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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: March 2016

3 - Economic foundations of the universal empire (250 to 81 BCE)


Many of imperial China's political institutions and practices took shape during the reign of King Zheng of Qin (r. 247–210 BCE), first as king of Qin and ultimately as China's first emperor. The final triumph of Qin over its last remaining adversaries in 221 BCE owed much to the First Emperor's ruthless ambition and political acumen. The First Emperor vowed that his dynasty would last “for ten thousand generations,” but the Qin state quickly fell into disarray after the emperor's death in 210 BCE. His successor was murdered in 207 BCE, plunging China once again into strife and war. It has become commonplace to conclude that the Qin fashioned a strategy for conquest but failed to develop a plan for governing; such an inference is mere shibboleth, however. The Qin also established the institutional infrastructure and political practices that made possible the creation of a unified empire over a vast territory.

The military triumph of Qin owed not to any advantage in arms or tactics but rather the state's mobilization of the entire society for warfare. The army served as the model for the organization of society. Qin officials enrolled the entire population into units of five households for purposes of taxation, military service, and public works construction. Social hierarchy was based on military rank. Generous rewards and promotions were doled out to meritorious soldiers and farmers. Local officials were held to exacting standards in the execution of their duties and faced harsh punishment for even slight shortcomings. In the words of the contemporary Confucian philosopher Xun Zi, the rulers of Qin “employ their people harshly, terrorize them with authority, embitter them with hardship, coax them with rewards, and cow them with punishments.”

As we observed in Chapter 2, the centralizing regimes of the Warring States era replaced patrimonial governance with a fiscal state. The fiscal state would remain the foundation of imperial rule, but it assumed different forms over the long arc of imperial history. The distinctive form of the fiscal state during the Qin and early Han empires can be categorized as a military-physiocratic state that fused a system of social ranking and obligations derived from military organization with an agrarian economic base. The Qin-Han rulers shared the physiocratic disdain – most cogently expressed by Legalist philosophers – for commerce as inherently sterile.

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