The winter of AD 1973 to 1974 was a dry one in the Shaanxi province of Northern Inner China, and the spring that followed it brought no relief. The urgent need for water sent seven members of a farming family named Yang out to dig a well in a desolate area not far from the city of Xi’an. The locals called the uninhabited, unused chunk of land where the Yangs were to dig the “Southern Waste” because of its notoriously poor soil; only scraggly persimmon trees grew there. The Yangs’ first days on the job were a predictably wearisome struggle against the hard, densely packed earth, which as far as they knew had never been turned. But then the digging became unexpectedly easier, as they broke through into another, looser layer of soil that was oddly tinted with red. It almost looked, they mused to one another, like the crumbled remnants of human-made brick.

On March 23, 1974, as Yang Zhifa was hoisting his pick axe for yet another swing, he noticed a round shape that was too perfectly symmetrical to be an ordinary rock poking out of the ground. Assuming it must be a piece of pottery from long ago, he began carefully to dig his way around it; he and his family were desperately poor, and even such a simple find as an extra pot for storing water had significant value for them. But it soon became clear that he had stumbled upon something far more elaborate than a pot, even if it was only a fragment of a former whole.  The round piece Yang Zhifa first discovered turned out to be “decorated really weird, like a suit of armor,” he would remember later. “And then we found an arm.”

A small museum happened to be nearby, on the site where the tomb of an ancient emperor of China named Qin Shi Huang had once stood. Yang Zhifa assumed his own find was unrelated: “I mean, it’s over a mile [2 kilometers] from [the emperor’s] grave, this can’t possibly have anything to do with that. There’s no way [the tomb] could be that big.” Nevertheless, he went to the museum and told the people there what he had found, bringing some of the “pottery” fragments with him. He was given a small cash reward, both for the fragments themselves and to compensate him and his family for abandoning their well in the Southern Waste and starting over again elsewhere. Then he was sent on his way with a stern admonition not to return to what was now to be considered an archaeological site.

Two decades later, the humble farmer Yang Zhifa would be plucked from obscurity by the press organs of the Communist Party and elevated to celebrity as the man who found the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang. “People come from all over and they want to shake my hand and buy my photograph,” he said in 2013. “It’s better than holding a pick axe.”

As tales of archaeological discovery go, this one does perhaps lack the drama of Howard Carter peering into Tutankhamen’s tomb by the light of a flickering torch and whispering of “wonderful things.” The uncovering of the Terracotta Army was a slower burn — and yet the end result was no less wonderful. Archaeologists gradually realized that Qin Shi Huang’s tomb had been more than just a tomb: it was an entire necropolis sprawling over several square miles, a final memorial worthy of any Egyptian pharaoh. The part of it that had lain beneath the persimmon trees of the Southern Waste for 2000 years was so grandiose as almost to defy belief: its centerpiece truly was a life-sized army in terracotta and bronze. As of this writing almost five decades after its initial discovery, the army is known to include 8000 infantry, 150 cavalry, and 130 chariots, with each of the last pulled by its own team of horses. And, incredibly, these numbers are just a running count. There is much excavation and piecing together of fragments still to be done, which seems likely to add thousands more ancient soldiers to the total.

The Terracotta Army stands at attention. (J. Arpon)
A chariot in bronze. (Jmhullot)

The discovery of the Terracotta Army came at a fraught instant in China’s modern history. Chairman Mao was dying, taking with him the chaos and brutality of the Cultural Revolution and leaving behind the unanswered question of what was to follow it. Just as they recently had the Great Wall, Chinese propagandists seized upon this latest  relic of the country’s glorious past as a symbol of its inevitably glorious future. Unsubtle comparisons between Qin Shi Huang and Mao Zedong — both of them, the Chinese people and the world were told, had unified a weak, fragmented country and made it strong again —  became inescapable, even as the Terracotta Army joined the Great Wall as the second must-see tourist attraction of the new, economically vibrant China of the 1980s and beyond. Meanwhile the period of Qin Shi Huang became a staple of such mass-media entertainments as the 2002 martial-arts epic Hero, the most expensive Chinese movie ever made to that point and the first to top box-office lists in the West.

