The Political Ecology of China's First Empire

Talk by Brian Lander, Brown University

Like other agrarian states, the Qin Empire (c. 250-206 BCE) literally ran on photosynthesis. The empire could not access plant energy directly, but only through its control of the surplus labor of farmers and domestic animals. This talk will examine how Qin was able to control its subjects and their resources, and how it used them to carry out projects that transformed environments across the subcontinent. Far too large to centralize and redistribute grain, the empire functioned by collecting information at the capital on the resources collected in granaries and warehouses across the empire, and then informing local officials how to employ the labor of their subjects. While Qin megaprojects like the terracotta army have received the most scholarly attention, in fact the empire spent much of its energy at the local level on small-scale projects to expand agricultural productivity. The Qin Empire did not last long, but it bequeathed to subsequent empires an effective system for managing and expanding agroecosystems across the subcontinent, an important reason why East Asia’s human population is so large and its forests, wetlands and wild animals have been replaced with farmland.

Brian Lander
is an assistant professor in Brown University’s history department and a fellow of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. His research focuses on the environmental history of early China, including wild and domestic animals, agriculture, wetlands, and water control.

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Published: Thursday, January 16, 2020