• Weights & Coinage

Various systems of weights and measures and different types of coinage had been in use in the pre-imperial kingdoms of the fifth century BC and later. Efficient government empire wide required the collection of tax and distribution of staple products on an equitable basis. Qin therefore took steps to introduce uniformity, by issuing sets of standard weights and units of capacity, and unifying the coinage.

In 1973 and 1974, archaeologists in the far northeastern province of Jinlin found part of a gray, pottery grain measure inscribed with an imperial edict of Qin Shihuangdi. Similar measures have been found in Liaoning, Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces. The imperial edict was inscribed on all official standard measures or engraved on a copper plate set into them.

Bronze and iron weights with the emperor’s edict on them have been found in various provinces. The fact that these are widely scattered over different regions, show that in spite of communication difficulties, the decrees of the central government could reach the four corners of the country and the unified system of weights and measures was effectively enforced. For the next 2000 years, although the units of weights and measures underwent many changes, in the main they followed the Qin system, so uniformity throughout the country was maintained.

Before unification some states had been using square or circular coins, while others used money in the shapes of knives or spades. The emperor decreed all should use the round coins punched with a square hole. Cast in bronze, the coins of the Qin empire were of one denomination as stated in the inscription of ‘One half liang’ (ban liang; 7 grams). A square hole in the centre allowed the insertion of a string to tie the coins together in units perhaps of a hundred.


  • Carts

It seems that an attempt was made to standardise the width of the carts that carried grain or other commodities, sometimes on the narrow paths up and down the hillsides or the tracks that rain between the fields and aside the waterways.

Since roads were not surfaced  and difficult to negotiate because of the confusion of deep wheel ruts made by carts of different widths, Qin Shi Huangdi decreed that cart axles now had to be of a standard length. Even the amount of oil that could be used to lubricate them was regulated.

  • Writing

The emperor called on Li Si to create a new script to replace the many different forms of writing in use at the time in various parts of the country. The result was a simplified version of the writing generally used in Qin. This was in turn replaced by the li shu which was even simpler to write and is the forerunner of modern Chinese characters. Scribes generally abandoned the use of bamboo sheets and stylus for writing and began using paper, writing brushes and ink. The use of a brush required a more fluid style of script and this contributed to the development of new scripts. We know from Sima Qian that huge quantities of paper were being made and sold.

In 1975, at Xiaogan in Hubei province, archaeologists discovered the tomb of a man who had died shortly after Qin Shi Huangdi had unified his empire. The tomb contained more than a thousand bamboo sheets covered with texts in li shu. One long text details the duties of a public official regulating economic activities in different areas. He had to inform the government of the quality and composition of harvest, maintain healthy conditions for livestock, and notify the government if one of the official’s horses died.

There were sets of rules for the storage and inspection of grain, the use of certain articles or commodities of exchange such as bolts of cloth, and the organisation of markets which were supervised or administered by the government. Craftsmen had to adhere to official instructions on the nature and quality of their goods, and follow the official calendar which defined and prescribed summer and winter tasks.

The responsibilities of different levels of qualification of craftsmen were set out, from apprentices to skilled workmen. The text went on to give practical instructions on such matters as the erection of tamped earth embankments, the roles of foremen and supervisors in producing goods or in carrying out large government construction projects, the allocation of military responsibilities and the appointment of government officials. There were also rules for collecting unpaid debts, basic requirements for efficient correspondence and rules for the dispatch of official documents.