The eyes of an archaeologist

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China, as one of the oldest civilizations in the world, has its archaeology traced back to over 5000 years ago. For anyone who shows a slight interest in Chinese archaeology or history, one must have heard the name Qin Shi Huang or his famous terra cotta army or the Great Wall. Yet, very few know that Qin's culture is not exactly original or unique since archaeological evidences of the state of Qin are probably the most complete and well-known comparing to the other states of Zhou: Qi (?/?), Chu (?), Yan (?), Han (?/?), Zhao (?/?), Wei (?) (Chang et al. 2005). In other words, the truth might have been neglected about the real identity of the famous state of Qin. In this essay, I attempt to discover the enchanted archaeology behind this fascinating realm through studying the burials for the early Qin lords during Eastern Qin period and its later development after Shangyang's reform. I aim to examine the state of Qin from the Eastern Zhou period to its unified empire period to explain the development in social, economic, political, and ritual aspects of the "Qin culture" in order to reveal the true cultural or social identity of Qin.


The origin of Chinese civilization has been a debatable topic among many scholars due to insufficiency of archaeological data, however, the Chinese government has recently announced that China' earliest state belonged to Xia dynasty which was located at the middle of Yellow River Valley. As the very first of a state in China, Xia Dynasty begins the Bronze Age, where its descendent states, Shang and Zhou Dynasty, continues to grow and elaborate their state formation by establishing political systems and centralized governments (Shelach and Pines 2006). During Zhanguo period of Zhou Dynasty around 350 B.C., China was not the China which is known as the third largest country in the world nowadays; China was separated into different "warring states" under feudal system and constant warfare between nations occurred commonly. (Man, 2008) When the Chinese deeply yearned for peace and prosperity, Ying Zheng, who later named himself Ch'in Shih Huang, came to bring together the great unification of China. According to Shi Ji, historian Si Ma Qian briefly remarks: "...and now Qin possessed tianxia (under all heaven). Becoming the first emperor of China, at only thirteen, "Ch'in rose dominance through human effort." (Cotteral 1981) At such a young age, Ch'in Shih Huang was able to win over the warfare against all the other six aggressive warring states. His success is indeed legendary that can hardly be overrated.

The origin of Qin remains unclear even today. The popular view on the origins of Qin culture and Qin people is recorded by Historian Si Ma Qian in Shiji, which indicates that the Qin originated in the east of China, and then moved westward to the eastern part of Gansu, later returned back to the east in time for the unification (Cotteral 1981). The discovery of Maojiaping in 1982 proves the residence of Qin people's residence in Pan'an Village, Gangu County, Gansu province ninth and eight centuries B.C. Though this archaeological site cannot exactly confirm Qin's origin, strong sense of Zhou culture is abundant in the collections of pottery which includes li (hollow-legged tripods), pen (basins), guan (jars), and dou (stemmed bowls), at Maojiaping. (Chang et al. 2005).

Identity of Qin in Eastern Zhou Period

During the Chunqiu period in 677 B.C., Qin's capital, YongCheng City, is probably the best known archaeological capital of Qin among other capitals because it has been the capital city for most of Qin's early history. Located at Majiazhuang of Fengxiang County, Shaanxi Province along with the Yong River embracing the city from northwest to southwest, the Capital seemed to be rather enclosed and isolated from other states of Zhou. Formation of the capital was like an "imperfect triangle" of about 10km square, surrounded by 15 meter wide walls and ditches 5.2 meters depth and 12.5 - 25 meters wide (Chang et al. 2005). Its stamped-earth foundations were made by putting thin layers of earth inside the wooden frame, which was a method used since the Shang dynasty. Elaborated with bronze fittings, these wooden constructions appeared in some large separated areas inside the city. This suggests that the city did not have a single cohesive center but rather several clusters of public buildings spread inside the enclosed city surrounded by walls (Shelach and Pines 2006). Comparing to capital cities of other states, YongCheng was a very small capital with its defensive walls four times smaller than Xinzheng in Zheng. Also, YongCheng was far away from the definition of a splendid capital because its layout seemed unstructured due to a lack of centralized government. A lavish capital city could be found in any other states such as Yan's capital, Xiadu, where the city center was distinguished by walls and a moat to brag about the prosperity of its state. Yongcheng and Qin's next capital, Yueyang, imply "a relatively conservative and modest approach" (Shelach and Pines 2006).

Despite their unattractive city center, the dukes of the state of Qin were very generous when spending funds on their mortuary. Early Qin rulers' sense of superiority was disguised by its humble capital city presentation which explains why their extravagance had never appeared in any Chinese classical text including Shi Ji. Qin's is the mastery of the subtleties of ritual norms which happens to be an indispensible part of Zhou culture (Shelach and Pines 2006).