Few historical figures illustrate better than Qin Shi Huang the ways in which a people’s shared present affects their view of their past. For the same figure who is praised in Chinese mass media today as their culture’s great unifier, with perchance a few less positive peccadilloes which paled beside his achievements, was vilified in his nation’s historiography for most of the centuries after his death for his cruelty and excess. These historians remembered him as “a man with a very prominent nose, with large eyes, with the chest of a bird of prey, with the voice of a jackal, without beneficence, and with the heart of a tiger or a wolf.”

The name Qin Shi Huang literally translates as “The First Emperor of the Qin,” but today he is commonly given the even more impressive title of “First Emperor of China” both inside and outside of his country. Both names require some linguistic and cultural unpacking.

The monarchs of the Zhou dynasty and quite probably those of the Shang and Xia dynasties as well took the word Wang as their official title. Many Western authors translate this word as “king,” but I’ve chosen to use “emperor” in this book, as in my opinion that title better captures the role and status of the monarchs in question. (I consider the title of king more apt for the leaders of individual feudal states, who made no claim to the Mantle of Heaven or to sovereignty over all of China.) There is, however, another, still more exulted Chinese honorific which is well-nigh universally translated as “emperor”: Huang. Prior to Qin Shi Huang, this title was reserved for the mythical Five Great Emperors of China’s most distant past. But Qin Shi Huang, who until this point had been known as Ying Zheng, dared to pull it out of the history books and apply it to himself, thus elevating himself to equal status with the Five Great Emperors. Even after his own short-lived dynasty ended, China’s rulers would continue to follow his lead, right up to the dawn of the twentieth century when the country’s imperial age finally came to a close.

The tradition of calling Qin Shi Huang the “First Emperor of China,” full stop, stems partially from this linguistic alteration — from the fact that he is the first historically documented Chinese monarch to claim the supreme honorific of Huang. But just as importantly, he was also the first monarch to bring the majority of Inner China — both North and South — under his control, thereby becoming the first to forge in his people a sense of “Chinese-ness” that separated them from all of the other peoples of the world. That separation became in a sense literal: Qin Shi Huang was the first Chinese monarch to build a Great Wall along his realm’s borders, thus inculcating in his people the insularity that would become such a fixture of their future history. It wouldn’t be overstating the case to say that Qin Shi Huang made China; the etymological roots of our Western names for China probably stem from an attempted transliteration of the name of “Qin.”

To understand the rise of Qin Shi Huang, we must turn back to the Zhou era of weak Wang emperors that preceded him. Traditional Chinese historiography labels the years between 722 and 479 BC the “Spring and Autumn Period,” after the Spring and Autumn Annals, another of the Five Confucian Classics, a historical record of goings-on in Confucius’s home state of Lu over that span of time. During this period, the culture and technology of China evolved apace despite the lack of a strong emperor. For example, financial currencies in the form of metal coins arrived to replace the old barter-based economies, and iron arrived to supersede bronze in many contexts, to the enormous benefit of agriculture. And of course we’ve already seen some of the intellectual ferment that led to Confucianism and Taoism among other new philosophies.

But after the death of Confucius and the end of the chronology found in the Spring and Autumn Annals, war became more and more the defining aspect of life in China, seemingly confirming all of his deathbed fears. The iron that had done so much for agriculture now proved equally transformative when cast into swords instead of plowshares: Chinese warfare became ever more ferocious. The period is enshrined in history as that of the “Warring States.”

One of the warring feudal states of the period was known as Qin, in the west of Northern Inner China. It had long been a hardscrabble place of little distinction, looked down upon by the other states; tellingly, it was one of the few places Confucius never bothered to visit during all his decades of wandering. Qin “knows nothing about traditional manners, proper relationships, and virtuous conduct,” said the Confucianists.

In 361 BC, however, another philosopher and would-be statesman did come to Qin: a man named Shang Yang, who was fleeing from another state following the death of his patron, an event which had put his own life at extreme risk. The new governing philosophy he brought with him to Qin would become known as Legalism. It advocated an institutionalized culture of intimidation and corporal punishment as the one sure route to a dominant and successful state.

