China’s First Empire

Michael Loewe looks at the dynastic, administrative and intellectual background of the Qin empire, which defined how China would be run for more than 2,000 years, and at the life and achievements of the First Emperor Shi Huangdi, one of the greatest state-builders of history, whose tomb was guarded by the famous terracotta army.

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China
Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China

The kings of Western Zhou ruled from a small part of northwest China (present-day Shaanxi province) from 1045 BC. Their rule was long revered as a Chinese ‘golden age’  but in 771, overcome by dissension and subject to hostile intrusion, they were forced to forsake their original homeland and settle further east, establishing their centre at the city now known as Luoyang. Although the kings of Zhou actually survived until 256 BC, their territory and powers was severely curtailed through the rise of a number of independent leaders who could control large areas of land and style themselves with titles. As early as 777 BC, one of these leaders from Qin who, like the Zhou, came from the north-west, adopted the title of gong, often translated as duke; this  title passed from father to son until 325 BC, when it was changed for the more grandiose one of king (wang).

This change was something more than a mere formality, and in what is known as the Warring States period (481-221 BC) six other rulers – Chu, Qi, Yan, Hann, Wei and Zhao – in different parts of China likewise adopted the title of king. The new title indicated that these men did not accept that the kings of Zhou enjoyed a position superior to their own; and it reflected the steady growth of their powers.  For Qin, this process of expansion reached its culmination after 250 BC, notably in the reign of Ying Zheng (r.246-210).

By 221 BC, through a combination of adroit diplomacy not necessarily bound by moral scruples, policies that looked beyond the short term gains and success in battle, Ying Zheng (259-210) emerged the triumphant conqueror of the six co-existing kingdoms. He was by now master not only of the west but also of the northern and eastern parts of present-day China, the lush fertile lands of present-day Sichuan province and the woodlands of the north-east. In the east this area included the fields watered, and all too often flooded, by the Yellow River and the Huai River. With no remaining challengers, in 221 BC he adopted the majestic title of emperor (Huangdi), signifying that he claimed authority and wielded power over all lands and all peoples below the skies. He is known to history as Qin Shi Huangdi ‘The First Qin Emperor’, though his influence is such that he may correctly be termed China’s First Emperor.

The First Qin Emperor and his advisers are credited today with having created the means of governing much of the area later known as ‘China’ as a unity, bequeathing a heritage on which later dynasties modelled their institutions. Even the very name ‘China’ as known in Western usage itself derives from Qin. The dynasty’s heritage should, though, be seen in its historical context. Earlier kingdoms had already been fostering a systematic means of government conducted by trained officials chosen for their ability; and they had experimented with institutions designed to increase their own strength. By adapting such existing institutions, Qin extended their application on a far wider scale. In turn, future rulers of China looked to Qin’s single empire and government as a model to which they should aspire. They followed many of Qin’s practices, whether over long or short periods, over limited or wide expanses of territory.

We depend for the most part on a single source for the dynastic and political history of the Qin state, the Records of the Historian (Shiji) of Sima Tan (d.110 BC) and his son Sima Qian (?145-?86 BC), with no means of external verification of their content. They were  officials of Qin’s successor the Han dynasty, and were obliged to show that Han had been justified in eliminating Qin with what they claimed were its evil ways, so they are necessarily biased. A few highly valuable archival documents found recently verify some of the historians’ statements. As the years pass, new archaeological evidence serves to validate the general picture that we have of Qin and adds to what had been known of the religious activities or mythology that formed a background to so many people’s lives.   

Some of the statements of the Shiji have been subject to question, on the grounds that they were not complete. For example, it was later alleged that Zhuangxiang Wang, king of Qin from 250-247, was not the father of Ying Zheng who succeeded him in 246 BC at the age of thirteen, but such suspicions cannot be confirmed. Ying Zheng himself fathered at least two sons but there is no record of the name of his queen or his empress; nor are there any tales, as there are for later dynasties, of the rivalries and disputes that broke out between the families of various imperial consorts, threatening the stability of the realm. Such threats arose in a different way.

The First Emperor survived perhaps three attempts at assassination, as was portrayed by artists of the succeeding empire. He achieved much.  He chose officials to govern large parts of the land as provinces, rather than delegate this task to members of his family. He reorganized the system of defence lines of the north, unifying their different parts into the so-called Great Wall. This was built by conscript and convict labour but it did not follow the same line, nor was it situated in the same area, as that of the later wall of which remnants are seen north of Beijing. In a major advance that was by no means always maintained in later dynasties, the Qin empire stretched far to the south, beyond the Yangzi River; but it is difficult to estimate how effective his government was in the intemperate and unhealthy lands of the tropics, where the way of life differed markedly from that of the north.