On the other hand, Von Falkenhausen remarks that throughout the history, mortuary remains constitute the richest and evidently become the most useful source of archaeological data when reconstructing ancient society. No other kinds of archaeological contexts could be found such as settlements in the period of Bronze Age (Von Falkenhausen 2006:74). The abundance of extravagant burials not only points out the social boundary of the aristocracy and the commons, but it evidently illustrates the way ancient Chinese honored death and believed in after-life. The establishment of the tombs is inevitably an honest presentation of wealth filling with exceedingly valuable objects: bronze vessels, coins, fancy clothing, clayed horses... The importance behind is the firm belief of the afterlife bureaucracy. The afterlife bureaucracy, although eternally isolated, is nonetheless a mirror image of the world of the living (Von Falkenhausen 2006:377). This mirror image is carefully and generously planned by the dead, which reflects how they concern about the importance of being privileged even after death. This also counts as one of the Zhou ritual norms because fancy aristocratic tombs were also abundant in other Zhou states.

As Qin's cultural resemblance of Zhou culture is most evident in its burial system, Qin inevitably shared building techniques and symmetrical arrangement with other Zhou states. For instance, ancestral cult is a feature of the Zhou tradition. Within Qin's wall, Majiazhuang, happened to be the best archaeological site of an ancestral cult known through out China. There were three or more identical buildings which were constructed with wood as the roof and stamp-earth as its platform (Von Falkenhausen 2006: 459). Though no comparable ancestral cult could be found during the period, the foundation of this complex noticeably came from the Zhou culture (Shelach and Pines 2006).

To further relate Qin to the Zhou culture, we need to look into the mausoleum complex of the Dukes of Qin which was discovered at Sanzhiyuan near Yongcheng. As the largest mausoleum complex of the Qin state, twenty dukes were buried, from Duke De to Duke Chu (ca. 677-385 B.C.E) (Chang et al. 2005). It was an occupation of 20 million square meters that contained forty tombs in thirteen mausoleums with which ten were decorated with a moat. The use of moat is an important feature to Zhou ritual system because it is an indication of the concept of zhao yu. Zhao yu system was a ritual that burial ground was surrounded by a moat that defined its boundaries. The outside of the whole mausoleum was surrounded by a moat, and then a moat around each ruler's tomb to set boundaries between each tomb (Chang et al. 2005). The same practice of zhao yu had been utilized in other states of Zhou, which shows that Qin was a part of the Zhou culture during the early Eastern Zhou Period like the rest of the states. Perhaps it is more plausible to say that Qin had never even intended to break way from the Zhou culture, but rather challenged itself to be the leader of all the states.

When the time Qin moved to its last capital, Xianyang during eighth century B.C., several large tombs were created in Dabuzi, Li County, Gansu Province. Through this excavation, a certain amount of bronzes were found and datable to the early Eastern Zhou due to its style and epigraphy. There were two tomb passages attached to it from east to west leading to the central chamber (Chang et al. 2005). Tomb chamber itself was approximately 12 meters by 12 meters at its mouth and 15 meters deep. Two pits were discovered and each contained 4 chariots and 12 horses. Horse-and-chariots-pits were a very popular choice of feature of burial of aristocrats in the Zhou world (Chang et al. 2005). Also, both tombs contained human sacrifices. The reason for human sacrifices is probably that the lords did not wish the construction labours to inform others about the location of his tomb in case of looting away all his belongings. The construction workers had to die in order to keep the secret. In fact, the custom of sacrificing human beings in tombs was abolished during the reign of Duke Xian in 382 B.C. (Chang et al. 2005). However, the tomb was eventually looted in 1980s and the number of bronzes discovered far exceeded the assigned number by sumptuary rules to the overlords under the sumptuary system descended from Zhou. The early Qin rulers probably wanted to exceed the number just as to show strength and wealth. (Shelach and Pines 2006)

An even more extravagant burial were traced in Nanzhihui necropolis for Lord Jing at Fengxiang County, Shaanxi. This mortuary covered an area of 5334 square meters with length of 300 meters and depth of 24 meters. (Von Falkenhausen 2004:203). This enormous tomb was surrounded by sacrificial pits including horses and chariots. The tomb was entirely built of yellow colored wood, Oriental Arborvitae, which was an extraordinary type of wood known for its resistance to rotting and denseness. Moreover, 166 human remains sacrificed and were each placed in Lord Jing's own coffin (Chang et al. 2005). From all the details above, this is obviously a rich and astonishing burial.

