How the Qin Dynasty Unified Ancient China

Terracotta Army in the mausoleum of the first Qin emperor.
Terracotta Army in the mausoleum of the first Qin emperor. Public Domain, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Qin dynasty surfaced during China’s Warring States period. This era spanned 250 years—475 B.C. to 221 B.C. During the Warring States period, the city-state kingdoms of ancient China’s Spring and Autumn period consolidated into larger territories. The feudal states fought each other for power during this era characterized by advances in military technology as well as education, thanks to the influences of Confucian philosophers.

The Qin dynasty came to prominence as the new imperial dynasty (221-206/207 B.C.) after conquering rival kingdoms and when its first emperor, the absolute monarch Qin Shi Huang (Shi Huangdi or Shih Huang-ti) unified China. The Qin Empire, also known as Ch'in, is likely where the name China originates.

The Qin dynasty’s government was Legalist, a doctrine developed by Han Fei (d. 233 B.C.) [source: Chinese History (Mark Bender at Ohio State University)]. That held the power of the state and its monarch's interests paramount. This policy led to a strain on the treasury and, ultimately, the end of the Qin dynasty.

The Qin Empire has been described as creating a police state with the government holding absolute power. Private weapons were confiscated. Nobles were transported to the capital. But the Qin Dynasty also ushered in new ideas and inventions. It standardized weights, measures, coinage—the bronze round coin with a square hole in the center—writing and chariot axle widths. Writing was standardized to permit bureaucrats throughout the land to read documents. It may have been during the Qin Dynasty or late Han Dynasty that the zoetrope was invented. Using conscripted farm labor, the Great Wall (868 km) was built to keep out northern invaders.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang sought immortality through a variety of elixirs. Ironically, some of these elixirs may have contributed to his death in 210 B.C. Upon his death, the emperor had ruled for 37 years. His tomb, close to the city of Xi’an, included an army of more than 6,000 life-size terracotta soldiers (or servants) to protect (or serve) him. The first Chinese emperor’s tomb remained undiscovered for 2,000 after years his death. Farmers unearthed the soldiers as they dug a well near Xi’an in 1974.

“So far, archaeologists have uncovered a 20-square-mile compound, including some 8,000 terracotta soldiers, along with numerous horses and chariots, a pyramid mound marking the emperor’s tomb, remains of a palace, offices, storehouses, and stables,” according to the History Channel. “In addition to the large pit containing the 6,000 soldiers, a second pit was found with cavalry and infantry units and a third containing high-ranking officers and chariots. A fourth pit remained empty, suggesting that the burial pit was left unfinished at the time the emperor died.”

Qin Shi Huang’s son would replace him, but the Han Dynasty overthrew and replaced the new emperor in 206 B.C.

Pronunciation of Qin


Also Known As



The Qin dynasty is known for the terracotta army put in the emperor’s tomb to serve him in the afterlife.


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Gill, N.S. "How the Qin Dynasty Unified Ancient China." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 26). How the Qin Dynasty Unified Ancient China. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "How the Qin Dynasty Unified Ancient China." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 4, 2023).