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Qin, Han transport systems of timeless value

WANG ZIJIN | 2022-11-25 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A section of the ancient “Qin-Chu Highway” that connected present-day Shaanxi and Hubei provinces, originally built during the early Qin Dynasty Photo: LU HANG/ CSST

The Qin (221–207 BCE) and Han (206 BCE–220 CE) dynasties are viewed as significant periods in Chinese history, when Chinese people began to develop a unified consciousness and civilization. It was during these dynasties that transportation development reached new heights. Growing transport systems played an important role in facilitating the development of the Qin and Han, and outlined the development of transportation for posterity.

Remarkable progress 

A prominent example of the development of transportation in the Qin Empire was the progress made in chariot manufacturing technology. Early Chinese vehicles were all single-shaft, drawn by two or four draught animals, while a double-shaft chariot could be pulled by only one draught animal. The invention of double-shaft vehicles embodied major progress in the history of transportation. Two ox cart models unearthed from Tomb BM103 of the Qin Dynasty in Fengxiang, Shaanxi Province, are the earliest examples of double-shaft cart models discovered in China, as well as the earliest evidence in the world that indicated the development of the double-shaft cart. The two ox cart models were discovered in a small tomb, which illustrates the popularity of such vehicles among common people of the time. In addition, it is likely that the people of Qin were the first to use the common wheelbarrow, a vehicle that was light and easy to handle, and could be used on tough, unpaved roads.

The state of Qin [a state established during the 9th century BCE, and existed until its ruler unified the other six major states in the Warring States Period and founded the Qin Dynasty in 221 BCE] was highly proficient at attacking rivals at great distances. It left behind historical records of long-distance expeditions by large armies in early China. In its wars to unify China, Qin’s hundreds of thousands of troops were mobilized to attack their rivals year after year. Undoubtedly, Qin needed a powerful transportation system to support its military logistics. For instance, in its conquest of Chu state in south China, Qin dispatched over 600,000 troops. In units of measurement used at the time, the daily rations of the Qin troops amounted to as much as 66,667 dan [dan was the basic unit of weight in ancient China, roughly equivalent to 15 kg in the Han Dynasty]. If rations couldn’t be locally sourced, approximately 2,667 vehicles would be needed to transport supplies, assuming a load capacity of 25 dan per vehicle. If the transit time exceeded four days, over 10,000 vehicles would be required to transport the military rations each day, not including the vehicles needed to transport fodder for army horses. The wars between Qin and Chu lasted for several years, and the volume and weight of military transportation committed to wars were beyond imagination. Apparently, the advantage of Qin’s transportation over the other states was an important factor in enabling its unification of China by strong military power.

In addition, the development of transportation in Qin state made it easy for the Qin people to accept and absorb the fine cultural elements of other regions in an all-round way, making the Qin culture more open and enterprising. The advantage of Qin’s transport construction is undoubtedly one of the basic factors helping Qin unify China under the rule of Ying Zheng (259–210 BCE), later known as Qin Shi Huang [the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty] after he founded the Qin Dynasty.

An imperial highway

After establishing the unified empire, Qin Shi Huang divided the empire into 36 commanderies (jun). To unify his conquered people across a vast territory, Qin Shi Huang worked quickly to establish a national transportation network. During his reign, some major highways such as the “Nanyang-Nanjun Highway” formed the outline of the national road transportation network. 

The “Nanyang-Nanjun Highway” used during the Qin Dynasty [started from Xianyang, the Qin capital, located in present-day Shaanxi Province in north China], stretched southeast through the Wuguan Pass [one of four ancient mountain passes along the southern border of the Qin and the northern border of Chu, in present-day Shaanxi Province], and Nanyang Commandery [the seat of which was present-day Nanyang, Henan Province, consisting of the land north of the Han River previously conquered from Chu], and reached the Nan Commandery [the territory of which covered present-day central and western Hubei Province in South China]. The highway formed a link between the Guanzhong Plain in north China and the Jianghan Plain in south China, and reached the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River through waterways and overland transportation. Many well-known events took place along this thoroughfare during its use. At the end of the Qin Dynasty, it was through this highway that Liu Bang, an anti-Qin rebel leader, later the founder of the Han Dynasty, won the race against fellow rebel leader Xiang Yu to invade the Qin heartland [and forced the surrender of the Qin ruler in 206 BCE]. During the Han Dynasty, General Zhou Yafu and his troops headed to Luoyang through this highway to put down the Rebellion of the Seven States [in 154 BCE]. This thoroughfare was also called the “Wuguan Highway” in the Han era. According to the Records of the Grand Historian, since Nanyang “became the biggest commercial city and economic center connecting the north and south at that time,” the highway was quite busy and prosperous. 

Wang Zijin is a professor from the History School at the Northwest University.