Identity Change after Shangyang's Reform

In the middle and late Zhanguo Period, Shangyang, a political reformer in the state of Qin, had a significant influence over the over all mortuary system of Qin. He abolished the hereditary aristocracy and ranked the entire Qin populace on a bureaucratic military hierarchy manner (Shelach and Pines 2006). This massive adjustment in social gradation had not only influenced the aristocrats, but every person lived in the state of Qin was hugely affected. Shangyang's decision had changed Qin's identity ever. The demise of royal lineage was evident in their tombs. After the reform, at the large cemetery of Ta'erpo, no more bronze vessels were seen. The style of mortuary had changed completely its feature (Von Falkenhausen 2006: 320). Bronze vessels were replaced by Minqi, which seemed to be an attempt which low-ranking aristocrats maintaining the traditional ritual system values at a lower and affordable cost (Shelach and Pines 2006).

Later in the mid Zhanguo, the ritual norms of vessels, neither minqi nor bronze, rapidly declined. It might be plausible that the sumptuary system of Zhou was no longer important. New religious ideas were floating in the air of the Qin State. After the reform, Qin had a new image in late Zhanguo texts like Shi Ji never treated the state of Qin differently than other states. After Shangyang's reform, Qin was either identified as "barbarians" or "has common customs with the Rong and Di; a state with tiger's and wolf's heart; greedy, profit seeking and untrustworthy, which knew nothing of ritual, propriety and virtuous behaviour." (Shelach and Pines 2006; Zhanguo ce 1991 24.8:907) Qin suddenly became "the mortal enemy of all under Heaven (tianxia)" (Shelach and Pines 2006; Zhanguo ce 1991 14.17:508). These descriptions were rather sour and prejudiced against Qin. The reform brought by Shangyang was nevertheless to empower the state of Qin. However, this somehow established a new "identity" of Qin as being politically aggressive as before and ever so powerful.

        The powerful state of Qin finally achieved its victory in 221 B.C.: the unification of China, which was probably one of the best-known conquests in Chinese history. The first emperor's mausoleum was situated at Mount Li in Lingtong County, Shaanxi Province. The well-known terra-cotta army was found at the east of the mausoleum park. The mausoleum was planned to be an afterlife version of the once glorious Qin capital city and the tomb was the palace of the Emperor (Chang et al. 2005). Again, the heavy shadow of Zhou ritual system was in terra-cotta army with reference to horse and chariot pits. More than 2,000 terra-cotta warriors and horses, 20 wooden chariots, and 4,000 bronze weapons were found in pit one in a total of three pits. These pits of warriors and horses in the mausoleum demonstrate the guard of honor to protect the First Emperor on his tours (Chang et al. 2005).


The state of Qin had been struggling to establish its own identity from the later Bronze Age, to the collapse of its short-lived dynasty. An attempt to distinguish the uniqueness of Qin culture within the early Eastern Zhou Period has been failed. Its natural practice of Zhou ritual system and religious beliefs through early burials of the Qin lords are apparent. However, the identity of Qin seemed to change after Shangyang's reform. The abolition of hereditary had blurred the boundary between aristocrats and commoners. By doing this, Qin achieved military achievement by military hierarchy instead of aristocrat lineage (Shelach and Pines 2006). After the aristocrats misplaced into the lower rank of the society, the practice of Zhou's sumptuary system was slowly dismissed and inescapably a new identity of Qin had been established. However, the point is Qin had never intended to separate completely from Zhou's ritual system. As we can see, at a certain level, Zhou ritual norms had subtly appeared in the First Emperor's mausoleum. Von Falkenhausen expressed in his book: "Qin was not an archaeological culture," which had never possessed cultural uniqueness in its area. Its sole commission was the whole unification of China which conceivably made the Qin unable to establish its own cultural identity.

Works Cited:

  • Chang, Kwang-chil, Xu Pingfang 2005 The Formation of Chinese Civilization: an Archaeological Perspective. Yale University and New World Press.
  • Cotterell, Arthur 1981 The First Emperor of China. Macmillan London Limited, London
  • Kern, Martin 2000 The Stele Inscriptions of Ch'in Shih-Huang: Text and Ritual in Early Chinese Imperial Representation. American Oriental Society, New Haven, Connecticut
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  • 2004 Mortuary Behavior in Pre-Imperial Qin: A Religious Interpretation. Religion and Chinese Society. V1: 3.
  • Yuan, Zhongyi 1983 The Terra-Cotta Warriors in Armour and Horses of Qin Shi Huang. Translated by He Fei. Wen Wu Publishing Press, Beijing