Indeed, the ancient Legalist texts read today like nothing so much as a blueprint for a modern authoritarian state; they are far more bald-faced expressions of unsentimental realpolitik than you’ll find even in the likes of Machiavelli. The school’s name comes from its vision of the laws of the land, imposed from above and enforced with brutal impartiality, as the supreme arbiter of all the citizens’ existence. It has no doubt about its position in the debate over human nature which riled Confucianism. People, it tells us, are shiftless and self-centered, and respond only to force. One of it more ominous analogies equates governing to washing one’s hair: “Even if some hairs fall out, it must be done.” Or, if you like, a medical metaphor: “Lancing boils hurts, drinking medicines tastes bitter. But if on that account one does not lance them or drink them, one will not recover.” The stray hairs and boils are those among the people who fail to follow the rules, while the bitter medicine is the draught of retribution that must be administered to them.

The current king of Qin liked what he heard: Shang Yang was allowed to implement his ideas in exactly the way that Confucius had been so callously denied during his lifetime. Shang Yang reorganized Qin to create what some historians have called the world’s first police state. “Shang’s reforms created a harsh, fascistic society of snooping neighbors and hungry soldiers,” writes Jonathan Clemens, “a nation whose leaders were obliged by their very constitution to attack and expand beyond their borders.” Like history’s later fascist leaders, Shang Yang inflicted incalculable suffering, but he also made the proverbial trains run on time. He made of the heretofore inconsequential state of Qin a model of martial effectiveness the likes of which China had never seen before; perhaps the only worthy comparison in the entirety of ancient times is the Greek city-state of Sparta. Shang Yang himself eventually reaped the whirlwind he had sown: after a decade in power, he was executed in horrific fashion when the king of Qin decided he had gotten too big for his britches. His arms were tied to the back of one chariot, his feet to the back of another, and the two teams of horses in front of the vehicles were made to run in opposite directions, ripping him in two. But the state he had created remained.

In this new incarnation of Qin, even the smallest infractions by the citizenry were punished with lengthy sentences in forced-labor camps. Shang Yang had devised a devious strategy for catching wrong-doers: the citizens of Qin were divided into groups of five to ten individuals, with each member of a group ordered to monitor the conduct of the others and report the slightest deviations. To have knowledge of “criminality” — an all-purpose label that included acts as trivial as harnessing a team of horses incorrectly — and not to report it was to be as guilty of the act in question as the original perpetrator, and to be punished accordingly.

The handling of prisoners was laid out in pedantic detail. The rules for their treatment can be almost as chilling to read as the dehumanizing bureaucratic missives that guided the conduct of the Holocaust.

Male convict servants and convict laborers who are not five feet [1.5 meters] and female convict servants and convict laborers who are not four feet seven inches [1.4 meters] are classed as undersized. When convicts reach four feet [1.2 meters] they are all put to work.

Convict laborers are to wear red clothes and red head cloths. They are to be manacled and fettered. They are not to be supervised by capable convict laborers, but only by those assigned the task. Convict laborers sent out to work are not to enter the market and must stay outside the outer gate of buildings. If they have to go past a market, they should make a detour, not pass through it.

When working for the government, male convict servants are given two bushels of grain a month, female convict servants one and a half. Those not engaged in work are not given anything. When working, undersized [male] convict laborers and convict servants are given one and a half bushels of grain a month; those still too young to work get one bushel. Working undersized female convict servants and convict laborers get one bushel and two and a half pecks a month; those still too young to work get one bushel. Infants, whether in care of their mother or not, get half a bushel a month. Male convict servants doing agricultural work get two and a half bushels from the second to the ninth month, when rations stop.

Overseers who increase the rations for convict laborers performing easy tasks will be judged according to the rules for infringing on the ordinances.

When convict laborers break pottery vessels or iron or wooden tools or break the rims of cart wheels, they should be beaten ten strokes for each cash of value, up to twenty cash, and the object is to be written off. An official who does not immediately beat them is to be charged at half the value.

