Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259 BC – 210 BC), the First Emperor of a unified China
Qin Shi Huang was the first Emperor of China famed for laying the pillars upon which ancient China’s central imperial bureaucracy was based upon. Born Ying Zheng, he is credited with bringing the various Warring States under his control and then crowning himself emperor of China.
Prior to becoming emperor, he was the king of Qin state, one of the dominant states during the Seven Warring States period of ancient China. Although the Qin dynasty that Emperor Qin established was short-lived, the influence it had on all of ancient China was monumental. For example, it was during the Qin Dynasty that the Great Wall of China was started to keep the northern borders safe.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang: Fast Facts
Name at birth: Qin Wang Zheng or Ying Zheng
Born: 259 BC
Died: September 10, 210 BC
Parents: King Zhuangxiang and Queen Dowager Zhao
Siblings: Chengjiao (Lord of Chang’an), and two other half-brothers (sons of Lao Ai)
Notable children: Prince Fusu, Prince Gao, Prince Huhai (later Emperor Qin Er Shi), Prince Jianglu
Most famous for: First emperor of a unified China; beginning the Great Wall of China
King of Qin: Zheng of Qin (247 BC-221 BC)
Predecessor: King Zhuangxiang
Emperor of China: Qin Shi Huangdi (First Emperor of China) (Reign: 221 BCE – 210 BC)
Successor: Qin Er Shi (formerly Prince Huhai)
Biography of Emperor Qin Shi Huang:
Emperor Qin was born Zhao Zheng in 259 BC to King Zhuangxiang of Qin State and Queen Dowager Zhao. His father and previous rulers of Qin State had fought a long and very successful campaign that saw them supplant many rulers of Shang and Zhou dynasties, making Qin State a real force to be reckoned with.
His mother Queen Dowager Zhao (known formerly as Zhao Ji) was once a concubine of a wealthy businessman known as Lu Buwei. After obtaining permission from Lu, she went ahead and married Prince Yiren (King Zhuangxiang of Qin).
Inherited the throne of Qin at 13
The first emperor of China was in his early teens when his father, King Zhuangxiang of Qin, passed away after ruling for three years. Owing to his age, Lu Buwei served as regent of the State of Qin for about nine years.
Brought all the warring states under his rule
It must be noted that Emperor Qin was born in a time when his state, the Qin State, was one of the Seven Warring States locked in a never-ending conflict for hegemony.
When Ying Zheng inherited the throne of Qin State in 247 BCE he was given the title King Zheng of Qin or King of Qin. In the 26 years that followed, he embarked on a massive campaign to bring all the Warring Sates (Zhao, Wei, Han, Chu, Qi, and Yan) at the time under his rule.
The state of Hán was the first of the six warring state to succumb, in 230 BCE, to the might of Qin. Blighted by a series of poor harvests and other natural disasters, some of the inhabitants of the State of Han were probably very relieved when King Zheng brought them under his rule in 229 BCE. Three years later, in 226 BCE, Qin state swallowed the northern state of Yan. Wei and Chu capitulated in 225 BCE and 223 BCE respectively. The last to fall was the State of Qi in 221 BCE.
Crowned the first emperor of a unified China when he was 38
As at the time King Zheng was crowned emperor of China he was in his late 30s. He was the first ruler of ancient China to bring all the former lands of Zhou dynasty under one centralized rule. His reign gave birth to the Qin Dynasty that lasted for slightly more than a decade before ending in 210 BC.
As emperor, he set out to introduce standardized practices in the various states that he had conquered. So for example, the emperor introduced standardized measurements to make trade among the states much easier.
Coined the title “emperor” (huangdi)
Emperor Qin opted not to use “king” as was used by rulers from the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Instead he combined the titles Huang and Di to form an all new title Huangdi (Emperor). Huang was the title given to three sovereign rulers of prehistoric times (the Three August Ones – Suiren-shi, Youchao-shi, and Shennong-shi) that ancient Chinese revered as god-kings or demigods. The title Di was for the Five Emperors of the ancient times, including the Yellow Emperor, Zhuanxu, Emperor Ku, and Yan Emperor.
