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Unification of Northern China under Shi Huangdi of the Qin Dynasty

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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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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

After several hundred years of strife and chaos, one man from the Qin state was able to unify China. This lesson details the life of Shi Huang Di, as well as the downfall of his Qin dynasty.

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.

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.

Administration and Achievements

Many historians have not been kind to the Qin, as frankly, they were focused almost exclusively on maintaining power. In this regard, they were very efficient. The Qin made sure that farmers were kept busy, either with work on the farm or work on the great projects of the empire. Further, education was not only standardized but heavily controlled by the government to make sure that students only learned those things that the government wanted them to know. The works of scholars who disagreed as well as many records from China before Shi Huangdi were burned. In the minds of many, this made Shi Huangdi a villain.

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