesman Shang Yang
Marble Bust of Statesman Shang Yang.
Reproduced under Create Commons 2.5 license

He permitted a free market in land, and required peasants to pay taxes in crops or money rather than labour services. Most famously of all, he developed a system of collective responsibility, whereby the population was divided into units of 5-10 families each, with all members of a unit collectively responsible for the crimes of any individual within that unit.

The increased strength that these reforms gave the state of Qin was soon apparent. Qin armies conquered large areas of neighbouring states to north and south. These conquests in turn led to further increases in strength; the Qin government carried out the largest irrigation project that had ever been undertaken in China (and therefore probably in the world) up to that point in its newly annexed southern territories, bringing much new land under cultivation.

The Qin state was by no means unique in carrying out such reforms. The southern state of Chu, for example, had also reformed its institutions to make itself more fitted to war.

Chu began the “Warring States” period as by far the largest state in China, the one which all other states feared. It continued to expand during the period, and like Qin, it benefited from the reforms carried out by a famous Legalist minister. For example, Chu was the first to divide its territory into districts governed by officials appointed by the king to act on his behalf. The purpose of this was to make the Chu central government’s control much more effective throughout all the localities of the land. This was the origin of the system of provincial administration in China which would last (with many adjustments) until the twentieth century.

Timemap of the Warring States period of Ancient China
Timemap of the Warring States period of Ancient China

Unlike in Qin, however, these reforms were undermined by opposition from the local aristocracy in the years which followed. Chu was therefore unable to build on these reforms in an enduring way. In fact, it seems that the thing which differentiated the Qin from the other states was its single-minded retention of Shang Yang’s reforms. This was probably due to its particularly exposed position on the frontiers with hostile barbarians, making efficient administration and effective military capability a constant necessity. Moreover, Shang Yang, had openly encouraged the Qin state to think in terms of unifying all China under its rule.

Qin conquests

In 256 BC, Qin destroyed the last feeble remnants of the Zhou ruling house – a clear statement of intent. Ten years later a new young king, Ying Zheng, came to throne. He was served by very capable chief ministers, Lu Buwei (249-237 BC) and Li Si (237 -208 BC). Like Shang Yang they were both followers of the Legalist school of thought, and they built on his earlier reforms to make Qin even more a state whose people served the state unquestioningly. They appointed men of merit rather than aristocratic birth to senior positions within the army and administration; they further strengthened the state’s economy (for example, with another large canal project), and enlarged the army. They pursued a policy of “divide and rule” against the other states, and when they deemed the time was ripe, they launched a war of conquest.

In the Qin conquests, diplomacy and trickery seem to have been as important as military might. The Qin government took advantage of a great earthquake and famine suffered by the people of Zhao to attack it. When success still eluded them, the Qin sent secret agents to sow suspicion between the king of Zhao and his generals, which gravely compromised their defences. In Wei, the Qin diverted the waters of the Yellow River straight into the capital, drowning over a hundred thousand people. In Qi, the Qin bribed the chief minister to persuade the king not to send any help to the other states as they were, one by one, swallowed up by Qin; and then at the due time, to surrender the state peacefully to Qin. In places such as Chu, however, there was no alternative but for Qin forces to slog it out for years until opposition had been overcome.

The Qin empire

Within ten years the Qin had conquered all the other states. With the completion of the unification of China. the Qin king took the title of Qin Shi Huang – “August Emperor of Qin”. He is thus known to history as the first emperor of China.

Once the Qin had established their power over all the other states, they set about a radical programme of measures to weld the different states, with their different practices and traditions, into one nation.

Qin Shi Huang The first emperor of China
Qin Shi Huang The first emperor of China


The leading states of the “Warring States” period had been divided into provinces and prefectures, under officials appointed by the rulers. Now the Qin extended this system in a uniform manner across the entire country to create a tightly centralized administration. The different legal systems of the states were abolished and the Qin legal code imposed across the empire. This was based on the principle of mutual responsibility (i.e. groupings of families were held jointly responsible for the behaviour of each of their members), but also on the idea that punishments should be so severe that no one would dare to commit crimes.

The leading nobles of the different states were forced to leave their ancestral lands and move to the capital, to be under the watchful eye of the emperor and his ministers, and where they could not easily prepare revolts in their home states.


