34. Ch’in Empire (221-207 BCE)

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The Rise of the Ch’in & the End of Feudalism

The Beginning of the End for Feudalism

As the rules of warfare changed in China’s Warring States Era, the stronger states began swallowing up the smaller ones. By about 450 BCE seven states had conquered the rest. These states were constantly battling each other. In about 270 BCE, Fan Sui, a disgraced official from the state of Wei, gave King Chao of the state of Ch'in the following advice:

"Those skilled at enriching their families do so at the expense of the state; those skilled at enriching the state do so at the expense of other states."1

King Chao of state of Ch’in reverses feudalization

Prior to this time, the state of Ch'in had a feudal mindset like the rest. The king had given his uncles huge fiefs. Further, these uncles had been warring against their neighbors for their own good rather than the good of the state.

If King Chao had died at this time, the state of Ch'in might have split up again. But upon hearing this advice, King Chao demoted and banished his uncles, assuming total control himself. This was the beginning of the end for feudalism in China and the beginning of the centralizing process.

The state of Ch'in ceased to dissipate their own power by 'enriching their families' 'at the expense of the state', i.e. traditional feudalism. King Chao began 'enriching his state' 'at ‘the expense of other states' by expanding his borders. King Chao retained control for himself. Instead of relying upon family, he began to rely upon capable advisors. His strategy rings of notion of government espoused by Confucius. It is opposed to the ju notion of family and hereditary privilege.

The 'First Emperor' of Ch’in

Having significantly expanded Ch'in's borders and power, King Chao died after a 56-year reign. Following some very short reigns, his brother's grandson became king of Ch'in. Continuing his grand uncle’s policies, he finally conquered all the states of China by 221 BCE. He also pushed back the nomadic tribes of the northern steppes, i.e. the 'barbarians'. Instead of continuing to conquer as did Alexander the Great or Napoleon, he decided to consolidate his gains. He took the name of 'First Emperor', i.e. Shih Huang Ti. In a move to eliminate any feudal tendencies, he killed all the remaining kings and abolished the names of their states.

Ch’in from the western border take advantage

Battling the nomadic tribes on their northern borders had toughened the state of Ch’in, just as these military conflicts had toughened the preceding state of Chou a millennium before. The Ch’in absorbed the nomad’s military techniques as well as their militarily based culture. Their foundation was in military power, not creativity. The Empire could be considered metal, not wood.

Shih Huang Ti, ‘the First Emperor’ establishes order

The metal of the legalistic Ch’in dictatorship under Shih Huang Ti, “The First Emperor”, united China in a way that hadn’t been possible under the feudalistic Chou. Upon seizing control on the law and order ticket, the ‘First Emperor’ of the Ch’in revolutionized the Chinese world.

“Ch’in Shih Huang Ti abolished the political system of the Chou, with its many petty states and hereditary princes, and divided the country into 36 provinces, over each of which he set officials appointed by and directly responsible to himself. … He introduced a uniform system of laws, weights and measures, thus aiding both unity and commerce.”2

Book burning

This was the good side of metal, introducing regularity and order. He also burned all the books about the past and executed many scholars. This was the bad side of metal, excessive rigidity and intolerance.

“The Legalists put up the Ch’in dictatorship (221-207 BCE) which burned all books in 213 BCE except those in imperial archives and works on medicine, divination and agriculture.”3

For this reason, Chinese scholars and historians call him the 'First Emperor' of the Ch’in. As we shall see, he really deserves to be called the ‘First Emperor’ of China, as his rule was a decisive factor in the unification of China.


Employing extreme punishments to deal with resistance, the First Emperor unified codes, measures and language in the territories under his control. These draconian procedures united China as an empire. For the first time, states both north and south of the Yangtze were united under a common rule. This unification would have been impossible under the myriad regional variations of the feudalistic Chou.

A few questions emerge. How was the 'First Emperor' able to conquer and unify China? How was he able to enforce his laws? How did the philosophy of legalism enter in? Why did he burn all the books?

