The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han by Mark Edward Lewis – A Review

The Book


The Early Chinese Empires – Qin and Han (History of Imperial China Book 1) by Mark Edward Lewis
Published by Harvard University Press
Released June 30, 2009
Buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | ThriftBooks | Books-a-Million


This book focuses on the history of the Qin and Han dynasties in early Chinese history. From how the empires got started, to individual emperors, their wars with the nomadic peoples of the north, and how the lives of normal peasants looked, this non-fiction book contains all the information you need on the Qin and Han dynasties. Throughout the pages are also maps of the areas being talked about and images of ancient Chinese art to help illustrate the ideas.

I wanted to include some of my favorite bits of information from this book, in no particular order, to give you an idea of the types of things you can learn from it:

  • In many of the earliest Chinese empires, such as the Zhou, conformity was favored by the ruling classes, and people saw regional variations in behavior and dress as belonging to a to a lower class of person.
  • Wang Mang’s Xin dynasty was incredibly short-lived, lasting only seventeen years. He was a Confucian ruler who implemented a number of reforms that eventually led to the rebellion that ousted him. Such reforms included confiscating and redistributing land in equal plots, which infuriated much of the population.
  • There was a system in place for people to police one another in much of early Chinese history. For example, if someone broke the law or committed a grievous crime, their entire family could be punished for multiple generations, as well as the entire town in which they inhabited. People failing to report crimes would also be punished, and some of these punishments were harsh: “Anyone who failed to report criminal activity would be chopped in two at the waist, while those who reported it would receive the same reward as that for obtaining the head of an enemy.”
  • Some emperors would build replica palaces of areas that they conquered in battle. “Because palaces were seen as the embodiment of states, the Qin could symbolically annex a state by destroying its original palace and rebuilding a ‘captive’ replica in its own capital.”


Before I begin this review, I would like to preface it by saying that I’ve always loved historical non-fiction. In fact, in high school and my first couple years of university, it was what I primarily read for fun. I grew up loving history and wanting to constantly learn new things, so I was always seeking out new history books to read.

From the time I read Foundations of Chinese Civilizations by Jing Liu I knew I wanted to learn more about the Qin and Han dynasties. The histories of both sounded so fascinating, and I saw this book at my local library when I was searching for books for my #readtheworldchina challenge.

Although this book does contain a lot of interesting information, it was so dry that I had trouble reading it. I didn’t even finish it if I’m being honest. I made it about two-thirds of the way through, and I was starting to feel bored just looking at the cover. I decided to DNF this book because I was no longer able to focus on it. The whole time I was reading it I was actually thinking about other books that I could be reading instead.

I think it’s easy to make non-fiction enjoyable if you focus on the people involved and the reasons behind the things they did rather than minute details and dates. This felt more academic than enjoyable, so if you’re writing an essay on the Qin and Han dynasties of Imperial China, then I actually would recommend this book to you. However, if you’re looking for a fun read, this might not be it.



Although there is great information in this book, it was too dry and laborious for me to give it more than two stars.

3 thoughts on “The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han by Mark Edward Lewis – A Review”

  1. Yep I think the author’s approach and writing style make a huge difference. Can I ask what are some of your favorite historical non-fiction books? For me it’s a couple of books related to World War I.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Usually when I read non-fiction it’s either about space or European history. There are a ton of great books about space exploration, and when it comes to history I’m a fan of the medieval era in the UK or Scaninavian history.

      Liked by 1 person

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