Whole communities were uprooted and sent into thinly populated regions, or despatched to strengthen defences and increase agricultural production on the frontier. Qin policy was very much concerned with maximising the agricultural base of the empire, and strong encouragement was given to this at the expense of trade. However, the uniformity which the Qin imposed across their empire undoubtedly made long-distance trade easier. Local scripts were suppressed and a uniform system of writing, known as small seal script, was adopted throughout the empire. Similar uniformity was applied to weights and measures, the gauge of wheeled vehicles and currency. New roads were constructed, radiating out from capital, linking the provinces with the centre (and enabling Qin armies to move speedily to deal with any invasion or rebellion); and new canals facilitating the transport of goods around the empire.

Not content with uniformity in all these practical matters, the Qin strove for unity of thought within their realm. They ordered that all books which contained ideas which went against their own Legalist views – that is, Confucian and Mohist books – should be burnt. Thousands of books did suffer this fate, but many others were hidden away and the ideas they contained survived.

The borders of the Qin empire, and beyond

The Qin regime was equally vigorous in its dealing with external threats as it was with internal challenges. Previously, the various states bordering the northern steppes had built long walls for defence against the nomads (as well as against other states), The Qin incorporated these walls into a continuous defensive system stretching for more than a thousand miles. Some 300,000 men were engaged in this task.

The walls themselves were built of beaten earth. The breath-taking stone-built walls that can be seen today, marching across thousands of miles of mountains and plains, were built more than fifteen hundred years later, under the Ming dynasty (which ruled China from 1386 to 1644). Nevertheless, creating this system of walls was a huge achievement for ancient times. It undoubtedly strengthen the very idea of  “China” by erecting a single defensive system to protect the Chinese people as a whole from the nomads of the steppes.

As well as these defensive measures, more aggressive steps were taken to enhance the Qin empire’s strength and security. Qin armies drove the most powerful of the steppe nomads, the Xiongnu, away from the borders of the empire back into central Asia, and they sent large armies to conquer the south. They were not completely successful in this, but extensive areas were brought into the empire.

Finally, as if all these great manpower-consuming projects were not enough, the Qin emperor ordered some 700,000 men to construct his tomb at Lintong – a massive complex, where the famous terracotta army, a replica of the real Qin army, still stands guard.

A Terracotta Soldier and his Horse
A Terracotta Soldier and his Horse

The fall of the Qin dynasty

The Qin’s overriding aim was to turn China, by force if necessary, from a collection of different regions into one unified nation. They were outstandingly successful in achieving many of their goals: the very name “China” probably comes from the Qin, which shows what a key part they played in their country’s history. The severity with which they set about their task, however, came as a shock to populations unused to the uncompromising harshness of Qin rule. The forced imposition of unity, although carrying immense benefits, was profoundly distressing to millions of people with deep-seated local loyalties. The huge construction projects and great military campaigns, in which hundreds of thousands of men died far from home and with millions more having their lives terribly disrupted, caused great suffering.


Very shortly after the First Emperor’s death, in 210 BC, rebellions started breaking out in different parts of the empire. These rebellions sprang from two main motives. Firstly, the former ruling elites of the old states which the Qin had conquered wished to restore their independence. Secondly, the common people wished to rid themselves of the harsh Qin regime. These motives mingled to spark simultaneous revolts in various places, which soon gathered strength and put the Qin forces on the defensive.

The Qin court, weakened by bloody faction fighting, was unable to respond effectively to the challenges. In 206 BC the Qin capital, Xian, fell to one of the rebel groups and the last Qin emperor surrendered his throne.


By this point China had become engulfed in chaos. Each area was controlled by a different rebel group whose leader had declared himself king of a resurrected – or in many cases, entirely new – state; and they had all fallen to fighting amongst themselves. It must have looked as if everything the Qin had achieved in uniting the vast country would be undone, with China again becoming a collection of many different states in place of a single empire.

Within a very few years, however, in what must be one of the most remarkable turn of events in world history, all the different rebel groups had been defeated by, or fallen under the control of, one man. His name was Liu Bang, and he became the founder of the Han dynasty, the most important of all the dynasties in China’s long history.

Further Study

The Civilization of Ancient China