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Imperial China, The Qin Unification (221-206 bc)

Qin Shihuangdi, Chinese historians, frontier service, aristocracies, Xianyang

During the 4th century bc, the state of Qin, the westernmost of the Zhou states, embarked on a program of Legalist administrative, economic, and military reforms. The Qin abolished the aristocracy, granting power instead to appointed military heroes. The king had absolute power, and he ruled by means of strict laws and harsh punishments.

During the 3rd century bc the states destroyed each other to the point where only seven states were still in contention for control of China. Then from 230 to 221 bc, Qin conquered the remaining states. In 221 bc the king of Qin decided that his title, wang (king), was inadequate. He invented the title huangdi (emperor) and called himself Qin Shihuangdi (First Emperor).

Chinese historians later severely criticized Qin Shihuangdi, calling him a cruel and suspicious megalomaniac. With the assistance of the shrewd Legalist minister Li Si, Qin Shihuangdi welded the formerly independent states into an administratively centralized and culturally unified empire. He abolished the aristocracies and divided the empire into provinces. He appointed officials to administer the provinces and controlled the new administrators through a mass of regulations, reporting requirements, and penalties for inadequate performance. To guard against local rebellions, Qin Shihuangdi outlawed private possession of arms and ordered hundreds of thousands of prominent or wealthy families from the conquered states to move to the Qin capital, Xianyang (near modern Xi’an). To administer all regions uniformly, the Qin adopted a standardized set of written characters, as well as standardized weights and measures, and coinage. When Li Si complained that scholars were using records of the past to criticize the emperor’s policies and undermine popular support, Qin Shihuangdi ordered the burning of all writings that were not on useful topics like agriculture, medicine, and divination.

Even after conquering all the Zhou states, Qin Shihuangdi took aggressive measures to secure and expand the size of his territories. He made several tours to inspect his new realm and awe his subjects.

Qin Shihuangdi assumed that his dynasty would last for thousands of generations, but the stability of the Qin government depended on the strength and character of the emperor. After Qin Shihuangdi died in 210 bc, the Qin imperial structure collapsed. Qin Shihuangdi’s heir was murdered by his younger brother, and uprisings soon followed. In 209 bc a group of conscripted peasants, delayed by rain, decided to become outlaws rather than face death for arriving late for their frontier service. To their surprise, they soon found thousands of malcontents eager to join them. Soon Qin generals were defecting, and former nobles of the old states were taking up arms.

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