The Qin Dynasty

The Qin Dynasty

The Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), though short-lived, is remembered for its military strength and its unification of China.

Learning Objectives

Describe the establishment of the first imperial dynasty of China and the architecture, literature, weaponry, and sculpture it produced

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the mid and late 3rd century BCE, the Qin accomplished a series of swift conquests, eventually gaining control over the whole of China and creating a unified nation.
  • During its reign , the Qin Dynasty achieved increased trade, improved agriculture, and revolutionary developments in military tactics, transportation, and weaponry, such as the sword and crossbow.
  • The Dynasty is known for several impressive feats in architecture, sculpture, and other art, such as the beginnings of the Great Wall of China, the construction of the Terracotta Army, and the standardization of the writing system.

Key Terms

  • Qin Shihuang: The self-proclaimed first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty.
  • Warring States Period: A period in ancient China following the Spring and Autumn period and concluding with the victory of the state of Qin in 221 BCE, creating a unified China under the Qin Dynasty.
  • legalism: A philosophy of focusing on the text of written law to the exclusion of the intent of law, elevating strict adherence to law over justice, mercy, grace and common sense.

History: The Qin Dynasty

The Qin Dynasty was the first imperial dynasty of China, lasting only 15 years from 221 to 206 BCE. The strength of the Qin state was greatly increased by the legalist reforms of Shang Yang in the 4th century BCE, during the Warring States Period . Legalism is a philosophy of focusing on the text of written law to the exclusion of the intent of law, elevating strict adherence to law over justice, mercy, grace, and common sense. In the mid and late 3rd century BCE, the Qin accomplished a series of swift conquests, first ending the powerless Zhou Dynasty and eventually destroying the remaining six of the major states, thus gaining control over the whole of China. This resulted in the first-ever unified China.

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Map of the Qin Empire, 210 BCE: The territories marked with red dots show the approximate extent of Qin political control at the death of Qin Shi Huang in 210 BCE.

Accomplishments of the Qin Dynasty

During its reign over China, the Qin Dynasty achieved increased trade, improved agriculture, and revolutionary developments in military tactics, transportation, and weaponry. Qin Shihuang , the self-proclaimed first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, made vast improvements to the military, which used the most advanced weaponry of its time. The sword was invented during the previous Warring States Period, first made of bronze and later of iron. The crossbow had been introduced in the 5th century BCE and was more powerful and accurate than the composite bows used earlier; it could also be rendered ineffective by removing two pins, which prevented enemies from capturing a working crossbow.

The long, sturdy crossbow bolts are shown lined up next to a pile of smaller Arcuballista bolts.

Picture of Qin Dynasty Arcuballista Bolts shown with Regular Handheld Crossbow Bolts, 5th-3rd century B.C.: The crossbow was introduced in the 5th century BC and was more powerful and accurate than the composite bows used earlier.

The Dynasty is also known for many impressive feats in architecture, sculpture, and other art, such as the beginnings of the Great Wall of China, the construction of the Terracotta Army, and the standardization of the writing system.

Decline of the Dynasty

Despite its military strength, however, the Dynasty did not last long. When Qin Shihuang died in 210 BCE, his son was placed on the throne by two of the previous emperor’s advisers, who attempted to influence and control the administration of the entire dynasty through him. The advisers fought among themselves, however, which resulted in both their deaths and that of the second Qin emperor. Popular revolt broke out a few years later, and the weakened empire soon fell to a Chu lieutenant, who went on to found the Han Dynasty. Despite its rapid end, the Qin Dynasty influenced future Chinese empires, particularly the Han, and the European name for China is thought to be derived from it.

Architecture of the Qin Dynasty

Qin architecture is characterized by defensive structures and elements that conveyed authority and power, as exemplified by the early beginnings of the Great Wall.

Learning Objectives

Examine the characteristics of architecture created under the Qin Dynasty

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Architecture from the previous Warring States Period had several definitive aspects which carried into the Qin Dynasty .
  • City walls used for defense were made longer, and secondary walls were often built to separate the different districts.
  • Versatility in federal structures was emphasized to create a sense of authority and absolute power, conveyed by architectural elements such as high towers, pillar gates, terraces, and high buildings.
  • Qin Shihuang , the self-proclaimed first Emperor, is responsible for the initial construction of what later became the Great Wall of China, which he built along the northern border to protect his empire against the Mongols .

Key Terms

  • Qin Shihuang: The self-proclaimed first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty.
  • Great Wall of China: A series of fortifications made of stone, brick, tamped earth, wood, and other materials, generally built along an east-to-west line across the historical northern borders of China to protect the Chinese states and empires against the raids and invasions of the nomadic groups of the Eurasian Steppe.