Legalism to rule the new Chinese Empire

After conquering this enormous territory, the first question was how to rule the largest Empire that China had ever known. His advisors of the aristocratic ju class, contrary to Confucius, advised that he reward family and friends with large fiefs. This showed the side of Confucianism that worshipped the good old days of the Chou dynasty. They wanted to return to the supposedly idyllic times of the past.

Li Ssu, Chief Justice of Ch'in,

Li Ssu, Chief Justice of Ch'in, also a philosopher and follower of Han Fei and the legalists, offered a different solution. He pointed out that granting fiefs worked for a short time. However in the long run, this practice led to the downfall of the Chou dynasty because of the splintering nature of infighting. He said reward your friends and family with pensions and titles, but retain power through strict laws. Legalism. Administer the kingdom through a centralized bureaucracy based upon merit rather than bloodline. Confucius.

First Emperor attempts to be good ruler

The 'First Emperor' agreed. The Ch'in passed laws that applied equally to everyone. He abolished aristocratic titles and either killed the aristocrats or put them to work. Attempting to be the enlightened ruler, he set himself a daily quota of 120 pounds of documents.4 Confucius. It became against the Law to challenge the Law or the State. Legalism.

Heavy Punishments for Light Crimes

Li Ssu counseled legalistically that heavy punishments should be meted out for minor offenses in order to teach a firm lesson.

“Only an intelligent ruler is capable of applying heavy punishments to light offenses. If light offenses carry heavy punishments, one can imagine what will be done against a serious offense. Thus the people will not dare to break the laws.” Li Ssu

Li Ssu didn’t count on the fact that when the punishment is excessive that it creates outlaws, i.e. people living beyond and against the law. It was these people that eventually undermined the Ch’in state.

Book burning & Scholar burying

Nine years after the ascendancy of the Ch'in, a scholar, at a celebration of the 33rd year of the Emperor's rule over the Ch'in, pointed out that nothing lasted long that was not based upon ancient examples. This rumbling of the ju class aroused the animosity of Li Ssu. He responded,

"These scholars learn only from the old, not from the new. … They discuss each new decree, judging it according to their own schools of thought, opposing it in their hearts, while discussing it openly in the streets. This must be stopped."

The solution they chose was extreme: burn all the ancient books and execute anyone who quoted from them. The 'First Emperor' had 400 scholars buried alive as an example to the rest. This earned him the perpetual animosity of the Chinese scholars, who refuse to give the Ch'in Dictatorship much credit.

The Fall of the Ch’in

Also the Chinese don't grant much credit to something that doesn't last long. Even though the system set up by the Ch’in has dominated the Chinese political landscape for 2000 years, even though China itself is named after the Ch’in dynasty, even though the very unification of China with a sense of national identity started from this point, the First Emperor’s family and legalistic philosophy did not continue to rule China after his death. Li Ssu, his main advisor, was so aware of the fragility of the Empire that he concealed the death of the First Emperor in 210 BCE for two months. Indeed within four years of his death in 206 BCE, the legalistic system of the Ch’in Empire had been overthrown and replaced by the more tolerant Han dynasty.

“Ch’in has fared badly at the hands of later Chinese historians because of its harsh laws and cruel punishments, the grandiose and often eccentric deportment of the First Emperor, the anti-intellectualism of the regime and especially its anti-Confucianism, and the short life and rapid collapse of the dynasty. But Ch’in had fully destroyed the ancient feudal order and had demonstrated that China could indeed be united, centralized, and strong with a new kind of society and government. The establishment of the precedent makes the short Ch’in era one of the major watersheds of Chinese history.”5

Who’s behind the attack

Although his family didn’t continue to rule China after his death, the First Emperor’s transformative effect upon China was major. The economic uniformity and the writing system that he introduced still exist. But the Ch’in family doesn’t exist, nor his philosophy.

