Emperor Qin

The Emperor Qin


If you wish to put yourself beyond the pale with the modern historian, the quickest way to condemn oneself utterly is to adopt the ‘great man’ theory. Historians today do not believe in great men: events just happen through the will of the people. I have already condemned myself in the chapter on the emperor Augustus who took the decaying Roman republic and turned it into the Roman Empire which survived triumphantly for another four centuries. In China there is a similar ‘Great man’: Qin Shi Huang.


QinshihuangQin (pronounced Chin) Shi Huang – born 260, died 210 BC – was the first emperor. He began by being a king of one of the half dozen Chinese kingdoms, but he conquered all the others, thus unifying China. For the last ten years of his life (220 – 210) was the ‘first emperor’, and many of the aspects of China that he devised lasted for the next two millennia: indeed some of them still underlie the modern China of today.

Today Qin is best known for the ‘terracotta army’ that he buried a couple of miles away from his tomb, which he somehow succeeded in keeping secret until it was discovered by chance by farmers digging a well in 1974. Since then the huge extent of this secret operation has been excavated and it has become probably the number one heritage attraction in China today. (Click here for further details)

His main achievement however was that he was the man who unified China. Before him China was divided up into six or seven warring states: the period 475 – 221 BC is known as the ‘Warring States’ period. At the centre were three states on the fertile central plain that form the middle reaches of the Yellow River, always the heartland of China. To the west however was the Kingdom of Qin, slightly less civilised than the rest and rather more fierce, but it was the kingdom of Qin that eventually emerged victorious. The future emperor succeeded his father as king at the age of 13, but after various scandalous episodes he eventually threw off his regents and began conquering the neighbouring kingdoms, and then in a series of wars he was ultimately victorious and succeeded in uniting China in 221 BC. He took for himself a new title – no longer a king, he was now the first Emperor. The idea was fulfilled that China was one country, under one emperor, and it was an idea which was to prove all pervasive for the next two millennia, and indeed still survives today.


Qin’s reforms

Qin Shi Huang ruled as Emperor of China for only ten short years from 220-210 BC, but in these ten years he laid the foundations for the success of the Chinese Empire for the next two millennia.

The most pressing problem was to break the power of the six other kingdoms and to form a united Chinese empire. The answer was to divide China into 36 ‘commanderies’ which were in turn subdivided into a number of counties – over a thousand in all with country magistrates or provincial governors being sent out from the central government always to provinces with which they had no connection, and usually for a fixed term of office. And this two-tiered system (sometimes a three- tiered system) lasted in one form or another throughout the Chinese Empire and was to prove its great strength.

I believe that this marks one of the big changes in the structure of society, for it means the break-up of the caste system of society, which still tends to wreck government in India. (The Marxists tend to say the same thing, only they say it is the end of Feudalism). But the change is a vital one, the change from a ‘patrimonial’ system of government to a prefectural/county system of government. In the patrimonial system the sons of the rulers are sent out as princes to govern distant provinces, and successful generals are sent to govern the problem provinces on the borders and the generals are given lands and armies to ensure their success. (The Romans faced similar problem when in times of crisis they appointed dictators to take over from the consuls.)

Throughout Chinese history there is a tension between the two systems of government with frequent recourse to the patrimonial system along the frontiers to the north, and frequent problems when the generals broke away from the central government; but in the peaceful regions at the centre, the prefectural system – under one form or another – worked well and ensured the stability of the Chinese empire. But from my point of view this marks the change-over from a caste society to what I call a class society: from one where your position is given by one’s birth to one where one’s position depends on your abilities, your tastes and only to some extent on one’s birth. Of course a ‘rank’ system continued to exist in China throughout, but it was tempered by meritocracy, especially when in the Tang dynasty a thousand year later the examination system became established.

Qin Shi Huang’s reign was a whirlwind of standardisation. Money was regularised: the ban liang (half ounce) coin with a square hole at the centre was made standard. Weights and measures were reformed too and the widths of carts were standardised at 6 feet, so that all carts could fit in the same ruts. The calligraphy was also standardised so that the same signs had the same meaning throughout China, so that even today, those speaking Cantonese may not be able to understand those speaking Mandarin, but they can nevertheless read the same calligraphy.

At the same time there was an outburst of building activity: new roads, new palaces, new canals were built. Two particular achievements can be highlighted: the first is the construction of the Great Wall of China. The Great Wall of China was always being built and rebuilt, but there are two main construction periods: the Wall we see today is the one that was built or rebuilt in the Ming period between AD 1200 and 1500. The earlier wall, or rather the first definitive Great Wall, was built by Qin. There had been a number of earlier walls, some of which were adapted to form the basis of his Great Wall, which was said to run for 10,000 li, or 3,000 miles. The building of the wall was controversial: huge numbers of conflicts and slaves were supplemented by corvée labour, and memories of the hardship meant that the Chinese have always been slightly ambivalent in their views of the Great Wall. Ironically it has been the western visitors who have promoted the Great Wall to being one of the great wonders of the world.