The First Emperor died on his way back to the capital city of Xianyang (close to modern Xi’an) from a  tour in the east in 210 BC. Li Si, who held the supreme office of Chancellor and was perhaps the most influential adviser at the time, suppressed news of his death, perhaps fearing that it would set off an uprising.  But as happened frequently in China’s history, the succession was beset by intrigue and rivalry and in this instance by violence. Fusu, son of the emperor and his named heir, was displaced and forced to commit suicide, along with Meng Tian, a military officer who under Shi Huangdi had had responsibility for the defence lines and the manning of the Great Wall and who was one of Fusu’s close supporters. Huhai, a second son of the Emperor, duly took Fusu’s place, to reign as the Second Emperor for a short period from 210 BC.

This outcome had been contrived by Li Si himself, in collaboration with Zhao Gao who is described as a eunuch.  There is however no record of the emergence of eunuchs in the palace or government of Qin, and it is possible that it was only due to later allegations that Zhao Gao was thus named. Appointed to a senior appointment shortly after Huhai’s accession, he exercised commanding powers of government, at times exciting the criticism or protests of Li Si.  Clearly there was no room in Xianyang for two men each of whom wished to impose his will on the Emperor and his government, and it was Zhao Gao who emerged as the victor.  Accused of disloyalty and subjected to flogging, Li Si took his own life and by way of punishment his family was extirpated (208). Zhao Gao could now dominate the Second Emperor who, in turn, was forced to commit suicide to make way for Zhao Gao’s own nominee. In the instability that followed Zhao Gao met his end in 207 BC. The Qin empire closed amid a series of uprisings and open warfare between two protagonists, Xiang Yu and Liu Bang.  Claiming the title king of Han in 206, Liu Bang eliminated his rival and proclaimed himself Emperor of Han in 202. The Han empire lasted, with some interruptions, until ad 220.

Under Qin, supreme power rested in the emperor; he was advised by salaried officials many of whose titles and duties derived from earlier usage in pre-imperial Qin or the other kingdoms. At the highest level stood the Chancellor and Imperial Counsellor; ranking immediately below them nine senior ministers were responsible for duties of a specialist nature.  These included ceremonial and ritual activities; security of the palace; the emperor’s horse and carriages; administration of punishments; treatment of dignitaries from outside the empire; kinship relations within the imperial family; taxation; agricultural production, storage and distribution of staple foods; and products of other types, from the mountains and the lakes. There were other officials who controlled the capital city or commanded forces with which to patrol Xianyang. Others were responsible for constructing imperial buildings such as the palaces and the mausolea or for maintaining the establishments of the Empress and the Heir Apparent. Appointed directly by imperial authority, these senior officials called on the services of a large number of assistants.

In the course of creating the empire, Qin had acquired territories from the other kingdoms. To administer them these kingdoms had been formed into units known either as counties (xian) or as commanderies (jun). After 221 BC this system was applied throughout the new empire except for Xianyang itself which lay under the control of a special official, governor of the metropolitan area.  Outside, there were thirty-six, or perhaps more, commanderies, each in the charge of a governor (shou). Junior staff carried out the task of governing an empire efficiently by maintaining order and security, promoting the production of cereal crops and hemp, as used for clothing for most persons in the land, and collecting tax.

There is nothing to show that an abstract concept of law existed in the Qin Empire, which would protect individuals from oppression, define rights and obligations, and stand above an emperor. Commands for action were issued from the emperor either as ‘statutes’ or as ‘ordinances’; officials saw that these were implemented. Manuscripts of some of these ‘laws’, of 217 BC, discovered in 1975 in Hubei province, inform us of the subjects and depth of detail of these provisions. Many, which lay down approved procedures and activities and the penalties for failure to comply, concern matters such as agriculture, coinage, work of artisans, protection of government property, establishment of officials, control of travel and transmission of official documents. They may regulate the conduct of daily life to the finest detail, such as the method of stacking grain; the removal of marks made by painting, branding or incision on valuable equipment owned by the government, once this was damaged beyond repair; or the amount of lubrication allowed for wheeled vehicles.

