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The Qin Dynasty in China: The Great Wall & Legalism

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  • 0:06 Short but Important Dynasty
  • 1:14 Life Under Qin Rule
  • 3:16 A Qin Legacy
  • 4:13 The End of Qin
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the short-lived but powerful Qin Dynasty of China. We will examine the dynasty's founding, life under Qin rule, the Qin legacy, and the downfall of the Qin.

A Short but Important Dynasty

Ying Zheng, the King of the Qin, had a plan. His state was small, but the ruling Zhou Dynasty was weak and had been plagued by competitive, warring minor states for years. He was determined to overthrow the Zhou rule and to take over the sovereignty of all Zhou lands and beyond.

As the 200s BC progressed, Ying Zheng increased the power of the Qin. He developed his military technology and built his army. He pooled his resources and set them to work to defeat other states and put them out of the running for leadership. He studied the teachings of Shang Yang, a statesman of the previous century, who called for total war and abandonment of all rules in battle. In 221 BC, Ying Zheng finally got his chance. He achieved a huge victory over his competitor states and over the last Zhou ruler and declared himself to be the first emperor of China under the title Qin Shihuangdi.

Qin Shihuangdi's new Qin Dynasty lasted only 15 years, from 221 BC to 207 BC, but as we shall see, it is an extremely important period in Chinese history.

Life Under Qin Rule

Qin Shihuangdi quickly made himself an absolute ruler with absolute power, and he extended his reign throughout much of modern China. Life under Qin rule was highly structured and often brutal.

For one thing, the emperor followed a philosophy called legalism, which claimed that the state was much more important than the individual and that the individuals had to conform completely to the decrees of their supreme rulers. Qin Shihuangdi developed a strong central government with most of its power concentrated in himself as the supreme sovereign. He was backed by a powerful army that intimidated any opposition and an efficient and obedient bureaucracy that micromanaged nearly every aspect of daily life for the nobility all the way down to the peasants.

Qin Shihuangdi was not above using terror tactics to keep his reign secure and demonstrate his supreme power. He seized the land of many noble families and forced them to live in cities where he could keep an eye on them and prevent any rebellion they might be planning. Those who did try to rebel were buried alive or sent to work on the emperor's building projects. Peasants were assigned specific jobs, usually in farming or silk raising. If they resisted, they were simply killed or perhaps sent to work elsewhere at a less pleasant job of hard labor.

The emperor also wanted to keep his subjects uneducated to prevent any defiance of his rule and to make them easier to control, so he ordered books burned throughout his empire. Scholars and teachers scrambled to hide their books, but those who were caught or resisted in any way were often burned alive with their books.

Qin Shihuangdi was so intent upon controlling every aspect of Chinese life that he implemented a program of standardization throughout the empire. He created a standard code of law that applied to everyone. He regulated money, written language, weights and measures, and the tax system. He built roads, irrigation systems, and defense works. He even standardized the width of chariot axles to make sure his military had the best possible equipment.

A Qin Legacy

The emperor longed to leave a legacy, and indeed, he did. First, he gave China its name, which comes from the word 'Qin.' Second, he gave China one of its primary landmarks, the Great Wall. Even though the current wall dates from a later period, the first structure was built during the Qin Dynasty by forced labor, of course, as a means of defense.

Third, he gave China an eternal army. Qin Shihuangdi was obsessed with death. He began building his tomb even before he became emperor, and he filled it with marvelous treasures, including an army of over 7,000 terracotta soldiers, which was discovered during an archeological excavation in 1974. A few years later, archeologists uncovered more treasures, including a set of bronze horses and chariots. Apparently, Qin Shihuangdi wanted to continue his absolute rule even in the afterlife.

The End of Qin

Of course, the emperor wanted to delay that transition as long as possible. In fact, he traveled throughout the empire, seeking some sort of elixir that would give him immortality. He failed. It was on one of these journeys that he suddenly died in 210 BC.

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