The Terracotta army

TA front row 1720The other great achievement is the building of the terracotta army – today the number one archaeological attraction in China. Yet it is important to put the terracotta warriors into context – they were only part of Qin’s preparations for death. Qin’s capital was at Xianyang, the predecessor to modern Xian, though not on the site of the great Tang city, but several miles away in the suburbs of the modern mega city (near the airport) where the outlines of the Qin city and numerous palaces have been discovered. But he made elaborate arrangements for his death, and erected a huge barrow (to use the modern English term), 30 miles to the east of his capital. The actual barrow has never been excavated: perhaps he still lies there in majesty at the centre. However modern archaeologists are nibbling at the periphery and have discovered a number of superb relics, including a fine pair of Bronze chariots which are much admired.

But a couple of miles away from the actual mausoleum, he constructed a huge terracotta army, where over 8,000 terracotta images of fighting men, and chariots and horses were buried in three huge pits and covered over and concealed. They were no doubt intended to be a hidden army to come to life should anyone be rash enough to attack his tomb. But they were buried so effectively that they remained unknown until they were discovered in 1974 by peasants digging a well. Not the least of his achievements was to keep them concealed so effectively. There is a hint that when the work was completed all the workmen were promptly put to death so that their work would remain a secret; and one must suspect that this is what indeed must have happened, for how else could they have been forgotten so completely?

Qin was obsessed with the thoughts of death and was determined that death was another enemy to be conquered like all his other enemies, so he sent out teams of explorers to discover the secret of eternal life. Their efforts were in vain, for after a reign of only ten years he died. His succession was then bungled, his successor was assassinated and the Qin dynasty came to an end only three years after his death. It was followed by the Han dynasty which built on his foundations so successfully that it lasted for nearly 400 years.


Sima Qian

Qin Shi Huang’s greatest failure was that he failed to establish his reputation among the next generation of historians in China. What proved to be his greatest mistake was to indulge in an orgy of book burning. He was terrified that people might compare his work adversely with the achievements of the past, so he ordered that all books referring to the past should be burnt and only a few books on practical subjects should be preserved. Worse than that, he ordered the mass execution of scholars, even burying some alive. This activity inevitably put him on the wrong side of the next generation of scholars, in particular it put him on the wrong side of the first great Chinese historian, Sima Qian.

Sima Qian (c145 – 86 BC) with his father wrote one of the world’s great histories, the Records of the Grand Historian. This is an immense work, over four times the length of the Greek historian Herodotus, and equivalent in verbiage to the Old Testament. He established a style of historical writing that has dominated Chinese history ever since, alternating between a chronicle of events and a series of mini biographies of the leading actors. He father began the work, but he completed it. Half way through his work, he fell into disfavour by pleading for clemency for a general who had been defeated, and as a result he was condemned to death. However his sentence was commuted to castration, which was considered a disgrace almost worse than death, and most who were condemned to castration chose to commit suicide instead. But Sima Qian was determined to finish his work, so he accepted the disgrace and no doubt the considerable pain of being castrated, and completed his work as a eunuch. Much of our knowledge of the Emperor Qin comes from his work, but it tends to treat Qin Shi Huang unfavourably. Nevertheless Qin was a great emperor, one of the great men who changed the course of the history of the world. And Sima Qian was a great historian.


Qin Shi Huang compared to Augustus

It is interesting to compare Qin Shi Huang’s life with that of the Emperor Augustus in Rome. Qin, having spent twenty years establishing himself as Emperor of all China, carried out all his reforms in ten all too brief years. Augustus’ success by contrast was spread over 40 years as ruler. Like Qin, he first spent twenty years of messy fighting until at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, he finally established himself as Rome’s leading citizen. It took him some time to work out how to position himself in a Rome that still remained basically republican, and it was not until 23 BC that he made the crucial changes: he gave up the main office of power in Rome – the consulship, and became consul only twice subsequently. His main official position was as tribune of the plebs – head of the Trades Union Congress, but he also had the right to speak first in the senate and also – and this was vital – he kept control of the armies in the most difficult provinces. Apart from that, he was ‘simply’ the leading citizen.

But he was helped by his long life and outlived most of his destined successors. But eventually he left the succession very successfully to the wily Tiberius, who despite lacking charisma and never really getting on with Augustus, still successfully established the Roman Empire for the next 400 years. Would Augustus have established the Roman Empire had he not lived for so long and had he not eventually picked the right successor? The achievement of Qin Shi Huang in establishing the Chinese Empire in only ten years is all the more remarkable.


On to the Han Dynasty

14th March 2015