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The Impact of the Qin Dynasty

China's First Emperor


Young woman jogging on Great Wall of China, rear view
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Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of China, was 38 years old when he came into power, unifying China from a 200-year period where six warring states all vied for power. While his Dynasty only lasted 15 years, the impact of the Qin Emperor on China cannot be understated.

Practices and policies of the Qin Dynasty (221 BCE-206 BCE) were so influential and conducive to power that they were carried into the subsequent Han Dynasty and continue to flourish in present-day China. Here are just some remnants of Qin’s legacy:

* Central Rule: The dynasty adhered to Legalist principles, a Chinese philosophy that followed strict compliance to a rule of law. This belief allowed Qin to rule the population from a centralized power structure and proved a very effective way to govern. Such a policy however, did not allow for dissent.

* Written Script: Qin instituted a uniform written language, allowing for greater communication and implementation of policies. Such a script allowed scholars to share information to a greater number of people and lead to the transmittal of culture that was previously only seen by a few. A single language allowed the later dynasties to communicate with nomadic tribes and pass along information on how to negotiate or fight with them.

* Roads: The construction of roads allowed for greater connections between provinces and major cities. The dynasty also standardized the length of axles in carts so that they could all ride on the newly-built roads.

* The Great Wall: Construction of the Great Wall of China marked national boundaries that led to greater unity. Such a move was defensive, to protect against invading nomadic tribes to the north, though later dynasties were more expansionist and built over Qin’s original wall.

* Weights and Measures: The dynasty standardized all weights and measures that led to more efficient commerce and would allow subsequent dynasties to develop a taxation system.

* Coinage: The dynasty also standardized the Chinese currency, adding to greater commerce.

One other lasting impact of the Qin Dyansty is the power of a leader’s personality in China. After Qin Shihuang’s death in 210 BCE, his son, and later his grandson, took power, but both were short lived. The Qin Dynasty came to a close in 206 BCE, just four years after Qin Shihuang’s death. Almost immediately following his death, the same warring states that he unified sprang up again and China was again under numerous leaders until it was unified under the Han Dynasty. The Han would last over 400 years, but much of it’s practices were started in the Qing Dynasty.

Qin Shihuang’s power lied in his top-down rule, and people conformed because of the power of his personality. They followed him because he showed them something larger than their local kingdoms, an inkling into a future nation-state. The fact that China is named after Qin is also testament to his influence. While this is a very effective way to rule, once the leader dies, so can his dynasty. Similarities can be seen subsequent dynasties and in the modern era, such as with the death of Chairman Mao Zedong. Mao actually likened himself to Emperor Qin.

Qin Shihuan was buried in a tomb accompanied by an army of hundreds of thousands of terracotta soldiers in present-day Xian. The tomb was uncovered by a farmers digging for a well in 1974. The Emperor had been obsessed with immortality and spent years trying to find an elixir to life. While physical immortality was never achieved, it would seem Qin’s quest for to live forever was ultimately granted – his policies and legacy are practiced and remembered in China today.

Qin was most-recently popularized in Chinese Director Zhang Yimou’s 2002 film Hero, which some have criticized as advocating totalitarianism. Movie goers however, went to see it in droves. Already a hit in China and Hong Kong, when it opened to North American audiences in 2004, it was the number one movie, and grossed $18 million in its opening weekend – a rarity for a foreign film.

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