The Qin Dynasty was the first imperial dynasty of China, lasting from 221 to 206 BCE. The Dynasty followed the Warring States Period and resulted in the unification of China, ending 15 years later with the introduction of the Han Dynasty.

Architecture from the Warring States Period had several definitive aspects which carried into the Qin Dynasty. City walls used for defense were made longer, and secondary walls were often built to separate the different districts. Versatility in federal structures was emphasized to create a sense of authority and absolute power, conveyed by architectural elements such as high towers, pillar gates, terraces, and high buildings.

The Beginnings of the Great Wall

During its reign over China, the Qin sought to create an imperial state unified by highly structured political power and a stable economy able to support a large military. The Qin central government minimized the role of aristocrats and landowners to have direct administrative control over the peasantry, who comprised the overwhelming majority of the population and thus made up a large labor force. This allowed for the construction of ambitious projects such as the wall on the northern border now known as the Great Wall of China.

Qin Shihuang, the first self-proclaimed emperor of the Qin Dynasty, developed plans to fortify the northern border against the nomadic Mongols. The result was the initial construction of what later became the Great Wall of China, built by joining and strengthening the walls made by the feudal lords. These were expanded and rebuilt multiple times by later dynasties, also in response to threats from the north.

The wall is pictured winding through lush green hills into the distance.

The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling: The initial construction of what would become the Great Wall of China began under Qin Shihuang during the Qin Dynasty.

Literature of the Qin Dynasty

Under the Qin Dynasty, a standardized system of Chinese writing was created. This unified Chinese culture for thousands of years.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the goals of literature produced during the Qin Dynasty

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Prime Minister Li Si standardized the writing system across the whole country. This unified Chinese culture for thousands of years.
  • Li Si is credited with creating the “lesser-seal” style of calligraphy , also known as small seal script. This served as a basis for the modern Chinese writing system and is still used in cards, posters, and advertising today.
  • In 221 BC, Qin Shihuang , the first Qin emperor, conquered all of the Chinese states and governed with a single philosophy known as legalism . This encouraged severe punishments, particularly when the emperor was disobeyed.
  • An attempt to purge all traces of the old dynasties and their philosophies led to the infamous burning of books and burying of scholars incident in 213 BCE.
  • In an attempt to consolidate power, Qin Shihuang ordered the burning of all books on non-legalist philosophical viewpoints and intellectual subjects; scholars who refused to submit their books were executed.

Key Terms

  • logographic: A writing system based on characters that represent a word or phrase, such as Chinese characters, Japanese kanji, and some Egyptian hieroglyphs.
  • legalism: A philosophy focusing on the text of written law to the exclusion of the intent of law, elevating strict adherence to law over justice, mercy, grace, and common sense.

Li Si and the Standardization of Writing

The written language of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) was logographic like that of the Zhu; each written character represented a word or phrase, as opposed to letters as in the English alphabet. As one of his most influential achievements, prime minister Li Si of the Qin Dynasty standardized the writing system to be of uniform size and shape across the whole country. This had a unifying effect on Chinese culture that lasted thousands of years. Li Si is also credited with creating the “lesser-seal” style of calligraphy, also known as small seal script. This served as a basis for the modern Chinese writing system and is still used in cards, posters, and advertising today.

Before the Qin conquest of the last six of the Warring States of Zhou China, local styles of characters evolved independently for centuries, producing what are called the “Scripts of the Six States” or “Great Seal Script”. Under one unified government however, the diversity was deemed undesirable as it hindered timely communication, trade, taxation, and transportation. In addition, independent scripts could express dissenting political ideas.

As a result, coaches, roads, currency, laws, weights, measures, and writing were systematically unified under the Qin. Characters different than those found in Qin were discarded, and Li Si’s small seal characters became the standard for all regions within the empire. This policy came into effect around 220 BCE, the year after Qin’s unification of the Chinese states, and was introduced by Li Si and two ministers.

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Small Seal Script: Small seal script is an archaic form of Chinese calligraphy standardized and promulgated as a national standard by Li Si, prime minister under the Qin Dynasty.

The Burning of Books

One of the more drastic measures to eradicate the old schools of thought during the Qin Dynasty was the infamous burning of books and burying of scholars incident. This decree, passed in 213 BCE, almost single-handedly gave the Qin Dynasty a bad reputation in history. In an attempt to consolidate power, Qin Shihuang ordered the burning of all books on non-legalist philosophical viewpoints and intellectual subjects. All scholars who refused to submit their books were executed. As a result, only texts considered productive by the legalists (largely discussing pragmatic subjects such as agriculture, divination, and medicine) were preserved.

