Stone bust image
Clay minature warior



Spoken language from the Qin period can still be heard today in the dialects of the southern Chinese and in isolated communities which still exist. The most common Chinese language used today is the 'official' Beijing based dialect.

Spoken language was very different to written language during the Qin period and this continues to today. Colloquialisms and idioms together with a very musical intonation led to an informal language of common usage. One sound may have five or six different meanings depending on the intonation with which it is expressed.

Therefore you can have the following modern sign in a modern airport which can be translated different ways. As there is no intonation provided in the sign and the characters are put into this particular order there are many meanings including the one on the sign. This sign was over a locked gate.

Airport sign, Kunming

On getting a translation of this sign two different native speakers gave two different interpretations. On the one hand the first said, "No luggage can be taken out of the airport through this gate". The other said "You may leave the airport through this gate if you do not have any bags". Now, although these seem similar there are subtle and important differences and not only with the translation given on the sign.

Therefore, it is important to think about Chinese language as a spoken language rather than a written language as so much can be lost when it is written down.

This challenge was taken up in Qin times when it was so important for the emperor to communicate with his officials clearly and accurately.


Writing and Books

When the emperor united the seven states he ordered his prime minister, Li Si, to create a script using the Qin language as its base but incorporating elements from the conquered states. He then arranged for Li Si, Zhao Gao and Hu Wujing, his top officials, to write pieces in this new style to act as models for everyone across the empire. This new script was easier to read and write. This style was to be changed later by the people themselves into an even simpler style called the clerk style which was, in time, adopted by the empire.

By the beginning of the Qin period bamboo and wood were the usual materials on which writing appeared. Only the very wealthy or only selected literary texts were written on silk. This is a modern day version. It is part of a scroll

.Characters written on silk, part of a modern scroll

The use of these materials which did away with having to carve characters onto stone or bone meant that softer, less linear characters could be developed and ink and brush could become the tools. By the time of the Qin dynasty these new forms were in regular use. This led also to the development of new characters and words which allowed broader expression and literature and philosophy grew rapidly.


Literature and Philosophy - the role of the Scholars

For hundreds of years before the establishment of the Qin dynasty, Chinese philosophers had been debating the role of the king, the role of the state and the role of the people. Many books had been written on these topics. The most important were the writings of two people - Confucius and Mencius

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During the Qin dynasty debate continued over the role of the king (now emperor) and how the country should be governed but the emperor was not prepared to allow this debate.

He also felt that the scholars should obey him and so gathered the most important men around him at his palace to seek their advice (but also to keep a secret eye on them). When one of the scholars criticised the emperor indirectly he took the opportunity to kill the most important scholars so that they could not lead others away from what he wanted.

The role of the scholars had been to know, to interpret, to teach and to explain the old texts from hundreds of years before so that the past knowledge of China would not be lost. Now, in response to the criticism, the emperor burnt all the past history books, particularly those of the conquered states, and destroyed all the philosphical books which had been used by the scholars.

However, the scholars continued to provide administrative assistance to the emperor and they were a valuable and vital part of the structure of government. Higher social status could be gained by becoming a scholar, even a lower level one, so education became important to anyone with ambition.



Most people in the Qin dynasty time were animists, that is, they identified their gods by the natural places around them and identified themselves with those places. They also had special spirits which were associated with individual crafts and these spirits could be called upon to help in times of trouble.

The emperor developed the idea of four main gods - di - whose powers operated in the four quarters of the land. As a result he always built his palaces facing to the compass directions, generally with his palace facing south. The same applies to most temples which also face south. He could be sure which way south was because the Chinese had already invented the compass.


The only truly Chinese religion, Daoism is based on the ideas of Laotzu. Although there is some doubt as to whether Laotzu actually existed, he is supposed to have spent his life at the Green Ram Monastery in Chengdu. Towards the end of his life he is supposed to have simply taken off from this temple and headed for Tibet to seek further enlightenment, peace and time to think.. This stele is supposedly a picture of him and faces his main temple building.

Stele of Laotzi at the Green Ram Temple, Chengdu

Below is a blank stele at the Green Ram Temple waiting for the opportunity for some very important Daoist to be deified and have his or her history carved onto the rock for posterity.

A blank stele at the Green Ram Temple left there for future use

Detail of the top of the stele shown above

Detail at the top of the blank stele at the Green Ram Temple

Daoism is believed to be the way of the universe and the driving force behind everything. A true Daoist is able to organise his or her life to keep in harmony with the natural order of the universe.

This concept finds expression in the way Daoist buildings are put together. They use no bolts, fasteners, clips or bindings but rely on the interlinking of elements and the correct placing of the main parts.

