10 Major Achievements of the Qin Dynasty of China

Qin dynasty was the first imperial dynasty of China and its reign lasted from 221 to 206 BC. Lasting only 15 years, it was the shortest dynasty in Chinese history. Though it ruled for only a short duration, Qin dynasty made several important contributions in the development of China. The most well known accomplishment of the dynasty was the unification of China for the first time in its history in 221 BC. The first Qin emperor, Qin Shi Huang, introduced many reforms including the first meritocratic administration system in China. Also there was standardization of the writing system, the code of law, the units of measurement and the currency. Qin dynasty is renowned for its feats of engineering which include the Great Wall, the famous Terracotta Army, Dujiangyan Irrigation System and the Lingqu Canal. Here are the 10 major achievements of the Qin dynasty.


The period in Chinese history before the reign of Qin dynasty is referred to as the Warring States period (475 BC – 221 BC). It was dominated by the Seven Warring States, namely, Han, Zhao, Yan, Wei, Chu, Qi and Qin. King Zheng of Qin started his campaign to conquer the remaining six states in 230 BC. Han was conquered in the same year, Zhao fell in 228 BC, Yan in 226 BC, Wei in 225 BC, the powerful Chu in 223 BC and Qi in 221 BC. Thus is 221 BC, for the first time in history, China became a unified centralized state. It took Zheng less than 10 years to unify China. He became the first emperor of a unified China and took the title of “Qin Shi Huang” or the “First Emperor of Qin”.

Present China and area under Qin Dynasty
Present China and the area under Qin Dynasty at its height


Shang Yang was a leading Chinese statesman of the State of Qin during the Warring States period. He reformed and promoted the political philosophy Legalism, which among other things, encouraged practical and ruthless warfare. Legalism aided Qin dynasty in their unification of China. During its reign, the Qin governed with the single philosophy of Legalism and other philosophies, including Confucianism, were suppressed. Though Legalism is criticized by some scholars for its flaws, it still remains influential in administration, policy and legal practice in China. Li Si served as Chancellor (or Prime Minister) of the Qin dynasty from 246 BC to 208 BC. He is considered one of the most influential figures in Chinese history. Li Si played a vital role in the cultural unification of China. Among other things, he standardized the code of law; governmental ordinances; the units of measurement; and the currency to the Ban liang coin. He also relaxed taxes and draconian punishments inherited from the Qin administration in their Warring States period.

Shang Yang statue
Statue of Qin legalist Shang Yang


Before the Qin achieved unification of China, local styles of characters evolved independently of one another for centuries, producing what are called the “Scripts of the Six States”. This diversity was undesirable in a unified government as it hindered communication, trade, taxation and transportation. In 220 BC, Li Si, prime minister under Qin Shi Huang, systematized the written Chinese language by promoting as the imperial standard the Small Seal Script, which had already been in use in the state of Qin. The Small Seal Script was itself standardized through removal of variant forms within it. This standardized Chinese writing system; made it uniform across the whole country; and had a unification effect on the Chinese culture for thousands of years.

Chinese Small Seal Script
Chinese Small Seal Script, c. 221 BC


To avoid political chaos, Qin Shi Huang, with help from his prime minister Li Si, abolished the hereditary vassal system and replaced it was a new administrative arrangement. The Qin empire was divided into 36 Jun (prefectures), under which were a number of Xian (counties). Under each Xian, there were a number of Xiang (towns); under which there were Ting, which were further divided into Li, the smallest rural administrative units. The whole of China was thus divided into administrative units. More importantly, all officials were appointed based on merit rather than on hereditary rights with important positions going to military officers who distinguished themselves in battles. The administrative system of Qin achieved political unification and strongly reinforced the central government. Though it was modified by later dynasties, it formed the basis of Chinese administration for the next 2,000 years.


