Thucydides Roundtable, Book VI: Spot the Alcibiades Points

The Qin built their empire on a nightmare. But it was a nightmare that worked. The Qin fought war after war after war—more wars, in fact, than any other Warring State—and incorporated what they conquered into their system. They went from strength to strength. After a century of constant conflict there was no one left to oppose them. The Qin rode their nightmare straight to universal empire. For the first time in history, all of inner China was in the control of one man. The Qin imagined they had established a dynasty that would last through the millennia.

It was a vain vision. It had taken 150 years for the House of Qin to conquer China. They would rule it for 15.

The story of the rebellion against Qin is too long, and its details too complex, to relate here. It is sufficient to say that part of the dynasty’s problem was a structural one. They had built the ultimate conquest state, but had run out of places to conquer. As historian Mark Edward Lewis comments:

So why did the Qin dynasty fail? The most insightful discussion of this catastrophe is also the earliest. Writing only a couple of decades after the Qin collapse, the early Han scholar Jia Yi argued: “One who conquers the lands of others places priority on deceit and force, but one who brings peace and stability honors obedience to authority. This means that seizing, and guarding what you have seized, do not use the same techniques. Qin separated from the Warring States period and became ruler of the whole world, but it did not change its ways or alter its government. Thus, there was no difference in the means by which they conquered and the means by which they tried to hold it.”

For all the ambition of the Qin reforms, with their vision of a new world where measures, laws, and truths flowed from a single source, the implementers of these reforms carried the basic institutions and practices of the Warring States unchanged into the empire. The direct administration of peasant households who were mobilized for military service continued as the organizing principle of the state, with a large servile labor pool formed from those who violated any of the numerous laws. No longer necessary for inter-state warfare, this giant machine for extracting service had become a tool in search of a use.

To occupy these conscripts, the Qin state engaged in an orgy of expansion and building that had little logic except employing Warring States institutions that had been rendered obsolete by their own success. Armies were launched on massive, pointless expeditions to the south, north, and northeast. Colossal projects to construct roads, a new capital, and the First Emperor’s tomb were initiated. Laborers were dispatched to the northern frontier to link old defenses into the first Great Wall. A state created for warfare and expansion, Qin wasted its strength—and alienated its newly conquered people—by fighting and expanding when there were no useful worlds left to conquer. Mutinies by labor gangs led to a general rebellion of Qin officers and people against their rulers, and the first Chinese empire went down in flames only fifteen years after it was created. [2]

The Qin had shot past the Alcibiades point. They realized too late that they had no way to keep the tops spinning.

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