Like in the case of the Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), the Qin dynasty's 秦 (221-206 BCE) homelands were in the far west, between nomadic tribes, a circumstance giving it probably more energy for a constant military readiness than the people in the states in the Yellow River plain.
The Empire of Qin as a Modern State
The victory over the many "Warring States" was not only due to the military superiority of the Qin armies but was acheived by many reforms of the state itself. The great legalist reformer of the dukedom of Qin was Lord Shang Yang 商君鞅 (d. 338 BC) who served as an advisor and as chancellor to Duke Xiao 秦孝公 (r. 362-338). Under his guidance, the capital was moved to Xianyang 咸陽 (modern Xianyang, Shaanxi), and the country was divided in counties (xian 縣), administered by magistrates (ling 令). Thus, the feudal system of an almost independent local aristocracy was given up in favour of of a centralized bureaucracy. The officers, high and low, were punished and rewarded according to their performance. Shang Yang revised the tax system (taxation in kind instead of labour services) and made it possible to everyone to buy and to sell land. Peasantry and army became the centers of social politics. The more peasants worked the land, the richer the country and the stronger the army (in which the peasants had to serve). At least theoretically, a kind of group responsibility of the population was introduced. Last but not least, weights and measures, coins and the track width of the roads were standardized in the dukedom of Qin.
A series of mighty chancellors kept on the reforms that Shang Yang had induced to strenghten the state of Qin. The most important men of the last period before the unification are the former merchant Lü Buwei 呂不韋 (said to have been the real father of the First Emperor) who was chancellor of Qin for several years, the chancellor Li Si 李斯 and the legalist theoretician Han Fei 韓非.
Victory over the Warring States
The incentive of the Qin rulers may just have been to strenghten their own state, not to unify the whole territory of China under their own rule. Only the course of events made it possible to make Qin to a military superior state that was able to subdue the other feudal states of the Zhou empire one by one. The first military step was the seizure of the two states of Shu 蜀 and Ba 巴 in the Sichuan Basin. From this base, it was possible to have a second flank to attack Chu 楚, the stongest enemy of Qin. In 230 BC, Qin destroyed Han 韓, in 228 Zhao 趙, in 225 Wei 魏, in 223 Chu, in 222 Yan 燕 and finally Qi 齊 in 221. The domain of the powerless Zhou kings already had fallen to Qin in 256.
The reasons for the triumph of Qin over the other states are manifold. The geographical location of the half-"barbarian" state of Qin between protecting mountains and the Yellow River gave it enough chances to build up its strengh unchallenged. The building of a canal made it possible to extend the irrigation system and to enhance the very important agricultural production. Esteeming manly virtues and disdaining the sophisticated culture of the eastern states created a state ready to engage in a ruthless war. The cultural backwardness, on the other side, made it necessary for the Qin rulers to employ foreign persons with administrative and military skills. With their help an administrative and penal law was created that was also codified and so contributed to the creation of an effective bureaucratic state.
On the sudden death of the First Emperor during his fifth inspection travel, the eunuch Zhao Gao 趙高, who was director of the livery office (zhongchefu ling 中車府令) and Counsellor-in-chief Li Si charged a plot against the crown prince Fusu 夫蘇. They forged the late emperor's testament in such a way that Prince Fusu was ordered to commit suicide, and his younger brother Huhai 胡亥 was installed as Second Emperor 秦二世皇 (r. 209-207). Already in his first year, rebellions of the old nobility and peasentry broke out. Zhao Gao arrested Li Si and let him suffer the five mutilating punishments. The Second Emperor killed himself of fear of the rebellions, and Zhao Gao installed a child as king of Qin, only to be stabbed to death by King Ziying 子嬰. The child king submitted to the adventurer Liu Bang 劉邦 who had occupied the Qin capital Xianyang. Yet the tyrant Xiang Yu 項羽 who saw himself as hegemonial king over the remnants of the Qin empire sacked Xianyang and executed King Ziying. In this way the powerful Qin dynasty came to an unfamous end.
The Disintegration of the Qin Empire
Except personal reasons, the main factor for the downfall of the Qin dynasty was the overextension of peasant labour. Peasants had to deliver corvée labour (yi 役). The First Emperor had the palaces of the six old feudal states (Qi, Yan, Chu, Zhao, Wei and Han) rebuilt in his own capital, had built the Epang Palace 阿房宮 and the imperial tomb at Lishan 驪山, constructed the Great Wall to protect China against the raids of the steppe tribes of the Xiongnu 匈奴, had built postal roads, and furthermore recruited peasants into his armies fighting against the Xiongnu and the tribes of the Southern Yue 南越. Instead of stablizing the empire's economical foundations after the long decades of conquest wars, the Qin government continued to exploit its economical and social sources to the utmost. A factor deeply aggravating this situation was the extremely harsh penal law issued by the Qin government. The penal law was in first place directed against the own state officials, and not so much against real criminals and evildoers. The fear of the central government that local officials might abuse their position or be lenient in their duties, caused the issuing of what is known as the "oppressive law" (hèfa [sic!] 荷法) of the Qin.
It was the rigidity of this law that led to the rebellions of several labour overseers in the year 209. Instead of awaiting punishment for being late or not delivering the right number of labourers, the overseers decided to rise up against the Qin dynasty. Still during the reign of the First Emperor, there had been several attempts at assassinating the tyrant (like an attempt by Zhang Liang 張良 and his retainers in 218), and someone had made a stone inscription saying that after the First Emperor's death the empire would disintegrate. The death of the First Emperor in 209 and the ensuing turbulences in the central goverment indeed seemed to have been a decisive factor. Zhao Gao dominated the court, eliminated his opponents, had executed officials remonstrating against him, controlled the emperor and had intensified the cruelty of the law and the amount of corvée labour the people had to deliver.
Chen Sheng 陳勝 and Wu Guang 吳廣 were heads of a group of 900 corvée labourers that camped in Daze 大澤鄉 (near modern Suxian 宿縣, province of Anhui) on the way to their destination. When a heavy rain set in, the group could not continue their march and risked being late, a crime to be punished by execution. Chen and Wu decided to raise in rebellion. In case of failure they would at least have a name in history. Chen Sheng was proclaimed king of Chu 楚 and was made highest commander, Wu Guang was his lieutenant. With the parole to do justice to late Prince Fusu and late general Xiang Yan 項燕 of Chu, they took to the arms. The rebel army took Jixian 蘄縣, Zhi 銍, Cuo 酇, Ku 苦, Zhe 柘 and Qiao 譙. When the army arrived at Chenxian 陳縣 (modern Huaiyang 淮陽, province of Henan) it disposed already of several ten thousand troops of all types of arms. Chen She convoked the old gentry of the region. Chen Sheng proclaimed himself king of "Enlarged Chu" (Zhang-Chu 張楚), Wu Guang was made supplementary king (jiawang 假王). In the meantime Ge Ying 葛嬰 had advanced towards the southeast. Ge Ying installed Xiang Qiang 襄彊 as king of Chu, but when heard that Chen Sheng was the king, he killed Xiang. For his failure, Ge was called to Chenxian and was executed. Wu Chen 武臣, Zhang Er 張耳 and Chen Yu 陳餘 advanced towards Anyang 安陽 and conquered Handan 邯鄲, the ancient capital of Zhao 趙. Wu Chen made himself king of Zhao. Zhou Wen 周文 supported Chu with his own troops and advanced to Xi 戲 but was defeated and died soon. Xiang Liang 項梁, a son of Xiang Yan, had made himself magistrate of Guiji 會稽 and adopted the title of Lord of Wuxin 武信君. Tian Dan 田儋 proclaimed himself king of Qi 齊 in the east. Liu Bang 劉邦, village head of Sishui 泗水, joined the rebellion (known as Duke of Pei 沛公 and eventual founder of the Han dynasty 漢, 206 BCE-220 