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An Introduction to the Qin Empire (221–206 BCE)

Excavation photo: Terra Cotta Army of the First Emperor

Excavation photo: Underground Army of the First Emperor. Litong, Shaanxi Province. Courtesy Hamilton Photography, Seattle.

The Qin empire (221–206 BCE) of China lasted only fifteen years, but the rise of the state of Qin began several decades earlier, and Qin’s defeat of all the other rival states brought a definative conclusion to the Warring States period (475–221 BCE). Ying Zheng, the future First Emperor, ascended the throne of Qin in the year 247 BCE at age thirteen, and only a few years later launched a series of military campaigns against the neighboring states of Han, Zhou, Wei, Chu, Yan and Qi, defeating the last in 221 BCE, ‘as a silkworm devours a mulberry leaf ’ according to the Han historian Sima Qian.

Ying Zheng proclaimed himself Qin Shihuang–the First Emperor of Qin–a signal that this was the start of an imperial empire meant to rule over all the kingdoms. Qin built a new capital at Xianyang, on the opposite side of the Wei river from present-day Xi'an. Here, the First Emperor applied strict rules of law, centralizing control and gathering a huge bureaucracy around his court to administer the new empire. The country was divided into thirty-six areas, each with its own governor. He standardized weights, measures, writing scripts, money, roads and axle widths of chariots.

His most famous building projects was the expansion of the Great Wall of China, meant to keep out foreign invaders, and his own burial complex, in which as many as 700,000 people toiled to prepare a model army for his defence and a model palace for his afterlife. The First Emperor is also remembered for his fear of subversion, leading to the burning of books and harsh treatment of scholars, with the notable exception of items and people pertaining to medicine and immortality. The First Emperor unified China and instituted many procedures that would ensure its continuity. However, his brutal regime and harsh laws meant that the empire was toppled only three years into the reign of his successor, his youngest son.

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