The First Empires:
Qin (221–206 BCE) and
Han (206 BCE–220 CE)
The Qin, like the Zhou before it, grew powerful on the Western fringe of what was then considered the developed world. Whereas the central states were surrounded by potential and real threats, the Qin had more freedom to develop its power uncontested by strong neighbors. Another consequence of its relatively “backward” status was that the Qin court did not have a wealthy and entrenched nobility to contend with; thus it was much quicker to centralize power than were its rivals. The Qin kings were much rougher types than the aristocratic rulers of the other states. One Qin king reportedly died from overexertion in a weight-lifting contest, an activity unimaginable in a court fashioned in the Confucian mold.
The great buildup of Qin power began in earnest in 361 BCE with the arrival in the capital of Lord Shang, a young nobleman defector from the state of Wei. A shrewd and ambitious politician, Lord Shang quickly gained the confidence of the Qin king and began to institute a series of reforms to increase the power of the king and the reach and efficiency of the central government. Lord Shang abolished hereditary feudal ranks and made all ranks and titles dependent upon job performance in warfare and government administration. He oversaw the institution of strict laws, which were carved in stone and circulated to all parts of the kingdom. Punishments for infractions included cutting off the nose or feet, death by boiling in a cauldron, tearing apart by chariots tied to the limbs, slicing in half, and burying alive. The Legalists argued that these severe punishments were necessary to deter any and all breaking of the law. Peasants were now free to buy and sell land and were taxed a low enough percentage of their produce so as to encourage them to increase production. Lord Shang was killed in 338 BCE, but by then the Qin state made up nearly 30 percent of the territory and population of the Warring States and was much wealthier than any of its rivals. As a result, it took less than 120 years for the Qin to mobilize its growing