23. The First Unification of China (221 BCE – 220 CE)

Summary China was for the first time unified by Qin Shi Huang who founded the short-lived Qin dynasty (221 – 206 BCE), which was followed by the more long-lived Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). When Han rule began, its capital Xi’an was the biggest city in the world. China was linked to the western centers of civilization Iran, Rome and India by trade via the Silk Roads.

Keywords Great Wall of China; Han Dynasty of China; History of East Asia; Qin Shi Huang; Silk Roads


The first emperor of China Qin Shi Huang (r. 247-210 BCE). (© Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

China is geographically isolated from the other Eurasian centers of civilization India, southwest Asia and Europe: To its north and west there are deserts and the inhospitable vastness of central Asia; to its southwest there are the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalaya Mountains; to its south there are the hot jungles of southeast Asia; and to its east there is the endless Pacific Ocean. This geographic seclusion led to an individual Chinese developmental path and to a self-perception of technological and cultural superiority. However, China was still loosely connected to the other centers of civilization, mostly through trade via the central Asian deserts or via the southeast Asian coastline. These trade routes are commonly referred to as the Silk Roads.

The Chinese civilization was born along the Yellow River in northern China. An early mythical dynasty in the history of China was the Xia dynasty, from the 21st to the 16th century BCE. China’s actual history, however, becomes more tangible during the Shang dynasty which ruled the northern Chinese heartland from the 16th century BCE to around 1046 BCE. The first full Chinese script was invented in about 1200 BCE. In about 1046 BCE the Zhou dynasty took over, which ruled until 256 BCE and was the longest ruling dynasty in the history of China. While the Zhou dynasty was powerful in the beginning, its power declined during the Spring and Autumn period (771-476 BCE), and it played a rather ceremonic role during the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) during which China was technically divided into seven major fighting states. In the 6th and 5th centuries BCE influential thinkers lived in China, such as the philosophs Confucius (also known as Kongzi), Laozi and Mozi.

The Warring States period came to an end in 221 BCE when the Qin state unified China for the first time in history under the rule of Qin Shi Huang (“First Emperor of Qin”, r. 247-210 BCE). The Qin state, based in the modern-day provinces Shaanxi and Sichuan, was the westernmost of the seven major states during the Warring States period and had conquered the six others one by one. Xianyang, which is close to modern-day Xi’an, was its capital since 350 BCE. Qin Shi Huang was known for his brutality. Scholars were killed and books were burned. On the other hand, the script was unified and the Great Wall of China – at that time being mostly built by rammed earth instead of stone – at its northern steppe frontier was unified. The English word for China is derived from the Qin state.

Han map

China under the Han dynasty in 87 BCE. In that time the capital of the Chinese Empire was Chang’an, which is modern-day Xi’an. User:Yeu Ninje / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Due to its brutality the Qin dynasty was soon overthrown and replaced by the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). This time is seen as an age of prosperity in China. When Han rule began, its capital Xi’an was the biggest city in the world. The population of the Chinese Empire in 1 AD was about 60 million, which corresponds to about 20% of the world population and was about the same as in the Roman Empire. Paper was invented in the 1st century AD. Buddhism reached China from India via the Silk Road in the 1st century AD, however it just slowly gained in popularity. The Chinese names for the Han nation of China, the Chinese language and the Chinese characters are named after the Han dynasty.

The Silk Road, which is a name for the trade routes between China and Western Eurasia, gained importance during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141-87 BCE), who fought victorious wars against the nomadic Xiongnu who were previously blocking expeditions to the west. During his time the Han dynasty expanded southward and conquered the Minyue Kingdom in Fujian in 135 BCE, the Nanyue Kingdom in Guangdong and parts of Vietnam in 111 BCE, and the Dian Kingdom in Yunnan in 109 BCE. Emperor Wu of Han also expanded the Chinese territory to northern Korea. After Han rule ended, China entered the period of the Three Kingdoms (220-280 CE), during which the Wei state in the north, the Shu state in the west and the Wu state in the east fought each other, and China again entered an era of disunity.

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