HistoryHistory of ChinaRise and Fall of China's first imperial dynasty

Rise and Fall of China’s first imperial dynasty

Qin Dynasty was the first imperial dynasty of China. Its rise and fall was a long but legendary story. It was a story of a small state that managed to gather strength to be the most formidable state in the realm. However, years after successfully unifying China, it fell miserably to the anger of its own people.

This imperial dynasty emerged from the State of Qin, one of the numerous vassal states of the Zhou Dynasty. Every state in the central plains of China considered this state barbaric, as its people were influenced by many traditions of the barbarians.

Qin’s position

Compared to central states, Qin’s position seemed to be very inferior. Qin was situated in present-day Gansu province of China. Its lands were not fruitful as the central plains. Water was also scarce. In addition, nomads were also rampant.

However, Qin’s position gave several opportunities. Qin was far from other warlike states that fought each other for supremacy. No one also wanted Qin barren lands. This eliminated the most dangerous threat of the era. Furthermore, these nomads provided Qin opportunities for expansion. If Qin could subjugate these nomads, it could absorb these people, and their lands.

For 300 years after its foundation, rulers of Qin focused on fighting these nomads. Qin rarely participated in the politics of China. However, Qin did intervene in other states’ affairs. For example, Duke Mu of Qin helped place Chong’Er, the prince of Jin, on this throne, and became his staunch ally.

In the fourth century BC, Qin managed to defeat all nomads and put them under its control. Qin then became one of the strongest states in the realm. However, Qin troops did not fare well against other Chinese states. The state of Wei attacked and defeated Qin. The Duke of Qin had no choice but ceded lands west of the yellow river to Wei.

Appointment of Shang Yang

This defeat seemed to terrorize rulers of Qin. In 361 BC, Duke Xiao became a duke of Qin. He really wanted to conduct statewide reforms. Fortunately, a statesman arrived from Wei seeking an employment. Duke Xiao was impressed with Shangyang’s proposed reforms, so he appointed him chancellor of his state.

Shangyang reformed every part of Qin’s society. He emphasized the usage of law and discipline. Everyone, including the heir apparent, must comply with his newly-enacted laws.

He introduced meritocracy to the state, especially to its soldiers. Anyone who performed well would be awarded regardless of his backgrounds. Shangyang also forced many farmers to relocate to new regions. This expanded Qin’s agricultural capability.

The capital was also moved to Xianyang (present-day Xi’an.) Xianyang was surrounded by mountains, so there was only one entrance, which was the Hangu Pass. If Qin troops could secure the pass, there was no threat to the capital.

Qin’s nobility surely resisted the reforms, but Duke Xiao simply ignored the protests. The reforms proved successful. Qin forces managed to crush Wei troops and seized many Wei cities. Wei had no choice but surrendered.

However, the nobility’s wrath was never faded. After Duke Xiao’s death, Shang Yang was accused of treason and executed. The new duke (later king), Huiwen despised Shang Yang but chose to continue his reforms. Under his reign, Qin conquered Ba and Shu, which had fertile lands of the south. The conquest made Qin even more formidable.

Vertical Alliance

At this point, the other six states (Chu, Qi, Wei, Zhao, Han, and Yan) realized Qin’s strength. They formed an alliance named “vertical alliance” to resist Qin. The coalition troops attacked Qin, but failed to capture Hangu pass. Qin counterattacked and defeated the coalition army.

Despite its success in fending off invaders, Qin government realized that this vertical alliance was still a dangerous threat to Qin. King Huiwen then employed a lobbyist named Zhang Yi to dismantle the alliance. Zhang Yi went to six states to create chaos and apprehension between those states. Soon, the vertical alliance was dissolved.

Final Conquest

In the late 4rd century BC, King Zhaoxiang rose to the throne. The king started a militaristic policy. Qin sent its army to capture lands of other states. Qin’s general, Bai Qi, defeated and killed hundreds of thousands of enemy troops. In the Battle of Changping, Bai Qi buried up to 400,000 Zhao troops alive. These continuous defeats weakened other states significantly, paving the way for Qin’s final conquest. King Zhaoxiang also dismantled the last remnant of Zhou Dynasty. The mandate of heaven was on Qin’s side.

When Prince Zheng became king of Qin, other six states were more or less Qin’s vassals. King Zheng started to send armies to capture these six states one by one. In spite of several setbacks and delays, Qin unified China in 221 BC.

After the unification, King Zheng crowned himself emperor, and established the Qin dynasty. He was widely known as “Qin Shihuang” or the First Emperor.

The First Emperor was a fierce, and brutal man. He governed the country with his iron fists. Every citizen must obey to him and the law. If anyone resisted, he could be severely punished. This rule also applied to every subject, including new subjects he had just acquired from the conquests.

Qin Shihuang would like to abolish old traditions and delete history of other six states, so he started a campaign to burn books, and buried scholars alive. This surely infuriated many of his subjects. The emperor also forced them to build several gigantic projects such as the Great Wall, his mausoleum (terracotta army) and the Epang palace.

Certainly, the population was not happy, but no one dared resisting, because everyone feared the emperor. The rebellion did not occur because of this only reason.

Qin Shihuang suddenly died in 210 BC. Huhai, his second son, usurped the throne, by killing the heir apparent. The second emperor was a tyrant. Soon, the peasants started the rebellion. This was followed by the nobility of the defunct six states. The imperial Qin army was decisively defeated by Xiang Yu in the Battle of Julu. The second emperor was assassinated in the capital. Within months, the new emperor surrendered to the rebel forces. He was initially spared, but executed at the end. Qin Dynasty was over.


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