Ying Zheng — the future Qin Shi Huang — became the latest king of Qin in 247 BC at the age of just twelve.  He was tremendously taken with a Legalist philosopher from the state of Han named Han Fei, whose writings seem to delight in turning Confucianism’s idealistic doctrine of Filial Piety on its head.

The enlightened ruler, in ruling his country, increases the guards and makes the penalties heavier; he depends on laws and prohibitions to control the people, not on their sense of decency. A mother loves her son twice as much as a father does, but a father’s orders are ten times more effective than a mother’s. The relationship between officials and the people is not based on love and their orders are ten thousand times more effective than parents’. Parents pile up love, but their orders fail; officials are strict and the people obey. Such is the basis for choosing between severity and love.

Furthermore, parents make every effort to keep their children safe and far from trouble, but a ruler’s relation to his people is different. In times of difficulty he needs them to risk death and in times of peace he needs them to exhaust their strength for him. Parents, who lovingly consider their children’s comfort and benefit, are not obeyed. Rulers, who with no concern for their benefit demand that they risk their lives or work hard, have their orders followed. The intelligent ruler recognizes this and so does not cultivate feelings of empathy, but builds up awe for his power. Indulgent mothers generally spoil their sons through their love. Harsh fathers generally rear good sons through their strictness.

In 233 BC, Ying Zheng persuaded Han Fei to come to Qin and join his government. Unfortunately for the latter, his arrival provoked the jealousy of the king’s extant ministers, and he died under mysterious circumstances within months. In this way, then, Han Fei too reaped what he had sown.

Nevertheless, by the time of Han Fei’s death Qin and its ideology of Legalism were well on their way to conquering all of China. Already in 256 BC, Ying Zheng’s father had toppled the 790-year-old Zhou dynasty by taking over the emperor’s home state. With this last relic of the old order destroyed, the geopolitics of China became more than ever an exercise in naked power. And, being more powerful than any of its rivals, Qin rolled up state after state under its young King Ying Zheng; in its final orgy of conquest it subdued six major states in the course of nine years. One Chinese historian would later claim that the Qin armies killed an astonishing 756,000 enemy soldiers during this period alone. Finally, in 221 BC, Ying Zheng found himself the last significant Chinese king still standing. And so he renamed himself Qin Shi Huang — the First Emperor of the Qin, later to be known as the First Emperor of China. He predicted that his line would persist for the next 10,000 generations. In reality, it would barely manage two, but in that brief window of time it would transform China more profoundly than any dynasty before or after it.

The Qin China of 214 BC. (Qiushufang)

During the era of the last strong central government in China, the early Zhou dynasty of more than half a millennium before, “civilized” China had consisted of a subset of Northern Inner China only. Over the centuries since, however, Chinese civilization had slowly spread over most of Southern Inner China as well. Thus the territory controlled by Qin Shi Huang from his capital of Xianyang — today a part of the metropolis of Xi’an — included some three quarters of the whole of Inner China, extending all the way to the South China Sea. This alone is enough to mark it as the start of a new era of Chinese history, the true beginning of the contiguous nation that we know as China today. Only the most westerly regions of Northern and Southern Inner China were not yet integrated with the rest. The land would not always be so politically united in the time to come, but its diverse peoples would never lose the newly inculcated sense of belonging to the category of “the Chinese,” distinct from — and generally in their eyes superior to — all the other cultures in the world.

Qin Shi Huang also implanted another, related meme in the consciousness of his posterity: he was the first leader of China to conceive of building a Great Wall around all of his holdings, demarcating them in the most obvious way imaginable and insulating his people from the “barbarians” of the world who were not lucky enough to be born Chinese. In truth, there was some basis for his sanguine belief that his Middle Kingdom was the only place of any real worth or significance in the world. Certainly it was by far the most advanced civilization in the world that he knew. He had no way of divining that, thousands of miles to the west, near the edge of the very same continent that was home to China, the Roman Republic was on the rise, the Greeks were the heirs to an intellectual tradition as deep as China’s own, and the Pyramids of Giza had already been standing for 2300 years. His imperial successors, who would know of such things but still insist that the Middle Kingdom was all that really mattered, thus perhaps deserve more blame for their land’s haughty insularity, its historical Achilles heel.

