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.

How Steppes Nomads Influenced Early Chinese Civilization

Episode 3 Early Nomads and China

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

Jade burial ornaments imported from the Tarim Basin* are the earliest evidence of contact between steppes nomads and the Xua (2205-1766 BC) and Shang (1766-1122 BC) Dynasty. The discovery of spoked wheels and light chariots from this period also suggests contact with steppes nomads. Harl supports the theory that copper and bronze technology spread from Mesopotamia to China via steppes nomads.

Following the invention of the composite bow around 1000 BC, steppes nomads made repeated raids on China’s settled cities to seize luxury goods and other booty. As early as 600 BC, the independent Chinese kingdoms began building walls to discourage nomad incursions.

With the unification of the Xiongnu confederacy under the first major steppe conqueror Modu Chanyu (234-174 BC), the first Qin dynasty emperor Shi Huangdi 221-210 BC undertook the first serious military campaign against the Xiongu nomads. After leading an expedition driving the Xiongu into the Gobi Desert, General Mang Tieng successfully claimed a handful of frontier territories for the emperor. However lacking horses strong enough to pursue nomad horsemen further north, the Chinese settled for strengthen their frontier fortification (with more walls).

The first Han emperor Gaozu (202 – 195 BC) was the first to pursue an (unsuccessful) campaign to capture nomad territory for the Chinese. In the end, he resorted to the so-called “Five Baits” strategy. This involved a system  of elaborate gifts

  • Fine food “to corrupt their mouths”
  • Clothes and carriages “to corrupt their eyes”
  • Music and women “to corrupt their ears
  • Lofting buildings, granaries and slaves “to corrupt their stomach
  • Wine and food “to corrupt their mind”

According to Harl, the actual gifts mainly consisted of silks, gold and Chinese princesses for the Xiongnu to marry.

The Chinese benefited from this trade through the horses they received from the Xiongnu and collaboration with the nomads on developing the Silk Road trade.

After the Xiongu escalated their demands and escalated their raids, a later Han emperor launched a new series of military campaigns against them (140 -87 BC).

*The Tarim Basin, also known as the Taklaman Desert, is currently part of China’s Uyghur Autonomous Region. It was formally annexed by China in the 18th century.