Qin Dynasty: Legalism in China

Joseph Comunale, Amy Troolin
  • Author
    Joseph Comunale

    Joseph Comunale obtained a Bachelor's in Philosophy from UCF before becoming a high school science teacher for five years. He has taught Earth-Space Science and Integrated Science at a Title 1 School in Florida and has Professional Teacher's Certification for Earth-Space Science.

  • 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.

Learn about the Qin dynasty. Explore the dates the Qin dynasty ruled, the Qin dynasty ruler, legalism during the Qin dynasty, and the Great Wall of China. Updated: 05/09/2022

Table of Contents


Qin Dynasty

The landscape of China today is rich with the archaeological remnants of its ancient past. For example, China is home to such archaeological and architectural wonders as the Great Wall of China and the great Terracotta Army built to guard the tomb of the first imperial emperor of dynastic China. But what dynasty commissioned the Great Wall of China and other grandiose structures? The Great Wall of China was built over many dynasties throughout 2000 years; however, it was first commissioned by the first Qin Dynasty ruler. The focus of this lesson is the rise and fall of the Qin dynasty. First, a simple Qin Dynasty definition is the first dynasty of Imperial China that followed the Warring States period and previous dynasties of Ancient China. It lasted only a short period from 221 BCE to 207 BCE. The Qin dynasty dates saw many notable events such as Ying Zheng proclaiming himself Shi Huangdi or the '' first emperor,'' and the introduction of legalism in China.

The Ruler of the Qin Dynasty

Ying Zheng was the first Emperor of Imperial China who is formally called Qin Shi Huangdi or the '' First Qin Emperor.'' Ying Zheng obtained his seat on the throne by unifying China after defeating six other competing states within China during the Warring States Period which lasted from as early as 481 BCE to 221 BCE. During the latter years of this period, Ying Zheng ruled over the southwest portion of China at the time. The other regions were broken up into states under the Han, Chu, Wei, Zhao, Yan, and Qi. Ying Zheng defeated the Han in 230 BCE, the Zhao in 228 BCE, the Wei in 225 BCE, Chu in 223 BCE, Yan in 222 BCE, and finally the Qi in 221 BCE. Upon doing so, Ying Zheng proclaimed himself Shi Huangdi and established the first Imperial Dynasty in China - the Qin Dynasty.

Qin Shi Huangdi's first policy changes aimed to unify China and centralize the government. According to historians, Qin Shi Huangdi made the following initial changes:

  • Shi Huangdi ordered all the states from the Warring States Period to surrender their weapons which were melted down and made into statues and works of art which celebrated the new dynastic period.
  • He issued a new state coinage.
  • He simplified official ceremonies.
  • He broke up feudal estates.
  • He established a peasant registry and proprietorship for the soil.
  • He built highways starting at the capital and radiated outward in every direction.
  • He standardized the military equipment, e.g., chariots had standardized specifications. This allowed all soldiers to be trained with the same equipment and allowed all soldiers to have the best possible equipment.
  • He built irrigation systems.
  • He regulated language, weights, measures, and the tax system.

Although many changes increased the innovation, economy, and construction throughout China, Qin Shi Huangdi also had a tyrannical legacy. Although Qin Shi Huangdi encouraged innovation and science in many aspects, he also suppressed all aspects of freedom of speech, burned books, and executed scholars with whom he disagreed.

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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
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What Dynasty Commissioned the Great Wall of China?

Qin Shi Huangdi's tyranny is critiqued by historians as coming from some egoism or delusions of grandeur. They describe him as interpreting the Mandate of Heaven in ways that only justify his power and importance. However, Qin Shi Huangdi took up grand architectural projects which would last millennia, such as the initial construction of the Great Wall of China. The construction of such grand projects also demonstrates Qin Shi Huangdi's cruelty, indifference, and tyranny. The Qin dynasty Great Wall today still stands but is greatly eroded. The Great Wall of China as seen today is mostly due to later dynasties that built upon the Qin Dynasty's initial idea.

Qin Shi Huangdi ordered thousands of workers to begin construction on the Great Wall around 218 BCE as a means to defend his borders from northern invaders. Those who worked on the Wall and other public projects, such as canals and roads, were paid little. After a while, the workers were just absorbed as conscripts who labored for communal lodging and small portions of food. Many died due to the poor labor conditions. Many other aspects of Qin Shi Huangdi's rule were also harsh, such as the laws that were implemented.

Legalism in China

Legalism is a philosophy of rule that regards the state as being more important than the citizen or individual. Qin Shi Huangdi implemented a form of legalism that was advocated by previous rulers. The new Qin dynasty legalism dictated how people were allowed to speak, interact with each other, express themselves, and educate themselves.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Why did the Qin dynasty build the Great Wall?

Qin Shi Huangdi's tyranny is critiqued by historians as coming from some egoism or delusions of grandeur. As well, the wall was built to defend the Qin Dynasty territory from northern invaders.

How did legalism influence the Qin dynasty?

The legalism philosophy influenced Qin Shi Huangdi's rule by creating slave-like conditions for many of the commoners under his rule. All social classes were reduced and suppressed. The free speech was suppressed, and all sorts of books were ordered to be burned. Scholars could face execution if they were caught hiding forbidden books.

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