To promote unity, the First Emperor standardized weights and measures and replaced the diverse coins of the Zhou states with Qin coins. He also had scholars create uniformity in Chinese writing. Workers repaired and extended roads and canals to strengthen the transportation system. A new law even required cart axles to be the same width so that wheels could run in the same ruts on all Chinese roads.

Legalism Establishes Harsh Rule

Shi Huangdi centralized power with the help of Legalist advisers. Legalism was a very different school of thought from Confucianism or Daoism. Legalism was based on the teachings of Hanfeizi (hahn fay dzuh), who died in 233 B.C.

Ancient Chinese coin, with hole in the center and carved symbols.

Standardized weights and coins, such as this one, were part of the Qin dynasty's efforts to promote unity among various Chinese states.

According to Hanfeizi, “The nature of man is evil. His goodness is acquired.” Greed, he declared, was the motive for most actions and the cause of most conflicts. Hanfeizi rejected the Confucian idea that people would follow the example of a good ruler. Instead, he insisted that the only way to achieve order was to pass strict laws and impose harsh punishments.

To Legalists, strength, not goodness, was a ruler's greatest virtue. “The ruler alone possesses power,” declared Hanfeizi, “wielding it like lightning or like thunder.” During the Zhou period, many feudal rulers chose Legalism as the most effective way to keep order. Shi Huangdi made it the official policy of the Qin government.

His laws were so cruel that later generations despised Legalism. Yet Legalist ideas survived in laws that forced people to work on government projects and punished those who shirked their duties.

Shi Huangdi moved harshly against his critics. He jailed, tortured, killed, or enslaved many who opposed his rule. Hardest hit were the feudal nobles and Confucian scholars who loathed his laws. To end dissent, Shi Huangdi approved a ruthless campaign of book burning, ordering the destruction of all works of literature and philosophy. Only books on medicine and agriculture were spared.

Building the Great Wall

Shi Huangdi's most remarkable and costly achievement was the Great Wall. In the past, individual feudal states had built walls to defend their lands against raiders. Shi Huangdi ordered the walls to be joined.

Hundreds of thousands of laborers worked on the wall for years, through bitter cold and burning heat. They pounded earth and stone into a mountainous wall almost 25 feet high and topped with a wide brick road. Many workers died in the harsh conditions.

Illustration of the great wall of China during construction, with workers carrying stone and tools while soldiers and leaders look on.

Building the Great Wall required intense labor. Each stone was cut to a specific size and carried or dragged to the wall before being set in place.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments