The Achievements and Faults of Qin Shihuang, The First Emperor of China
Emperor Qin Shihuang
Before the early third century BC, what is now known as China was nothing but a number of warring states. In 221 BC, Qin Shihuang, king of Qin (from which the name of the country derives), united China and became the first emperor of China. In terms of his long-lasting impact on the history of China, Qin Shihuang's life was marked with extraordinary achievement. However, from a more humanitarian point of view, those achievements came at great costs, perhaps to a fault.
Here is a look at some of Qin Shihuang's greatest achievements and greatest faults, and my analysis of which outweighs the other.
Qin Shihuang's Top Five Achievements
Qin Shihuang achieved quite a few significant accomplishments. These include:
- Uniting China
- Establishing the Qin dynasty
- Reinforcing legalism within the Chinese administrative system
- Restructuring political divisions to form a more coherent state
- Harmonising measurement units to allow for consistent, state-wide economic development
- Standardising the different Chinese scripts
- Building the Great Wall to protect the northern borders
- Constructing the Lingqu canal in the south to connect the major waterways and prevent flooding
- Building the overall infrastructure for national economic development
- Building the impressive Terracotta Army.
Here I will elaborate on what I consider to be the emperor's top five achievements.
1. Unifying China
The most important achievement under Qin Shihuang is the unification of China. After the Qin state conquered all others, ending the Warring States period, Qin Shihuang declared himself the first emperor—until that point, there had only been kings. With that, he founded the first Chinese dynasty. He continued to expand the Qin dynasty after unifying China, going as far south as Vietnam. This laid a solid foundation for future Chinese dynasties until the collapse of the Qing dynasty in the early 1900s.
The second most important of his achievements was the reinforcement of legalism within the Chinese administrative systems. The impact of this achievement far outlasted the Qin dynasty, and survives even under the current Communist rule.
Legalism is a Chinese philosophy best captured in The Book of Lord Shang. It assumes that people are essentially bad and that the only way to maintain public order is through strict laws and severe penalties. It had a great influence on the operation of the Qin dynasty.
Another important change was that meritocracy was valued over aristocracy within the government. The high officials and generals could be anybody who had the skill and the competence for those posts, and only the ruler of the state derived his privilege from birthright. This had a fundamental impact on future Chinese dynasties, in which examinations were introduced to promote people into government capacities, as opposed to inheriting the positions, as had been done in the past.
Qin Shihuang's third most important achievement was reforming the political arrangements to ensure China would not fall again into the divisive conflict of the Warring States period. To form a more coherent state, Qin Shihuang created commanderies, or military districts, within all the conquered states. He divided his empire into 36 commanderies in all, each run by a military governor. Within each commandery were a number of counties. The central government’s strong bond with its military commanderies prevented conflicts between states from turning into wars.
The fourth achievement was standardising everything from measurement units to writing scripts.
Economically, commerce was enhanced as currency, weights, roads and cart axle length were standardised. The development of roads and canals also created better connectivity between major trading regions.
Culturally, the writing script was standardised and made official throughout the dynasty. This created better internal communications for the state. All of these changes had very long-lasting impacts on later Chinese dynasties.
5. Building the Great Wall of China
Qin Shihuang also built the Great Wall of China to protect the dynasty from raids from the north. The construction of the wall lasted for 2,000 years after he began the project, and spans 13,171 mi (21,196 km) with all of its branches. It is so expansive that US Senator Jake Garn has said he could see the wall from space shuttle orbit. The wall is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
This was not Qin Shihuang's only historic monument; he also built the impressive Terracotta Army in his pursuit of immortality. The army has over 8,000 figures, each personalized with facial details and holding actual weapons. The army was also accompanied by statues of chariots, horses, officials, acrobats, and musicians and was in fact part of an entire necropolis of offices, stables, and halls surrounding Qin Shihuang's mausoleum, built beneath a huge tomb mound. Qin Shihuang's mausoleum is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Both of these constructions withstood the test of time and are still here today, providing great cultural sites for the people of the modern era.
