Tuesday, October 3, 2023

A Political and Economic History of China, Part 1: The Qin Dynasty

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7 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff earlier hinted at starting a new series on Marxism and communism which he now sees being postponed into 2024. However as consolation the Correspondent will instead begin a series of articles on a subject somewhat linked to Marxism and communism anyway: a glancing history of China. Although the focus of China will shift to economics (with a heavy dose of communism) soon enough, much of the early content will be standard history starting with today’s look at one of China’s early and most important dynasties.

China's first emperor: Qin Shi Huang

Most Americans are aware that China has the world’s longest continuous history stretching back thousands of years. We’ve also heard of the many Chinese dynasties whose names are easy to lose track of and easily confused with one another.

The Economics Correspondent will eventually focus on China’s more recent dynasties (“recent” being a relative term, in the Chinese context meaning about 1271 to 1911), but it’s important for even the casual student of Chinese history to read about the momentous Qin dynasty (pronounced “chin”).

Note: Communist China’s system of romanizing its written characters for western readers, called pinyin, differs from the older Wade-Giles system still used in Taiwan. Under pinyin, the letter “q” is pronounced like “ch” in English. Despite both this counterintuitive use of the letter q and the Economics Correspondent’s dislike of communist regimes in general, two-plus decades of reading pinyin has led him to the easy conclusion that communist pinyin is nevertheless a better and more logical system of romanization than the older Wade-Giles. All romanization in his posts will use pinyin.


The Qin dynasty only lasted 15 years, from 221 BC to 206 BC. Yet despite its short duration the Qin’s importance in Chinese history is immeasurable as it shaped the country’s future for thousands of years to come.

Prior to the Qin, China was broken up into 100 small kingdoms that frequently fought one another in the “Warring States” period. Over the course of 250 years the warring states slowly consolidated into smaller numbers through conquest and alliances, settling into about seven major kingdoms by the beginning of the third century BC.

One of these kingdoms was Qin, and its young prince grew to be obsessively focused on annexing the other six into a single unified empire. Once he took the throne “Qin Wang” (literally “Qin King,” or the “King of Qin”) warred on some of his neighbors, signed treaties with others, and sometimes entered into alliances just to renege and invade when his allies were momentarily weak. Qin Wang was ruthless and didn’t hesitate to order atrocities that would make modern communists look like spiritual brothers—the obvious difference being such behavior was par for the course in 221 BC but considered barbaric in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Further aiding the King of Qin was the fact that his kingdom was furthest west of the seven, located around the modern city of Xi’an (pronounced “shee-ahn,” the “x” in pinyin being pronounced “sh”) with mountains and barren deserts behind him. Thus, unlike his rivals Qin didn’t have to worry about multiple enemies on his border or having to fight multifront wars.

(A map of the seven warring kingdoms can be found below)

Eventually Qin had whittled down his resistance to just two or three remaining kingdoms for whom the situation was looking increasingly bleak. So in a timeless story taught to all grade schoolers in China, the Kingdom of Yan sent an “emissary” named Jing Ke—who was really an expert assassin—to be received in the court of the Qin king. Jing Ke (pronounced “jing kuh”) brought and slowly unscrolled a map of Yan to entrance the Qin king into distraction, for hidden in the center of the scroll was a dagger which he pulled out and attempted to take the king’s life with.

The assassin obviously failed and Qin took his wrath out on Yan pretty much how he had originally planned anyway: invasion, brutal repression, and more atrocities. Jing Ke just gave him an easy pretext. 

Once the forced unification of the warring kingdoms was complete, Qin established what historians today consider the unified nation of China although its geographic size in 221 BC was much smaller than today’s China. Qin ruled his empire with an iron first, tolerated zero criticism, and in one famous example burned classic Confucian works along with poetry, history, and philosophy, right before burying 460 scholars alive.

In a tangential connection to the modern Chinese Communist Party (with more in just a moment) Mao Zedong boasted in 1958 of his own intolerance and persecution of dissenting intellectuals:

“He buried 460 scholars alive; we have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive... You [intellectuals] revile us for being Qin Shi Huangs. You are wrong. We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold. When you berate us for imitating his despotism, we are happy to agree! Your mistake was that you did not say so enough.”

-Mao Zedong, CCP Eighth Party Congress speech

But back to the Qin dynasty, instead of settling for the title of Qin Wang or “King of Qin,” the victorious king promoted himself to “Huangdi” (pronounced hwahng-dee, or “emperor"), a title that was bestowed upon over 550 emperors for China’s next 2,000+ years of dynastic rule. Today if you mention the name “Qin Shi Huang” to any Chinese they’ll know instantly which superstar of their history books you are referring to: the Qin emperor.

