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Measure with edict of the First Emperor of China, 221 BCE
Qin dynasty (221–207 BCE)
H. 9.2 cm, Diam. (mouth) 20.5 cm
Excavated 1963 from the old city at Zhuguo, Zoucheng County
Collection of Shandong Provincial Museum
(cat. #20)


In the year 221 BCE, after many years of subjugating competing kingdoms, Qin Shihuangdi succeeded in uniting China and proclaimed himself the First Emperor. As part of his political consolidation, Qin Shihuangdi unified the language, making the small seal script of his former kingdom of Qin the standard for the empire. According to the Shiji, the First Emperor collected all the weapons of his enemies and melted them down to make bells. He also embarked upon a series of sacred processions throughout his empire,[1] ascending the sacred mountain peaks of his newly conquered subjects and erecting stone stelae which pronounced his political and spiritual claim to the throne in the newly adopted Qin seal script.[2] The first five of seven stelae were erected on sacred mountains in what is present-day Shandong province. On Mount Langye near the east coast of Shandong, his stelae inscription reads:

Everywhere under vast heaven
He [Qin Shihuang] unifies the minds and integrates the wills.
Vessels and implements have their identical measures,
One uniformly writes the refined characters.[3]

The standardization of weights and measures, as well as of axle widths, and the redefinition of pitch standards for musical instruments were acts of the First Emperor’s economic, political, and social integration of the empire through its communication and bureaucratic tools.[4]

This ceramic measure was made according to the new regulations of the First Emperor. Stamped on the side of the measure is an edict dated to the twenty-sixth year of Qin Shihuang, 221 BCE, the year he unified China. The entire edict is mentioned in the historical chronicles. Here, the forty-character inscription is in twenty columns. It proclaims that the First Emperor makes measures for all the lords under the heavens to create great peace, and furthermore, pronounces the standardization of measures. The measure holds one peck.[5] On the base is stamped the location of the workshop where it was made, Zou, which is today’s Zoucheng county. The sacred Mount Yi is also located in Zoucheng in southern Shandong, and the First Emperor made his political pilgrimage there in 219 BCE to erect one of his stelae.

all text & images © China Institute Gallery


1. The tour of inspection was an ancient rite whereby a new king tested the acceptance of his sovereignty throughout the county. Through this rite, a part of the emperor’s consolidation of power and a mark of his legitimacy, Heaven, ancestors (past generations), and all people (current and perhaps also future generations) acknowledged him as ruler. The First Emperor was embarking on this tour to establish himself as the legitimate successor to the sage rulers of antiquity.

2. Mark Edward Lewis states that “In placing these inscriptions in the newly conquered eastern states, the First Emperor completed his conquest by inscribing the reality of his power, in the newly created imperial script, into the sacred landscape of his new subjects.” Mark Edward Lewis, Writing and Authority in Early China (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), p. 339.

3. Martin Kern, The Stele Inscriptions of Ch’in Shih-huang: Text and Ritual in Early Chinese Imperial Representation, American Oriental Series 85 (New Haven: American Oriental Society, 2000), p. 27.

4. These three standardizations as well as the unification of the language were all undertaken in the same year. The adoption of the small script characters of the state of Qin, began the process of standardization of the language which continues into this century.

5. Qiu Guangming, Zhongguo lidai duliang hengkao [History of China’s Weights and Measures] (Beijing: Kexue chubanshe, 1992), pp. 200–201, no. 103.

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