CE), supported by some local sub-officials. Han Guang 韓廣 thereupon proclaimed himself king of Yan 燕 in the north, and Jiu 咎, Lord of Ningling 甯陵君, was allowed to become king of Wei 魏 (see Wei Jiu 魏咎), but Chen Sheng did not allow him to leave Chenxian. His competitor for the kingship of Wei was Zhou Shi 周市. Wu Chen, king of Zhao, was killed by Li Liang 李良. Zhang Er and Chen Yu thereupon made Xie 歇 king of Zhao (known as Zhao Xie 趙歇). Chen She had Wu Guang attacked Yingyang 滎陽, Deng Zong 鄧宗 conquered Jiujiang 九江 at the Huai River 淮河. Zhou Shi was to conquer the northeast, and Song Liu 宋留 was to attack Nanyang 南陽. The proclamation of the kingdom of Chu instigated a lot of people to join the rebellion. It was especially the southern regions where people killed the local officials of the Qin and built rebel armies. But also Qin officials joined the rebellion, like magistrate Wu Rui 吳芮. In the far south Ying Bu 英布 rose weapons, in Dongyang 東陽 in the southeast Chen Ying 陳嬰 rebelled. Qin Jia 秦嘉 and Zhu Jishi 朱雞石 controlled Tan 郯 in the east. An attempt by Zhou Wen to attack Xianyang failed. His army was annihilated by the Qin general Zhang Han 章邯. Tian Zang 田臧 killed Wu Guang because he was not able to conquer Yingyang and sent his head to Chen Sheng. But Tian Zang himself was defeated by the troops of Qin. Deng Yue 鄧說 lost Tan to the Qin. In the next months the Qin general Zhang Han was able to defeat more and more rebel troops. He finally attacked Chenxian where Chen Sheng had his residence. Chen Sheng fled to Xiachengfu 下城父 where he was killed by Zhuang Jia 莊賈. He was posthumously given the title of King Yin 隱王 and buried in Dang 碭 and was still venerated as a hero during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE).
This event constituted a catastrophy for the rebels. Song Liu submitted to the Qin. Qin Jia thereupon made Jing Ju 景駒 king of Chu and asked Tian Dan, the king of Qi, for support against the troops of Qin, but Tian Dan refused. It was only Jing Bu who as able to repell the armies of Qin. Shao Pingjiao 召平矯 made Xiang Liang counsellor-in-chief (zhuguo 柱國) of Chu. Xiang Liang crossed the Yangtse River and was joined by Cheng Ying, Jing Bu, and then Liu Bang. Xiang Liang advanced to Xue 薛, killed King Jing Ju 景駒 and made Prince Xin 心, a grandson of the late King Huai of Chu 楚懷王 (r. 328-299), the new ruler of Chu, with the capital in Xutai 盱台 and later in Pengcheng 彭城. In order to honour King Huai, Prince Xin was also called King Huai. At that time, Qin conquered the kingdom of Qi. Tian Dan was killed. King Jiu of Wei met the same feat. Tian Dan was followed by Tian Jia 田假, and Wei Bao 魏豹 became king of Wei after the suicide of his brother Wei Jiu. Cheng 成 was made king of Han 韓. The army of Xiang Liang advanced to the north, liberated Dong'a 東阿, advanced to Dingtao 定陶 and killed the magistrate of Sanchuan 三川, Li You 李由. Tian Dan's son Tian Shi 田市 was thereupon named king of Qi. In the battle of Dingtao, Xiang Liang was defeated by the Qin general Zhang Han, and was killed. Xiang Yu 項羽, his nephew, was thereupon enfeoffed as Duke of Lu 魯. The first general of the rebel armies was Song Yi 宋義, Xiang Yu the second. Liu Bang was enfeoffed as Marquis of Wu'an 武安侯. King Huai of Chu promised that the first person conquering the capital of Qin, Xiangyang, would be made a king. In the meantime Zhang Han conquered Handan, the capital of Zhao. Xiang Yu thereupon killed Song Yi, crossed the Yellow River to the north and liberated Julu 鉅鹿, a city of Zhao besieged by Qin troops. This victory was the impetus for further military success. The Qin general Su Jiao 蘇角 was killed, general Wang Li 王離 captured, Zhang Han was repelled by Ying Bu and General Pu 蒲將軍 and withdrew to the west. Liu Bang conquered Kaifeng 開封. When Zhang Han sent for more troops, Zhao Gao, the factual ruler of Qin, refused. The most important general of Qin, Zhang Han, thereupon surrendered to Xiang Yu and was promised to be granted the title of king of Yong 雍.