Be that as it may, the attitude presently led to Qin Shi Huang’s biggest project of all. Beginning almost immediately after the completion of his conquest of China, he sent thousands of his government’s ample supply of prisoners to build a barrier stretching over 2500 miles (4000 kilometers), to separate Inner China from the barbarians to its north and west. As with all of the Great Walls to come, it would be a mistake to think of this one as a continuous, consistent barrier. The architects rather let the terrain do the work wherever possible; they built nothing at all over at least 20 percent of their wall’s course, where mountains or bodies of water could serve as a nice substitute. In other places, they augmented the sides of hills or built atop ridges. They built from scratch only where there was no alternative, using mostly the humble techniques of tamped-earth construction that had served the Chinese for millennia by now; aesthetics took priority over pragmatism only near major cities. Within a few years, after the moss and creepers had grown over it, most of the wall became almost one with the natural landscape, a vein poking through the skin of Pangu. Chinese folklore called the wall the “earth dragon,” and came to remember it not as the patriotic triumph Qin Shi Huang had intended it to be but rather for the suffering of the poor souls who were forced to labor upon it. “The Great Wall,” it was said, “is propped up on skeletons.” The same might have been said of Qin China as a whole.

Then again, Qin China had more in common with the Chinas that came later than many of its detractors might feel comfortable admitting. It would not be going too far to say that the vision of the Chinese bureaucratic state which has continued to survive to this day was born during the Qin dynasty. Qin China represents, write Caroline Blunden and Mark Elvin, “the definitive establishment of a blueprint of administration that was to change remarkably little in the next two millennia.” Likewise, “if contemporary Chinese politicians were to compare the Qin system with theirs,” notes Julia Lovell, “the similarities would probably be easier to spot than the differences.”

Qin China as a whole was divided into 36 administrative districts, and a network of roads and canals was built to bind them all together. A system of weights and measures was standardized which, alongside the introduction of a single currency, did much to grease the rails of national commerce. The written Chinese language was reformed, standardized with the force of law, and spread throughout Northern and Southern Inner China, uniting through the magic of the written word a land whose peoples couldn’t always understand one another when they tried to speak among themselves.

All of these things were made possible only by the unabashed authoritarianism of the government — its willingness to make laws covering everything from the way a farmer was allowed to weigh his crops to the glyphs a scholar was allowed to draw with his pen. The Qin dynasty showed no respect whatsoever for the past. “If scholars do not take the present as their teacher but instead study the past, using it to criticize the present age, they will confuse the people and throw them into disorder,” said one high-level Qin functionary. Such beliefs led to the “burning of the books,” yet another ancient event which strikes us as all too unnervingly modern today; it was also the one act for which the Confucianists would come most to hate the Qin. With the exception only of books on such practical subjects as farming and medicine, all texts from earlier eras were to be rounded up and destroyed. Hiding them was difficult; books were bulky things in those days before the invention of paper, mostly being written on strips of bamboo fastened together with swivel pins. Those scholars who did attempt to hide their books and were caught were put to death. Legend has it that the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism survived only thanks to scholars who memorized them, then regurgitated them onto the page again after the Qin dynasty was no more. But countless more books were lost forever. Qin thought control extended to the point of making the merest oral quotation from a forbidden work into a capital offense.

Qin Shi Huang died, apparently of natural causes, in 210 BC at the age of 49, and was buried beside his Terracotta Army; like an Egyptian pharaoh, he had convinced himself that an afterlife much like this life awaited him, and he was determined to take all of the perks of his mortal existence with him. His throne passed to his teenage son, who in accordance with his father’s wishes took the name Qin Er Shi: “The Second Generation of the Qin.” But the country his father had created was, for all its ruthless efficiency, not built to last. The callow youth was hopelessly out of his depth, and, without the fear in their hearts that his father had provoked, the people soon rose up against their oppressors. By the beginning of 206 BC, Qin Er Shi was dead and so was his father’s 10,000-generation dynasty. Legalism had proved too bitter a medicine for the body politic to tolerate for very long, leaving the Qin dynasty to serve as an object lesson for China’s future leaders, teaching them to temper their instinct for bureaucratic authoritarianism enough to allow for a measure of sustainability.

