We'll learn about the Zhou, Qin, and Han dynasties and how they came to power.


  • The Zhou Dynasty gave way to the confusion of the Warring States Period, a chaos out of which some foundational Chinese philosophies were formed.
  • The Warring States period also resulted in the creation of the first unified Chinese state: the brief and brutal Qin dynasty.
  • The Qin dynasty was followed by the long and successful Han Dynasty, which expanded territory, centralized governmental authority, and created a bureaucracy that lasted for two millennia.

The Warring States Period

The Zhou Dynasty collapsed slowly, over a period of hundreds of years. The power of the Zhou kings waned as the feudal rulers of outlying provinces gained more authority. Eventually, these states acquired more power than the king, beginning a period of conflict that is known, appropriately, as the Warring States Period. This time of conflict lasted from about 475 BCE to 221 BCE, when the western state of Qin conquered its neighbors and established the Qin Dynasty: the first time all of China had been united under an emperor.
Many philosophies about life and governance emerged during the Warring States Period, but three in particular came to prominence: Confucianism, Legalism, and Daoism. We'll cover those more in-depth in this article, but for our purposes right now, let's sum them up this way:
  • Confucianism: Obeying your elders and social superiors is the utmost civic virtue; maintaining morality, respect, and activism is what keeps a society functioning.
  • Daoism: Human beings must obey the unyielding will of the universe, literally the dao—the way. Rather than involve themselves in the complex workings of the state, Daoists urged detachment, self-sufficiency, and deliberate ignorance of worldly things.
  • Legalism: The state's operations are more important than personal liberty, and adherence to the law is the most important thing. Apply and uphold the law by any means necessary.
A map of the various duchies and kingdoms in the Spring and Autumn Period, just prior to the Warring States period
A map of the various duchies and kingdoms in the Spring and Autumn Period, just prior to the Warring States period. Note the state of Qin in the far west. Image credit: Wikimedia, Yug, Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution License
Following a long and successful campaign to conquer his neighbors, King Zheng of the state of Qin established a despotic, centralized rule over his six neighbor states, claimed the Mandate of Heaven—or divine blessing for his rule—and declared himself Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty. His reign was brutal, but brief: he ruled from 220 to 210 BCE. The Qin Dynasty did not long outlive him. The next Qin Emperor, Qin Er Shi, reigned for three tumultuous years, and Ziying, who followed Qin Er Shi, held onto power for only 46 days.

The Qin Dynasty

Qin Shi Huang was a Legalist, and it shows; shortly after his coronation, he clamped down on freedom of expression. The Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian—born some 75 years after the founding of the Qin Dynasty—quotes the emperor as saying:
[Historians] hold it a mark of fame to defy the ruler, regard it as lofty to take a dissenting stance, and they lead the lesser officials in fabricating slander. If behaviour such as this is not prohibited, then in upper circles the authority of the ruler will be compromised, and in lower ones cliques will form. Therefore it should be prohibited.
I therefore request that all records of the historians other than those of the state of Qin be burned. With the exception of the academicians whose duty it is to possess them, if there are persons anywhere in the empire who have in their possession copies of the Odes, the Documents [Zhou-era texts], or the writings of the hundred schools of philosophy, they shall in all cases deliver them to the governor or his commandant [overseer] for burning. Anyone who ventures to discuss the Odes or Documents shall be executed in the marketplace. Anyone who uses antiquity to criticize the present shall be executed along with his family.
from Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty, Vol. 3, 55.
And, indeed, there was a clampdown on the scholars of China: many texts from non-Legalist philosophies were burned, and tradition holds—per Sima Qian—that Qin Shi Huang ordered 460 Confucian scholars buried alive. This mass burial may not have happened as described; Sima Qian, as a committed Confucian, may have embellished the truth of it to make Qin Shi Huang seem more immoral.
Question: Why might Qin Shi Huang have wanted to suppress historians?
An eighteenth-century depiction of Qin Shi Huang.
An eighteenth-century depiction of Qin Shi Huang. Image credit: Wikipedia
The emperor's legalism touched everything. Qin Shi Huang abolished the divisions between the once-warring states and blunted the power of the aristocracy, establishing instead an imperial bureaucracy that could rule the peasantry directly, all in the name of national unity. This imperial control touched every life in China, as Patricia Buckley Ebrey writes in The Cambridge Illustrated History of China:
Ordinary people also suffered harsh treatment. Reporting crimes was rewarded, and the lawbreakers, once convicted, were punished severely by execution, hard labour, or mutilation (ranging from cutting off the whiskers to the nose or the left foot). Even perfectly law-abiding people were subject to onerous labour service, and both conscripted and penal labour were used for the building of palaces, roads, canals, imperial tombs, and fortifications [like walls and fortresses]. Several hundred thousand subjects were conscripted to build a huge new palace complex in 212 BC. Even more were drafted to construct the Great Wall. (p. 63)
The Qin Dynasty marks the period during which much of the original Great Wall of China was constructed—though little of that wall remains today. Defensive walls that formerly divided the warring states were knocked down to be rebuilt along China's northern border in order to keep out the Xiongnu, pastoralist horsemen from the northern steppes—a kind of dry grassland or open prairie—who raided agricultural settlements.
Qin Shi Huang’s court minted coins, standardized weights and measures, and even went so far as to standardize the length of cart axles so that all trade wagons could move along the same wheel ruts in the road.
Question: What's the point of standardizing weights and measures? What is possible if you and I can each agree on the definition of a millimeter or a kilogram?
Perhaps most notably, the emperor commanded the use of a common written language across China. The newly unified country was composed of people who spoke very different languages, but Qin Shi Huang demanded that those different languages all be rendered in the same script. This enabled his edicts to be understood throughout the empire.
The First Emperor of the Qin survived multiple attempts on his life and grew obsessed with the idea of living forever. He was furious with those he perceived to have already achieved immortality. Sima Qian tells a story of how Qin Shi Huang cut down a holy grove just to spite a god. Qin Shi Huang sent out expeditions to find Peng Lai—the land of Chinese immortals—and he dispatched teams of scholars to hunt for the lingzhi mushroom, which he felt would bestow upon him eternal life.
Striving for immortality proved to be the Emperor's undoing. In 210 BCE, legend holds, he fell ill from mercury poisoning—thought to be an important component of the elixir of life—and died, throwing the empire into chaos. The imperial palace became tangled with intrigue. Heirs and their retainers—servants—were repeatedly murdered, and in the outlying provinces, popular uprisings began.