Enraged, Zhao Gao forced the Second Emperor to kill himself and installed his nephew, the so-called Infant Ruler 秦王子嬰, as king of Qin. The central government of Qin clearly saw that the emperorship could not longer be sustained in the face of the resurgance of the old feudal states Chu, Zhao, Wei and Qi. The Infant Ruler was unexpectedly not a helpless child but was able to have Zhao Gao killed and dispatched troops to occupy the Yao Pass 嶢關. Liu Bang circumvented the pass, defeated the last Qin troops at Lantian 藍田 and entered Xianyang in January 206. The king of Qin surrendered. Awaiting his allies, Liu Bang withdrew his troops to Bashang 灞上. He used the time to proclaim the end of the oppressive law of the Qin and thus attracted the support of the inhabitants of the region of Guanzhong 關中 around the capital. Xiang Yu, exhibiting quite an opposite kind of politics towards the Qin dynasty, massacred a whole army of 20,000 surrendering troops of the Qin at Xin'an 新安. He entered Xiangyang, killed the Infant King, plundered the capital and burnt it down. This was the sad end of the Qin dynasty.
In the next four years Xiang Yu and Liu Bang fought for dominance, a war that was ended in 202 with the suicide of Xiang Yu and Liu Bang's accession to the imperial throne as founder of the Han dynasty.
Marxists are happy to find here the first large-scale peasant uprising (nongmin qiyi 農民起義) in Chinese history. It is said to not have been a success because Chen Sheng became "estranged from the masses".
|The kingdoms of the rebels against Qin
||Chen She 陳涉 (i.e. Chen Sheng 陳勝), Chu Yinwang 楚隱王
opponent Xiang Qiang 襄彊
Jing Gou 景駒, a relative to the old house of Chu, killed by Xiang Liang
Xin, King Huai of Chu 楚懷王心, called Yidi 義帝 "Righteous Emperor", grandson of King Huai of Chu (r. 328-299), killed by Xiang Yu
In 206 Xiang Yu divides Chu in the kingdoms of West Chu 西楚, Hengshan 衡山, Linjiang 臨江 and Jiujiang 九江.
||Xiang Liang 項梁, Lord Wuxin 武信君, ruler of Wu 吳, killed in battle
Xiang Yu 項羽, Lord of Lu 魯, nephew of Xiang Liang
||Wu Chen 武臣, killed by Li Liang 李良
Zhao Xie 趙歇 or Xie, King of Zhao 趙王歇, descendant of the house of Zhao, later King of Dai 代
In 206 Xiang Yu divides Zhao into Zhao and Dai 代.
||Tian Dan 田儋, killed in battle
Tian Jia 田假, brother of Tian Jian 齊王建, the last ruler of Qi (r. 264-221)
opponent Tian Shi 田市, son of Tian Dan
In 206 Xiang Yu divides Qi into the kingdoms of Linzi 臨淄, Jibei 濟北 and Jiaodong 膠東.
||Liu Bang, Duke of Pei 沛公, Marquis Wu'an 武安侯
In 206 Xiang Yu divides the western area into the kingdoms of Han 漢, Yong 雍, Sai 塞 and Di 翟.
||Han Guang 韓廣 King of Yan, later of Liaodong 遼東 later killed by Zang Tu 臧荼
In 206 Xiang Yu divided this area into the kingdoms of Yan and Liaodong.
||Wei Jiu 魏咎 or Jiu, King of Wei 魏王咎, suicide after defeat against Qin
Wei Bao 魏豹, younger brother of Wei Jiu
In 206 Xiang Yu divides Wei into the kingdoms of Wei and Yin 殷.
||Han Cheng 韓成 or Cheng, King of Han 韓王成, later killed by Xiang Yu
In 206 Xiang Yu divided his territory into Han 韓 and Henan 河南.
Shiji 史記 16, Qin-Chu zhi ji yuebiao 秦楚之際月表.
Shiji 史記 46, Chen She shijia 陳涉世家.
