The Qin: The first Chinese Empire and the first Emperor


The Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), China’s first unified empire, established the parameters of a civilisation that was to become the world’s longest continuous one. At the conclusion of this short course, you will have developed an appreciation of the historical and cultural dimensions of this dynasty, and an understanding of its lasting legacy.

Target audience:
Between December 2018 and April 2019, Te Papa Tongarewa: Museum of New Zealand is hosting an exhibition of objects (including a number of terracotta soldiers from the tomb complex of the First Emperor of the Qin) largely sourced from the Shaanxi History Museum, People’s Republic of China, entitled “Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality”. This course is a great companion piece to the exhibition and will appeal to anyone with an interest in Chinese history and archaeology.

Recommended reading list:

  • Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe, eds., The Cambridge History of China: Volume 1: The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 B.C.-A.D. 220 (Cambridge University Press, 1986)
  • Yuri Pines, Lothar von Falkenhausen, Gideon Shelach, and Robin D.S. Yates, eds., Birth of an Empire: The State of Qin Revisited (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014)
  • Patricia Buckley Ebrey, The Cambridge illustrated history of China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
  • James C.S. Lin and Xiuzhen Li, China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors (Liverpool: National Museums Liverpool, 2018)
  • Jane Portal, ed., The First Emperor: China’s terracotta army (London: The British Museum Press, 2008)
  • Jason Zhixin Sun, Age of Empires: Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017)

Learning objectives:
By the end of this course, you will have gained a greater understanding of:

  • aspects of the history of the Qin dynasty, the first of China’s unified dynasties.
  • the measures that both enabled this unification and those that worked to bring the dynasty to its rapid collapse.
  • the lingering legacy of this dynasty in terms of ideal of a single unified Chinese empire that it served to establish.
  • the nature of the power and authority required to maintain unity down through time in the face of vast diversity of geography, ethnicity, and culture.

Course outline:
Session 1 
Specifically references some of the objects on display in the contemporaneous exhibition being hosted by Te Papa Tongarewa. It will address issues to do with the establishment of a unified empire (and its rapid collapse soon after the death of the First Emperor), and the manner in which traditional written history and recent archaeological findings have contributed to our understanding of this critical moment in the history of Chinese civilisation.

Session 2 
Discusses aspects of the philosophical underpinning of China’s first empire; the linguistic legacy of this brief empire, particularly in terms of the unification of the Chinese writing system; and the ongoing afterlife of the dynasty that established the ideal of a China that was a single and centrally administered political entity.

There will be some reading material made available to you during the course, for each session.

There is a short break halfway through each session, and you are welcome to bring your own refreshments if you wish.

Duncan M. Campbell has taught (Chinese language, modern and classical; Chinese literature, modern and classical; and aspects of Chinese history and civilisation) at the University of Auckland, Victoria University of Wellington, and the Australian National University in Canberra. Between 2015-16, he was the June & Simon K.C. Li Director of the Center for East Asian Garden Studies and Curator of the Chinese Garden with The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, USA. The bulk of his research concentrates on the literary and material culture of late imperial China, with particular reference to the late Ming-early Qing period (1550s-1660s). Within this field, one particular focus is a group of writers and scholars who were born in Shaoxing 紹興, Zhejiang Province and all of whom experienced this most cataclysmic of dynastic transitions. Specific areas of interest include: gardens and their literary and pictorial representation, letter writing and diaries, travel and travel writing, aspects of print culture, the history of the late imperial private library, biographical and autobiographical writing, and literary translation. His translation of Qian Zhongshu’s 錢鐘書 (1910-1998) Qizhui ji 七綴集 was recently published (by Brill) under the title Patchwork: Seven Essays on Art and Literature.

Relevant links:
School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations
School of Languages and Cultures
Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand
Confucius Institute

For further information:
Continuing Education, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington 6140.
Phone 04 463 6556,  Email:

Please note: Courses need a minimum number of enrolments to go ahead. If your course doesn’t reach the number required, we’ll have to cancel it. If this happens, we’ll contact you by phone or email about a week before the scheduled start date and arrange a full refund. Please check your emails regularly.