The bulk of Qin lay to the west of the Zhou king’s former capitol, near present-day Xian. Remember, way back in 771 BC after the capture of the Zhou capital and the killing of the Zhou king, the heir was rushed to safety in Luoyang with the help of a prince from Qin. Well, that wasn’t the end of the story of Qin. After the dukes set a puppet Zhou prince up with new digs in Luoyang, the Zhou’s homelands were fair game. With the home-court advantage, the Qin state won back a fair amount of territory from the usurpers, increasing their size.
Being to the west of the all these warring states gave the Qin state a few advantages.
- It separated Qin from much of the fighting during the Spring and Autumn Period, when the other states were busy encroaching on each other’s borders and gobbling up one another.
- Qin was bordered to the north by the steppes and the Gobi desert and to the south by the mountains.
- And their position placed them smack in the middle of emerging trade routes between China and that bizarre bizarre known as The West.
Still, the more refined states to the east saw Qin as a “barbarian state”, a refuge for Turks, Tibetans, and any number of people who talked funny. It was the Special Economic Zone of its day. At the end of the fifth century BC, Qin was the Three Jins’ whipping boy and would have been voted least likely to succeed. Until along came a ruler named Duke Xian (r. 384 – 362 BC).
Duke Xian’s story mirrors our old friend Chong Er’s. He wasn’t meant to be duke, he didn’t come to the throne until he was nearly forty, and he was living in exile in the State of Wei prior to the palace coup that crowned him. Perhaps in Wei he saw how the strongest state in the land organized itself, teaching him the moves that made him one of Qin’s most badass rulers.
When Duke Xian was a teen, the forces of Wei had beaten Qin to a pulp and took its eastern lands. At the time of Qin’s humiliating loss, if anyone had wagered which of the seven states would one day rule all China, Qin’s odds would’ve been a thousand to one.
Forty years later, Duke Xian got his chance at a rematch. In 366 BC, after two decades of preparation, Duke Xian and the State of Qin gave Wei a royal whooping. Literally, royal. The battle was such a decisive victory, Duke Xian was able to proclaim himself the new Hegemon.
It was Xian’s son, Duke Xiao, who laid the real groundwork for Qin Shi Huang. Building on his father’s success, Duke Xiao announced a nation-wide talent contest—a “China’s Got Talent” for anyone who could improve the State of Qin. The Kelly Clarkson of the show was Shang Yang.
Shang Yang hailed from the neighboring State of Wei. He had been heavily influenced by The Book of Law, Li Kui’s system of procedures and punishments. Li Kui’s theory, a central component of Legalism, was that rewards should be based on service to the state instead of family connections.
Legalism had helped the State of Wei become the dominant state of the former Jin, but the court hadn’t been so impressed with Shang Yang. Before dying, the ruler of Wei had advised his heir to either make use of Shang Yang, or to kill him. The heir ignored his advice, and Shang Yang headed west to the rising State of Qin.
At the auditions, Shang Yang noticed Duke Xiao yawning at scholarly Confucian rhetoric about ancient practices. So he tried a different routine.
The Confucian ministers’ mindset may be okay for middle management, Shang Yang argued, but a ruler must think differently. He introduced Duke Xiao to the concept of Legalism…