Qin Dynasty: Social Structure, Laws & Rules

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  • 0:04 The Qin Dynasty
  • 1:08 Qin Legalism
  • 3:11 Qin Social Structure
  • 4:38 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.

The Qin Dynasty sought to restructure Chinese society through political, legal, and social reforms. In this lesson, you will learn about the laws and social structure of the Qin Dynasty.

The Qin Dynasty

Imagine watching as ancient books containing the most important philosophical writings of your nation are gathered and burned. A few of the books are left unburned, but they're locked away in archives accessible only to the highest government officials. People who espouse views contrary to those of the government are arrested and executed. For those living under the rule of Qin Emperor Shi Huangdi, this was a part of life.

The Qin Dynasty was short-lived, spanning from 221 B.C.E. to 206 B.C.E. Just one emperor, Shi Huangdi, ruled during this period. Shi Huangdi came to power through military conquest, and after his victory, he instituted governmental and military reforms to make himself an absolute autocrat, meaning he ran China with no checks or balances against him. Shi Huangdi's rule extended into every realm of life, down to the smallest detail. The entirety of Chinese society was restructured to serve the purpose of the state. China's laws and rules were restructured and centered around a new philosophy.

Qin Legalism

Prior to the rule of the Qin, Chinese society had been centered primarily around the ancient philosophy of Confucianism. This philosophy emphasized the desire to build a just and moral society by relying on respect for one's elders and traditions and through the building of moral character. The Qin rejected this as a governing philosophy, instead opting for a belief known as Legalism. Legalism was centered on an approach that saw humanity as inherently evil and greedy. The goal of government was simply to prevent people from acting on these feelings through strict rules and harsh punishments. One well known Legalist philosopher, Han Fei Zi, stated that ''the ruler alone should possess the power, wielding it like lightning of like thunder.''

Legalists weren't content to be in a competition with other philosophers, and instead, sought to stamp out all those who opposed their way of thinking. Confucianists appealed to the past in seeking to maintain order. This, the Legalists argued, was an impediment to the new world order the Qin were seeking to build. Much like other Legalist thinkers, Philosopher Li Si believed in absolute rule and sought to take decisive action against those who would stand in his way. ''Your servant suggests that all books in the imperial archives, save the memoirs of Qin, be burned,'' he stated. He continued, ''Anyone referring to the past to criticize the present should, together with all members of his family, be put to death.'' For the Legalists, there was no room for compromise.

Philosophers such as Han Fei Zi and Li Si set their minds to crafting the harsh Legalist code of the Qin Dynasty. Under their guidance, the laws were so numerous that many peasants didn't even know they had broken the law until they had been arrested, tried, and punished. Punishment was severe, ranging from fines, public beating, and long sentences of work on the emperor's many projects, including the construction of the Great Wall of China, to mutilation, castration, or even death, which was most commonly in the form of beheading, but sometimes also included being boiled alive.

Qin Social Structure

Like most societies at that time, a fairly rigid social hierarchy developed in Qin China. At the top of the social structure was the emperor who ruled with absolute authority. Below him were government agents who were specially appointed by the emperor. By appointing people from outside the aristocracy, the emperor could ensure that there would be no competition for loyalty. The bottom third of the hierarchy consisted of peasant farmers and a small class of merchants.

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