II. Ancient and Classical Periods, 3500 B.C.E.–500 C.E. > C. Early Civilizations and Classical Empires of South and East Asia > 5. China, 221 B.C.E.–589 C.E.
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
5. China, 221 B.C.E.–589 C.E.
The year 221 B.C.E. marked the emergence of East Asia's first unified empire, that of the Qin in China, followed soon thereafter by the Han. Han expansionism in all directions, but especially to the northeast, south, and southeast, brought Chinese civilization to what is now Korea and Vietnam. There was still, at this time, minimal contact with Japan. The notion of an East Asian or Sinitic sphere began to take shape. Despite the breakup of the Han Empire in 220 C.E., this East Asian region continued to retain its overall form, and, in the subsequent Three Kingdoms period in China, Japan established contact with the state of Wei. The Period of Division from 220 C.E. through reunification of China in 589 marked the major second subdivision of the larger period. By the late 6th century, East Asia as a unit was firmly in place.  1
221–206 B.C.E
QIN DYNASTY (or Qin Empire). Originally a feudal state to the west of the ruling Zhou house, the Qin had weathered a long history of military conflicts with non-Sinic tribes along its borders. In the process, it developed an ironhanded political tradition. It was the first truly unified Chinese dynasty to control a region all of which was considered to be “China.” Although the size and shape of “China” would change over the subsequent centuries, Qin laid the foundations of a government structure and bureaucratic administration for all later dynasties.  2
247–210 B.C.E
The reign of SHI HUANGDI, “China's first unifier,” was an era in which the very idea of a Chinese dynasty as such came into being. The “feudal” decentralized form of the Zhou was transformed into a centralized governmental structure with a bureaucracy; former feudal states were abolished and incorporated into the new regime. The political map of China was redrawn into a system of districts and prefectures for levels of local administration with a strict chain of command. Precedents for this system can be found in the work of Guan Zhong (7th cent. B.C.E., state of Qi), Shen Buhai (d. 337 B.C.E., Han), and Long Shang (d. 338 B.C.E., Qin). Qin standardized weights, measures, coins, wheel-axle widths, even variant Chinese writing in an effort to overcome the plethora of regional systems in use till then. Qin also sought to standardize thought by ending the philosophical debates popular in the late Zhou, so as to forestall criticism of the Qin state and its tough policies.  3
221, 219, 213 B.C.E
Former great families and their dependents (numbering in the tens of thousands) were removed to the capital where they could be watched.  4
213 B.C.E
The great book burning proscribed all writings other than official state documents, texts on agriculture and medicine, and some writings on divination.  5
212 B.C.E
The execution of 460 scholars was ordered by the emperor in a draconian effort to standardize thought as he was doing with weights and measures. A new palace was constructed in the rebuilt capital at Xi'an, and Shi Huangdi made grand tours throughout his realm. He also began construction on his own huge tomb. He undertook massive public works projects: a network of uniform-width roads, better waterways, a canal linking the Yangzi River to south China so as to facilitate the movement of goods to armies in the south, and a linking of the walls built by some of the northern states along the northern border into the first Great Wall of China. All of these projects cost many lives. Harsh Qin laws, inspired by Legalism, supported these labor drives and the forced labor of criminals. There was also continued fighting with states south of the core Zhou homeland.  6
210 B.C.E
By the time of Shi Huangdi's death, Qin conquests in the south reached as far as the Hanoi area of Vietnam. In the process, all former city walls were destroyed; all weapons were seized and melted down for the Qin imperial palace. Late in life, Shi Huangdi sought a Daoist elixir to attain immortality, and Li Si took over affairs of state. Shi Huangdi had earlier banished his eldest son and heir, leaving a will that he succeed him, but Li Si hid the will after the emperor's death, forged an edict demanding this son commit suicide, and placed the second son on the Qin throne.  7
208 B.C.E
Li Si was imprisoned by a fellow schemer and executed.  8
207 B.C.E
The weak second Qin emperor was poisoned.  9
206 B.C.E
Qin surrendered to rebel forces.  10
Qin state and society were built on a strict brand of Legalism. While this enabled the regime to rise rapidly, it ultimately undid it as well. In an effort to abolish the Zhou social order and nobility, Qin eliminated heredity as grounds for bureaucratic recruitment; only service to the state mattered, and only rewards and punishments were meted out. Qin also began using eunuchs more extensively than earlier as the emperor's personal attendants to watch over the harem. Conflicts between regional bureaucrats and eunuchs became endemic. Merchants were particularly despised, and many were banished to the far south. Legalism was respected at the expense of almost all other schools of Zhou thought.  11
207–206 B.C.E
The many rebellious groups that arose in late Qin boiled down to Xiang Yu (232–202 B.C.E.) of Chu noble stock and Liu Bang (c. 256–195 B.C.E.) of poor peasant stock. They had worked together to bring down the Qin. After the Qin capital surrendered, Xiang destroyed it, angering Liu who had accrued a popular following among the rebels for his evenhandedness. Xiang, a brilliant strategian, lost out in the struggle and committed suicide.  12
202 B.C.E.–9 C.E
The FORMER OR WESTERN HAN DYNASTY was founded by Liu Bang (posthumous temple name (Han) Gaozu, r. 202–195 B.C.E.), who had been Prince of Han since 206 B.C.E., the first time a peasant rose all the way to become emperor. He relied on advisers for civil and military matters and rewarded them accordingly; he relaxed Qin authoritarian controls of state, so that government could serve the populace. He realized that one “can conquer the realm on horseback, but one must dismount to rule.” Taxes were lowered on farmers. While the basic Qin bureaucratic structure was retained, Gaozu gave to his major supporters hereditary fiefs in the eastern half of the Han Empire, realizing that he could not maintain the Qin centralization and keep order.  13
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.