Qin Dynasty Warring States Period Spring and Autumn Western Zhou dynasty and earlier history Han dynasty Period of Disunity Sui dynasty Tang dynasty Five dynasties and ten kingdoms  Song dynasty Yuan / Mongol dynasty Ming dynasty Qing Dynasty Republic of China Peoples Republic of China

Qin Dynasty 221 - 206 BCE

Qin Dynasty

The Qin dynasty, although short-lived, is arguably the most important as it created so much of what now defines 'China'.

Indeed it is even believed the Western name ‘China’ may derive from ‘Qin kingdom’. Before the Qin dynasty there had been seven kingdoms clustered around the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers. These kingdoms were engaged in incessant mutual attrition during the Warring States period until one of them, 'Qin', proved dominant. The Qin kingdom was on the western edge of China and needed an efficient cavalry to repulse raids by the nomadic people on its borders and these military skills proved decisive. It was considered so close to barbarism that Qin representatives did not attend meetings with the other six warring states. It may also have been the first of the kingdoms to master the use of iron weaponry giving it an advantage over those still using bronze. They fought from horseback and not from cumbersome, unwieldy chariots like the other states.

Widespread reforms

Teacup media video for this topic by Laszlo Montgomery (audio only).
Laszlo podcast
The Rise and Fall of the Qin

Through dictatorial (Legalist) rule the first Qin emperor defeated all the other kingdoms and formed for the first time a Chinese nation state under one ruler, inventing the concept of ‘Emperor of China’. The Qin state was an efficient military machine and pursued a policy of subjugation of ‘all under heaven’. By conquests as far south as Guangdong, Qin Shihuangdi created the rough boundary of the country of China that has stood to the present day. The Great Wall of China was built to define China's northern limit by joining and strengthening existing border walls. Other major construction projects included his capital city; his mausoleum and a network of roads, canals and irrigation systems. Control of water supply enabled agricultural production to increase; providing food for the burgeoning empire.

As well as bringing in unified systems for weights; measures and roads, he imposed a single set of Chinese characters for writing based on the Qin script. The Qin kingdom had conquered many other kingdoms with higher populations and with their own writing scripts; to be able to administer these new people everything had to be standardized. The standardization of weights was important because tax was collected in goods rather than money. His transport reforms enabled the creation of a network of roads radiating from the capital near Xi'an with a standard length of axle allowing the transport of goods over long distances. (Deep ruts in the road created by carts allowed only those with a matching axle width to travel easily). The new roads had three lanes, the central one was reserved solely for Imperial use. However, this road network amounting to 4,250 miles, proved counter-productive as it enabled rebels to quickly flee a pursuing army. The use of the brush for both writing and painting was introduced; superseding the stylus previously used to impress writing into clay or to inscribe stone.

Traditional medicine in China

Traditional medicine in China


Thousands of years of seeking cures to illness in China has led to a wide range of traditional medicines and procedures being discovered. Nowadays traditional medicine is used for minor ailments and when western medicine fails.


Qin Shihuangdi moved the country away from a slave to a feudal system. He disbanded the many militia that had been the means of maintaining the earlier state of incessant warfare. The creation of a complete set of unambiguous laws for the first time codified rights and responsibilities. Arbitrary punishment was abolished. A key reform of the Qin Dynasty was the division of government into three separate functions : administration; military and supervision of the administration. The later function included the appointment of officials and the keeping of records, it checked that the administration carried out the orders it was given. This division made the empire less likely to break apart, as no one person held both the administrative and military power needed to mount a revolt against the Emperor. An administrator was appointed directly by the emperor from a distant area so he would have no loyal, local power-base to exploit.

221BCE Zhou dynasty ended; Warring States ended; Emperor Qin Shihuangdi became ruler; 213BCE Burning of Books ; 210BCE Emperor Qin Shihuangdi no longer ruler; Emperor Er Shi became ruler
207BCE Emperor Er Shi no longer ruler; 206BCE Han dynasty began
Qin dynasty key dates

Chronicles of the Chinese Emperors

book cover A lavishly illustrated delight. Covers all the dynasties in time order with every emperor getting a mention. The most attractive feature are the illustrated panels covering related cultural topics. It is a most commendable factual account of Chinese history. The only things it lacks, may be, are overviews of the time periods and putting events into a global context. As it is titled a 'chronicle of emperors' one would not expect it to cover the lives of ordinary Chinese people but all major developments are covered.
More details...

Second Emperor and Collapse

The Qin dynasty was effectively a one man 'dynasty' lasting only 25 years as his successor failed to keep the country united. Qin Shihuangdi's chief Minister Li Si , the architect of many of the reforms, tried to cling to power by controlling the succession. The Crown Prince, who had voiced dissent over the reforms, was tricked into committing suicide by way of a forged order sent by Li Si purporting to be from his father. So it was Shihuangdi's second son, who reigned under the title ‘Er Shi’ literally ‘Second Emperor' (229 - 207 BCE) on Qin Shihuangdi's death. A weak and dissolute man, his rule lasted just three years, he gave power to his chief eunuch Zhao Gao who turned the capital into a bloodbath with Li Si amongst his many victims. The people had had enough of enforced slave labor, crippling taxation, brutal treatment and so the centralized system of control broke down. The reaction to the dissent was just to act with even greater brutality. Zhao Gao seized power and forced Er Shi to commit suicide in 207BCE supplanting him with Er Shi's young nephew, but by then it was too late as the Qin Empire had already fallen apart.

Qin dynasty, Terracotta army, chariot, umbrella
Terracotta charioteer at the tomb of the first Qin Emperor Shihuangdi

Emperor Qin Shihuangdi [246 BCE - 10 Sep 210 BCE] or Chhin Shih Huang Ti WG

Qin Shi Huangdi,Qin Emperor

The First Qin Emperor of China

Qin Shihuangdi is the first historical figure of great significance in China. Despite the distant date, many of his initiatives still remain in place today. His chief achievement was the first unification of China under one man. At the age of 13 he became king of the Qin (the western-most kingdom of the Warring States) and inherited his father's zeal for conquest.

God's Chinese son

book cover This book by the leading Chinese scholar of his generation turns his attention on the bloodiest Civil war in world history. The infusion of Western religion into CHina had toxic effects in the middle of the nineteenth century. This book details the full history of the rebellion and its long lasting effects on Chinese development.
More details...

King Zheng was a dictatorial and harsh ruler following the Legalist philosophy. Broadly speaking the Legalist scheme raised the Emperor above all others, who are deemed prone to evil, he ruled absolutely and all had to obey his commands, they had no rights other than those he gave them. He mobilized the people of Qin into forced labor for his many projects and in 11 years had swallowed up the other states of the former Zhou empire to form the 'nation' of China for the first time. To keep the peace he took hostages from the defeated royal families and melted down the bronze weapons of all the armies into huge bells and statues. By relocating the feudal lords and kings he broke their power and imposed direct Imperial rule in its place. Even surrendering to him was no guarantee of survival, more than a million opponents died in his ruthless conquests. He re-engineered the existing walls defending individual kingdoms into one Great Wall for the whole nation. He sought to wipe out history by burning any books that conflicted with his Legalist philosophy or were written in the 'old' scripts, including those of Confucius. His approach was to start a new system from scratch, ignoring all that had gone before. To even mention historical events in conversation was a serious offense. However it must be said that some of these allegations made in the succeeding dynasties, with some vindictiveness, are not backed up by hard facts. When the Qin dynasty fell, the vast Imperial library was burned to the ground doing far more destruction than Qin Shihuangdi ever did. The fragments of books that escaped the fire proved a rich area of study for subsequent scholars who tried to piece together the originals. He standardized weights, measures, roads, and the Chinese script. The long history of the written Chinese language had created dozens of different ways of writing each character, the Emperor ordered his minister Li Si to bring in standardization. To ensure adoption of the new standard script, books written using the old scripts were burnt. The dictionary by Xu Shen 许慎 called the Shuo wen jie zi documents the changes to the script.

Qin Shihuangdi's huge new capital at Xianyang, Shaanxi had wide roads radiating out in all directions. At times 15% of the population was conscripted into his great construction projects: the Great Wall; his capital Xianyang and his Imperial tomb.

