Qin Shihuangdi – Ruling an empire

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The First Emperor governed his vast land with a mBronze banliang coinixture of strict discipline and excellent organisation. He divided it into 36 parts called ‘commanderies’, and chose officials to administer them.

Going against tradition, he abolished the aristocracy and awarded posts on the basis of ability alone. He also created a central bureaucracy, which continued throughout following dynasties.

His harsh rule was based on the philosophy of Legalism, which grew from the theory that human beings were by wayward by nature and needed regulation by law. Obedience was rewarded but there were defined punishments for every crime and no one was immune.

This differed from the teaching of Confucius, who believed that people would follow a good example.


When the First Emperor unified China, he made the banliang coin of the Qin state the single currency of the new Qin Empire. All other forms of bronze money, which came in a number of different shapes and sizes, became obsolete. The standardisation of coinage can be seen as both a symbol of the emperor’s political authority and as an important economic development.

The circular shape of the coin with a square hole within is significant because in early Chinese cosmology, the earth was seen as being square and the heavens were considered to be domed. This shape could therefore be seen as a powerful symbol combining both heaven and earth.

The word banliang, inscribed on the coin, refers to its weight. Banliang means half liang, which is about eight grammes.

The First Emperor also announced that standard weights and measures would be used throughout his empire and standardised written Chinese characters to produce a script that could be read everywhere. Before his reign, Chinese words could be written in a variety of ways, but this key reform allowed him to govern and control the unified empire more easily.

People in China today still use characters based on his innovations.

Protecting and defending

China’s First Emperor built a great wall to protect his land from invaders from the north. Around 300,000 captured soldiers and conscripts lived, worked and died in remote areas of the empire to complete this huge project. The Great Wall of China we know today is built on the foundations of the Qin wall.

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