Codifying Change in Qin Imperial Ideology

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 12:10 PM
Miami Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
P. Ernest Caldwell IV, University of Chicago
Although the legal culture of the short-lived Qin dynasty (221-207 BCE) has long been vilified in history as harsh and draconian, many of its institutional features, such as the use of written law, were readily adopted by subsequent Chinese dynasties as the primary means for producing and maintaining administrative and social control over large geographic areas.  This paper will focus on the increased reliance on written law in early China through an examination of its role within the imperial ideology of China’s first empire, the Qin.  From a small kingdom in western China, Qin rapidly increased its population and territory through a wave of military incursions into neighboring kingdoms in the east.  These actions were predicated upon a growing desire to unify all the disparate kingdoms under the centralized rule of the Qin emperor.  This imperial ideology of unification was not limited to the pursuit territorial unity, however, as it also demanded the radical transformation of indigenous social, political, and economic institutions.  This manifested in imperial policies aimed at societal homogenization according to a Qin paradigm which included the institution of a universal written script, the standardization and centralized regulation of weights and measures, and a universalized penal system.  Yet, unlike several previous kingdoms in China, the Qin rulers relied extensively upon written law as a device capable of achieving desired societal change.  Why?  Using traditional historical and philosophical texts, as well as recently excavated legal statutes and administrative documents dated to the Qin dynasty, I will examine the ways in which the Qin conceptualized the efficacy of written law with respect to the processes of imperial unification.
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