One of the most significant reforms that took place after the unification of China was the effort to bring the whole empire under the direct control of the central government. For administration purposes, territory was formed into units known either as counties (xian) or as commanderies (jun). The capital, Xianyang, was the exception to this rule, as it lay under the control of a special official, governor of the metropolitan area. Outside, there were thirty-six, or perhaps more, commanderies, each in the charge of a governor (shou). Under each of the xian, there were a number of ting and under such ting were ten li, consisting of certain numbers of individual families – ten families were organised into one shi and five families were organised into one wu, the smallest rural administrative unit. Families in such units were held mutually accountable for each other.

A centralised, autocratic network of administrative and political control was established, based on the sangong or system of Three Lords: the prime minister (chengxiang), the highest administrative official of the central government; the chief military commander (taiwei), who advised the emperor on military affairs but did not have the power to move troops; and the general supervisor (yushi dafu), who was responsible for taking the public census and supervising officials’ behaviour and morals.

Below the Three Lords were nine high officials (jiuqing), whose major responsibilities included caring for various state and palace affairs (the number of officials in this rank was not in fact confined to nine). Fundamental to the system was the emperor’s absolute power.

Provincial and local officials performed an annual task that was fundamental to government: they registered the population according to age, sex and relationship within a family, and the extent of land in various uses, for cereal crops, pasture, orchard or timber. It was on the basis of these records that officials collected taxation in its various forms. That on the land was paid in kind, a per capita tax in cash. Able bodied males were obliged to serve for periods in the armed forces and also in the labour corps, being set to build a palace or city wall, to construct a canal or perhaps pump water from one level to another; to maintain roads and bridges; and to hump grain from the fields to the designated granaries.

Following Li Si’s advice, Qin Shi Huangdi decided to reward followers with money and gifts rather than kingdoms. In this way, local lords would not be bale to become powerful and begin fighting each other, as happened during Zhou Dynasty.


There does not seem to be any evidence of an abstract concept of law in the Qin Empire. Commands for action were issued from the emperor either as ‘statutes’ or as ‘ordinances’; officials saw that these were implemented. In 1975 in Hubei province, manuscripts of some of these ‘laws’ of 217 BC were discovered. These inform us of the subjects and depth of detail of these provisions. Many, which lay down approved procedures and activities and the penalties for failure to comply, concern matters such as agriculture, coinage, work of artisans, protection of government property, establishment of officials, control of travel and transmission of official documents. They may regulate the conduct of daily life to the finest detail, such as the method of stacking grain; the removal of marks made by painting, branding or incision on valuable equipment owned by the government, once this was damaged beyond repair; or the amount of lubrication allowed for wheeled vehicles.

Such documents identify crimes such as injury to other persons, robbery, murder or tax evasion, and laid down a scale of punishments ranging from the death penalty – carried out in various, sometimes grim, ways – to terms of hard labour for perhaps five or six years, mutilation by severing a foot, or payment of heavy fines. Set procedures followed arrest of an alleged criminal: interrogation to ascertain the facts; examination of the accused, perhaps after flogging; a search for corroboration; and decision of the action required by the statutes.

Building Program: Palaces

Sima Qian states that “Whenever Qin destroyed a noble rival, he copied the style of his palace and rebuilt it at Xianyang on the north bank of the Wei. The Wei was the southern boundary for these palaces. From Yung-men eastward, as far as the King and Wei rivers, buildings, dwellings, covered passageways and circular corridors were joined to one another. All of the beautiful women, bells and drums which [Qin Shihuang] had confiscated from the nobles were brought to his palaces until they were filled… Then he built a palace for his audiences, south of the Wei River in the middle of the Chang-lin enclosure. He began by erecting the front hall beside the capital; it measured five hundred paces from east to west and fifty tchang [150 metres] from north to south. There was enough space for ten thousand men in the upper portion, and the banners of five tchang [15 metres] could have been placed at the bottom. A circular pathway for horses formed an overhead road. From the bottom of the pavilion it was possible to proceed in a straight line to the Southern Mountain, and a triumphal arch was erected on the peak of the Southern Mountain as the main entrance…A covered road extended across the Wei River as far as Xianyang, symbolising the T’ien-ki road that crosses the Milky Way and reaches Ying-che [a constellation]” – Shi Ji

Little remains of the palaces due to uprisings following Qin Shi Huangdi’s death. The 1974-5 excavations of Palace 1 and the 1979 excavations of Palace 3 revealed a fairly narrow stratum less that a metre below present ground level. Archaeologists were able to determine clear evidence of the fires which had destroyed the buildings at apparently different times. On a side wall, one of the oldest extant Chinese murals showed horses, chariots and human figures, all outlined in black, tinted with brown and accentuated with red and green; the background was unpainted, a convention that continued in the Han period. It is believed that these murals decorated a long corridor.

Inspection Tours

The success of Qin Shi Huangdi was due to his determination to manage every detail of his government himself. He set quotas for the weight of documents he would read and dispose of each day, not resting until he had finished his paperwork. He made several tours of the country to inspect his new realm and awe his subjects.


One year after proclaiming himself the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi embarked on the first of a series of inspection tours throughout his empire to assess border security and the resources and opinions of his people, as well as perform rituals at sacred mountains in his quest for immortality. These inspection tours were part of the political propaganda to remind the people of the emperor’s reforms and the benefits he had brought them.