Fascinating Facts About the Qin Dynasty


After ending the Warring States Period and uniting the six regional lords under one banner, the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huan, would rule for a mere 14 years before being replaced by the Han dynasty; but the Qin dynasty would make many advancements that would echo through Chinese history for centuries to come, some even lasting through to the modern-day.

Although the Qin dynasty ruled China with an iron fist, they managed to standardize systems of writing, measures and even developed a statewide road system. However, this came at the cost of the rights of the citizens Qin Shi Huan ruled over. And after years of dealing with huge tax levies, the suspensions of all feudal privileges, and the burning of books to keep subversive thoughts from entering the minds of commoners, the Qin would be overthrown in 207 BCE.

Here are 10 fascinating facts about the Qin Dynasty. 

10. Standardized Weights and Measures

Through the first portion of Qin Shi Huan’s rule of China, the Qin dynasty endeavored to standardize the methods with which units were measured, hoping to fix the basic units used throughout what was once divided between six states.

The unit of weight used by the Qin dynasty is called the “shi” and is also referred to as the “dan”, and was created by Shi Huan Di (who, after declaring himself the first emperor of China would be called Qin Shi Huang). A shi measures at about 60 kilograms, though the modern shi measures at about 71.68 kilograms.

Weights used to calculate grain taxes were typically composed of bronze, though some iron artifacts have been discovered with inscriptions telling of the Qin dynasty’s incredible unification of the regional lords and the commoners in great peace. To prevent corruption, Qin officials were not allowed to deviate from the shi, and this helped people to recognize the Qin dynasty’s authority.  

9. Standardized Writing

At the beginning of the Qin dynasty’s brief rule over China, Li Si, accompanied by his knowledge of seals, would introduce a more formalized version of the “large seal” style which existed previously in favor of a “small seal” style of writing. 

Before Qin Shi Huang’s rule, styles of writing were allowed to evolve independently of each other, creating a rich diversity in character styles. This is a character style known as “logographic” meaning that each symbol represents a word or phrase, as opposed to other languages like English and Spanish which feature individual letters that represent vowels and consonants. 

The Qin dynasty saw the differing writing styles used throughout the six states prior to its establishment as a threat to its continued dominance, citing that it hindered communication, trade, taxation, transportation, and could harbor dissenting political ideas.

With the establishment of the “small seal” system, Li Si would standardize the method of writing used throughout the empire. At its inception, the system featured 3,000 characters and Li Si’s work would be felt for thousands of years after the system’s introduction, only requiring small modifications with the introduction of printing in AD 600.

8. Book Burning and the Suppression of Thought

Although the standardizing of China’s writing system was a huge success, many books still contained “large seal” script that was popular in the old system. In 213 BCE the emperor would order all books which did not contain “small seal” script be burned, though it is largely agreed upon that the emperor also wanted to stamp out any thought that might lead its subjects to question the actions of the Qin. The Qin dynasty thought that the only productive uses of a commoner’s time were weaving and farming, and any time spent reading would be a waste of labor resources.

Qin Shi Huang and his advisor, Li Si, wanted to control how knowledge spread through the empire, and they would go to great lengths to accomplish this. Sima Qian, who wrote about the Qin dynasty during the Han dynasty in the year 80 BC, claimed Li Si once said to the emperor: “Your servant suggests that all books in the imperial archives, save the memoirs of Qin, be burned… Anyone referring to the past to criticize the present should, together with all members of his family, be put to death.”  

This decision made the Qin dynasty very unpopular and may have contributed to its downfall just six years after the order was given. But the Qin’s book-burning would be largely unsuccessful, as many writings are still available from the previous period. 

7. Terracotta Army

Qin Shi Huang was known for his love of impressive monuments to his honor, but before his death, he would commission that 700,000 workers be sent to construct a tomb at the foot of the Lishan Mountains, where he would rule his kingdom from the underworld. Surrounding the tomb are life-size statues of terracotta warriors, statesmen, acrobats, and even a fishpond and river.

About a mile from the tomb, the site is guarded by 7,000 warrior statues, sporting armor, spears, and 700 companion pieces like chariots and horses which give archaeologists a unique view of warfare during the period. 

Though Qin Shi Huang’s rule was short, the emperor would get his wish, although he would be remembered as a megalomaniac. 

In 1987 the burial site was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Excavation of the site, however, has been delayed due to massive amounts of toxic mercury. It’s thought that Qin Shi Huang used liquid mercury in the ponds and rivers in the tomb to simulate the flow of real water.

6. Legalism and Buried Philosophers 

Along with the standardizing of writing and measurements throughout the empire, the Qin dynasty would enforce a strict doctrine upon its people known as Legalism, banning all other forms of philosophy with drastic penalties for those who disobeyed. This form of doctrine was in strict conflict with Confucianism, which emphasizes the basic goodness of human beings and promotes the idea that one can improve their future if they examine their past. 