Tong Jianyin 佟建寅, Shu Xiaofeng 舒小峰 (1994). Baijuanben Zhongguo quanshi 百卷本中國全史, Zhongguo Qin Han zhengzhi shi 中國秦漢政治史. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe.
Denis Twitchett, Michael Loewe (1986). The Cambridge History of China., Vol. 1. The Ch'in and Han Empires, 221 B.C.-A.D. 220. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Zhu Dayun 朱大昀. "Chen Sheng, Wu Guang qiyi 陳勝吳廣起義", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史, vol. 1, pp. 92-94. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.
Xiang Yu killed the Infant King of Qin, sacked the capital Xianyang and created new kingdoms under his domnation as so-called Hegemonial King of West-Chu (Xi-Chu Bawang 西楚霸王). The following table covers the years from 206 to 202 and gives an overview of the history of the "new feudal states" that Xiang Yu had created. There are two persons of the same name: King Han Xin 韓王信 and the general Han Xin 韓信 (called Marquis Huaiyin 淮陰侯).
In order to avoid confusion, Han 韓 is written "Hann", and "Han" stands for Liu Bang's kingdom of Han 漢, from which the later Han dynasty is derived.
|Kingdoms Created by Xiang Yu
||Xiang Yu kills Chu Huaiwang 楚懷王.
||Hegemonial King Xiang Yu; at Gaixia 垓下 defeated by Liu Bang; Xiang Yu kills himself. For a short time in 202, general Han Xin 韓信 was King of Chu (degraded to the rank of Marquis Huaiyin 淮陰侯 in 201; rebelled and executed in 197).
||King Wu Rui 吳芮; surrenders to Han; installed as King of Changsha 長沙 in 202.
|Xiang 項 (Linjiang 臨江)
||King Gong Ao 共敖, later his son Gong Xiang 共驩 (Wei 尉) in 204; dethroned by Han in 202.
||King Ying Bu 英布; surrenders to Han in 204; reinstalled in 203.
|Zhao 趙 (Changshan 常山)
||King Zhang Er 張耳; surrenders to Han in 206. Zhao Xie 趙歇 King of Zhao; destroyed by Han in 204. In 203, Zhang Er 張耳 is reinstalled as king, followed by his son Zhang Ao 張敖 in 201.
||King Zhao Xie 趙歇; destroyed by Han. Zhao Xie becomes King of Zhao in 206 Chen Yu 陳餘 King of Dai, destroyed by Han in 204.
|Qi 齊 (Linzi 臨菑)
||King Tian Du 田都, later Tian Rong 田榮; Tian Jia 田假 is reinstalled by Xiang Yu, followed by his son Tian Guang 田廣; destroyed by Han in 203.
||King Tian An 田安; destroyed by Qi.
||King Tian Shi 田市; destroyed by Qi.
||King Liu Bang 劉邦 (see Han Gaozu 漢高祖); after his victory over Xiang Yu Emperor of Han in 202.
||King Zhang Han 章邯; destroyed by Han in 205.
||King Sima Xin 司馬欣; surrenders to Han in 206.
||King Dong Yi 董翳; surrenders to Han in 206.
||King Zang Tu 臧荼; rebels against Han, is destroyed in 203; his successor is Lu Wan 盧綰 in 202.
||King Han Guang 韓廣; destroyed by Yan.
|Wei 魏 (Xi-Wei 西魏)
||King Wei Bao 魏豹; surrenders to Han in 205 and is reinstalled as King of Wei; destroyed by Han in 205.
||King Sima Ang 司馬卬; surrenders to Han in 205.
||King Han Cheng 韓成; later Zheng Chang 鄭昌. Liu Bang installs Han Xin 韓信 as king. Han Xin becomes King of Taiyuan 太原 in 201.
||King Shen Yang 申陽; surrenders to Han 206.
The names in green are the kingdoms surrendering to Han (Liu Bang), those in red weredestroyed by Han. The king of Qi conquered Jiaodong and Jibei, that of Yan conquered Liaodong. The decisive battle between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu was at Gaixia 垓下 (near modern Huaiyang 淮陽, Henan).
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