By the way, Chinese call their own country “zhongguo” (pronounced zhuhng gwoh, or “middle kingdom”), but the western names of China—China in English, China (“chee-nah”) in Spanish, or “Chine” in French—all originate from Emperor Qin’s name.

Meanwhile for all his cruelty and ruthlessness, Qin did go about uniting the new country with a common currency, shared weights and measures, an extensive road network tying it all together, and other internal improvements. He also joined the many separate northern barriers that had been constructed by smaller states going back to the 5th century BC into a single unified wall known today as the Great Wall. Historians estimate Qin Shi Huang sent 800,000 people to construct the wall (about 20% of the population) of whom half died during the project. Hence to most Chinese Qin Shi Huang is still a semi-revered figure responsible for giving them the great nation of China, even as most are aware of his cruel exploits.

Unfortunately, Qin wasn’t satisfied with the idea of mortality and sent his advisors to the edges of his empire to find an elixir of eternal life. Even more unfortunately (for him) they advised drinking small, regular doses of mercury to extend life which of course had the opposite effect. Qin died prematurely at the age of 49, buried in a secret underground tomb 10 miles east of the modern city of Xi’an and protected by the thousands of Terracotta warriors we regularly see in photographs.

After Qin Shi Huang’s death his son, nephew, and senior officials bickered and fought for power, leading to the collapse of the dynasty after only 15 years. It was overthrown by the Han dynasty that survived much longer—over 400 years—and contains what’s considered one of China’s handful of imperial golden ages.

But despite its short life, the Qin is a vitally important part of Chinese history as it marks the bloody birth of a unified nation that we know today as the 2,000+ year old China.


And is there a communist connection? You bet there is.

Normal, orthodox Marxism preaches that life before communism is always horrible, denoted by slavery, feudalism, exploitative capitalism, constant war, imperialism, poverty and misery. Once socialism and communism arrive, Marxists say, the world transforms into a paradise of wealth and superabundance in contrast to the subhuman conditions of all socioeconomic systems that came before it including imperial monarchies and dynasties.

Consistent with Marx’s teachings, whenever communists have seized power they have typically commandeered the press and the schools which in turn pump out endless propaganda about not only how much richer their subjects are now than those starving in the capitalist countries, but also how much better off they are than under the criminal/corrupt rulers of pre-communist days.

But China is somewhat of an exception.

Instead of following the standard Marxist playbook and bashing Qin Shi Huang as an oppressive tyrant who brought misery and suffering to the pre-communist masses, the CCP somewhat reveres him in its propaganda and lectures the Chinese people to pay their respects to him. The Correspondent’s own cousin in Hong Kong tells him when visiting Qin’s burial site and the Terracotta warriors, the government’s order is “take off your hat and pay respects to the emperor,” hardly the kind of attitude one would expect from communists towards a hell on earth pre-Marxism despot.

So why the unusual deference to the Qin emperor? As is usually the case with the CCP the motivations are political.

As most Cautious Rockers have read, the CCP is always worried about losing power—as it should be. Many dynasties have fallen in the centuries before Mao established the CCP dynasty, often violently. And as is typical with most communist regimes, the CCP protects its power by censoring speech, controlling the press, pushing its political agenda in schools, and employing harsh and dictatorial measures to maintain its political dominance—usually in the name of “preserving stability.”

Hence the Qin emperor makes a useful historical case to rationalize the CCP’s methods. For Qin also stifled speech, controlled his third century BC version of the press, and resorted to brutal methods to gain and keep power. But in return (the CCP says) he led China out of the unstable, 250-year long Warring States period and unified the glorious nation of China we all enjoy today, so it was all worth it.

Per the CCP party line Qin was cruel, but he was strong and 3rd century BC Chinese were better off, even lucky, having been ruled by him. Likewise the CCP can be harsh sometimes (this is still the CCP talking here), but China needs a tough government that crosses the line in order to build a strong nation and preserve stability too.

So don’t fight us, and don’t talk back.

Throughout future articles this theme will repeat itself, with the Communist Party selectively employing “exceptions” to standard Marxist historical theory whenever it proves expedient to serve its own ends.

ps. For those who wish to see a cinematic and overly sympathetic portrayal of the Qin emperor (approved by the Chinese government of course), the Correspondent can still recommend the 1998 Chinese film production “The Emperor and the Assassin.” Although it’s a bit overly melodramatic at times and an epic 2 hours 40 minutes, it’s nevertheless an entertaining and (at the time) high budget telling of both the Qin conquest of the warring kingdoms and the famous tale of the attempt on Qin Shi Huang’s life. Anyone who watches it will get a taste of what every Chinese child is taught in school.

Map of China, 260 BC.

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