Unification of Northern China under Shi Huangdi of the Qin Dynasty

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Shi Huangdi unified China after centuries of discord, and protected the north by the construction of the Great Wall. Learn about the unification of northern China under Shi Huangdi of the Qin Dynasty. Review China's history before Shi Huangdi, and explore his great works, administration, achievements, and downfall to understand Huangdi's impact on China. Updated: 10/31/2021

Before Shi Huangdi

For hundreds of years, China had been in absolute turmoil. The Zhou Dynasty had fallen largely due to an inability to maintain societal order, and during this Warring States period, five hundred years of chaos would consume the political landscape of China. No one warlord was able to gain any real control over the rest of China, and it seemed that no one would recover the Mandate of Heaven, or the Chinese perception that Heaven was on a leader's side. This was not for lack of trying, either. Numerous leaders tried to unify China. While on the other hand, Confucius' writings on the importance of balance found many readers during this time.

For a few decades, the leaders of the Qin state had viewed its weakness and poverty as a blessing because it allowed its people to focus on perfecting the values of Confucius. Indeed, the Qin grew ever more powerful while the rest of China struggled to avoid destruction. Finally, the Qin were able to consolidate their rule in northern China under Qin Shi, who would later take the title Huangdi, or emperor. For the first time in centuries, China was unified.

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  • 1:10 Great Works
  • 2:30 Administration and…
  • 3:07 Downfall of Shi Huang Di
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Great Works

As an emperor, Shi Huangdi now had to deal with issues of substantially greater importance. One of the most pressing of these was the consolidation of the northern defenses. A common theme in Chinese history was that whenever the barbarians to the north needed supplies or food, they would simply invade to the south, robbing Chinese villages. It was too expensive to maintain a large army on the frontier, and the mobile barbarians could just ride their horses around any army.

Shi Huangdi decided to connect the many scattered walls that other states had built, unifying them into the Great Wall of China. The cost to build the Great Wall was substantial, with up to one million people dying while building it. Additionally, it was too expensive to man the wall permanently. Instead, it was more effective to use it as a series of guard posts designed to slow down any advance by the barbarians while alerting the Chinese that they were attacking.

Shi Huangdi's other great construction project was not found until just a few decades ago. The Emperor built a massive Terracotta Army to protect him in the afterlife, with each soldier modeled on a real person from the army. The site is still being explored as of 2015, with the actual tomb of Shi Huangdi, rumored to have traps to kill any would-be grave robbers, still unexplored.

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