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3.11: The Information State

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    Having created the empire by organization and force, Qin further took control of the economy of all the former Zhou domains. The whole country was divided up into commanderies and counties. Land was measured. Every family was registered, put into a mutual-responsibility group, ranked, and given land to provide labor, military service, grain, hay and animal fodder, and cloth to the state. Recommendation processes drew competent men in to serve the state, and the former aristocrats were stripped of their titles. The central state took control of the means of production, including iron foundries, mines, all kinds of workshops, forests, and pastures for herds. It controlled labor directly, as well as through the small households, by sentencing criminals to 1-6 years of hard labor: construction for men, husking and grinding grain for women, farming for both. It controlled animal labor, creating huge stud farms and registering ownership of all animals. Local officials were not allowed to let animals graze on private land, but people were also not permitted to cut wood in forests or hunt in game preserves owned by the state.

    The Empire was a new kind of political organization, with a new social and fiscal base. It required new forms of ideology and legitimation reaching new audiences. Qin is often said to have “burned all the books” and to have buried scholars alive, but this is not accurate. In accordance with the Legalist doctrine that only the emperor can determine right and wrong, the Qin did limit free discussion and outlaw some books. At the suggestion of his advisor Li Si, the First Emperor required that privately-held copies of the Book of Odes, the Book of Documents, and the various philosophers’ works be burned. Scholars who continued to talk about them – especially to criticize Qin – would be executed. The aim was to deny scholars an appeal to an external moral standard to criticize the emperor. Li Si, therefore, specifically exempted from destruction the historical annals of Qin itself, agricultural manuals, books on divination and medicine. Even outlawed books were carefully preserved in the imperial library for scholars were working for the emperor to consult them; students could learn from these official scholars. (The real destruction of the written record of the past came in the civil war at the end of Qin, when the imperial library was burned.)

    Instead of primarily limiting knowledge, historian Charles Sanft has argued that Qin’s focus was on creating a new knowledge. Qin worked hard to communicate to everyone that a new kind of authority was running a new kind of polity. That knowledge could create cooperation, as more and more people expected of one another that they would act in accordance with knowledge of the powerful center. As we look at some Qin policies, what appears is, first, that Qin drew on and revised some older forms of ritual display aimed at the elite to communicate with the whole public; and second, that some policies can be interpreted both as practical and as contributing to communication with the public. How did the Qin undertake to turn its power based on violence and surveillance into widely-accepted authority?

    First, the First Emperor toured the empire to display, not himself as the Shang kings had done (for he worried, with reason, about being assassinated), but his vast entourage to as many people as possible. He stopped at old sacred places to offer sacrifices, again to impress and win the support of both the humans and the spirits of the territory. By sacrificing at Mount Tai, he carried out what are known as the feng and shan sacrifices to claim the support of Heaven (Tian) – but outside of Mandate theory, because he claimed that his empire would last forever. But in addition to these kinds of propaganda efforts, the first Qin emperor made changes to the landscape he passed through just to change things – he knocked down walls and built new altars just to make people sit up and take notice, and talk about the change, irrespective of any rational argument about whether the new government was good or bad, divinely supported or not.

    Second, Qin initiated grand building projects, even grander than the tombs of the late feudal lords and pre-conquest Qin. Laborers were forced to build enormous palaces in the capital, Xianyang, as well as the famous tomb of the First Emperor. The capital city was designed as a microcosm, a copy of the whole universe: the palace was shaped like the Big Dipper, and enormous statues made of the metal of the weapons of the conquered states stood in for the constellations (some scholars argue that they were inspired by Greek statuary). To symbolize all places on earth, the former feudal aristocratic families, stripped of their rank and privileges, were moved to replicas of their former palaces, built in the Qin capital.

    Figure 3.3. Some of the clay soldiers in one pit at the tomb of the First Qin Emperor. The figures were mass produced, piece by piece. Photo by Niall Chithelen, 2019. Public Domain.

