Theses Doctoral

Empire-Building and Market-Making at the Qin Frontier: Imperial Expansion and Economic Change, 221–207 BCE

Korolkov, Maxim

This dissertation explores the relationship between empire-building and economic change during the formative process of the Qin Empire. It employs transmitted and excavated textual materials as well as archaeological evidence to reconstruct institutions and practices of surplus extraction and economic management and their evolution during the period of Qin’s expansion culminating in the emergence of the first centralized bureaucratic empire in continental East Asia. I argue that the commercial expansion and the formation of markets for land, labor, and commodities during China’s early imperial period (221 BCE – 220 CE) can only be understood by considering their origins in the distributive command economy of the late Warring States and imperial Qin. The study focuses on the southern frontier zone of the empire, which is exceptionally well documented in the official and private documents excavated from the Qin and Han sites along the Middle Yangzi and its tributaries.

Chapter One “Introduction” outlines historiographical approaches to the study of the relationship between empire-building and economic change, particularly the impact of imperial conquest and extraction on commercial growth. It addresses the importance of frontiers as the sites of economic innovation and change in the ancient empires. I discuss the importance of the recent archaeological discovery of legal and administrative manuscripts from the Warring States (453–221 BCE), Qin (221–206 BCE), and Han (202 BCE – 220 CE) eras for the study of the administrative and economic organization in the early empires. The introduction also outlines the new perspectives on Qin empire-building and economic change made possible by the excavated documentary evidence.

Chapter Two “Strategies of conquest and resource extraction in the state and empire of Qin, mid-fourth to late third century BCE” explores the geographical and logistical rationales for the campaigns that brought the Qin armies to the Middle Yangzi and paved the way for further advance to the south of the river. I argue that the Qin developed its fiscal institutions as solutions to the problems of military supply and control over the conquered territories. This system of surplus extraction proved efficient in financing warfare and ensuring the central government’s control over its local agents. However, it faced severe challenges as its operational costs soared in the process of territorial expansion, while the redistributive effects of the fiscal system pitted the principal against the agents. The successes and failings of the Qin model of surplus extraction, and its revision during the subsequent Western Han period profoundly influenced the approaches to economic and territorial management throughout China’s imperial history.

Chapter Three “Formation of the imperial frontier: from interaction zone to centralized administration” focuses on the background and the immediate aftermath of the Qin conquest of lands to the south of Middle Yangzi, roughly coinciding with the modern province of Hunan and the southern part of Hubei Province. The chapter examines the longue durée of economic and political integration along the Middle Yangzi from the Late Neolithic period (third millennium BCE) to the dawn of the imperial era. This analysis sheds new light on the background of Qin imperial expansion in this region and the strategies of the “reconstruction of the South” adopted by the Qin emperors and the succeeding Han Empire. I conclude the chapter with detailed analysis of administrative organization and economic management in the Qin county of Qianling in present-day Western Hunan, whose archive was partly recovered during the archaeological excavation of the remains of the Qin town at Liye.

Chapter Four “Between command and market: the economy of convict labor” studies the enormous system of unfree labor that incorporated a considerable portion of the Qin Empire’s population and was the key instrument of the Qin command economy. The chapter offers a comparative perspective on the historical regimes of forced labor, which allows identification of economic rationales for such systems and the organizational challenges they faced. It proceeds with an analysis of the legal foundations of penal labor in Qin and the characteristics of the main groups of forced laborers before exploring the organization of the unfree labor economy in Qianling County where detailed data is available concerning the size of the convict population, their economic roles, and the management of their labor. The chapter then discusses changes in the Qin system of unfree labor, its decline after the fall of the Qin Empire, and its impact on the formation of markets for labor in early imperial China.

Chapter Five “Conquering distance: transferring goods and people in the Qin Empire” discusses the long-distance transfers of resources, goods, and people. As many other imperial states, the Qin sought to control the physical mobility of its subjects and resources by directing them into desirable channels and restricting unwanted moves. Excavated texts shed light on the previously unknown aspects of the integration of economic and humanitarian space within the empire. Although the imperial connectivity remained fragile and suffered setbacks when the physical and intellectual infrastructures of communication shrank or collapsed with the decline and fall of centralized power, the shared sphere of geographic mobility was essential for the formation of the imperial economy, society, and culture. It tended to regenerate itself after the periods of contraction or disruption and should therefore be considered an important factor in the resilience of centripetal trends in China’s political history.

Chapter Six “The state and the private economy” utilizes the materials from Qianling archive to study the relationship between the state and private economies. Although the ideologists of state-strengthening reforms in mid-fourth century BCE Qin cherished the idea that the latter should be completely subsumed under governmental dirigisme, by the times of the Qin Empire, officials recognized the autonomy of private markets and their own inability to substitute for the latter with distributive schemes. In its engagement with private economic actors, the government was guided by considerations of taxation and resource procurement; cost-reduction in the state economy; and maintenance of public order through the delineation of rights and obligations. Transformation of the state economy, its increasing exposure to private markets, and the expansion of the latter, often caused by the state demand for materials and manpower, were powerfully facilitated by the monetization of the frontier region attested in the textual and archaeological evidence.

Chapter Seven “Conclusion” summarizes the mutually constitutive relationships between empire-building and economic change in the Qin Empire; traces the development of economic and institutional changes, which become observable during the Qin imperial period, in the subsequent Han era; and formulates some general patterns of the state-economy relationship that may be of use in the comparative study of imperial economic systems.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Li, Feng
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 5, 2020