In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Historical Archaeology (Qin and Han)

  • Introduction
  • Archaeological Overviews
  • Anthologies of Essays by Experts in Qin and Han Archaeology
  • Bibliographies and Databases
  • Politics and Nationalism in Qin-Han Archaeology

Chinese Studies Historical Archaeology (Qin and Han)
Robert E. Murowchick
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0158


The Qin and Han empires (221 BCE to 220 CE) represent one of the most momentous periods of early China as it moved from an evolving mosaic of contending states and cultures to a relatively unified imperial state. Political, ritual, social, and economic changes put in place during these four centuries would greatly influence the dynasties that followed. During the Warring States period (c. 475–221 BCE), the major states of the North China Plain and central China vied for supremacy. The northwestern state of Qin eventually dominated the region and succeeded in bringing the first unification of China in 221 BCE under the First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi. With the Han conquest of Qin only a decade later, a four century long period of imperial unity was brought to much of China that extended Han control into neighboring tributary states in the northeast, south, and southwest, and established rich and complex military and economic interactions with much of Asia. This early imperial period is well known through abundant traditional literary and historical sources, the details of which can be found in the comprehensive Historical Overviews. However, these texts record only a small part of life and society during the Qin and Han periods. Archaeology, first introduced in China in the 1910s and 1920s, and dramatically expanded since the 1970s, has yielded an increasingly rich array of material evidence of exceptional diversity and quantity—it is estimated that more than ten thousand Han dynasty tombs have been excavated, not to mention residential, production, and other sites. These new finds have dramatically improved our understanding of the Qin and Han periods, including its urban centers, ritual and mortuary practices, military prowess, details of workshop organization and labor, interactions with neighboring cultures, and the exquisite refinements in a range of arts, crafts, industries, and scientific/technological endeavors that took shape during this pivotal period. Finally, note that the terms “Qin” and “Han” have both cultural and chronological meaning, and archaeological materials from “non-Chinese” cultures with which the Qin and Han empires came into contact represent some of the most exciting aspects of recent archaeological scholarship.

Archaeological Overviews

Field archaeology in China has expanded dramatically since the 1970s, including much new fieldwork on the Qin and Han periods. There are many excellent overviews of the key archaeological discoveries, published both in English and in Chinese, that have added greatly to our understanding of early imperial China. Two authoritative volumes (Li 1985 and Wang 1982) were written by eminent Chinese scholars and translated by K. C. Chang for Yale’s Early Chinese Civilization Series. Their titles are a bit misleading in that both works really focus on the archaeological remains of these cultures and do not provide detailed cultural or historical discussions of Qin or Han (which can be found instead in some of the Historical Overviews). The archaeological data they do present is comprehensive as befits the expertise of their authors: Li Xueqin 李学勤, director of the Department of Pre-Qin History in the Institute of History, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and of the Institute of Sinology at Tsinghua University, is renowned for his wide-ranging research on China’s ancient history, archaeology, epigraphy and paleography, and Wang Zhongshu 王仲殊 (b. 1925–d. 2015) was one of China’s most senior archaeologists of the Han period and former director of the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. A more readable overview of Han art, archaeology, and society is Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens 1982. Readers will need to supplement all three of these volumes, however, with more recent publications that reflect key discoveries since the early 1980s. Liu 2013 and Liu 2015 fill this need perfectly, with excellent contributed essays and an abundance of recent color photographs of the most important work at the First Emperor of Qin’s mausoleum complex and other sites. Yang 2004 is also a terrific place to start, with excellent photos and clear and concise presentations of the most important Qin and Han sites. For those who can read Chinese, there are more than a dozen excellent volumes on Qin and Han archaeology, among them Wang and Liang 2001 and Zhao and Gao 2002. Pines, et al. 2013 reflects the vibrant scholarly debate about how interpretations of new archaeological data contradict or support traditional historical understandings of Qin and Han history and society, and whether Qin unification represents a rupture from or a continuation of many aspects of eastern Zhou society that preceded it.

  • Li, Xueqin. Eastern Zhou and Qin Civilizations. Translated by K. C. Chang. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1985.

