The Qin and the First Emperor of China

Qin Dynasty - HISTORY

Episode 10: The Qin and the First Emperor of China

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

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.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

Great Ideas of the Zhou – Legalism

Legalism, an ancient Chinese Philosophy: WH 1st period S2

Episode 9: Great Ideas of the Zhou: Legalism

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

In this lecture, Benjamin explores how the Qin Dynasty unified China at the end of the Warring States Period (480-256 BC) and used Legalism. A system of very strict legal codes, they imposed it not only in their own state of Qi, but also in the states they conquered.

The third major philosophy to come out of the Warring States Period,* Legalism taught that human beings were born evil and would only behave ethically if forced to by the state. Harsh Legalist punishments included enslavement, mutilation, branding the face, amputation of hands or feet, exile to the steppes, castration, strangulation, beheading and slow slicing (death by 1,000 cuts).

The Legalists also imposed collective punishment on villages, neighborhoods and families, although individuals could escape punishment (and be rewarded) if they informed on their neighbors.

The Legalist system calls for these punishments to be implemented by the state, rather than the ruler (who is subject to the same laws as his subjects). This system initially proved extremely effective in crushing dissent under the Qin Dynasty.

The Confucians rejected Legalism, arguing it was better to achieve ethically appropriate behavior by reaching collective agreement of what was socially appropriate.

Legalism influenced governance in other Asian societies, with Singapore continuing to run a quasi-legalistic society into modern times.**

The two main political advisors who helped implement Legalism were Shang Yan (390-338 BC) and Han Feizi (280-233 BC). The Qin nobility despised Shang (in part owing to his insistence that bureaucrats be subject to the same laws as commoners) and eventually had him executed.

Han Feizi served as advisor to Qin Shi Huang, who would become China’s first emperor. Owing to Han’s tendency to favor brutal suppression of dissent over ethics, he is frequently compared to Machiavelli. He was eventually imprisoned and poisoned by a rival.

Legalism, along with Confucianism and Daoism eventually made their way to Europe via Jesuit priests during the Renaissance. The Western emphasis on individualism contrasts sharply with the Eastern emphasis on collective welfare and limited the impact  of Chinese philosophies in the West.

*The other two were Confucianism and Daoism. See Great Ideas of the Zhou: Confucianism and Great Ideas of the Zhou: Daosim

**Caning is still used as criminal punishment in Singapore.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

Great Ideas of the Zhou: Confuscianism

Episode 7: Great Ideas of the Zhou: Confucianism

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

The last 500 years of civil war under the Zhou Dynasty gave rise to more than 100 schools of philosophy as scholars searched for ways to end war. The three most important were Confucianism, Legalism and Daoism. According to Benjamin, the first millennium BC was one of extreme unrest in all civilized societies. He feels it’s no coincidence that most of humanity’s religious and philosophical foundations (including the Hebrew scriptures, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and the philosophy of Socrates) were laid down during this period (which some historians refer to as the Axial Age*).

Confucius (551 – 479 BC) spent most of his life visiting the courts of warring Chinese states seeking a job (as political advisor). To support himself, he accepted a number of disciples. Following his death, his disciples published his teachings in a book (The Analects). His philosophical teachings stressed the importance of ethical leadership and moral authority in rulers and the acceptance of one’s role in society. He taught that the primary obligation of all leaders was to dedicate themselves to the people they served and that they should be selected  based on knowledge and morality, rather than family background.

Confucius prescribed study five books as a prerequisite for wise and moral rule: the I-Ching (see The Mandate of Heaven and the Right to Overthrow Morally Unfit Rulers/), the Book of Odes, the Book of Rites and the Spring and Autumn Annals. These would serve as the basic texts of eastern philosophy for 2,500 years.

Confucianism identifies four important qualities of an effective government official:

  1. Benevolence and a deep understanding of the plight of humanity.
  2. Wisdom and courage.
  3. Sense of propriety and respect for superiors
  4. Filial piety – respect for parents and commitment to look after them in old age and after death.

*The ‘Axial Age’ (500–300 BCE) refers to the period during which most of the main religious and spiritual traditions emerged in Eurasian societies.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.