Shi Huangdi thus established the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), also known as the Imperial Era in China. He ordered the destruction of the walled fortifications which had separated the different states and commissioned the building of a great wall along the northern border of his kingdom. Though little remains today of Shi Huangdi’s original wall, The Great Wall of China was begun under his rule.
It stretched for over 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles) across hill and plain, from the boundaries of Korea in the east to the troublesome Ordos Desert in the west. It was an enormous logistical undertaking, though for much of its course it incorporated lengths of earlier walls built by the separate Chinese kingdoms to defend their northern frontiers in the fourth and third centuries. (Scarre and Fagan, 382).
Shi Huangdi also strengthened the infrastructure through road building which helped to increase trade through the ease of travel.
Five trunk roads led from the imperial capital at Xianyang, each provided with police forces and posting stations. Most of these roads were of rammed-earth construction and were 15 meters (50 feet) wide. The longest ran southwest over 7,500 kilometers (4,500 miles) to the frontier region of Yunnan. So precipitous was the countryside that sections of the road had to be built out from vertical cliff faces on projecting timber galleries. (Scarre and Fagan, 382).
Shi Huangdi also expanded the boundaries of his empire, built the Grand Canal in the south, redistributed land, and, initially, was a fair and just ruler.
While he made great strides in building projects and military campaigns, his rule became increasingly characterized by a heavy hand in domestic policy. Claiming the Mandate from Heaven, he suppressed all philosophies save the Legalism which had been developed by Shang Yang and, heeding the counsel of his chief advisor, Li Siu, he ordered the destruction of any history or philosophy books which did not correspond to Legalism, his family line, the state of Qin, or himself.
Since books were then written on strips of bamboo fastened with swivel pins, and a volume might be of some weight, the scholars who sought to evade the order were put to many difficulties. A number of them were detected; tradition says that many of them were sent to labor on the Great Wall and that four hundred and sixty were put to death.
Nevertheless, some of the literati memorized the complete works of Confucius and passed them on by word of mouth to equal memories. (Durant, 697).
This act, along with Shi Huangdi’s suppression of general freedoms, including freedom of speech, made him progressively more unpopular.
The ancestor worship of the past and the land of the dead began to interest the emperor more than his realm of the living and Shi Huangdi became increasingly engrossed in what this other world consisted of and how he might avoid traveling there. He seems to have developed an obsession with death, became increasingly paranoid regarding his personal safety, and ardently sought after immortality.
His desire to provide for himself an afterlife commensurate with his present one led him to commission a palace built for his tomb and an army of over 8,000 terracotta warriors created to serve him in eternity. This ceramic army, buried with him, also included terracotta chariots, cavalry, a commander in chief, and assorted birds and animals.
He is said to have died while on a quest for an elixir of immortality and Li Siu, hoping to gain control of the government, kept his death a secret until he could alter his will to name his pliable son, Hu-Hai, as heir.
This plan proved untenable, however, as the young prince showed himself to be quite unstable, executing many, and initiating a widespread rebellion in the land. Shortly after Shi Huangdi’s death, the Qin Dynasty quickly collapsed through the intrigue and ineptitude of people like Hu-Hai, Li Siu, and another advisor, Zhao Gao, and the Han Dynasty began with the accession of Liu-Bang.
The Qin Dynasty: The Chu-Han Contention
With the fall of the Qin Dynasty, China was plunged into chaos. Two generals emerged among the forces which rebelled against the Qin: Liu-Bang of Hanzhong and General Xiang-Yu of the state of Chu, who fought for control of the government. Xiang-Yu, who had proven himself the most formidable opponent of the Qin, awarded Liu-Bang the title of `King of the Han’ in recognition of Liu-Bang’s decisive defeat of the Qin forces at their capital of Xianyang.
The two former allies quickly became antagonists, however, in the power struggle known as the Chu-Han contention until Xiang-Yu negotiated the Treaty of Hong Canal and brought a wave of temporary peace. Xiang-Yu suggested dividing China under the rule of the Chu in the east and the Han in the west but Liu-Bang wanted a united China under Han rule and, breaking the treaty, resumed hostilities.
At the Battle of Gaixia in 202 BCE, Liu-Bang’s great general, Han-Xin, trapped and defeated the forces of Chu under Xiang-Yu, and Liu-Bang was proclaimed emperor (known to posterity as Emperor Gaozu of Han). Xiang-Yu committed suicide but his family was allowed to live and even serve in government positions.
The new emperor Gaozu treated all of his former adversaries with respect and united the land under his rule. He pushed back the nomadic Xiongnu tribes, who had been making incursions into China, and made peace with the other states which had risen in rebellion against the failing Qin Dynasty. The Han Dynasty (which derives its name from Liu-Bang’s home in Hanzhong province) would rule China, with a brief interruption, for the next 400 years, from 202 BCE to 220 CE.