Ancient China had always been a collection of more or less independent states in the north of China. The Shang and the Zhou dynasty’s dominated the political landscape as the most powerful of those states, but they did not exercise uniform rule over neighboring regions. When the Zhou began to weaken around 500 BC, these independent states began to war among themselves over territory and influence. So chaotic was this period, that the Chinese refer to it as The Warring States period (475-221 BC), and it did not end until the whole of north China was unified under a single empire, the Qin dynasty.
In Chinese history, the Qin are the great, evil dynasty, but Western historians often stand in awe of the Qin. They were repressive, autocratic, and frequently cruel, but they were also brilliant political theorists and reformers who historically brought about one of the most energetic periods of Chinese government. Their story, however, is a very brief one. For from the time the Qin unified China in 221 BC, to the time of their fall fifteen years later in 206 BC, not even a generation had passed.
The Qin were a small state in the western reaches of the Wei River. As with all states during the Warring States period, the Qin pursued an aggressive policy of territorial expansion. The Qin, however, had one great advantage: they had adopted a new style of government based on the principles of the Legalists. Ultimately based on Confucianism, Legalism held that human beings were fundamentally base and selfish and had to be strictly controlled through laws. These laws were effective only if punishments were severe and certain, so the Qin kingdom was frighteningly autocratic. But Legalist philosophy also demanded a strong central government, a strong military, a tightly controlled economy, and the strict regimentation of the citizens of the state. As a result, the Qin kingdom grew powerful and wealthy in a very short time.
Reign of Qin Shi Huang (246-221 and 220-210 BC)
Qin dynasty probably started around 256 BC, although the unification of China did not occur until 221 BC. By 256 BC, the Qin had become the most powerful state in China, and in 246 BC, the kingdom fell to a thirteen year old boy, Ying Zheng. As a young man, he surrounded himself with brilliant Legalist ministers. His most powerful and trusted advisor was Li Si, one of the foundational theorists of Legalism. Under their advice, in 232 BC, King Zheng, at the age of twenty-seven, began a vigorous campaign to unify and centralize all the northern kingdoms. The surrounding kingdoms were no match for the wealth and military power of the Qin, and by 221 BC, Zheng conquered all of the northern kingdoms.
He assumed the title, Qin Shi Huang, or The First Emperor of the Qin dynasty. As the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty, Qin Shi Huang reign was (220 to 210 BC). Under his guidance, and the advice of Li Si, Qin Shi Huang created the form of government which served as the model for all future Chinese dynasties. First, the government was centralized around the emperor and his ministers. In order to facilitate that centralization, the Qin replaced the old, system in which territory was controlled by more or less independent nobility with a strong, hierarchical bureaucracy. All the members of this bureaucracy, as well as the ministers of the state, would be appointed by the central government. In order to break the power of the aristocracy, he confiscated their lands and distributed them to the peasants. To facilitate the taxation process, government taxes were taken directly from the peasants rather than passing through the hands of the aristocracy.
In order to cement the centralization of government, Qin Shi Huang embarked on an ambitious campaign of standardizing money and weights and measures. Qin Shi Huang also put the most severe of Legalist doctrines into practice as well. The laws of the unified empire were strict and harsh, particularly if you were in government. The penalty for any corruption at all among government servants was death. The Legalists also believed in centralization of thinking, fearful that any non-Legalist ways of thinking could lead to disruption and revolution. So all the other schools of philosophy were outlawed, especially Confucianism, and their books were burned and their teachers were executed. The Qin were also hard on commerce. Seeing it as a form of infection or parisitism, the Qin severely restricted trade and mercantilism, taxed the merchants heavily, and executed merchants for the most trivial offenses.
The Qin dynasty, set their eyes on more than the administration of the northern territories. They turned south and steadily conquered the southern regions of China all the way to the Red River in north Vietnam. Their greatest enemy, was to the north, called the Hsiung-nu or Xiongnu. These nomadic people, had been making constant incursions into the northern territories all during the Zhou dynasty. The peoples north of China had originally developed as hunters and fishers, but when the region began to dry out and the forests receded, they turned to keeping flocks. As a result they learned horsemanship and began to wander nomadic ally. They also began to fight among themselves.
This constant fighting made them highly skilled at fighting on horseback, and when they began to wander into the northern states of China, they made extremely formidable opponents for the infantry-focused northern states. In response to these incursions, the northern kingdoms all during the Zhou period built walls and fortifications along their northern borders. The Qin began a massive project of joining many of these walls and fortifications. Although the Qin did not build the “Great Wall” as historians used to claim (the Great Wall was built during the Ming dynasty), this fortification and building project during the Qin period was in itself truly amazing.
The Fall of the Qin dynasty
Qin Shi Huang died in 210 BC. The amazing thing about the empire he had founded is that it collapsed only four years after his death. While the Legalist government of Qin Shi Huang was ruthlessly efficient in its control over the state and the bureaucracy, that ruthlessness proved to be its undoing. The emperor, who had hoped to found a dynasty lasting over ten thousand years, had alienated many people, particularly the landed aristocracy. The building projects of the Qin demanded forced labor and heavy taxation; people all throughout the empire were on the verge of revolt.
Finally, the Qin had created a government that virtually ran without the emperor, who remained aloof from day to day governing. Upon Qin Shi Huang death, the two most powerful administrators, Li Si and Zhao Gao, covered up his death and took over the government. They installed a puppet emperor Qin Er Shi, but for the most part all Chinese government rested in their hands. Both Li Si and Zhao Gao ruthlessly enforced penalties on lower administrators. Because of this, regional administrators kept secret the revolts and uprisings in their territories for fear of punishment. Eventually, Zhao Gao eliminated Li Si, and the territorial uprisings became so severe that they could no longer be kept secret. By that point, it was too late, and the dynasty that was to last ten thousand years disappeared only four years after its founder died.