The Qin state’s economy was organized to create an agriculture-based, militarized society and to enhance the power and wealth of its ruler. As a result, the Qin conquered neighboring states and unified China. The Qin Dynasty, which lasted from 221 B.C. to 206 B.C., did not long survive the death of its First Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, but it bequeathed a standardized economy to future Chinese empires and states.
Warring States Period and Legalism
The era of the Warring States, from 476 B.C. to 221 B.C., was a time of political instability in the lands that became China. Hundreds of feudal lords battled to gain control over other fiefdoms and larger states. Seven states -- the Chu, Yan, Wei, Zhan, Han and Qin -- were the largest. In 356 B.C., Qin state's ruler Duke Xiao appointed Shang Yang, also called Lord Yang, a follower of Legalism, as Chief Minister to reform the Qin state. Legalism was a philosophy that cultivated absolute power. A powerful ruler and obedient subjects would ensure the stability of the state. Peoples’ behavior was controlled by strict legal codes.
The Bureaucratic State
Shang Yang’s reforms abolished the landowning aristocracy and replaced it by a centralized bureaucracy whose members were appointed or dismissed on military merit. Primogeniture was also abolished. The reforms included taxes paid in kind. Peasants were drafted into the army while convicts or people judged to be indolent and useless were conscripted for forced labor. These reforms created a strong state and powerful army that conquered neighboring states.
Language, Coinage, Weight and Measures
The “banliang,” the currency of the Qin state, became the Empire’s single currency and symbolized the Emperor’s power. All other currencies were abolished. A standardized system of weights and measures such as wheel axle lengths was in introduced to promote trade throughout the newly conquered states. Chinese characters were also standardized so that the language could be read throughout the empire.
The economic power of the Qin Dynasty derived mainly from its control over land and natural resources. The abolition of feudalism allowed serfs to own the land they worked. However, they had to pay taxes that increased the ruler’s wealth and could not sell land to someone who was not a kinsman. Peasant livestock and harvests were closely supervised by local bureaucrats, and statutes stipulated when to cut grass and wood, to fish or to set snares. Public lands were managed by bureaucrats and worked by conscript labor.
The Qin state and dynasty maintained armies of forced laborers, convicts and slaves who worked on public projects such as building roads, canal systems and bridges, and completing the Great Wall of China that marked the empire’s boundaries. Forced laborers also built the emperor’s tomb, complete with its 7,500-figure Terracotta Army. The labor burden provoked widespread discontent during the dynasty’s later years and eventually led to its downfall.
Trade and Commerce
Road and canal systems enabled internal trade in the Qin's newly conquered territories. The Qin pioneered foreign trade through the establishment of the Marine Silk Road, a sea route starting at Guangzhou on the Pearl River that flows out to the South China Sea. This enabled trade from China initially along the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, and it's the world's oldest known maritime trading route. The greatest development of this sea passage, and the land-based Silk Road into Central Asia, occurred in the subsequent Han, Sui, Tang and Song Dynasties.
- Indiana University: The Qin Revolution and the Fall of the Qin
- History World: A Brief History of China
- The Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Qin History Revisited
- City University of Hong Kong: Warring States Period
- British Museum: Qin Shihuangdi -- Ruling and Empire
- The People's Government of Shaanxi Province: Marine Silk Road
- China Education Center Ltd: History of Qin Dynasty
- Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images