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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: December 2011

3 - The Qin and Han Dynasties


My strength uprooted mountains,

My power covered the age.

But the times do not favor me,

And Piebald cannot gallop fast enough.

The territorial and symbolic unification of China in 221 bce under the Qin ruler was the result of decades, if not centuries, of warfare. The Warring States period was ended by a series of wars and campaigns that had militarized virtually all of Chinese society, spreading martial skills throughout the population. All of the states fighting for power or survival required military service from their adult male subjects, and much of a given government’s functions were involved in mobilizing resources and men for war. While the great thinkers were read and discussed by some educated men, moral suasion played little role in reducing the overall level of violence. The Qin state defeated its rivals and imposed real temporal central authority over the Chinese ecumene for the first time.

Later historians gave much of the credit for Qin’s victory, and subsequent collapse, to the policies instituted by Lord Shang (390–38 bce). Lord Shang’s policies were part of an intellectual tradition usually translated into English as “the Legalists.” The Legalists believed that the best way to run a state was through the establishment and ruthless application of rules and regulations. In the case of the Qin, those rules were designed to maximize military power and food production. Rewards were given for taking enemy heads in battle, and punishments were imposed for military failure. There was, of course, more to the success of the Qin than its harsh system of laws or its ruthless centralization of power in the hands of the ruler. All of the other states had their own systems for mobilizing enormous armies from their populations.