Episode 10: The Qin and the First Emperor of China
Foundations of Eastern Civilization
Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)
By 221 BC, the kingdom of Qin (pronounced Ch’in – source of the country name China) had sufficient military prowess* to defeat all rival kingdoms and declare their king (Qin Shi Huangdi) the first Chinese emperor.
In his eleven years of rule, he enacted many reforms to further consolidate his power. He began by moving the nobility of the former rival kingdoms to the Qin and replacing their old fiefdoms with 36 provinces run by hand-picked administrators. Qin Shi Huangdi also abolished feudalism, allowing peasants to own their own land ensuring the legal code no longer favored the nobility.
In addition to harsh punishments for criminal acts (see Great Ideas of the Zhou: Legaism), there were also harsh penalties for possessing weapons, criticizing the emperor or expressing viewpoints that disagreed with Legalist principles (ie Confucianism or Daoism). In total, 460 Confucian and Daoist scholars were ultimately buried alive while multiple copies Confucian and Daoist texts were burned.
The first emperor also introduced Xiaozuan, a new style of writing, as well as new systems of weights, currency and measurement, declaring it an act of treason not to use them.
Despite being allowed to own property, the lives of peasants improved little, owing to forced conscription to work on the Great Wall** and the emperor’s tomb.
Qin Shi Huangdi’s tomb is best known for the thousands of life size terracotta warriors discovered inside. Tomb construction began 24 years before Qin declared himself emperor and ended with his death in 210 BC. In addition to roughly 700,000 men who died during its construction, all surviving laborers were killed to keep the location secret.
The Qin was the shortest dynasty in Chinese history. After the emperor’s death in 210 BC,*** a deadly civil war broke out in the Qin court. By 206 BC, the power struggle was complicated by a popular revolt. When a group of peasants conscripted to work on the Great Wall were delayed by rain, they became outlaws instead of facing likely execution. The tide turned when Qin generals defected to join growing numbers of peasants fed up with brutal conscription laws.
Lui Bagb, a minor local official from the Han kingdom (who became an outlaw to escape execution when prisoners he was escorting to work on the tomb escaped) ultimately declared himself the Han king. On assuming power, he renamed himself Gaozu and established the Han Dynasty.
*The Qin acquired major military advantage over their rivals through large stockpiles of iron weapons and trained horse archers (thanks to repeated confrontations with nomad horse archers – see Intertwined Role of Steppes Nomads and Early Chinese Civilization)
**Begun as rammed earth wall (to help prevent nomadic raids from the steppes) during the Zhou dynasty, under the Qin Dynasty was fortified with granite. The project took 10 years to complete and nearly one million men died during construction.
***Obsessed with his search for immortality, Qin Shi Huangdi most likely died of mercury poison from one of the tonics his doctors prescribed to help him live forever.
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