The Rise and Fall of China’s First Empire: The Qin (秦) Dynasty

**Introduction:** The *Qin (秦) dynasty* is the shortest official Chinese dynasty, lasting only from 221 to 206 BCE. In China, this dynasty is known for its oppressive rule and the building of the first version of the Great Wall of China (yes, there are multiple versions).

**The rise to dominance of the state of** ***Qin*****:** For a long time, the state of *Qin* was the weakest* state of the Warring States period. To understand the rise to dominance of this vassal state, we have to go back all the way to the year 905 BCE. At this time period, because of his ability to raise horses, a man named *Qin Feizi* gained the favor of the current *Zhou* king. With the rapid expansion of the *Zhou* dynasty because of the system of feoffment**, *Qin Feizi* was granted the land of *Qin*, and he became the first feudal lord of the *Qin* state (imagine becoming the leader of a small country because you’re good at taming horses…). Hundred years passed with little to no change (this is obviously simplified), until a philosopher and politician named *Shang Yang* (商鞅), a frustrated official in *Wei (卫国)*, came to the state of *Qin*. At the time, duke *Xiao* of the *Qin* state was seeking for talented people, and *Shang Yang* was that talent. After some deliberation, the duke of *Qin* decided that being one of the weakest states of the Warring States period, he had no chance to win and unify China without radical reforms, so in 356 BCE, he appointed *Shang Yang* to reform his state.

**What in the world is Legalism?** To really understand the reforms of *Shang Yang*, (and those of the *Qin* dynasty in general) it’s useful to understand the philosophy that was behind his and most of the *Qin* dynasty’s reforms: Legalism (at that time the idea of a philosophy named “Legalism” may not have existed; this word is something historians made up afterwards…). I will go into more detail about what Legalism is in a dedicated post about the religions of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States period, but since this is a very “brief” overview, this is the short version: At the core of Legalism is the belief that people are naturally selfish and short-sighted (very positive…). Therefore, legalists believed in using laws to lead society by exacting harsh punishments on those who didn’t act correctly, and rewarding does who behaved. Compared to legalists, *Confucius* believed in the morality/goodness of people. Therefore, he believed that if the ruler of a country acted with goodwill, his people would follow his guidance and also be virtuous and moral. To achieve this goal of using laws to lead society, legalists believed in reforms that centralized power and built absolute obedience of the populous. A frequently asked question when talking about philosophy/religions is who created this philosophy/religion? The answer for Legalism is that we don’t know. Legalism has changed so much with so many philosophers adding to it that there simply isn’t a clear answer to who “created it”. Generally though, it is agreed that the representative figure of Legalism is a man named *Han Feizi (韩非子)*. *Han Feizi* is known for contributing massively to Legalism not by helping to reform a country like *Shang Yang* did, but by writing multiple books about the philosophy that is Legalism, which later on would be read and its ideas used by the first emperor of China, *Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇)*. 

**The reforms of** ***Shang Yan*****g:** Though *Shang Yang* did not make many reforms to the state of *Qin*, the reforms still had a strong and long-lasting impact. *Shang Yang*’s reforms took power away from the nobility and focused the economy on building a powerful military might to rival all of the state’s enemies. Shang Yang’s Reforms:

1. **Governmental Reforms:** Establishment of the county system (县制), which made that the duke of *Qin* directly chose who was sent to govern different areas of the nation, which abolished the hereditary privileges of the nobility. Reforming the household registration (户籍) system, strengthening control on the population and where they lived. The creation of stricter laws and harsher punishments, leading to less crime.    
2. **Economical Reforms:** The abolishment of the well-field system*** (井田制) which was a system in which farmers had one plot of land where all the crops would go to them, and a central plot of land where everything would go to the government, which would then give some of the crops to the nobility. This system was ineffective because if you were a peasant, you would focus more energy on working the plot of farmland that you would get all the resources from than the one which you got nothing from. Therefore, *Shang Yang* changed the agricultural system into a system similar to the one we know today in most countries, where all land can be sold and bought freely with taxes levied by the government (yeah, China’s agricultural system hasn’t really changed much over the years). Other economical reforms were f.ex. encouraging the production of grain and cloth by removing corvee/free labor requirements for people who were farming those crops as well as uniting the measuring system (度量衡).    
3. **Military reforms:** Compulsory military service. Rewarding military service by granting titles and land-based on how many enemies you killed. This helped make people more willing and enthusiastic to fight, since at that period of time, this was one of the only ways to climb up the social ladder.The big issue with Shang Yang’s reforms, is that as we say in Chinese: he touched the nobility’s cake/碰了贵族的蛋糕 (yeah, that one was lost in translation…). Essentially, by trying to centralize the government, *Shang Yang* took a lot of power away from the nobility, and they were not thrilled. Therefore, after the death of duke *Xiao, Shang Yang* would meet a tragic death by dismemberment… (车裂).

**Tactics of the state of** ***Qin*****:** Because of the reforms of *Shang Yang* and many other Legalist philosophers, the state of *Qin* gradually became the No.1 superpower in the Eastern *Zhou* dynasty. This led the other six major states to form a coalition against the nation of *Qin*. The issue with this coalition was that the six major states only formed it out of necessity, and long rivalries between some of the major states led to a very weak alliance network, which *Qin* exploited. Long story short, *Qin* allied with the states that were further away, using their help to crush the states close to *Qin*. Then, *Qin* betrayed their allies and conquered all of China. Though this strategy certainly worked, it caused the nobility of the states who were betrayed to hate the state of *Qin*, and as they were not executed because of the two crownings and three respects/二王三恪 system, these nobles would later cause issues within the *Qin* dynasty and lead to its downfall.

**Issues within the** ***Qin*** **dynasty/The downfall of the** ***Qin*** **dynasty:** There are many reasons that caused the downfall of the *Qin* dynasty, but in this post, I will only be talking about the 4 main reasons. Heavy taxation and corvée: Once the *Qin* dynasty defeated all the other warring states, it had countless infrastructure that needed repairing. On top of that, the *Qin* dynasty built great monuments and palaces that though certainly beautiful, were very expensive. To fund these projects, not only did the emperor make the populous pay absurd taxes in contrast to the *Zhou* dynasty, he also coerced the people of China into going to far-flung places to work on infrastructure, providing no labor fee. Harsh punishments and harsh laws: Though crime rates went down with fear of punishment, many of these “laws” were too strict, leading to the *Dazexiang (大泽乡)* uprising and people’s constant fear of death because of the law. Lack of new talent and the constriction of ideas: The burning of books and burying of *Confucian* scholars alive (焚书坑儒) event is a classic (by classic, I don’t mean good) example of how the *Qin* dynasty tried to unify the different schools of thought under legalism. This caused the drying up of talented officials who had innovative ideas and a growth in corrupt officials. Unhappy nobility: After the *Qin* dynasty defeated the other warring states, the nobles of these nations still had significant power, and they resented the emperor. These elements together with others brought down the Qin empire, and with it, so went legalism (kind of.., it’s complicated). With the fall of *Qin* and the Legalist ideas, we can also slowly see the rise of *Confucian* ideals under the *Han* dynasty.

* There were other smaller states than Qin in parts of the Warring States period, but they are too insignificant to talk about in this brief overview. In the Warring States period, there were seven powerful states: *Qi* (齐), *Chu* (楚), *Yan* (燕), *Han* (韩),  *Zhao* (赵),  *Wei* (魏), and *Qin* (秦).

** The system of feoffment in the Zhou dynasty has similar properties to that of the western feudal system, but is not the same. Here is the link to an article that talks about this: [The differences between European feudalism and Chinese feudalism]( 

*** The existence of such a system of servitude renting is still contested, although we have multiple written records talking about this system existing and how it functions, we are yet to find any archaeological evidence.

#Rise #Fall #Chinas #Empire #Qin #秦 #Dynasty

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