In 237 BCE, a foreign statesman is said to have described the eventual First Emperor in the following way:
He is merciless, with the heart of a tiger or wolf. When in difficulties he willingly humbles himself, when successful he swallows men up without scruple.… If he triumphs over the world, we shall all become his captives.
—Quoted by the Grand Historian Sima Qian (145–90 BCE) in Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), “Records of Origins” (Benji), Chapter 6
From State to Empire
Under the leadership of the First Emperor, China’s seven previously warring states were unified as one nation for the first time, an enormous undertaking that laid the groundwork for present-day China. Over five centuries of conflict, the states had competed for power.
The origins of the Qin state lay in remote northwestern regions of China in what is now Gansu province. Protected by natural barriers and a well-disciplined military, the Qin state gradually expanded eastward into the fertile Wei and Yellow river valleys.
By the time the First Emperor was born in 259 BCE, the Qin state was nearly six centuries old. Through a series of brutal military victories and shrewd diplomatic maneuvers over the next century, the Qin was ready to conquer its rivals.
Unification through Governmental Reforms
The First Emperor tightened his control over this enormous land mass through restrictive legal reforms. Of the many policies available, his court promoted a policy based on strict rule of law, known as Legalism or the Legalist School. It succeeded in replacing the old feudal system by creating a bureaucracy of appointed local officials who answered directly to the central government. This system solidified his ultimate authority and conceived a structure of government that lasted in imperial courts until 1911.
The Qin court continued to enlist large numbers of people for public works. Their efforts saw revolutionary breakthroughs: the standardization of writing, measurements, weights, currency, cart-axle width, and road infrastructure. These developments improved the economy, transportation, communication, and public service.
Imperial City Planning and Building
The capital of Qin was moved three times: from Yong to Liyang to Xianyang, where the First Emperor lived. Xianyang remained the capital until the demise of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE). The First Emperor launched a major expansion of Xianyang, transforming an already thriving city into the political, economic, and cultural center of the empire. Enormous numbers of people served in the military and built the palaces, the emperor’s burial complex, and the Great Wall.
The Great Wall
Contrary to popular belief, the First Emperor was not the first to build the Great Wall, but he did rebuild and extend the existing walls. Countless workers helped in the construction. For the past 2,000 years Chinese historians have asserted that each brick of the Great Wall had cost a human life.
Archaeological investigations of the early Qin wall started in the 1930s and were carried out through the 1990s. Its length was estimated at 1,775 kilometers before its expansion, and 6,300 lookout towers have been found atop the entire length of the wall. Most presently accessible portions of the Great Wall were rebuilt during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).
Developments in Transportation
Pioneering developments in transportation emerged during the First Emperor’s lifetime. Before his reforms, states relied on carts with varying axle lengths, and roads with varying widths. Interstate travel was extremely difficult. As part of his comprehensive reforms, the First Emperor issued a decree in 220 BCE to standardize axles and roads nationwide to a width of about two meters.
Horse-drawn chariots had been used extensively since the late Shang dynasty (approx. 1300 BCE). For hundreds of years, such a vehicle served as a status symbol for the upper class. The chariot’s luxurious form, especially when pulled by four horses, was the privilege of imperial families. It was used for hunting and leisure. For the lower classes, common modes of travel were donkeys, mules, ox-drawn carts, and one-horse-drawn chariots.
In addition to the sophisticated construction of Qin-dynasty chariots, these reforms to standardize axle length and road width helped expand trade and communication nationwide. The reforms also inspired the succeeding Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) to explore chariot construction.