    Comprehensive survey of archaeological discoveries from the 8th to 3rd centuries BCE. Especially useful are chapter 14 to understand Qin’s predynastic foundations, and chapter 15 for its archaeological details both fabulous and mundane, rather than just selected “treasures” (see Oxford Bibliographies article in Chinese Studies “The Terracotta Warriors”). Li’s inclusion of divergent opinions reflects the dynamism of modern Chinese archaeology. Black-and-white illustrations have captions that are both too brief and unsourced.

  • Liu, Yang, ed. China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2013.

    Superb catalogue for the Qin exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (2012–2013) and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (2013), with up-to-date discussion and photos of recent finds. Includes key recent archaeological work at the First Emperor’s vast mausoleum complex beyond the well-known terracotta army formations.

  • Liu, Yang, ed. Beyond the First Emperor’s Mausoleum: New Perspectives on Qin Art. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2015.

    Selection of scholarly papers presented in October 2012 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for its symposium, “China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy.” Focuses on recent archaeological discoveries and our changing understanding of Qin culture and Qin empire. An excellent complement to Pines, et al. 2013.

  • Pines, Yuri, Gideon Shelach, Lothar von Falkenhausen, and Robin D. S. Yates, eds. Birth of an Empire: The State of Qin, Revisited. New Perspectives on Chinese Culture and Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

    Stimulating presentation of papers presented at a 2008 conference at the Institute for Advanced Study, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, reflects the varying interpretations of recent archeological finds and how those are generating interesting and sometimes controversial reassessments of the history and impact of the pre-Qin and Qin periods. The many authors included here often differ considerably in their interpretations of the data, while the editors’ essays provide structure with useful essays on the larger thematic issues.

  • Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens, Michèle. The Han Dynasty. Translated from the French by Janet Seligman. New York: Rizzoli International, 1982.

    Also published as The Han Civilisation of China (Oxford: Phaidon, 1982). A narrative of the Han empire, from the Qin legacy to diverse topics including state resources, taxation, and the military; the distribution of wealth, and the role of different social classes. In-depth coverage includes the tombs at Mawangdui and Han religious beliefs, technological achievements, Han interaction with the Xiongnu to its north and with the tribes of southwest China. Also covered are aspects of urban and court life, as are Han legacies in science, technology, and art.

  • Wang Xueli 王学理 and Liang Yun 梁云. Qin wenhua (秦文化). Beijing: Wenwu Chubanshe, 2001.

    A readable, popular presentation of Qin history and archaeology. Key discoveries organized by decade help the reader to understand the evolving interests and priorities in historical and archaeological research against the changing political and social background of modern China. No English abstract.

  • Wang, Zhongshu. Han Civilization. Translated by K. C. Chang and collaborators. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1982.

    Presents a wealth of detailed information about Han history and archaeology, from the spectacular to the mundane, based on lectures Wang presented in the United States in 1979 (originally published as Wang Zhongshu 王仲殊, Han dai kaoguxue gaishuo 汉代考古学概说 [Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1984]). Ample black-and-white illustrations, although much better images of many objects are available elsewhere. Photo captions are unfortunately brief and unsourced.

  • Yang, Xiaoneng, ed. New Perspectives on China’s Past: Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century. 2 vols. New Haven, CT, and Kansas City: Yale University Press in association with Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 2004.

    A sweeping and visually stunning presentation of archaeological discoveries in China. Richard Barnhart’s essay exploring possible cultural and artistic connections between the Qin empire and the classical world is fascinating. Particularly useful are entries on the predynastic Qin capital site of Yongcheng 雍城 (677–383 BCE) and the tombs of the Dukes of Qin at Fengxiang 鳳翔, as well as concise coverage of the most important sites from the Qin and Han periods.

  • Zhao Huacheng 赵化成 and Gao Chongwen 高崇文. Qin Han kaogu 秦汉考古. Beijing: Wenwu Chubanshe, 2002.

    Readable volume presents all the major archaeological discoveries of the Qin and Han capital cities, imperial and elite tombs (and, usefully, a discussion of medium and small Han tombs from various parts of China), specific artifact categories (Han sculpture and decorated tomb bricks, wall paintings, silk paintings, bronzes, lacquer, and textiles), and newly discovered Qin and Han texts on cloth, wood, and bamboo from the border regions.

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