Qin Dynasty: Economy & Political Structure

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  • 0:04 Qin Dynasty Background
  • 0:43 The Rise of the Qin Dynasty
  • 3:51 Qin Dynasty Trade Standards
  • 4:33 Qin Dynasty Economic Impacts
  • 5:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
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.

In this lesson, we'll be looking at Qin Shi, who created the first truly unified China and founded the Qin Dynasty. In this lesson, you will learn about the political and economic structures that made the emperor's success possible.

Qin Dynasty Background

For generations, your family has ruled over the same lands. Your ancestors have called this territory home for hundreds of years. You have defended your lands, plowed fields, and governed the lives of the peasants living under your control. Now, though, all of that is over, and you have been forced to relocate to a new city where you will live under the watchful eye of the new emperor of China, Qin Shi. Had you been an aristocrat or large landowner living at the time of the Qin Dynasty, which was the first dynasty of a unified China, this is the reality you would have faced as Qin Shi brought about a new way of life in Chinese society.

The Rise of the Qin Dynasty

Before Chin Shi, China was politically and economically divided dating back to the Zhou Dynasty. The Zhou relied on feudalism to govern China. Feudalism is a system of government in which the king relies on aristocrats who promise loyalty and military service in exchange for land. You might be familiar with this concept from Medieval Europe. As time went on, these aristocrats became increasingly detached from their obligations leading to all-out warfare between the various aristocrats during the Warring States period. Using new technologies, such as the crossbow and bold military strategies, Qin Shi conquered the warring states one by one, bringing each under his control.

Military victory did not signal an end to Qin Shi's ambition. He understood that the aristocrats could easily undo his gains once his military left. To ensure that this didn't happen, Qin Shi made several important changes to the structure of the Chinese government.

First, the emperor replaced aristocrats who had traditionally led the military with trained peasants. The new peasant leaders understood that their power came directly from the emperor himself. This meant that, unlike the aristocrats who acted independently, the new leaders would be more loyal to the emperor. With a new military directly loyal to him, Qin Shi completely crushed all remaining resistance in the formerly rebellious regions.

Additionally, he stripped the aristocrats of their power and forced them to leave their large estates, resettling them in the capital. Here he could keep a close eye on what they did. They had almost no influence on what happened in the government. To ensure further that their power did not outgrow his own, Qin Shi changed the way land was passed down from one generation to the next. Rather than passing all of the land to one's first-born son, which was a system known as primogeniture, land inheritance was to be divided equally among all of the sons. This eroded the power of the formerly large landholders by preventing one person from gaining control over large estates.

With the old aristocracy gone, the government turned to creating a new bureaucracy. This meant that the new leaders, including governors for each of the regions, were chosen by the emperor to carry out his will. Just as was the case in selecting new military leaders, these newly appointed governors were selected for their loyalty to the emperor. To be sure that they remained true to him, the emperor also utilized spies who reported back to him. Through this system of bureaucrats and spies, the emperor created an absolute autocracy, meaning that he controlled every aspect of life throughout his empire with no one to check his authority. Books containing ideas that might challenge the Qin Dynasty's ideology were collected and burned, and people accused of spreading their ideas faced death. The newly created bureaucracy also completed China's first census, collecting data for the purposes of taxing the people and organizing a new government-controlled labor force.

Qin Dynasty Trade Standards

Qin Shi sought to restructure the Chinese economy, too. He standardized the use of coins throughout the empire, created a uniform system of weights and measures to make trading easier, standardized the written script of China to ease tax records and trading over long distances, and created a uniform axle size for carts so that roads could be built connecting towns throughout the empire. The government also undertook massive public works projects, such as the construction of roads and canals, most notably the Lingqu Canal, which connected the Yangtze and Pearl River basins. Canals and roads not only allowed easier trade, but they also allowed more efficient movement of soldiers from one area to another.

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