Over hundreds of years, the Chinese state of Qin grew more and more powerful under the loose, feudal and relatively weak rule of the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046-256 BCE). As the Zhou decreased in power, and the states they lorded over increased in strength, the Warring States Period began, lasting from 426-221 BCE. It was a period during which the numerous kingdoms in China fought for supremacy. The Qin, under King Yeng Zheng, emerged victorious with the help of no-nonsense laws and merciless warfare. By 221 BCE, Yeng Zheng had risen to become the undisputed ruler of China. He then took the name Shihuangdi (Qin Shi Huang Di, “first emperor of Qin”) and founded the Qin Dynasty, the first true authoritarian empire in China.
The extreme legalist policies of the Qin Dynasty had some dramatic effects on China. Legalism in Shihuangdi’s empire elevated the rule of law above other sources of morality and ethics, including religion and Confucian philosophy. This coincided with the attempted censorship and possible eradication of any knowledge and education that did not align with the will of the Qin Dynasty.
In 213 BCE, Shihuangdi began the Burning of the Books, which saw to the destruction (or at least banning) of literature, history and records, often targeting works that referenced any state or dynasty other than the Qin. The burning was thorough enough to give the Han Dynasty historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), a tough time gathering information on the Warring States Period. In the end, he had to rely heavily upon a highly fictionalized text that survived the Qin Dynasty, known as the Zhanguo ce, or The Intrigues of the Warring States Period. The Intrigues severely dramatized the lives of protagonists from the Warring States Period, but at least it preserved many of the important names that may have been otherwise lost. By 212 BCE, the censorship policies had become so drastic that numerous scholars were allegedly executed.
Thankfully, the Qin Dynasty was short-lived. The extreme legalism proved to be excellent for winning an empire during a time of perpetual war, yet it was much less effective at keeping the empire stable and happy after the war was won. When Shihuangdi died in 210 BCE, his dynasty began to immediately collapse. In the following years, Shihuangdi’s heir and advisors were defeated and replaced by the Han Dynasty, which used many of the policies utilized by the Qin, but watered them down for the longevity of their rule.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture attribution: (18th century depiction of the Qin Dynasty Burning of the Books, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.