The Qin Dynasty — First Imperial Dynasty in China


The Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC) reunited China and laid the foundation for 21 centuries of imperial rule. Its great building projects and achievements were overshadowed by enormous cultural destruction and loss of life.

The First Emperor of Qin

Quick Facts about the Qin Dynasty

  • The Qin Dynasty was the first imperial dynasty in Chinese history.
  • Capital: Xianyang
  • It was the shortest dynasty in Chinese history, lasting for just 15 years.
  • Qin Dynasty’s founder: Qin Shihuang
  • Qin’s most famous historical site is the Terracotta Warriors.

The Rise of the Qin (233–221 BC)

The Qin State’s origin can be traced to the Neolithic Age. The tribes were given the family name “Ying” during the reign of King Shun (2233–2184 BC).

During the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), the Ying people was the nobility thanks to their strength in western China.

Until the Eastern Zhou era (770-256 BC), Qin became a major vassal state located in the west of Qishan (now in Shaanxi province).

3 Great Rulers of Qin

King Xiao of Qin (Ruled 362–338 BC)

In 361 BC, a legalist called Shang Yang, who was born in Wei State, went to Qin State and his legalism reform proposal was adopted by King Xiao of Qin.

He made big political changes that took hold. He espoused and ruled according to a defined set of strict rules and a clear political philosophy.

By 338 BC, although Shang Yang was eventually killed, his reform had made Qin the most powerful and ruthless state, both in military and economic terms.

King Zhao of Qin (Ruled 306–251 BC)

In 256 BC, King Zhao ordered the construction of a water conservation and flood control project, which was known as Dujiangyan irrigation system in the Chengdu Plain. This irrigation system transformed Sichuan into the most abundant grain producing region in China.

King Zheng of Qin (Ruled 246–221 BC)

In 246 BC, Ying Zheng took the throne after his father King Zhuangxiang of Qin died.

That year, Ying Zheng ordered a water engineer named Zheng Guo to build a canal from the Jing River. About 227,000 sq km (10,000 sq mi) of salty land were irrigated with the Zhengguo Canal, north of Xi’an. The fertile land not only fed the peasants but also Qin’s army, thus Qin State became rich and strong.

The Conquests of the Qin (230–221 BC)

  • In 230 BC, Ying Zheng started his conquest of the Warring States. The Han State was conquered first in 230 BC.
  • In 228 BC, Qin occupied the territory of the Zhao State.
  • In 226 BC, Qin occupied the capital Ji (now Beijing) of the Yan State. Then the King of Yan moved the capital to Liaodong.
  • In 225 BC, Qin conquered the Wei State.
  • In 223 BC, Qin conquered Chu.
  • In 222 BC, Qin finished conquering Yan and Zhao.
  • In 221 BC, Qin conquered the Qi State.

So, in 10 years, Ying Zheng had been able to unify China after centuries of division.

Terracotta Warriors

The Establishment of the Qin Dynasty

The First Emperor (Ruled 221–210 BC)

In 221 BC, Ying Zheng eventually established the new dynasty — the Qin Dynasty. He claimed the title of Shi Huangdi for himself, historically known as Qin Shihuang, which literally means the ‘first emperor of the Qin Dynasty‘.

The Centralization of Power

The First Emperor set up a new system of prefectures, which was the first two-tier administrative system in ancient China. He also ordered that everyone had to serve for a year in the army. The writing system, money, and measurements were standardized.

The Infrastructure Construction

In 214 BC, to secure his northern frontier, he appointed Meng Tian to lead an army against the nomadic Xiongnu and constructed the Great Wall.

In the same year, to attack the Baiyue tribes in South China, the Ling Canal was built to connect the Xiang and Li rivers. The canal is situated about 70 kilometers north of Guilin City.

The Culture Reform

In 213 BC, under Li Si’s proposal, the First Emperor ordered the burning of all historians’ records except the Qin government’s official philosophy. Much of the culture, literature, and scholarly works of the Zhou era were destroyed.

In the First Emperor’s later years, he was addicted to the idea of attaining immortality. He gathered hundreds of alchemists to make an elixir for him.

In 212 BC, two alchemists who were acquainted with Confucian scholars grumbled that the First Emperor was tyrannical and autarchic. The First Emperor was angered by their betrayal and commanded the censors to investigate the scholars. As a result, more than 460 scholars were buried alive.

Fu Su, the eldest and the most talented son of the First Emperor, tried to dissuade him from doing so. But it didn’t work and annoyed his father. Fu Su was finally sent to the frontier to build the Great Wall.

The Fall of the Qin (210–207 BC)

The Second Emperor (210–207 BC)

In 210 BC, the First Emperor died on a return trip from trying to find the elixir across the eastern seas.

His youngest son, Hu Hai, tampered with his will and sent a false decree commanding Fu Su and Meng Tian to commit suicide. Then Hu Hai took the throne. He was known as Qin Ershi, the Second Emperor of Qin.

Hu Hai carried out a more crucial rule. Tens of thousands of prisoners and slaves were forced to join in with the construction of the mausoleum and palace. The heavy burden of tax and cruel decree eventually led to nationwide rebellions.

Nationwide Revolt

In 209 BC, the Dazexiang (now in Anhui Province) Uprising broke out. Two army officers, Chen Sheng and Wu Guang, had to delay their march due to flooding from a severe rainstorm. According to the Qin law, they would be condemned to death. With this concern, they finally decided to rebel against the government.

Among the revolts, Liu Bang and Xiang Yu led the two most powerful troops.

The Third Emperor (207–206 BC)

In 207 BC, the chief eunuch Zhao Gao forced the emperor to commit suicide and intended to take the throne. With the officials’ protest, Ziyin, the oldest son of Fu Su, finally took the throne and Zhao Gao was killed.

That year, Liu Bang and his army approached the capital Xianyang and King Ziyin decided to surrender to Liu Bang. The Qin Empire was finished.

In 206 BC, the Qin capital city, Xianyang, was destroyed after Liu Bang occupied it.

This was the end of the Qin empire. Liu Bang was the founder of another new empire — the longest in imperial China’s history, called the Han Dynasty.


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