Due to their intimate connection to ancestor worship, the Ju School judge by the duration of the family line, not by achievement. Second, the Ch’in looked to the future rather than to the past for inspiration. The Ju School, which achieved ascendancy in the Han, looked to the past for guidance. No matter that the Ch’in had created a centralized bureaucracy based upon merit to rule the kingdom. Confucius would have been pleased, but not the Confucians of the ju class who judged the First Emperor by their value system rather than on his actual merit. As such, Confucian scholars never refer to the Ch’in ruler as the First Emperor of China, but only as the first Emperor of the Ch’in.

First Emperor Standardizes Chinese Ideograms

Oddly enough, one of the major accomplishments of the First Emperor was that he standardized the Chinese ideograms.6

Ch’in purification

During the splintering of the Chou into many feudal states, the written language was also splintering, acquiring many regional variations. With centuries piled upon centuries, we can imagine these variations had become quite extreme. With the centralization and book burning under the Ch’in dictatorship, the Chinese written language achieved a consistency that bridged cultural differences.

Burning books and unifying the written language

 On the one hand, the First Emperor burned books and executed scholars. On the other hand, he standardized the Chinese ideograms, removing local idiosyncrasies. This seemingly paradoxical behavior had a higher meaning. The First Emperor burned all the books with the old ideograms so that individual states couldn’t hold onto their old systems. He felt that metal had to applied in an extreme way to this overgrowth of wood. He cut the tree back to its bare roots, for its own health. This purification and integration of the Chinese language has to be considered the single most important element in the consolidation of the Chinese as a unified culture.

Memorized at the end of the Chou, written down in Han

After the book burning, certain individuals memorized many of the Chinese classics. Then these scholars emerged and wrote their books down with the overthrow of the Ch’in, at least according to tradition. However, they transcribed the texts, not in their old script, but in the new standardized script. Hence nearly all of our surviving Chinese manuscripts were written after the Ch’in book burning in the new standardized script. This script is basically the same one that is used today.

Unified under trade

Along with the standardization of written Chinese, the First Emperor also standardized the weights and measures7. In such a way, the large amorphous artistic state of Ch’u in the south of China was unified with the semi-barbarian military state of Ch’in in the north through a standardization of the most common elements. This created a mutual foundation for trade that transcended extreme language, religious, and cultural differences.

Cultured elite have a common language

Furthermore, now the educated elite could communicate cross-culturally. The standardization of the ideograms established a common conceptual written language for discourse. This additional aspect of Chinese thought is incredibly powerful. In the study of Chinese ideas, one comes to realize the importance of the individual words. In China, a word is created to crystallize a unique concept. An ideogram is created to signify that word. Then essays and books are written about what that word means in both micro and macro contexts. As great thinkers extended the meanings of these ideograms, while possibly creating new ones, the ideograms would achieve a life of their own as they spread throughout the Chinese empire.

Chinese Ideograms, Algebraic Notation, & the Alphabet

To better understand the unifying nature of Chinese ideograms, let us examine the differences and similarities between this script and both the Western alphabet and algebraic notation. In this way, the magnitude of the difference between the European and Chinese written language and its implications will become clear.

European literary mish mash

Let us first consider literature, whether fiction, philosophy, or religious tracts. The French, German, English, Italian, and Spanish, not to mention myriad other European cultures, typically write articles, pamphlets, and books in their own language. Only the most scholarly of individuals have read books from each of these cultures in the original language. Only books that emerge from the background are translated to the mother language. As such, it is more difficult for European thinkers to consider the ideas written in another language. Also, idioms translate incompletely. A translation is always a step away from the original.

Common Scientific language

In contrast, European mathematicians and scientists were able to achieve incredible technical leaps through mutual forward progress. This was because they were using the universal language of mathematics to communicate. Indeed scholars have suggested that the main reason that European math and science achieved such spectacular results compared to the rest of the world was the creation of this common universal language. Indeed, the many diverse cultures of the globe, including the Chinese, employ the same algebraic notation of the West to communicate mathematical concepts. In contrast, many cultures developed their own script, i.e. ‘alphabet’, to express verbal concepts in their mother language.