(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

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14 Comments for "Chapter 6: The Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BC)"

  • Leo Vellés

    Another great article, as usual.
    One small typo: “This alone is enough to mark it as the start of new era of Chinese history,…”
    A missing “a” there, between “of” and “new”

    • Jimmy Maher


  • morg

    > The reality is that oppression has often been the true underpinning of Chinese government, whether it happens to be traveling under the banner of Legalism, Confucianism, Communism, or any other ideology.

    The same could certainly be said for any other state that’s ever existed on the planet. What makes China noteworthy in this regard, besides the orientalism of western historians?

    Also, on the subject of that oppression, “corporal” not “corporeal” punishment 🙂

    • Jimmy Maher

      China is unique in that its philosophy of government remained so consistent over such a long period of time, even if one chooses to see the end of the imperial era as a definitive ideological break. But no, it’s certainly not unique in employing oppression.

      Thanks for the correction!

      • Martin

        The question is, why did they do that? Was there something in prior articles that made it inevitable, luck (or the opposite of luck really) or something else entirely?

        • Jimmy Maher

          I’m not completely sure I understand the question. Why did they employ oppression? In a broad sense, as Morg noted, oppressive governments have been far more common than their opposite in the history of humanity, so we would need to turn to philosophy or psychology rather than the specifics of history to explore that question. But in a more specific sense, I did try to explain in Chapter 4 how a rigid ideology like Confucianism — or Communism, for that matter — can be a slippery slope to totalitarianism. Such belief systems tend to want to force people into their image when they prefer not to conform to the ideology of their own accord. Be deeply suspicious of anyone who tells you that he or she has the world all figured out.

      • morg

        I don’t think I buy the consistency argument: certainly there was a lot of lip service paid to the emperor as an institution and to the mandate of heaven over the years, and each dynasty attempted to legitimate itself on the basis of succession from its forerunners. But while that sense of national continuity is at least nearly matchless, that doesn’t imply the state philosophy was fixed in stone by Huangdi himself never after to change, as much as successor governments attempting to legitimate themselves might insist otherwise. The Confucianism-Legalism synthesis lasted from the Han period to the Republic, but then the Roman-Byzantine imperial complex made it about 3/4 of that span before Mehmet II stuck a fork in them. The nomadic confederation system of the Donghu as well was maintained by the Mongols for around a couple of millennia in all until Chinggis (or after, with Chagatai’s ulus only settling down in the 15th century). Other philosophies of government are clearly in the ballpark and playing the same game with reasonable competence. That the Romans and Mongols oppressed people ordinarily goes without saying; so the editorial detour to call oppression fundamental not only to the single Chinese framework of governance under discussion (a point already perfectly well made a paragraph up), but almost to something in the national character itself, just doesn’t sit well with me.

        • Jimmy Maher

          I’m not sure I can entirely agree — the fact of something not being unique doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be pointed out — but perhaps the sentence in question did paint with too broad a brush and had too much of a moralizing tone. I’ve excised it, as it didn’t really need to be there. Thanks!

  • Andrew Pam

    Another excellent chapter! The phrase “elevated to celebratory” seems ungrammatical to me. Is that the correct use of the word “celebratory”?

    • Jimmy Maher

      No. Should be “celebrity.” Thanks!

  • Matt Reiter

    Qin Shi Huang may also have died of mercury poisoning. He was obsessed with immortality, along with many of the other alchemists (of any time). And alchemists loved mercury and would often add it to their various concoctions.

  • Matt Krzesniak

    Great read so far! I think that “One of it more ominous analogies” should be “One of *it’s* more ominous analogies”.

  • Matt Krzesniak

    Actually, it should be “its”!

  • Peter

    I’m really enjoying this, thanks!

    One minor factoid that doesn’t change much, as they’re only used as analogies: apparently both fascist states’ reputations for making trains run on time and the Spartans’ for military dominance are more a product of propaganda than reality. I don’t have a citation for the former offhand, but for the later there’s the excellent


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