The Qin Dynasty

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Qin Dynasty

The Zhou dynasty began to collapse in the late 700s BC; the main cause was rivalry from the nearby tribes. By 403 BC, the area of Chinese civilization had expanded, spreading eastward to the coastline, south to the South China Sea, and north to the Gobi Desert. This sprawling civilization comprised several kingdoms. Each had its own army—by the sixth century BC, iron swords and armor had replaced their bronze equivalents—and each had built thick stone and earthen walls for its defense. The seven kingdoms—Seven Warring States—that fought for complete control of China were the Han, Wei, Zhao, Qin, Chu, Yan, and Qi. The Qin (sometimes spelled Ch’in), which had the most powerful and best-organized army, emerged victorious in the struggle about 221 BC. The Qin dynasty barely outlasted its first emperor, but it gave its name to the nation and established certain precedents that would remain constant in Chinese culture and society for centuries to follow.

Zheng, the Qin king, had ruled his kingdom according to Legalist ideas, which advocated a strong, centrally controlled state. Zheng would take the same approach to ruling the Chinese Empire. He took the name Qin Shi Huang Di, or “First Emperor,” and chose Xianyang on the Wei River as his capital city.

Under Zheng, China cast off its traditional feudal model of government and underwent sweeping changes to the economy, the military, and the state. The purpose of the changes was to create a prosperous, centrally controlled state, in keeping with Zheng’s preference for the Legalist way of thinking. Zheng’s tomb, with seventy-five hundred life-sized terra-cotta warriors guarding his remains, provides evidence of his grandiose ideas about the exalted position of the emperor.

Economic Changes

Zheng established new taxes to fill the royal treasury; he also oversaw the standardization of weights, measures, and currency. The building of hundreds of miles of roads linked the capital to the provinces. Combined, these measures made trade more efficient and therefore more profitable. Zheng also placed certain major economic activities under state control, including the manufacture of iron and the harvesting and distribution of salt.

Military Changes

Zheng used the military for both expansion and defense. Troops conquered new territory and were stationed in the farthest outposts of the empire to maintain order in case of rebellion. Under Zheng, soldiers were garrisoned as far from the capital as Korea and Vietnam.

Defense was especially necessary in the north; the Xiongnu and other nomadic warrior tribes of Central Asia were a constant threat. To protect his empire from northern invasion, Zheng ordered the filling in of the empty spaces between the walls erected by the individual kingdoms. This mammoth construction project was completed between about 221 and 212 BC. The completed Great Wall of China stretched along the empire’s northern border for fourteen hundred miles. It still stands today; the Chinese have maintained and repaired it all along.

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