Liu Bang, the sheriff king

In the midst of this chaos emerged a man named Liu Bang, a minor official who had served the Qin bureaucracy as a sort of combination sheriff and post office manager in a small outpost near his hometown in Pei County—in what is today Jiangsu, a province along the eastern seaboard of modern China. As the Qin Dynasty collapsed in the wake of Qin Shi Huang's death, Liu Bang became a rebel, gathering loyal troops and brilliant military tacticians. He conquered the weakened Qin Dynasty, as well as the forces that competed to succeed it. In 206 BCE, Liu Bang declared himself Han Gaozu, the first emperor of the Han Dynasty. It was a very long-lived and successful empire. Not counting the brief interruption of the 14-year Xin Dynasty, the Han Dynasty lasted over 400 years.
Liu Bang, as emperor, initially relaxed some of the centralization that Qin Shi Huang had begun, but a run-in with the Xiongnu nomads—remember them?—six years into his reign convinced him that decentralized rule could not protect the life of an Emperor. Liu Bang used the practice of heqin—tactical alliances through marriage—to pacify the Xiongnu. Over the course of 25 years, three successive Han emperors married off members of the royal family to one Xiongnu chieftain, Modu Chanyu.
A map of the Xiongnu confederation, the Han Empire, and other Asian states in 200 BCE; the Xiongnu territory is much vaster than the Han Dynasty, extending well into Central Asia.
A map of the Xiongnu confederation, the Han Empire, and other Asian states in 200 BCE; the Xiongnu territory is much vaster than the Han Dynasty, extending well into Central Asia. Image credit: Thomas A. Lesserman, Creative Commons 3.0 attribution license
The Han Empire retained some elements of Qin-era centralized rule, namely a bureaucracy—rule by government officials—that embodied the emperor's will, enforcing imperial edicts many hundreds of miles from the capital at Chang'an.

Emperor Wu of Han

This bureaucracy was invigorated by Emperor Wu of Han—or Han Wudi—who reigned from 141 to 87 BCE. Emperor Wu needed able, educated, and intelligent officers to apply the law across his vast domain; to nationalize the production of liquor, iron, and salt; to oversee the construction of roads and waterwork; and to collect taxes. Such people were, unfortunately, in short supply: there were no formalized institutions of higher learning, just individual scholars who took on students and taught them the philosophies of men like Confucius.
A portrait of Emperor Wu of Han.
A portrait of Emperor Wu of Han. Image credit: Wikipedia
Emperor Wu created an imperial academy of letters, built for the express purpose of training young men for government jobs. Women were not afforded the same opportunities.
The imperial institute chose Confucianism as its philosophy, beginning a Confucian heritage of civil service that remained in place until 1905.
Question: Why might Emperor Wu have chosen Confucianism to be the official ideology of China?
Article by David Rheinstrom.
Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. England: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Sima. Qian. Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty, Volume 3. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995, 55.