Qin was one of the expanding Zhou border states. Its history falls into four stages, hazier the further back we go, of course: early origins; as a Zhou feudal domain (800-380 BC); as a rising state beginning in 384-338 BC under Dukes Xian and Xiao and culminating in its defeat of all the other states in 221 BC; and as ruler of the unified empire for fifteen years.
The Qin ruling family (surnamed Ying) may have begun as eastern supporters of the remnant Shang rebellion against Zhou right after 1045 BC, who were then exiled out West. Or they may originally have come from the western Rong people. They may have claimed they were descended from high ancestors (di) who had served sage-kings Shun and Yu, and the Shang dynasty. Both texts and archaeological finds have been interpreted to support all these views.
Whatever their start point, the Qin lords were enfeoffed along the western edge of the Zhou world in about 771 BC, after wresting the area “within the passes” from the Rong and Di tribes who had invaded the Zhou capital. The Zhou king entrusted them with fending off further attacks from the west. That meant they controlled the route to Sichuan, which as we shall see underlay their final victory. Sima Qian treats Qin mainly as barbarians themselves, but the material record shows that they were fully a part of the Zhou ritual-cultural world. The dukes of Qin intermarried with the Zhou royal house: a bronze vessel excavated in the 1980s recorded authoritative speeches by a Zhou royal princess who married Duke Xian of Qin in about 700 BC. Relations were close; even after Zhou kings had ceased making royal inspection visits elsewhere, they continued to visit Qin. Qin demonstrated its adherence to Zhou ritual norms by retaining the shapes and sets of its bronze vessels.
But Qin dukes also developed their own burial customs: they replaced real bronze vessels with miniature versions in other materials for grave goods, and made up for this parsimony by building much bigger tombs than other feudal lords. One of the excavated Qin ducal tombs included the bones of 186 human victims, 20 with no coffins (some of these also had no heads), 94 with small coffins, and 72 with large coffins. Those with coffins may have been killed by poison, since their hair contained high levels of arsenic and mercury.2 That scale of ritual human sacrifice, including the probable murder of people high-ranking enough to merit their own big coffins, suggests that the dukes of Qin exerted an impressive degree of control.
They expressed their confidence in words. An excavated Qin bronze tureen cast perhaps around 600 BC has an inscription inside it that says:
The Duke of Qin said: “Greatly illustrious were my ancestors. They received Heaven’s Mandate and tranquilly dwelt in [sage-king] Yu’s tracks… They reverently respected and greatly revered Heaven’s Mandate, protected and regulated their [domain of] Qin, and vigilantly cared for the Man [non-Chinese] and the Xia [Zhou-world people].”3
No other state made such a claim to centrality. In standard ideological terms, the Mandate was held by the Zhou royal house, not by its vassal lords in the domains. Qin’s cockiness may have come from its easily defensible position in the west, similar to that of Zhou when it planned its conquest of Shang. In time, Qin created a society totally organized for war, and one that weakened the aristocrats below the dukes to a previously unimaginable extent.