The imperial name Qin Shihuangdi means the first august emperor of the Qin. The use of the character for august deliberately echoes the similarly sounding huáng which links him to the legendary founding Yellow Emperor.

Qin Shihuangdi was hard working with an eye for detail. He was paranoid about possible assassination plots. His workload was measured in weight of books (at that time not on paper but on bamboo strips) he could process in a day. Late in life he became obsessed with seeking immortality and the after-life, building the famous Terracotta Army to guard his tomb. The cruelty; forced labor; high taxes and upheavals eroded public support and on his death the dynasty quickly fell apart. However, many of his wiser reforms were retained by the succeeding Han and later dynasties.

The ambivalent view of Qin Shihuangdi as brutal tyrant or unifier is brought home in the recent epic film ‘Hero ’ by Yimou Zhang.

Sacred Ways

Qing dynasty, Beijing, sacred way, elephant
Stone elephant on the Sacred Way to the Eastern Qing Dynasty Tombs, Hebei

Spirit or sacred ways ( Shéndào) have for several thousands of years guarded the entrance to tombs of the Emperors and high officials. The ancient belief is that the dead should be treated just as when they were alive, so the tombs contain ordinary items of everyday life. The ritual path to the tomb is usually marked by stone statues in pairs facing inwards. They are intended to bring the power of the original subject of the sculpture to life to protect the tomb so there are likely to be tigers, dragons, camels, elephants, lions, qilin and also various state officials. The Sacred Way to Imperial tombs could only be trod by the Emperor and even then only on foot. There was a belief that the departed spirit would start to make its own way to the ancestral burial ground, so it was also a pathway for the deceased. Unlike many other memorials the statues marking Spirit Ways have survived as they are rarely affected by willful destruction, floods or earthquakes. Only the Ming and part of the Qing dynastic burial sites have escaped looting and destruction, but for the other dynasties the Spirit Way has often been left intact.

The Chinese Stars

The Chinese Stars


The Chinese system of astronomical observation is as ancient and distinctly different that as that developed in Europe and the Middle East. More emphasis was put on the moon than the sun and stars were arranged into groups according to a view of the Imperial system.

The start of the Sacred Way is normally in the form of two paired towers called què . The carvings on the tower give an invaluable insight into the beliefs at the time. According to the rules of Feng Shui a spirit way should run directly from the south towards the tomb. The tombs are located on the south face of a mountain, so the way to the cold north is blocked. The shendao may also have a ‘赑屃 bì xì’ at its start which is a stone turtle often bearing a stele (inscribed tablet) on its back. This inscription lists the achievements of the deceased.


The Tang mausoleum near Chang'an has a Sacred Way with 68 stone statues along a 1 mile [1 km] route, the statues measure an impressive average 13 feet [4 meters] high. The huge tomb complex was systematically destroyed during the succeeding Song dynasty. In Shandong at Confucius' temple complex at Qufu there are statues dating back to the Han dynasty.

The Ming dynasty tomb complex near Beijing ( Míng cháo shí sān líng) is the best known and most complete tomb complex. It includes an exact replica of the main hall of the Forbidden City. A Sacred Way to the first Ming Emperor Hongwu can be seen at his tomb near Nanjing. The last dynastic tomb complexes of the Qing dynasty were raided and looted in the 1920s. It is divided into Western and Eastern sections, the eastern part is located 78 miles [125 kms] east of Beijing and is called the Qīng Dōnglíng Qing Eastern Tombs ; here the Spirit Way is an impressive 6 kms [4 miles] long.

Song dynasty, sacred way
Stone Statues guarding the Sacred Way at the Song Dynasty Imperial Tombs, Gongyi, Henan
Share this page Facebook Twitter Google+ Pinterest

Chinasage is a new web resource, started in 2012, pages will be added, enhanced and re-formatted regularly. Please check back soon for updated information about China.

We would be most grateful if you can help improve this page. Please visit our (secure) contact page to leave any comment. Thanks.

Citation information: Chinasage, 'The Qin Dynasty 221 - 206 BCE that defined China', last updated 8 Dec 2016, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/dynastyqin.htm.

Copyright © Chinasage 2012 to 2017