Before unification, the various states had built walls to defend their own borders. Qin Shi Huang ordered the destruction of these fortifications that divided his empire. However, to protect his northern border, Huang ordered the construction of an enormous defensive wall connecting the fortifications along the empire’s northern frontier. The wall was built primarily to guard against the Xiongnu tribes in the north and north-west, against which the Qin were involved in constant battle. Although little of this wall remains today, it was the precursor to the Great Wall of China. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands people died during the construction of this Qin wall.

Map of the Great Wall of the Qin Dynasty
Map of the Great Wall of the Qin Dynasty


Sichuan is a province in southwest China. The Min River in central Sichuan, the longest tributary of the Yangtze River, flooded annually causing great difficulty on the area along its banks. Li Bing was a Chinese engineer who served as an administrator of the state of Qin. He initiated and oversaw the construction of the Dujiangyan Irrigation System which harnessed the Min River using a new method of channeling and dividing the water instead of following the old ways of dam building. The project not only handled the floods but also made Sichuan the most productive agricultural area in China. The Dujiangyan Irrigation System made Li Bing a Chinese cultural icon. Constructed around 256 BC, it is still in use to irrigate over 5,300 square km of land and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also a major tourist attraction due to its advanced features of engineering.

Section of the Dujiangyan Irrigation System
Section of the Dujiangyan Irrigation System


In 214 BC, Qin Shi Huang, in order to attack the Baiyue tribes in the south, ordered the construction of a canal connecting the Xiang and the Li rivers. This resulted in the formation of a 36.4 km long canal known as the Lingqu Canal. Designed by Qin architect Shi Lu and known as the Magic Canal, it also served the purpose of water conservation by diverting up to a third of the flow of the Xiang to the Li. The Lingqu Canal is the oldest contour canal in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Along with the Great Wall and the Sichuan Dujiangyan Irrigation System, it is considered one of the three great feats of ancient Chinese engineering.

Lingqu Canal
The Lingqu Canal


During the Warring States period which preceded the Qin era, rival State of Han planned to drain the resources of Qin by engaging them in a grand construction project. They dispatched a water engineer named Zheng Guo to give them advice to do so. This resulted in the initiation of construction of the Zhengguo Canal, named after its designer. Zheng Guo switched sides and the canal was successfully completed in 246 BC. The plan of Han backfired as the Zhengguo Canal irrigated approximately 27,000 square kilometres of additional agricultural land, providing Qin dynasty with sufficient resources to increase the size of its already massive armies. The Zhengguo Canal in Shaanxi province, along with Dujiangyan Irrigation System and the Lingqu Canal, are collectively known as the “three great hydraulic engineering projects of the Qin dynasty.”

Zhengguo Canal irrigation system map
Sketch map of the Zhengguo Canal irrigation system


The most renowned construction project which took place during the reign of Qin dynasty was the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Located in Xi’an in the Shaanxi province of China; it was constructed to enclose his burial chamber. It took 700,000 men and 38 years to construct it, from 246 to 208 BC. The mausoleum includes the famous Terracotta Army of life sized Terracotta Warriors, whose purpose was to protect the Emperor in the afterlife from evil spirits. Each terracotta soldier of the army appears to be unique in its facial features, revealing a high level of craftsmanship and artistry. The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. According to a 2007 estimate, the Terracotta Army held more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses. Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang is considered one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world.

Qin Mausoleum with the Terracotta Warriors
Qin Mausoleum with the Terracotta Warriors


The Qin dynasty developed an extensive network of roads and canals connecting the provinces to improve trade between them. The length of the axles of carts was standardized to facilitate transport on the road system. The Qin military used the most advanced weaponry of the time. Though they initially used the bronze sword, by the third century BC, they were using stronger iron swords. During excavation of the pits containing the Terracotta Warriors, archaeologists found around 40,000 weapons, including battle axes, crossbows, arrowheads and spears. Among them was a 2,200-year-old crossbow. Twice as powerful as a modern-day assault rifle, it could have shot an arrow up to 2,600 feet. It was one of the most powerful crossbows of its era and might have been integral to important Qin military victories.

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