History Files


Far East Kingdoms





Dynastic China

Modern China has not always existed in its present form since its first appearance as a state. In fact it has rarely been as large in terms of territory as it is today. At several times in its long history the country has fragmented into two or more warring kingdoms. In its early days there were many smaller independent states that were often at war with one another for domination, sometimes for several centuries. This was often followed by relatively short spells of unification under a single strong conqueror, followed again by a return to fragmentation. It was a long, slow climb towards the relatively unified state of the two millennia AD.

China's origins were long seen as being focussed along the Yellow River. Several of the early mythical or semi-historical dynasties of Ancient China were based in territory in this region, with these early confederate kingdoms having being regarded as having laid down the basis of later Chinese unity. That unity only really came with the Qin dynasty, once the old order had been swept away by the Warring States period.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from The Cambridge History of Ancient China - From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC, Michael Loewe & Edward L Shaughnessy (1999).)

A Qin iron age sword

Ch'in / Qin Dynasty (End of the Iron Age / Early Imperial Period China)
221 - 207/6 BC

The kingdom of Qin (pronounced 'chin') was the westernmost of the seven kingdoms of the 'Warring States' period, forming a wide north-south barrier to the barbarian lands beyond. The kingdom had initially been created by the Zhou to serve as a shield against the wild nomad tribes of the west. Emperor P'ing of the Eastern Zhou raised the Qin to the position of feudal lords in thanks for their unwavering support during the sacking of the empire's previous capital, giving birth to the duchy of Qin. During the break-up of the Zhou empire, Qin proclaimed itself a kingdom along with many of its peers and opponents.

In his time as the sixth independent king of Qin, Wang Chêng was its most feared leader. He was regarded as a common threat by all of the other kingdoms. His ruthless drive to unite China saw him conquer the others one by one (there are numerous tales of assassins sent to kill him, one of which is depicted in the Chinese feature film, Hero / Ying Xiong.). He produced a contemporary super-army, a strongly regimented force with mass-produced bronze weapons that was expertly led. China had seen nothing like it. Following his conquest of the last of his enemies in 221 BC he forged a single, reunified Chinese kingdom and adopted the throne name of Qin Shihuang ('first emperor').

The newly reunified Chinese kingdom was a different beast to its ancient counterpart. Before this period, Chinese unity seemed largely to be in the form of a confederacy. One dynasty may have dominated, but it clearly didn't rule unanimously or without opposition. The various regions still formed what almost amounted to semi-independent kingdoms, and they still fought one another. Qin Shihuang set up a new, integrated imperial system of administration and controls which did much more to create a single state than could ever be matched before the Warring States period. Unfortunately the drive towards a strong centralist government also resulted in a degree of repression. Free thought tended to be discouraged, especially where it provided a voice of opposition to the Qin. The dynasty proved to be the shortest-lasting in Chinese history, but it laid the foundations of a system which would remain in place until the twentieth century.

Feature'Qin' was the name that was adopted by outsiders to describe this new state, as contacts towards the west became more prevalent. It was documented in Sanskrit as 'Čina' (pronounced cheena), which was adopted by Portuguese explorers as 'China'. When medieval Italians borrowed the written form from Portuguese, they pronounced it as keena, with a hard 'k' because that's how the Italian language at the time saw a 'ch'. This was why, in some Central European languages such as Hungarian - which borrowed it from Italian - China is known as Kina with a 'k'. However, modern Italian then corrected it and now also uses 'Cina' (cheena). (See feature link for more detail.)

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Zoltan Szilard, from the BBC series, The Story of China, by Michael Wood, first broadcast between 21 January and 25 February 2016, from Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies: The Role of Cross-Border Trade and Travel, Michael C Howard (McFarland Publishing, 2012), and from A Short History of China and Southeast Asia: Tribute, Trade and Influence, Martin Stuart-Fox (Allen & Unwin, 2003).)

221 - 210 BC

Shi Huangdi / Shih-huang-ti / Qin Shihuang

Formerly Wang Chêng of Qin. Reunified China.