Qin Shihuang's Two Major Faults
Qin Shihuang’s many faults and unattractive features derive in large part from his achievements.
One of his most well-known traits is harshness, which at times was considered despotic. He is said to have maintained strict order over his kingdom, and valued obedience above all. As the first ruler to have united many Warring States and subsequently impose a central government with astonishing alacrity, this trait may seem expected in some ways.
However, historical accounts should be taken with a grain of salt. Our only concrete sources about the Qin dynasty come largely from Han historians. Qin Shihuang's legalism, which believed strict rule was necessary because people inherently could not be trusted to govern themselves, was explicitly opposed to scholars' Confucianism, which believes that humans can and should try to improve themselves.From Qin Shihuang's legalist perspective, these views held by scholars were divisive, and consequently, scholars were persecuted in different ways, as seen below.
Ordinary people resented the Qin dynasty not only because of the emperor's harshness, but also because of legalism itself. While Qin Shihuang can be blamed partially for the faults of legalism, it was seen as the only way to unite the people and maintain order in the short term.
Qin Shihuang is most frequently faulted for the burning of books and burying of scholars. Technically it was not his idea, but that of Li Si to suppress thoughts and unify political and intellectual opinions by destroying books. The burning of books was also motivated by Qin Shihuang's desire to standardise scripts, because it was a method of removing books with non-standard writing. The many different political theories known as the ‘Hundred Schools of Thought’ and many history books were destroyed in the process, with the exception of books on legalism as well as a few on divination, medicine, agriculture, and war.
Historical accounts report that he buried alive between 400 and 700 scholars in the capital after being tricked by two alchemists. He was very concerned with mortality, as shown by his building the Terracotta Army as a monument to himself, and he was always looking for ways to extend his life through supernatural means.
Some of the scholars were also Confucians—despite his first son’s advice to not do so, Qin Shihuang continued to suppress the philosophy. This was perhaps the greatest shock to his dynasty’s foundation, as it caused a lot of resentment in the Confucian community. After his son warned him about the dangers of suppressing Confucianism, Qin Shihuang sent him into exhile, further proof that the first emperor was quite ruthless toward ideas he did not like.
From a long-term perspective, the burning of the books did not have a huge impact, because at the time most books were orally transmitted. The impact has also been mitigated by books that have been dug up in recent years. However, during the Qin dynasty, it was disastrous for the newly-founded empire. Not only did it create fear within the scholars and the educated community, but also it restricted intellectual freedom, fomenting resentment.
2. Embarking on Projects of Immense Scale and Human Costs
The emperor's other major fault lay in the inhumane conditions on his huge construction projects, such as the Great Wall, the canal, the Terracotta Army, and other infrastructure projects. Harshness was expected under legalist rule, and as a result, the people suffered immensely. Countless died in these construction projects, and the resentment toward the Qin rulers grew larger and larger. The harsh conditions of construction combined with the strict Qin laws meant that even the smallest mistakes and crimes would get punished unreasonably. All of these faults of Qin Shihuang and his first dynasty eventually caused the final collapse of the short-lived dynasty.
The Final Analysis
Did Qin Shihuang’s achievements outweigh his faults? Personally, I would say yes. He did more good than harm. Fundamentally, he established a governance model that successive dynasties emulated throughout the rest of Chinese history. He had to do the unpopular work of getting everything in place for an empire, which later emperors were faced with the task maintaining, rather than creating. The Han dynasty simply re-arranged a few things to correct Qin Shihuang’s mistakes and took off from where the Qin ended, wisely learning from its mistakes. Legalism was still infused into the Chinese administrative and legal system, except that later dynasties used a Confucian coating to make it more pleasant to the masses. This made it more sustainable and functional in the long term.
Admittedly, Qin Shihuang was not a benevolent figure and his actions were certainly harsh. Still, his achievements were very important and significant to the development of Chinese culture and history, despite the short-lived dynasty. Therefore, on a long term scale, Qin Shihuang’s achievements outweigh his faults.