Emperor Qin is believed to have banned all his subjects from referring to him by his previous title, King Zheng. He was also the only one in the kingdom who could use the first—person Chinese pronoun, lrəm or zhèn.
Some other epithets of the Emperor included “Your Highness”, “The Immortal” and “True Man”. He was also the first ruler of ancient China to use the Imperial Seal of China (the Heirloom Seal of the Realm), which was made out of Heshibi (a sacred and famous jade).
Meaning of Shi Huangdi
For two millennia, the title huangdi became the title used by Chinese emperors. In order to distinguish him from other emperors, Emperor Qin is often referred to as Qin Shi Huangdi. “Shi” translates to “first”. Huang evokes a meaning of Heaven, a title that was reserved for the Three Sovereigns or the supreme deity of the Zhou dynasty. Di on the other hand refers to someone with a divine status, a high god perhaps.
Assassination attempts on his life
The first assassination attempt on the life of the young king of Qin state came from the crown prince of the state of Yan. The rulers of Yan, fearing that their state was about to be taken by Qin, sent assassins (Qin Wuyang and Jing Ke) disguised as emissaries to the court of King Zheng. The young king proved too swift to handle for the assassins and had them killed. Less than a decade later, the state of Yan capitulated to the Qin state.
The second assassination attempt on the life of King Zheng came from a very talented lute player called Gao Jianli. Aware that Jianli was a close associate of Jing Ke, King Zheng still kept him as an entertainer in his court; however, he had Jianli’s eyes gorged out. During one of Jianli’s performance, the would-be-assassin pulled out a metal rod from his flute and attempted to bludgeon the king to death. Jianli missed and was later executed.
There was even a third assassination attempt in 230 BC, when a famous Han scholar and aristocrat Zhang Liang sought to get back at the Qin emperor for invading his state of Han. Liang and his accomplice tried to ambush the emperor by throwing a heavy metal object at the emperor’s convoy. The object fell on the first carriage, slightly missing the emperor who was in the second carriage.
Mandate from Heaven
Upon becoming emperor, Zheng was hailed as a ruler with the Mandate from Heaven, an imperial concept that justifies the emperor’s rule. It is said that those who received the mandate were of just and noble character. Unlike the Divine Right of Kings among European monarchs, the Mandate of Heaven in ancient China was conditioned upon the ruler’s behavior and actions. Thus emperors that fell short of a certain standards could have their mandate seized through rebellion. What this meant was that rebelling against a morally bankrupt emperor of China was not considered a sin in ancient China.
In Zheng’s case, his Prime Minister Li Si had the words “Having received the Mandate from Heaven, may (the emperor) lead a long and prosperous life” carved into a sacred jade. As the holder of the Mandate from Heaven, Emperor Qin was regarded as the Son of Heaven.
The three greatest engineering feats of ancient China are the Great Wall, the Sichuan Dujiangyan Irrigation System (constructed around 255 BCE by Qin state), and the Lingqu Canal in the south. Two out of those were started by Emperor Qin.
Emperor Qin built the Lingqu Canal in the south to facilitate transportation between north and south. It also allowed him to expand his territory into the south-west.
One of China’s most prized jewel, the Great Wall, was started by Emperor Qin whose goal was to use a network of small walls to keep nomadic tribes in the north and north-west from encroaching into China. Construction of the wall required the services of thousands of workers and tons of materials sourced from the local people. Some historians state that thousands of workers died during construction.
Emperor Qin was also known for destroying walls within the empire that he believed divided the people. The elimination of those walls also made it difficult for feudal lords to reemerge.
How did Emperor Qin die?
During his fifth tour of Eastern China, the Emperor is said to have fallen severely ill while spending some time at Pingyuanjin. On September 10, 210 BC, he succumbed to his illness at Shaqiu prefecture. He was in the company of his closest advisor Prime Minister Li Si and his youngest son Yin Huhai.