Mathematical Concepts tied to algebraic notation

The scientific concepts are sometimes even tied to the ideograms themselves, i.e. the notation. While Maxwell’s equations have meaning outside the notation, they are more easily understood through the algebra than through the written words. Indeed after attempting to read the old Greek geometry, one quickly realizes how powerful the modern mathematical notation is. While words are cumbersome and ineffectual, the same concept expressed in mathematical symbols is precise and unambiguous. No matter which culture one belongs to, algebraic notation is a more powerful tool than words for communicating mathematical and scientific concepts.

The universal, non-phonetic nature of Chinese ideograms fulfills(ed) the same role. The ideograms acted to bridge the literate class of the diverse cultures of China, Japan and even Korea. Although speaking entirely different languages, they were still able to easily exchange ideas due to their common script.

The ability to ‘name’ a concept, for instance acceleration, with algebraic notation enables the scientific community to more easily discover relationships with other variables and communicate in a precise fashion. Similarly, naming a concept with a Chinese ideogram enables the literati to communicate sophisticated ideas quite precisely despite language and cultural differences. When these same words are translated into another language family, this precision is lost or obscured.

When Western scholars translate certain Chinese ideograms, they frequently employ one word in one context and another word in a different context. The word Tao is variously translated as Method, Path, or the Way in English – none of which come close to the original meaning. Compounding the problem, scholars from different nationalities translate Tao into their own language – employing local idioms to communicate the nuances of the Chinese concept. A multiplicity of words and phrases are used to translate a single Chinese word. To illustrate the ambiguity, consider how confusing it would be if scientists translated acceleration, force and mass into their own language, instead of employing algebraic notation.

How is yin and yang translated

As another example, originally yin was translated as ‘dark’, while yang was translated as ‘light’. Obviously dark and light are inadequate translations. Gradually with increased knowledge of Chinese thought, the words yin and yang have come into common usage in the West. While not many know the full implications of the words, anyone can form his or her own opinion as to the meaning of the philosophy associated with them. Yet it would take hundreds of European words to describe what yin and yang mean. There is still no effective European word in any language that effectively translates as yin and yang.

To finish this line of thought, Chinese philosophers were able to communicate in a universal language across a broad range of cultures. This cross-cultural mix created a fertile ground for the transmission of ideas. Like European science, they were able to reach a precision and economy of sophistication in their word concepts. With a single ideogram, the Chinese can express a sophisticated concept to a multitude of diverse cultures. In the West, each culture has its own word with a unique spelling to express the same concept. (This was not as true, of course, when Latin was the universal literary language of Western Europe.)

When translating Chinese, we are like the Greek geometers, expressing sophisticated concepts in a bulky way. It is for this reason that some philosophers have suggested that Chinese terms must be adopted to express certain concepts rather than attempting to translate them into our mother tongue. Employ the Chinese words: Tao, yin, yang, and Tai Chi rather than the English words: Way, dark, light and grand ultimate. Introduce the concept associated with the word and then expand the word, rather than trying to find a European equivalent.

Ch’in accomplishments

Let us recapitulate. With the disintegration of order at the end of the Chou, the state of Ch’in on the northwestern frontier seized control of the imperial regalia and the country. Subsequent with the expansion of China’s borders, they built or finished the Great Wall in order to keep the nomads from the northern steppes out of imperial territory. According to legend, this wall was 1400 miles long.8 Purportedly the First Emperor wanted to construct something that could be seen from the Moon. This has been a great source of pride for the Chinese in modern times, as an example of their ancient tradition and craftsmanship.9