Such documents identify crimes such as injury to other persons, robbery, murder or tax evasion, and laid down a scale of punishments ranging from the death penalty – carried out in various, sometimes grim, ways – to terms of hard labour for perhaps five or six years, mutilation by severing a foot, or payment of heavy fines. Set procedures followed arrest of an alleged criminal: interrogation to ascertain the facts; examination of the accused, perhaps after flogging; a search for corroboration; and decision of the action required by the statutes.

Officials of the kingdom of Qin had evolved several instruments to control the population, set up social distinctions, restrain criminal activity and possibly promote the farmers’ work in the fields. The gift of one step in a series of eighteen ‘orders of honour’ conferred status on an individual; and as, with successive bestowals, an individual rose in the scale so too did his or her privileges.  These included mitigation of punishment for crime; favourable terms for statutory obligations; and probably an allocation of land with which to make a living.

Provincial and local officials performed an annual task that was fundamental to government: they registered the population according to age, sex and relationship within a family, and the extent of land in various uses, for cereal crops, pasture, orchard or timber. It was on the basis of these records that officials collected taxation in its various forms. That on the land was paid in kind, a per capita tax in cash. Able-bodied males were obliged to serve for periods in the armed forces and also in the labour corps, being set to build a palace or a city wall, to construct a canal or perhaps pump water from one level to another; to maintain roads and bridges; and to hump grain from the fields to the designated granaries.

Another institution bore on social cohesion and the repression of crime. Five, or perhaps ten, families were formed into a group whose members were responsible for reporting suspicious activities or crimes of any one of them. A few recorded cases of the trial of a suspected criminal show how an official could require members of a responsibility group to give evidence.

Various systems of weights and measures and different types of coinage had been in use in the pre-imperial kingdoms of the fifth century BC and later. Efficient government empire wide required the collection of tax and distribution of staple products on an equitable basis. Qin therefore took steps to introduce uniformity, by issuing sets of standard weights and units of capacity, and unifying the coinage.  Cast in bronze, the coins of the Qin empire were of one denomination as stated in the  inscription of ‘One half liang’ (ban liang; 7 grams).  A square hole in the centre allowed the insertion of a string to tie the coins together in units perhaps of a hundred.  Probably an attempt was made to standardize the width of the carts that carried grain or other commodities, sometimes on the narrow paths up and down the hillsides or the tracks that ran between the fields and aside the waterways. 

Qin needed armed forces to maintain internal security against would-be dissidents and for protection against potentially hostile peoples of the hills and pasture lands of Central Asia, such as the Xiongnu. Qin’s armies drew on the conscripts whom the provincial officials assembled and perhaps to some extent on criminals, but presumably not those who had suffered punishment by mutilation. Some of these forces stood to arms in the garrisons of the north, commanded by provincial officials or officers who may be termed ‘generals’.  It seems unlikely that these conscripts  would have been dressed and equipped as well as the soldiers  buried in terracotta effigy around the tomb of the First Emperor.

Such was the structure and means of government of the Qin empire and we may look at the emergence of the ideas upon which it rested. The centuries of the Warring States. before the emergence of the Qin empire, had witnessed the first flowering of China’s intellectual development.  Manuscripts found since the 1970s have revealed a greater diversity of the thoughts of those days than had been recognized and confirmed that these should not be classified into exclusive schools. The writers of those times were individualists quite ready to draw eclectically from the works of their contemporaries. Best known of the writers of the Warring States are those that sought the permanent principles that underlie the universe. Surviving writings known as the Zhuangzi and the Daode jing (The Way and its Power, ascribed to Laozi) show how these mystics saw these principles in Dao (the Way) and they are today categorizes as Daoist.  Other thinkers preferred to fasten on the lessons of the past, the means of instilling order in human activities and stability in social distinctions, and the importance of ethical values; one of these was named Kong Qiu, later known as Kongzi or Confucius (551-479 BC). For over 2,000 years he has been adopted as the model to whom Chinese rulers and officials have looked, his followers being classified by Western, but not Chinese, writers as ‘Confucianist’.

But ideas of a different type lay behind Qin’s growth to power.  Kings and their advisers in the Warring States saw their own survival and the conquest of their enemies as their first priority. Clever men gifted with the powers of persuasion made their way from one kingdom to the next, tendering advice and offering stratagems to kings beset by danger or fired by ambition. Adopting an outlook best described as realistic, they called for measures to gather strength and govern in security. Officials capable of implementing a king’s orders had to be chosen on merits rather than on the circumstances of their birth; both they and the population at large had to be trained to obey the acknowledged authority of the kingdom and disciplined to accept the burden of its demands; and kings had to be able to deploy armed forces in sufficient strength to meet emergencies.

