Chinese History: Ch'in

Some 1500 years after the founding of the Shang Dynasty around 1700 B.C., China was unified.

The first centralized Chinese empire was the proud achievement of two dynasties, the Ch'in and the Han.

The Ch'in Dynasty collapsed soon after the death of its founder, but the Han lasted or more than four centuries. Together the two dynasties transformed China, but the changes were the culmination of earlier developments.

Rise Of Legalist Ch'in

Throughout the two centuries of the Warring States period (c. 450-221 B.C.) there was the hope that a king would emerge who would unite China and inaugurate a great new age of peace and stability.

While the Confucians believed that such a king would accomplish the task by means of his outstanding moral virtue, the Legalists substituted overwhelming might as the essential element of effective government.

The political philosophy of the Legalists, who liked to sum up and justify their doctrine in two words - "It works" - triumphed, and no state became more adept at practicing that pragmatic philosophy than the Chin.

The Ch'in's rise to preeminence began in 352 B.C., when its ruler selected Lord Shang, a man imbued with Legalist principles, to be chief minister.


Recognizing that the growth of Ch'in's power depended on a more efficient and centralized bureaucratic structure than could exist under feudalism, Lord Shang undermined the old hereditary nobility by creating a new aristocracy based on military merit.


He also introduced a universal draft beginning at approximately age fifteen. As a result, chariot and cavalry warfare, in which the nobility head played the leading role, was replaced in importance by masses of peasant infantry equipped with swords and crossbows.


Economically, Lord Shang further weakened the old landowning nobility by abolishing the peasants' attachment to the land and granting them ownership of the plots they tilled.

Thereafter the liberated peasants paid taxes directly to the state, thereby increasing its wealth and power.

These reforms made Ch'in the most powerful of the Warring States. It soon began to extend the area of its political and social innovations.

Ch'in Unites China

In the middle of the third century B.C., a hundred years after Lord Shang, another Legalist prime minister helped the king of Ch'in prepare and carry out the conquest of the other Warring States that ended the Chou Dynasty in 256 B.C. and united China by 221 B.C.

The king then declared himself the "First August Supreme Ruler" (Shih Huang-ti) of China, or "First Emperor," as his new title is usually translated. He also enlarged China - a name derived from the word Ch'in - by conquests in the south as far as the South China Sea.

The First Emperor gathered the old nobility - some 120,000 families, according to tradition - near the capital, where they could be closely watched.

To further forestall rebellion, he ordered the entire civilian population to surrender its weapons to the state.

A single harsh legal code, which replaced all local laws, was so detailed in its provisions that it was said to have been like "a fishing net through which even the smallest fish cannot slip out."

The entire realm, which extended into South China and Vietnam, was divided into forty-eight provinces, administrative units drawn to obliterate traditional feudal units and to facilitate direct rule by the emperor's centrally controlled civil and military appointees.

To destroy the source of the aristocracy's power and to permit the emperor's agents to tax every farmer's harvest, private ownership of land by peasants, promoted a century earlier in the state of Ch'in by Lord Shang, was decreed for all of China.

Thus the Ch'in empire reflected the emerging social forces at work in China - the peasants freed from serfdom, the merchants eager to increase their wealth within a larger political area, and the new military and administrative upper class.

The most spectacular of the First Emperor's many public works was repairing remnants of walls built earlier by the northern Warring States and joining them into the Great Wall, extending from the sea into Central Asia for a distance of over 1400 miles.

Constructed by forced labor, it was said that "every stone cost a human life." The wall was both a line of defense against the barbarians who habitually raided into China and a symbol of the distinction between China's agricultural society and the nomadic tribes of Central Asia.

It remains today one of the greatest monuments to engineering skill in the preindustrial age and one of the wonders of the world. It is said to be the only man-made structure on earth that can be seen from the moon.

The First Emperor tried to enforce intellectual conformity and make the

Ch'in Legalist system appear to be the only natural political order.

He suppressed all other schools of thought - especially the Confucians who idealized Chou feudalism by stressing the obedience of sons to their fathers, of nobles to the lord, and of lords to the king.

To break the hold of the past, the emperor put into effect a Legalist proposal requiring all privately owned books reflecting past traditions to be burned and "all those who raise their voice against the present government in the name of antiquity [to] be beheaded together with their families."

The First Emperor constructed a huge mound tomb for himself and, nearby, three large pits filled with the life-sized terra cotta figures of his imperial guard.

Over half a million laborers were employed at the site. The mausoleum has not been excavated, but the partial excavation of the pits revealed an estimated 7000 soldiers. Strangely, each head is a personal portrait - no two faces are alike.

When the First Emperor died in 210 B.C. while on one of his frequent tours of inspection, he was succeeded by an inept son who was unable to

control the rivalry among his father's chief aides.

Ch'in policies had alienated not only the intellectuals and the old nobility but also the peasants, who were subjected to ruinous taxation and forced labor.

Rebel armies rose in every province of the empire, some led by peasants, others by aristocrats.

Anarchy followed, and by 206 B.C. the Ch'in Dynasty, which the First Emperor had claimed would endure for "ten thousand generations," had completely disappeared.

But the Chinese Empire itself, which Ch'in created, would last for more than 2000 years, the longest-lived political institution in world history.

At issue in the fighting that continued for another four years was not only the question of succession to the throne but also the form of government.

The peasant and aristocratic leaders, first allied against Ch'in, became engaged in a furious and ruthless civil war. The aristocrats sought to restore the oligarchic feudalism of pre-Ch'in times.

Their opponents, whose main leader was Liu Pang, a peasant who had become a Ch'in general, desired a centralized state. In this contest between the old order and the new, the new was the victor.

[See Ch'in And Han Empires: 221 BC to 87 BC]