Along with the burning of any books containing philosophies counter to Legalism, those found guilty of perpetrating banned philosophies were condemned to death. 

Legalism teaches that human beings are bad because of an inherent selfishness and that no one unless forced to, would ever sacrifice themselves for another. 

The account written by Sima Qian of the Qin dynasty’s acts during the period following its fall claims more than 460 Confucian philosophers were buried alive in an attempt to stamp out competing philosophies. Though it is worth it to note that historians doubt the accuracy of these claims as they were made long after the fact, and an account by Wei Hong in the 2nd century claims more than 700 were killed during the rule of Qin Shi Huang. 

5. Civil Unrest and Rebellion

After Qin Shi Huang died in 210 BCE, Hu Hai would be appointed as his successor, but the end was already in sight for the Qin dynasty. Hu Hai was seen as silly and incompetent by his peers, and his appointment is thought to have finally set in motion an uprising led by peasants, Chang Shang and Wu Guang. Later the rebellion would be led by Xiang Yu. 

Xiang Yu’s armies would be responsible for defeating the Qin army, and the man would go on to execute emperor Hu Hai and destroy the capital. Xiang Yu’s actions resulted in the empire splitting up into 18 different states. 

Though peace would not be restored with the fall of the Qin dynasty, and Xiang Yu would be opposed by Liu Bang, who was originally granted the Han Valley River to rule over during the Qin dynasty’s reign, and would wage war against Xiang Yu. This period was known as the Chu-Han war. This war lasted four years, ending with Xiang Yu’s defeat and suicide at the battle of Gaixia, making Liu Bang the victor.

Liu Bang would then become the emperor of the Han dynasty.

4. Expanding South

Qin Shi Huang would not be satisfied with the land he ruled as emperor, desiring to expand the wealth and trading power of his empire. His gaze fell to the southern Yue tribes of coastal China. The Yangtze River was of particular interest to Qin Shi Huang and in 214 BCE, he sent 500,000 of his men to conquer the southern tribes, leaving only a fraction of his army to guard his borders in the north.

It is thought that Sin Tsu wrote The Art of War during this time, and this may have contributed to the Qin dynasty’s eventual victory over the southern tribes. However, during their first skirmishes, they were defeated thanks to gorilla tactics, resulting in the deaths of 100,000 Qin dynasty soldiers.

Qin would not accept defeat so easily and would build a canal to the south, which his forces would use to their advantage as they prepared for a second attack. With the strategic advantage offered by this canal, the Qin managed to defeat the southern tribes in their second attack, bringing them under the rule of Qin Shi Huang.  

3. Monuments to Conquest

Despite his apparent distaste for the arts and philosophy, Qin Shi Huang was quite fond of having huge statues and monuments constructed honoring his dynasty. After his victory over the other six warring states in 221 BCE, Qin Shi Huang would order the construction of 12 immense monuments, known as “the Twelve Colossi,” which were metal statues made from the melted weapons of his enemies. Each of them was thought to have weighed over 1,000 shi. 

Qin Shi Huang’s palace was also an architectural marvel at the time, consisting of 10 courtyard buildings around the main building which overlooked the others, running about 690 meters long and 240 meters wide. 

2. The Dujiangyan Irrigation System

Within the central part of the Sichuan province in southwest China sits the Min River, the longest portion of the Yangtze River. The Min River would flood annually in the period leading up to the Qin dynasty’s rule, causing many issues in areas that surrounded the river’s banks. But a Chinese engineer serving as administrator of the state of Qin named Li Bing would revolutionize China’s agriculture in the area and become a cultural icon after stopping any future flooding of the river. Incredibly, the Dujiangyan Irrigation System is still in use to this day and irrigates over 5,300 square kilometers of land.

Before the construction of the irrigation system, dams would be used to keep rivers from overflowing. The Dujiangyan Irrigation System is the oldest “no-dam” irrigation system in the world and is considered a marvel of early Chinese science. 

Today, the irrigation system is composed of two parts: The Weir Works, situated 726 meters above sea level, and the highest point of the Chengdu plain, which is located about one kilometer from Dujiangyan City.

1. The Great Wall

Built as a means to keep forces such as the Mongolians and Huns out of China, the Great Wall of China is one of the greatest construction feats of the classic age. Qin Shi Huang forced 700,000 people to help bring the wall to completion, and thousands of them were crushed beneath the massive gray stones used to form its foundation and structure. The wall was constructed to defend against attackers from the north, who often looted the property of southern farmers.

At the time of the Qin dynasty, the wall was about 2,414 kilometers long and wide enough at the top to fit as many as six horses at one time. 

The construction of the wall alone could not stop the Mongolians, however, and Qin Shi Huang would order China’s first true standing army, consisting of millions of soldiers, to stand guard atop the wall to protect the Qin’s lands from the threat of invaders. 

Though the Great Wall had been under construction for centuries, it was the Qin dynasty that united smaller walls, forming what was known at the time as “the 10,000 Li Wall.” 

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