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Qin Dynasty: Achievements, Inventions & Technology

Instructor: Jeffery Keller

Jeff has taught US and World History at the high school and college levels for nearly ten years and has a master's degree in history.

The Qin Dynasty lasted only one generation, yet it made many lasting impacts on China's history. In this lesson, you will learn about the achievements, innovations, and technologies of China's namesake rulers.

Military Genius

Imagine being a soldier in ancient China. As you prepare for battle, you see the enemy coming, but something is different. Instead of simple bows and arrows, the enemy is firing an arrow, known as a bolt, made completely of iron from a new type of bow you've never seen before. They continue to advance, firing, reloading, advancing, firing, reloading. The terrifying weapon you are confronted with is one of the earliest known crossbows, and it is just one of the innovations utilized by the Qin Dynasty in its quest to bring all of China under one rule.

Origins of the Qin

During the period from approximately 475 B.C.E. to 221 B.C.E., China was a politically fragmented collection of kingdoms all competing for dominance. During this ''Period of the Warring States,'' no single power was able to claim the coveted Mandate of Heaven, a belief in China that the gods would bestow a directive to its chosen family to rule over all of China. In 246 B.C.E., the balance of power began to shift as the king of the Qin people, Zheng, launched a series of wars against neighboring nations.

'Like A Silkworm Eats the Mulberry Leaf'

Zheng's military offensives were swift and effective. He rejected earlier techniques in favor of foot soldiers and cavalry. His soldiers were well trained with a new military weapon, the crossbow, which fired a long iron bolt at speeds that could easily penetrate armor. Two important innovations allowed the use of this weapon. First, all of the parts on this crossbow were interchangeable so that if one broke, it could easily be repaired right on the battlefield. Second, Zheng's engineers were some of the first to use cast iron, meaning that the iron ore was heated to temperatures so high that it liquified, and could then be poured into molds. This meant that everything produced was of a uniform size and quality. These innovations allowed him to defeat his enemies at a record pace. One observer stated the Zheng conquered China 'like the silk worm eats the mulberry leaf.'

The First Emperor

The First Emperor Of China, Shi Huangdi
Emperor Shi Huangdi

In 221 B.C.E., Zheng's conquest of his rivals was complete, and he gave himself a new name: Shi Huangdi, meaning The First Emperor. Not wanting to allow his enemies to rise again, he made many administrative changes to his government. First, he completed what was likely the first census of China, taking a record of all the people and their positions. This allowed for effective administration and tax collection. Second, he developed a large imperial bureaucracy. A bureaucracy is a way of governing in which the positions below the ruler speak with the power of the ruler. He appointed governors to control military and legal matters, and positioned spies to report back to him on the actions of his governors. This was different from previous rulers who relied on the loyalty of local lords to act on their behalf. These local lords had often rebelled against the king or done only what was in their own best interest.

National Standards

Another innovation Shi Huangdi made was to standardize many practices including weights and measures, the type and value of currency, and the style of writing used throughout all of the regions of China. The government even went so far as to standardize the size of wagon axles so that roads could be built wide enough to allow wagons to pass side by side! Additionally, the Qin Dynasty relied on legalist scholars to help standardize the code of law so that expectations and punishments would be the same throughout China. Legalists were legal philosophers who emphasized the near absolute power of rulers to set laws and hand out swift, harsh punishments to all who stepped out of line. Only through these extreme measures could order in society be maintained.

Coins such as these became standard in China under the rule of the Qin
Qin Coins

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