As a consequence of this idea you can find buildings being pulled apart into their components, old or rotting pieces being replaced and the whole thing put back together again. The picture below is of one of the main palaces in the Forbidden City, Beijing, UNPACKED and lying on the ground with work being done to replace collapsing parts. It will be put back together much like a three dimensional jigsaw.

Reconstruction of a building in the Forbidden Palace, Beijing. The building has been unpacked and lain out on the ground so that faulty parts can be replace and the whole rebuilt

Construction detail of White Horse Temple, Luoyang

The above picture is detail from the roof construction at the White Horse Temple at Luoyang and although it is the first Buddhist Temple to be built in China in the 1st century AD it is still built on the principles of Daoism. Every piece interlocks with another to make the whole which stands on its own.


Confucianism is more a philosophy or a code of ethics than a religion. That is, it is about the way people should think and behave rather than what they believe in. It has as its main ideas that

It was believed by pro-Confucianists that if the emperor lived by the rules of Confucianism then he did not need an army because, by his very behaviour, he would set such an example that everyone would want to conform and everything would be peaceful.

Emperor Shihuangdi was not a good Confucianist. He was a "Legalist" who believed in the importance of the law. However, he also understood the importance of Confucianism and did not wish to upset too many people by acting strongly against it.


Throughout his life the emperor was concerned about making sure that he survived the various attempts on his life and that he would live forever, either by finding the elixer of everlasting life or, if failing that, by providing in his tomb everything he would need to live comfortably in the arfter life.

As his scholars, and other people he sent on missions outside the empire, failed to create or bring back the magic needed to live forever, the emperor concentrated on saying prayers, making pilgrimages to sacred sites, building numerous temples on strategic mountains and building his mausoleum.

The Mandate of Heaven

Part of the emperor's views was that he had a right to rule and that he had been given the right to rule by Heaven. He believed that the universe was divided into three elements - Heaven, Earth and Man. He believed that all human effort needed to be controlled in the interests of the whole community. As well, loyal obedience to serve the emperor as the single authority was necessary to make sure China survived. However, the reality was that the emperor ruled through fear, a combination of diplomacy and the use of his army.

The only problem with this idea was that, if he lost the Mandate of Heaven (that is, the trust of the people) then they had a right to overthrow him. This is what happened to Shihuangdi's heir.



Art in the Qin empire built on what had already been developed. Jade and bronze artefacts were produced including vessels for burning incense in temples such as the quadropod (four footed) one shown below from Pingyao on the left and the tripod (or three footed) one on the right from the same site.

Temple urn, Pingyao Tripod urn from Pingyao

Lacquered wood objects were also popular for wealthier people but most classes used simple clay vessels or simple bronze vessels. Bowls and pots such as these from the Luoyang Museum were the main everyday items used by people.

Pottery bowls from Luoyang
Granary pots from Luoyang

The bronze lamp below is held in the Shaanxi Provincial Museum at Xian and was excavated from the mausoleum site of the emperor. On the right is a cast bronze bust pot made by the lost wax method. This pot is held in the Xianyang City Museum and is considered one of the most beautiful artefacts to have come from the excavations around the old imperial city.

Bronze lamp from Shaanxi Museum, Xian
Bronze cast bust pot from Xianyang Palace excavation



During the Qin empire most buildings were built of wood although the use of bricks, stone and tile were just becoming more common, particularly for temples which received a lot of hard usage.

Very few early buildings from the period survive. The emperor's palace complex at Apang itself was burnt down during the last days of the empire. However, we can still get an idea from those that were built in the early Han period and this is one such building at Gongyi Stone Temple. Through the almost untouched gate you can get a glimpse of the wooden temple pavilion.

This is a very typical construction with a circular gate as an entrance to the next section - it represents harmony and completeness. At this particular site the level of the ground has risen about 1 to 1 1/2 metres and this doorway is very small in height. It would originally have had pillars supporting the sides of it which are now buried underground. You can see just the tops of them below the circle.

Stone temple gate and pavilion, Gongyi

Important buildings such as palaces and temples were often built in the shape of the character for happiness and sometimes, if they were large enough, the character doubled up and reversed back to back. Then the name of "double happiness" was given to them.

This pattern was generally used in temples and wealthier households where one courtyard would lead into a second and then pass through a wall into a third. The basic modern character below gives you the idea.

Modern Chinese character for happiness



Musicians were both specialists, when at the court, and casual, when part of everyday life in the village. Both used a range of instruments and the appearance of these instruments has not changed much over the centuries. These are all from the tomb at Yong Li.

Woman with flute from tomb at Yong Li

Woman playing a flute - these are some of the few images we find of women from the Qin period except for some limited court engravings


Woman playing a drum, tomb at Yong Li

Woman playing the drum.

Woman playing pipes, tomb at Yong Li

Woman playing pipes