“The boundaries of the Empire were greatly extended, bringing South China and Tonkin for the first time under Chinese rule. The Feudal aristocracy were dispossessed and forcibly moved in tens of thousands to Shensi; rigid standardization of the written language, of weights and measures and of wagon axles was enforced and over it all Shih-Huang-Ti [the First Emperor] set a centralized bureaucracy controlled by the watchful eye of the censors. … But while these measures imposed an intolerable burden on the educated minority, they unified the scattered tribes and principalities and now for the first time we can speak of China as a political and cultural entity. This unity survived and was consolidated on more humane lines during the Han dynasty, so that the Chinese of today still look back on this epoch with pride and call themselves’ men of Han’.”10

Feudalism to centralization

Before the Ch’in dictatorship, China had been dominated by a multitude of small hereditary kingdoms (1000, according to Chinese tradition), each with their own laws, weights and measures. Further, these small principalities were continually fighting amongst themselves – not unlike Europe up until modern times. The Ch’in abolished hereditary rule and divided China up into provinces with administrators appointed by the Emperor. Furthermore they standardized weights and measures throughout the land. Over 2000 years ago, the First Emperor accomplished in China what the Common Market is still squabbling about in Europe currently. He didn’t listen to partisan politics; he forced his way upon the whole country. By force of personality, he created modern China as an imperial power. He also set the stage for the Confucian revolution that would follow.

Hereditary politics shifted to merit by Ch’in

Basically Europe and Chou China were dominated by hereditary politics, with all the insanity this breeds. During Ch’in China, Shih Huang Ti shattered this system and administered the whole country with the help of his capable advisors, eliminating hereditary idiosyncrasies. The Han dynasty extended this system of administration, by basing these administrative positions upon state exams.11

US Civil War similarity

This centralization of China was similar to the centralization of the United States after the Civil War. Before the Civil War, the states had joined the central government in a voluntary way. They reserved for themselves the right to make their own laws and to withdraw from the collective union if they didn't agree with the laws made by the central government. The central government under Abraham Lincoln made it clear that this was not a voluntary organization by militarily forcing the Southern States to obey the laws of the federal government. In the United States, there were some 40 states to deal with. In China, there were perhaps a thousand states to deal with. The United States Civil War took 4 years. The unification of China took 250 years.

United States of China

Initially each of the states wanted to make their own choices. After conquering the rest, the Ch'in forced everyone to belong to their political organization with its laws, weights, currency, and writing system. No more choices, except what was allowed by the Imperial government. The United States of China.

Ch’in, a major watershed

The reign of the First Emperor, while remembered as a dictatorship for its strict laws and book burning, left a lasting mark on China, by uniting its diverse peoples under a common literary and imperial culture. The legalistic Ch’in government unified China. They homogenized the culture by establishing uniformity of weights, measure and written language. Furthermore they broke down traditional boundaries that had separated the Chinese into different feudal territories. But all these changes were accomplished by suspending Chinese personal liberty and freedom; these were painful, wrenching times. The Chinese had experienced a free but chaotic society at the end of the Chou and subsequently an ordered society with no freedom during the Ch’in. Now they were ready for freedom and order. Enter the Han dynasty.


1 The Cartoon History of the Universe II, Larry Gonick, p. 92, Doubleday, 1994

2 EB 5, 520

3 EB, Confucianism 6-238a

4 Cartoon History, p. 113

5 China to 1850: a Short History, Charles O. Hucker, p. 54, Stanford, 1978

6 “In 221 BC the different forms of written script were standardized, and a form much as we know it today was authorized.” Chinese Art,  MacKenzie, 1961 p29

7 “Other centralizing policies included census taking and standardization of the writing system and weights and measures.” © 1995, Compton's New Media, Inc.

8 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan 64

9 According to recent scholarship the Great Wall was probably finished and put into its present state during the Ming dynasty, nearly 2000 years after the demise of the Ch’in dynasty.

10 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p 65

11 Extending the European analogy, it would have been as if Napoleon  had been successful in conquering all of Europe and then had abolished the royalty and appointed his own administrators.


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