The Legacy of the Qin Dynasty

How China's First Emperor Still Influences the Nation Today

Young woman jogging on Great Wall of China, rear view
joSon/Digital Vision/Getty Images

The Qin Dynasty, pronounced like Chin, emerged in 221 BCE. Qin Shihuang, the king of the Qin state at the time, conquered the many feudal territories vying for influence during the bloody Warring States period. He then united them all under one rule, thus putting an end to the notoriously violent chapter in Chinese history that lasted for 200 years.

Qin Shihuang was only 38 years old when he came into power.

He created the title "Emperor" ( 皇帝,  huángdì) for himself, and thus is known as the first emperor of China.

While his dynasty only lasted 15 years, the shortest dynastic rule in Chinese history, the impact of the Qin Emperor on China cannot be understated. Although highly controversial, Qin Dynasty policies were very influential in uniting China and maintaining power.

The Qin Emperor was famously obsessed with immortality and even spent years trying to find an elixir to eternal life. Though he ultimately died, it would seem that Qin’s quest to live forever was ultimately granted – his practices and policies were carried into the subsequent Han Dynasty and continue to flourish in present-day China. 

Here are just a few remnants of Qin’s legacy. 

Central Rule

The dynasty adhered to Legalist principles, which is a Chinese philosophy that followed strict compliance with rule of law. This belief allowed Qin to rule the population from a centralized power structure and proved to be a very effective way to govern.

 

Such a policy, however, did not allow for dissent. Anyone who protested Qin's power was quickly and brutally silenced or killed off. 

Written Script 

Qin instituted a uniform written language. Before then, different regions in China had different languages, dialects, and writing systems. Imposing a universal written language allowed for better communication and implementation of policies.

For example, a singular script allowed scholars to share information with a greater number of people. It also led to the sharing of culture that was previously only experienced by a few. Additionally, a single language allowed 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.

Weights and Measures

The dynasty standardized all weights and measures, which led to more efficient commerce. This conversion also allowed subsequent dynasties to develop a taxation system.

Coinage

In another effort to unify the empire, the Qin Dynasty standardized the Chinese currency. Doing so led to greater commerce across more regions. 

The Great Wall

The Qin Dynasty was responsible for the construction of the Great Wall of China. The Great Wall marked national boundaries and acted as a defensive infrastructure to protect against invading nomadic tribes from the north. However, later dynasties were more expansionist and built beyond Qin’s original wall.

 

Today, the Great Wall of China is easily one of China's most iconic pieces of architecture.

Terracotta Warriors 

Another architectural feat that draws tourists to China is the enormous tomb in present-day Xian filled with terracotta warriors. This is also a part of Qin Shihuang's legacy.

When Qin Shihuang died, he was buried in a tomb accompanied by an army of hundreds of thousands of terracotta soldiers that were supposed to protect him in his afterlife. The tomb was uncovered by farmers digging for a well in 1974. 

Strong Personality

One other lasting impact of the Qin Dynasty is the influence of a leader’s personality in China. Qin Shihuang’s relied on his top-down method of ruling, and, on the whole, people conformed to his rule because of the power of his personality. Many subjects followed Qin because he showed them something larger than their local kingdoms--a visionary idea of a cohesive nation-state.

 

While this is a very effective way to rule, once the leader dies, so can his dynasty. 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 its practices were started in the Qin Dynasty.

Similarities in charismatic cult personalities can be seen subsequent leaders in Chinese history, such as Chairman Mao Zedong. In fact, Mao actually likened himself to Emperor Qin. 

Representation in Pop Culture

Qin was popularized in Eastern and Western media in Chinese Director Zhang Yimou’s 2002 film Hero. While some criticized the movie for advocating totalitarianism, movie-goers went to see it in droves.

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.

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Chiu, Lisa. "The Legacy of the Qin Dynasty." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2017, thoughtco.com/impact-of-the-qin-dynasty-688020. Chiu, Lisa. (2017, July 31). The Legacy of the Qin Dynasty. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/impact-of-the-qin-dynasty-688020 Chiu, Lisa. "The Legacy of the Qin Dynasty." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/impact-of-the-qin-dynasty-688020 (accessed September 25, 2017).