Records such as these are ascribed to two men – Shang Yang (c.385-338) and Han Fei (c.280-c.233) – who are credited with fostering Qin’s growth and categorized somewhat loosely as ‘Legalists’. They both had visited other kingdoms; and both met a violent death thanks to animosities. The essays collected in the Shang jun shu and the Hanfeizi call on historical precedent and cite principle to emphasize three essential concepts: fa, the models of government on which orders or laws should be based; shu, the practical methods and expedients with which to attain a ruler’s objectives; and shi, the visible expression of his authority.

The First Qin Emperor and his advisers took these precepts to heart, as may be evidenced in the decrees and institutions of government. In addition, his authority must be displayed, the scale of his majesty must be apparent to all. As the capital city, Xianyang housed the Emperor as the fount of all authority and the officials who implemented his orders; his palace was said to include an audience hall that could accommodate no less than 10,000 persons.  Outside Xianyang the First Emperor embarked on progresses to distant parts of his realm; inscriptions on the stelae that he erected told of his victories over his enemies and his unification of the world under his sole authority. He proclaimed that he was the first of a line of emperors that would be numbered by the thousand. To ensure that his reputation would survive on Earth and perhaps in the hereafter, he ordered the construction of an exceptionally large tomb which would simulate the shape and features of the cosmos.  Topped by a tumulus perhaps 100 meters high, the mausoleum stood out as a conspicuous reminder of the Emperor’s strength. The tomb itself yet awaits excavation; around it lay buried a large number of clay warriors, drawn up in their serried ranks to guard him from his enemies.

Realistic as the outlook of the Emperor was, he was apparently not entirely disdainful of the call of religion or the force of mythology. In a search for personal immortality he sent a party of youths to put to sea to visit Penglai, a legendary isle where immortal beings live and the elixir of everlasting life may be obtained.  In one of his progresses he climbed to the summit of Mount Tai, known perhaps to be the seat of unnamed powers who ruled the universe; precisely what rites the Emperor performed when there are unknown.  But whatever the beliefs or hopes that inspired these undertakings, it is unlikely that they rested on a trust in heaven, the almighty power whom the kings of Zhou had worshipped and to whose gift they credited their own charge to rule the world.

Officials of Qin and their clerks wrote special documents on silk, and more routine reports, registers of land and its inhabitants and tax dues, on narrow strips of wood which were bound together to form a scroll. The clerks used a more simplified form of script than their predecessors; this had been emerging in various forms during the Warring States and was perhaps made standard by Li Si. The new form of writing served the needs of the more intensive administration of the time; it may also have helped the government to deflect attention away from the literature of earlier days, in which precepts and ethical principles could be found that might well contradict the purposes and decisions of the realistic government of imperial Qin.

Later historians voiced sharp criticisms of the steps that they said were taken by Qin to reduce attention to writings associated with the leaders and teachers of Zhou. It was claimed that, on imperial orders, copies of such books were burnt and a large number of scholars sent to their deaths; but such accounts may have been exaggerated, and it is by no means certain that these measures were as effective as was claimed.

The primary sources for the history of Qin are in general antagonistic. They therefore tended to paint Qin’s government as oppressive and cruel and to blame the severity of its laws for engendering the insurgency that spelt dynastic collapse. Some of these critics of Qin may have been well aware that Han had taken over most of Qin’s laws and punishments, with little mitigation of their severity. In later times when a dynasty’s strength was on the ebb, an independently minded writer might occasionally press for a reversion to Qin’s ways so as to restore a sense of discipline to the body politic.

Overall, by laying the foundations of empire, the First Qin Emperor introduced a radical change in China.  Many of its offices and ways of government remained in force, with some adaptations, for perhaps seven centuries, until major social and economic developments required the next major changes, of the Sui (ad 589-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties.  Intellectual advance and religious practice characterized China’s brilliant Song dynasty (960-1279); determined government arose with the northern, non-Chinese, emperors, and during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties; but some traces of Qin’s concepts and terminology survived even until the establishment of the Republic in 1911.

Michael Loewe was University Lecturer in Chinese Studies, Cambridge 1963-90.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email