Economics of the Qin Dynasty

by Maria Kielmas

The Qin state’s economy was organized to create an agriculture-based, militarized society and to enhance the power and wealth of its ruler. As a result, the Qin conquered neighboring states and unified China. The Qin Dynasty, which lasted from 221 B.C. to 206 B.C., did not long survive the death of its First Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, but it bequeathed a standardized economy to future Chinese empires and states.

Warring States Period and Legalism

The era of the Warring States, from 476 B.C. to 221 B.C., was a time of political instability in the lands that became China. Hundreds of feudal lords battled to gain control over other fiefdoms and larger states. Seven states -- the Chu, Yan, Wei, Zhan, Han and Qin -- were the largest. In 356 B.C., Qin state's ruler Duke Xiao appointed Shang Yang, also called Lord Yang, a follower of Legalism, as Chief Minister to reform the Qin state. Legalism was a philosophy that cultivated absolute power. A powerful ruler and obedient subjects would ensure the stability of the state. Peoples’ behavior was controlled by strict legal codes.

The Bureaucratic State

Shang Yang’s reforms abolished the landowning aristocracy and replaced it by a centralized bureaucracy whose members were appointed or dismissed on military merit. Primogeniture was also abolished. The reforms included taxes paid in kind. Peasants were drafted into the army while convicts or people judged to be indolent and useless were conscripted for forced labor. These reforms created a strong state and powerful army that conquered neighboring states.

Language, Coinage, Weight and Measures

The “banliang,” the currency of the Qin state, became the Empire’s single currency and symbolized the Emperor’s power. All other currencies were abolished. A standardized system of weights and measures such as wheel axle lengths was in introduced to promote trade throughout the newly conquered states. Chinese characters were also standardized so that the language could be read throughout the empire.

Agricultural Management

The economic power of the Qin Dynasty derived mainly from its control over land and natural resources. The abolition of feudalism allowed serfs to own the land they worked. However, they had to pay taxes that increased the ruler’s wealth and could not sell land to someone who was not a kinsman. Peasant livestock and harvests were closely supervised by local bureaucrats, and statutes stipulated when to cut grass and wood, to fish or to set snares. Public lands were managed by bureaucrats and worked by conscript labor.

Public Works

The Qin state and dynasty maintained armies of forced laborers, convicts and slaves who worked on public projects such as building roads, canal systems and bridges, and completing the Great Wall of China that marked the empire’s boundaries. Forced laborers also built the emperor’s tomb, complete with its 7,500-figure Terracotta Army. The labor burden provoked widespread discontent during the dynasty’s later years and eventually led to its downfall.

Trade and Commerce

Road and canal systems enabled internal trade in the Qin's newly conquered territories. The Qin pioneered foreign trade through the establishment of the Marine Silk Road, a sea route starting at Guangzhou on the Pearl River that flows out to the South China Sea. This enabled trade from China initially along the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, and it's the world's oldest known maritime trading route. The greatest development of this sea passage, and the land-based Silk Road into Central Asia, occurred in the subsequent Han, Sui, Tang and Song Dynasties.

About the Author

Based in London, Maria Kielmas worked in earthquake engineering and international petroleum exploration before entering journalism in 1986. She has written for the "Financial Times," "Barron's," "Christian Science Monitor," and "Rheinischer Merkur" as well as specialist publications on the energy and financial industries and the European, Middle Eastern, African, Asian and Latin American regions. She has a Bachelor of Science in physics and geology from Manchester University and a Master of Science in marine geotechnics from the University of Wales School of Ocean Sciences.

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