    Some construction projects tied the whole empire together, such as canals, and 4,000 miles of roads. Carts were required to have a standard axle length, so that the ruts in the road would be appropriate for all (like having a standard gauge for railroads). Archaeologists recently found two enormous wooden Qin-era bridges over the Wei river in the middle of the Qin capital of Xianyang, each 300 yards long and 200 yards across. Roads, bridges, and canals seem purely practical, and the feudal lords had built plenty of them to speed their messengers and soldiers on their way. But Qin roads also communicated. Some were walled or elevated – the emperor could move on them without being seen, but their presence put him in everyone’s mind. “The Direct Road” ran six hundred miles from Xianyang out to a site sacred to the Qin’s greatest enemy, the Xiongnu in the northwest; but its name also advertised that Qin followed the “straight way,” – the ideal of fairness to all. Finally, the 4,250 miles of roads going in all directions from the Qin capital, made of packed-down earth and carried over trestles and bridges where necessary, each had three or five lanes. The outside lanes were for the public, going in opposite directions; the next two for officials. A person who used the wrong part of the road would be banished and his cart and ox or horse confiscated. The lane down the middle (as you have probably guessed) was reserved for the emperor: even when he was not travelling on the road, he would be present in people’s consciousness.

    Third, Qin created another kind of public text. A tiny number of people saw the Shang oracle bones; Zhou bronze inscriptions were read aloud to a larger group of elite family members. Now, enormous stones and even mountainsides were inscribed with long texts praising the Qin emperor. One scholar describes them as inside-out bronze vessels.

    Fourth, the first Qin emperor, King Zheng of Qin, needed a new title, so as not to be just one of the kings. The word we translate as “emperor” is huangdi 皇帝. Huang means “shining” or “august, elevated,” and di – remember? – originally referred to the Shang ancestors as a group and then to a high god, sometimes equivalent to “Heaven.” Calling himself “Shining Di” or “Splendid Di” meant that the Qin emperor was a kind of super-Daoist adept, who could bring order to the universe. One mountain inscription says: 皇帝明德經理宇内 “The bright potency of the Splendid Di aligns and arranges all within the universe.”14

    Fifth, over the long Zhou period each state had developed its own coinage, writing, laws and customs, and language. Now Qin – it is said – created a uniform script, with no regional variants permitted; a uniform coinage; uniform law; and uniform weights and measures. But Qin was not able to impose a uniform currency before it collapsed.15 Samples of Qin writing show that characters varied quite a lot, although scholars disagree on whether the differences are only such as we find with different fonts.16 Different fonts – different fonts – different fonts. Old systems of measurement may have persisted locally, but the hundreds of excavated Qin weights and measures are indeed fairly uniform: even when made in different materials they vary only a little. Still, there was more to it than that. Every single measuring scoop and every single weight, whether made of bronze, iron, or pottery, is inscribed:

    In the 26th year of his reign, the emperor completely unified all the various feudal lords of everything under the sky. The black-headed ones (i.e. the common people) found great peace. He established the title “emperor.” Now he commands Chancellors Zhuang 狀 and Wan 綰: “As for the laws and units of measurement that are different or doubtful, clarify and unify all of them.”17

    Charles Sanft concludes that the inscription was the main point of the widely-dispersed weights and measures. The new state wanted everyone to know that it was in charge, that it was in charge everywhere, and that its officials carried out its laws, the same everywhere.

    Figure 3.4. Rubbing of the inscription on a Qin imperial weight, translated above. Fair Use.

    The bronze plaques affixed to the weights were cast in clay molds. With molds, only one person in any workshop making these plaques had to be able to write, to create the clay mold in the first place. In fact, if you look carefully, you can see that the workers must have stamped the words into the clay molds. (Find the clue to that before you turn the page, then look for the *.) If they first cast a bronze stamp or seal, even those who made the clay molds to cast the plaques did not need to be able to write. They only had to keep the stamps in order. This plaque would have needed 10 seals (can you see why?), so I guess that they were numbered 1 to 10 on the handle of the stamp. Molds and stamps increase standardization and were widely used in decoration of bronze vessels late in the Warring States period and to decorate Han tombs.

    Indeed, stamps are a simple form of printing, which would not be invented for another eight centuries or so.*

    Qin had successfully ended centuries of bloody warfare to create a unified empire in which – even without printing – the central government knew of every person, and every person knew of the central government. What could possibly go wrong?

    This page titled 3.11: The Information State is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sarah Schneewind (eScholarship) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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