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Qin Dynasty: When Books were Burned, the Great Wall was Built, and More

The Qin dynasty, an exceptionally important Chinese dynasty, was considered the first dynasty of Imperial China, lasting from 221-206 BCE.

The Legalist reforms set forth during the previous Warring States period helped strengthen the Qin state. They carried out a series of swift conquests that ended the powerless reign of the Zhou dynasty. This eventually led to the rule of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, Qin Shi Huang.

Notable contributions

The Qin central government undercut aristocrats and landowners to regain control over the peasantry. This helped them create a unified state through structured centralized political power and a large military supported by a stable economy. This, in turn, allowed ambitious projects, including connecting walls along the northern border, which eventually became the Great Wall of China.

This Chinese dynasty also gave us a massive new national road system and the city-sized Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor guarded by a life-sized terracotta army.

Standardized currency, weights, measures, and a uniform system of writing were also established during the Qin Dynasty in an effort to unify the state and promote commerce. Its military used only the most modern equipment, strategies, and transportation at the time.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

A tyrannical rule

During this period, the government was heavy-handedly bureaucratic. The first Qin emperor had scholars killed, and he destroyed many works that he regarded as incorrect or subversive. Because of this, Han Confucians categorized the Qin Dynasty as a monolithic tyranny. Yet, scholars agree that the emperor also ordered two copies of each school to be preserved in imperial libraries.

With great power comes assassination attempts, as the first Qin emperor knew. There were three assassination attempts on his life, which led him to become paranoid and obsessed with immortality. He died in 210 BCE while on a quest to procure an elixir of immortality from Taoist magicians who claimed the potion was stuck on an island guarded by a sea monster.

Imperial plots and schemes

He was then succeeded by his pliant son, Hu Hai, who adopted the name Qin Er Shi. Crowning Qin Er Shi was a strategic move by Shi Huang’s advisers, Zhao Gao the chief eunuch and Li Si the prime minister. They hid the news of his death upon their return from the elixir hunt until they were able to alter the first emperor’s will so Er Shi would be crowned.

The scheme was concocted to use the new emperor for their own means, and it was a successful one. Er Shi killed many ministers and imperial princes, continued massive building projects, expanded the army, increased taxes, and arrested messengers who brought him bad news. As a result, the Chinese men revolted. They attacked officials, raised armies, and declared themselves kings of seized territories.

The advisers also had a falling out at this point, and Li Si the prime minister was executed. Zhao Gao convinced Qin Er Shi to commit suicide due to his incompetence. After that, Er Shi’s nephew, Ziying, ascended to the throne and had Zhao Gao executed.

In an attempt to stay in power among the many self-proclaimed kings, he declared himself king among all others. However, his ineptitude undermined him, and the people revolted in 209 BCE. Ziying was defeated near the Wei River in 207 BC by the Chu rebels, led by lieutenant Liu Bang.

Shortly after, the emperor surrendered. He was executed by Chu leader, Xiang Yu, and the Qin capital fell the following year. Liu Bang then betrayed and defeated Xiang Yu, declaring himself Emperor Gaozu of the new Han dynasty.

The Qin dynasty may been short-lived, but it was very influential for the structure of future Chinese dynasties.


In case you missed it, you can also read about the Zhou dynasty, the Shang dynasty, and the Xia dynasty, as well as what came before the first Chinese dynasty here.

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