221 BC

FeatureThe 'Warring States' period comes to an end as the Qin conquer the last remaining rival kingdoms and unify the Yellow Plain, and therefore ancient China. Having created the first empire of all China, King Wang Chêng of Qin adopts the throne name of Emperor Qin Shihuang. He dispossesses many of the old aristocracies and creates a huge captive labour force so that he can begin construction of the Great Wall to keep out the barbarians and ensure peace for his unitary state. He also creates a standardised coinage system and bureaucracy, a simplified Chinese script, and a terracotta army to safeguard him in the afterlife. Even the name of his kingdom is used forevermore by outsiders - Ch'in (in its older form - Qin in modern Chinese translations) becoming China to the outside world - although the Chinese themselves use a different name for their state.

Around 220 BC, Greco-Bactrians may be responsible for expeditions that reach as far as Kashgar and Urumqi in Chinese Turkestan, establishing the first known contacts between China and the West. The name Daxia appears in Chinese records from around this time to designate a mythical kingdom in the west, possibly referring to Bactria itself.

The Qin Dynasty terracotta army
Emperor Qin Shihuang created the 'Terracotta Army' to accompany him on his trip onto the afterlife and, according to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, archaeologists suspect that an unexcavated tomb could contain a replica of the entire city of Xi'an, which the warriors also guard

Even more remarkably, recent examinations of the terracotta army have established a startling new concept - the terracotta army may be the product of western art forms and technology. An entire terracotta army plus imperial court are manufactured using five workshops and a form of human representation in sculpture that has never before been seen in China. Archaeologists today continue the process of discovering new pits and even a fan of roads leading out from the emperor's burial mound, one of which, heading west, may be a sort of proto-Silk Road along which Greek craftsmen may be travelling.

221 - 214 BC

Over the course of five military campaigns, Qin Shihuang largely manages to subdue the Yue tribes and kingdoms of the coastal south. During the chaos of the 'Warring States' period they have gained control of much of Sichuan, but the steamy jungles of the south and Yue skills at guerrilla warfare make their conquest a tough and brutal process. Over 100,000 Qin men are lost in the first attempt, but the building of a supply canal for the second campaign ensures steady progress thereafter. The Qin army even reaches as far south as Hanoi during one expedition.

210s BC

Chinese records detail four waves of violence between the Greater Yuezhi and the Xiongnu around this period in time. Generally referred to as wars, they are typical struggles for dominance by competing tribal groups, many of whom are also often the target of Qin campaigns as attempts are made to civilise the west. Now in a position to right some of their perceived wrongs against the Greater Yuezhi, the Xiongnu launch an unexpected attack on them under the leadership of Touman. The outcome of the attack is not recorded but it seems to result in little more than some dented pride.

210 - 207 BC

The great Qin Shihuang dies. His weak second son is placed on the throne by two imperial advisers as they attempt to control the throne through him. Unfortunately they squabble between themselves, with one being executed by the other who goes on to convince the emperor to commit suicide due to his own failings. By now the empire is in a state of rebellion against the Qin.

Map of Qin China 221-209 BC
In 221 BC the Qin controlled the entire former imperial territories of the north, plus the recently-incorporated Shu and Ba, but expansion beckoned to the north (a little, largely constrained by the construction of the Great Wall - shown here as a general border rather than specifying all of its different construction phases and locations) and to the south, where several campaigns between 221-209 BC greatly increased the empire (click on map to view full sized)

210 - 207 BC

Erh- shih-huang-ti / Er Shi

Puppet ruler. Second son. Committed suicide.

207/6 BC


Nephew. Executed.

207 - 202 BC

The rebellion against Er Shi soon crystallises into the Qin/Han War. In the imperial palace, Er Shi is succeeded by his nephew, Ziying, who immediately executes the surviving imperial adviser. His rebellious subjects have already declared themselves independent of his control but he is so inept in handling the situation that he is defeated in battle. Surrendering, he is executed. The state now survives under the joint leadership of generals Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. In 202 BC Liu Bang defeats his former ally and creates the Han dynasty.

China's dynasties continues here.