Some ancient historians state that the Emperor died of mercury poisoning. Emperor Qin was long obsessed with living forever, hence he searched wide and far for the elixir of life. It is likely that he drank some sort of concoction laced with lethal amounts of mercury. Others claim that the first emperor of China simply died from stress.
Fearing that news of the emperor’s death could cause an uprising against the Qin dynasty, Prime Minister Li Si kept the death a secret for several weeks, until the Emperor’s convoy arrived at the capital Xianyang. Li Si and Prince Huhai then forged a letter from the Emperor to Prince Fusu (the Emperor’s oldest son) ordering him to commit suicide.
With Fusu out of the way, Prince Huhai ascended to the throne, becoming Emperor Qin Er Shi (Second Emperor of Qin).
Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi’s Mausoleum and the Terracotta Warriors
Although he was obsessed with becoming an immortal, he still went ahead to construct a magnificent tomb for himself. As claimed by an early Han dynasty historian Sima Qian, Emperor Qin used more than half a million workers to construct the tomb**. The tomb, which was discovered in 1974 by farmers digging wells, is most famous for housing more than 6,000 Terracotta soldiers and close to 42,000 real bronze weapons, including 130 chariots with about 500 cavalry horses. The clay-molded warriors were placed in the tomb to protect the Emperor from evil spirits in the afterlife.
** Some scholars beg to differ that Emperor Qin used 700,000 men for the construction of the tomb. For example British Historian John Man states that Emperor Qin could not have used that number of workers as no city in the world at the time had that number of people. Man states that 16,000 construction workers sound a more reasonable figure.
Atrocities committed by Emperor Qin
Many scholars and sinologists opine that the Golden age of free thought and the Hundred Schools of Thought thrived during the Warring States period. The Hundred Schools of Thought refer to a time when diverse ideas and philosophies flourished in Chinese society. This was enhanced by the fact that the various Chinese states were in a state of perpetual conflict as each state had its own dominant philosophy.
Upon becoming emperor of a unified China, Emperor Qin clamped down on Confucianism and other philosophies. The Emperor introduced Legalism (Fajia) in the place of those philosophies. Similar to Machiavellianism, Legalism espoused strict conformity to administrative methods and laws. The philosophy was known in Chinese as “house of administrative methods” or “standards/law”.
Although ideal for eliminating nepotism and favoritism in the government, legalism allowed the emperor to rule with an iron fist, as the themes of his government were order, stability and security.
In 213 BC, Emperor Qin ordered that books that contained philosophies other than Legalism or Qin philosophies be burnt. Also it’s been stated that he murdered many scholars and philosophers, including more than 400 Confucian scholars in 212 BC. All of that was intended to strengthen the philosophy of Legalism.
Anyone that disagreed with them was found subversive. In a bid to unite the empire, the Emperor reasoned that all forms of intellectual discourse ought to be suppressed. At the heart of this campaign was his chancellor Li Si, who executed anyone that was caught in possession of any form of non-Qin poetry or historical document. For example, two of the Five Classics of ancient Chinese Literature –Shijing (Classic of Poetry) and Shangshu (Book of Documents) – were outlawed.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang executed his half-siblings to consolidate his rule
Famous Chinese politician and merchant of the Qin state, Lu Buwei served as a senior official in the courts of King Zhuangxiang and King Zheng. However, it was alleged that Lu Buwei had an amorous relationship with Zheng’s mother, Lady Zhao.
In order not to incur the wrath of King Zheng, Buwei ended his affair with the queen dowager by finding someone to take his place. That person was Lao Ai, who pretended to be a eunuch in order to gain access to inner chambers of Lady Zhao. Lao Ai even fathered two children with the queen dowager. Lao Ai even took it a step further by conspiring with a number officials to have the two sons he bore with Lady Zhao usurp King Zheng from the throne.
Upon discovering the conspiracy, King Zheng executed Lao Ai, as well as all his family members and supporters. The king also killed his two half-brothers, i.e. Lao Ai’s two children bore with Lady Zhao.