The Great Unification: The Ch'in, 221-206 BC


The Ch'in

   Ancient China had always been a collection of more or less independent states in the north of China. The Shang and the Chou dominated the political landscape as the most powerful of those states, but they did not exercise uniform rule over neighboring regions. When the Chou began to weaken around 500 BC, these independent states began to war among themselves over territory and influence. So chaotic was this period, that the Chinese refer to it as The Warring States period, and it did not end until the whole of north China was unified under a single empire, the Ch'in dyansty.

   In Chinese history, the Ch'in are the great, evil dynasty, but Western historians often stand in awe of the Ch'in. They were repressive, autocratic, and frequently cruel, but they were also brilliant political theorists and reformers who historically brought about one of the most energetic periods of Chinese government. Their story, however, is a very brief one. For from the time the Ch'in unified China in 221 BC, to the time of their fall fifteen years later in 206 BC, not even a generation had passed. For all that, so great was their accomplishment that our name for China is derived from the Ch'in.

   The Ch'in were a small state in the western reaches of the Wei River. As with all states during the Warring States period, the Ch'in pursued an aggressive policy of territorial expansion. The Ch'in, however, had one great advantage: they had adopted a new style of government based on the principles of the Legalists. Ultimately based on Confucianism, Legalism held that human beings were fundamentally base and selfish and had to be strictly controlled through laws. These laws were effective only if punishments were severe and certain, so the Ch'in kingdom was frighteningly autocratic. But Legalist philosophy also demanded a strong central government, a strong military, a tightly controlled economy, and the strict regimentation of the citizens of the state. As a result, the Ch'in kingdom grew powerful and wealthy in a very short time.China Atlas
The Ch'in Unification

Chinese Philosophy
Legalism


Ch'in shih-huang-ti

   We traditionally date the start of the Ch'in dynasty to 256 BC, although the unification of China didn not occur until 221 BC. By 256 BC, the Ch'in had become the most powerful state in China, and in 246 BC, the kingdom fell to a thirteen year old boy, Ch'eng. As a young man, he surrounded himself with brilliant Legalist ministers. His most powerful and trusted advisor was Li Ssu, one of the foundational theorists of Legalism. Under their advice, in 232 BC, King Ch'eng, at the age of twenty-seven, began a vigorous campaign to unify and centralize all the northern kingdoms. The surrounding kingdoms were no match for the wealth and military power of the Ch'in, and by 221 BC, Ch'eng conquered all of the northern kingdoms.

   He assumed the title, Ch'in shih-huang-ti, or "The First Exalted Emperor of the Ch'in." Under his guidance, and the advice of Li Ssu, Ch'in shih-huang-ti created the form of government which served as the model for all future Chinese dynasties. First, the government was centralized around the emperor and his ministers. In order to facilitate that centralization, the Ch'in replaced the old, feudal system in which territory was controlled by more or less independent nobility with a strong, hierarchical bureaucracy. All the members of this bureaucracy, as well as the ministers of the state, would be appointed by the central government. In order to break the power of the aristocracy, he confiscated their lands and distributed them to the peasants. To facilitate the taxationprocess, government taxes were taken directly from the peasants rather than passing throught the hands of the aristocracy.

   In order to cement the centralization of government, Ch'in shih-huang-ti embarked on an ambitious campaign of standardizing money and weights and measures. The Ch'in emperor also put the most severe of Legalist doctrines into practice as well. The laws of the unified empire were strict and harsh, particularly if you were in government. The penalty for any corruption at all among government servants was death. The Legalists also believed in centralization of thinking, fearful that any non-Legalist ways of thinking could lead to disruption and revolution. So all the other schools of philosophy were outlawed, especially Confucianism, and their books were burned and their teachers were executed. The Ch'in were also hard on commerce. Seeing it as a form of infection or parisitism, the Ch'in severely restricted trade and mercantilism, taxed the merchants heavily, and executed merchants for the most trivial offenses.

   The Ch'in, however, set their eyes on more than the administration of the northern territories. They turned south and steadily conquered the southern regions of China all the way to the Red River in north Vietnam. Their greatest enemy, however, was to the north. Called the Hsiung Nu, these nomadic, Hunnish people, had been making constant incursions into the northern territories all during the Chou period. The peoples north of China had originally developed as hunters and fishers, but when the region began to dry out and the forests receded, they turned to keeping flocks. As a result they learned horsemanship and began to wander nomadically; they also began to fight among themselves. This constant fighting made them highly skilled at fighting on horseback, and when they began to wander into the northern states of China, they made extremely formidable opponents for the infantry-focussed northern states. In response to these incursions, the northern kingdoms all during the Chou period built walls and fortifications along their northern borders. The Ch'in began a massive project of joining many of these walls and fortifications. Althought the Ch'in did not build the "Great Wall" as historians used to claim (the Great Wall was built during the Ming dynasty), this fortification and building project during the Ch'in period was in itself truly amazing.

The Fall of the Ch'in

   Ch'in shih-huang-ti died in 210 BC at the age of forty-nine; the amazing thing about the empire he had founded is that it collapsed only four years after his death. While the Legalist government of Ch'in shih-huang-ti was ruthlessly efficient in its control over the state and the bureaucracy, that ruthlessness proved to be its undoing. The emperor, who had hoped to found a dynasty lasting over ten thousand years, had alienated many people, particularly the landed aristocarcy. The building projects of the Ch'in demanded forced labor and heavy taxation; people all throughout the empire were on the verge of revolt. Finally, the Ch'in had created a government that virtually ran without the emperor, who remained aloof from day to day governing. Upon Ch'in shih-huang-ti's death, the two most powerful administrators, Li Ssu and Chao Kao, covered up his death and took over the governmnet. They installed a puppet emperor, but for the most part all Chinese government rested in their hands. Both Li Ssu and Chao Kao ruthlessly enforced penalties on lower administrators; because of this, regional administrators kept secret the revolts and uprisings in their territories for fear of punishment. Eventually, Chao Kao eliminated Li Ssu, and the territorial uprisings became so severe that they could no longer be kept secret. By that point, it was too late, and the dyansty that was to last ten thousand years disappeared only four years after its founder died.

The Former Han, 206 BC-25 AD

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 5-9-97