A Consolidation of Power

During the previous Warring States period, the Hundred Schools of Thought comprised many philosophies proposed by Chinese scholars, including Confucianism . In 221 BC, Qin Shihuang, the first Qin emperor, conquered all of the Chinese states and governed with a single philosophy known as legalism. This encouraged severe punishments, particularly when the emperor was disobeyed. Individuals’ rights were devalued when they conflicted with the government’s or the ruler’s wishes, and merchants and scholars were considered unproductive and fit for elimination. During the dynasty, Confucianism—along with all other non-legalist philosophies—was suppressed by the First Emperor.

This bright and colorful painting depicts a temple in the background and a pile of burning books and scholars being pushed into a giant hole in the foreground.

Killing the Scholars and Burning the Books (18th century Chinese painting): In 213 BCE, Qin Shihuang ordered the burning of all books on non-legalist philosophical viewpoints and intellectual subjects. All scholars who refused to submit their books were executed.

Sculpture of the Qin Dynasty

The Qin Dynasty is perhaps best known for the impressive Terracotta Army, built to protect Qin Shihuang in the afterlife.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the sculpture of the Qin Dynasty

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Qin, under the leadership of emperor Qin Shihuang , accomplished a series of swift conquests and gained control over all of China, unifying it as a country for the first time.
  • The Qin made many advancements in sculpture during their short reign, building on techniques practiced by the previous Zhou Dynasty .
  • The most famous example of sculpture under the Qin Dynasty was a project commissioned during Qin Shihuang’s rule known as the Terracotta Army, intended to protect the emperor after his death.
  • The Terracotta Army consists of more than 7,000 life-size terracotta figures of warriors and horses, buried with Qin Shihuang after his death in 210–209 BCE.
  • Originally, the figures were painted with bright pigments of pink, red, green, blue, black, brown, white, and lilac; however, much of the color coating flaked off or faded.
  • The figures were constructed in several poses, including standing infantry, kneeling archers, and charioteers with horses.

Key Terms

  • terracotta: A type of earthenware, clay-based unglazed or glazed ceramic, in which the fired body is porous.
  • Qin Shihuang: The self-proclaimed first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty.

The Qin Dynasty was the first imperial dynasty of China, lasting from 221 to 206 BCE. The Dynasty followed the Warring States Period and ended after only 15 years with the Han Dynasty. The Qin, under the leadership of its first self-proclaimed emperor Qin Shihuang, accomplished a series of swift conquests, first ending the powerless Zhou Dynasty and eventually destroying the remaining six of the major states and gaining control of all of China. Under the Qin, it was unified as a country for the first time. The Qin made many advancements in sculpture during their short reign, building on techniques practiced by the previous Zhou Dynasty.

The Terracotta Army

The most famous example of sculpture under the Qin Dynasty was a project commissioned during Qin Shihuang’s rule known as the Terracotta Army, intended to protect the emperor after his death. The Terracotta Army was inconspicuous due to its underground location and thus not discovered until 1974. The “army” of sculptures consists of more than 7,000 life-size terracotta figures of warriors and horses that were buried with Qin Shihuang after his death in 210–209 BCE. The three pits containing the Terracotta Army were estimated in 2007 to hold more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which remained buried in the pits nearby Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum . Non-military terracotta figures were found in other pits, including officials, acrobats, strongmen, and musicians.

Style of the Figures

The figures were painted in bright pigments before they were placed in the vault , and the original colors of pink, red, green, blue, black, brown, white, and lilac were visible when the pieces were first unearthed. However, exposure to air has caused the pigments to fade and flake off, revealing their natural terracotta color. The figures were constructed in several poses, including standing infantry, kneeling archers, and charioteers with horses. They vary in height according to their roles, with the generals tallest, and each figure’s head appears to be unique, with a variety of facial features, expressions, and hair styles. Along with the colored lacquer finish, the individual facial features would have given the figures a realistic feel.

A photo of part of the tomb, showing three rows of terracotta figures.

The Terracotta Army: The Terracotta Army consists of more than 7,000 life-size terracotta figures of warriors and horses, buried with the first Emperor of Qin in 210 BCE.

Construction

The terracotta army figures were manufactured in workshops by government laborers and local craftsmen using local materials. Heads, arms, legs, and torsos were created separately and then assembled. Eight face molds were most likely used, with clay added after assembly to provide individual facial features. It is believed that the legs were made using the same process used for terracotta drainage pipes. This would classify the process as assembly line production, with specific parts manufactured and assembled after being fired, as opposed to being crafted from one solid piece and subsequently fired. In those times of tight imperial control, each workshop was required to inscribe its name on items produced to ensure quality control.