Qin Shi Huang

From New World Encyclopedia
Qin Shi Huang

Qin Shi Huang (November / December 260 B.C.E. – September 10, 210 B.C.E.), personal name Zheng, was king of the Chinese State of Qin from 247 B.C.E. to 221 B.C.E. (officially still the Zhou Dynasty), and then the first emperor of a unified China from 221 B.C.E. to 210 B.C.E., ruling under the name First Emperor.

Having unified China, he and his prime minister Lǐ Sī passed a series of major reforms aimed at cementing the unification, and they undertook some gigantic construction projects, most notably the precursor version of the current Great Wall of China. For all the tyranny of his autocratic rule, Qin Shi Huang is still regarded by many today as the founding father in Chinese history whose unification of China has lasted for more than two millennia (with interruptions). This achievement may represent one of the most enduring legacies of any ruler in history. China developed a strong bias towards unity that has generally helped to promote trade and cultural life by minimizing the conflict that would otherwise have taken place between rival states. The lessons from the Warring States Period proved to be well learnt. The Chinese script was also unified during Huang's reign. His reputation for ruthlessness may have influenced the later doctrine that a ruler who abused power, and did not consider his subjects' welfare, forfeited the "mandate of heaven," that is, the moral right to rule. However, many aspects of his administrative system became lasting features of Chinese society.

Naming conventions

Qin Shi Huang was born in the Chinese month zhēng, the first month of the year in the Chinese calendar then in use, and so he received the name Zheng, both characters being used interchangeably in ancient China. In Chinese antiquity, people never joined family names and given names together as is customary today, so it is anachronistic to refer to Qin Shi Huang as "Ying Zheng." The given name was never used except by close relatives, therefore it is also incorrect to refer to the young Qin Shi Huang as "Prince Zheng," or as "King Zheng of Qin." As a king, he was referred to as "King of Qin" only. Had he received a posthumous name after his death like his father, he would have been known by historians as "King NN. (posthumous name) of Qin," but this never happened.

After conquering the last independent Chinese state in 221 B.C.E., Qin Shi Huang was the king of a state of Qin ruling over the whole of China, an unprecedented accomplishment. Wishing to show that he was no longer a simple king like the kings of old during the Warring States Period, he created a new title, huangdi, combining the word huang from the legendary Three Huang (Three August Ones) who ruled at the dawn of Chinese history, and the word di from the legendary Five Di (Five Sovereigns) who ruled immediately after the Three Huang. These Three Huang and Five Di were considered perfect rulers, of immense power and very long lives. The word huang also meant "big," "great." The word di also referred to the Supreme God in Heaven, creator of the world. Thus, by joining these two words for the first time, Qin Shi Huang created a title on a par with his feat of uniting the seemingly endless Chinese realm, in fact uniting the world. Ancient Chinese, like ancient Romans, believed their empire encompassed the whole world, a concept referred to as all under heaven.

This word huangdi is rendered in most Western languages as "emperor," a word which also has a long history dating back to ancient Rome, and which Europeans deem superior to the word "king." Qin Shi Huang adopted the name First Emperor (Shi Huangdi, literally "commencing emperor"). He abolished posthumous names, by which former kings were known after their death, judging them inappropriate and contrary to filial piety, and decided that future generations would refer to him as the First Emperor (Shi Huangdi). His successor would be referred to as the Second Emperor (Er Shi Huangdi,, literally "second generation emperor"), the successor of his successor as the Third Emperor (San Shi Huangdi, literally "third generation emperor"), and so on, for ten thousand generations, as the Imperial house was supposed to rule China for ten thousand generations. "ten thousand" is equivalent to "forever" in Chinese, and it also signifies "good fortune."

Qin Shi Huang had now become the First Emperor of the State of Qin. The official name of the newly united China was still "State of Qin," as Qin had absorbed all the other states. The names Zhonghua or Zhongguo were never used officially for the country of China until 1912 when the Republic of China was founded. Contemporaries called the emperor "First Emperor," dropping the phrase "of the State of Qin," which was obvious without saying. However, soon after the emperor's death, his regime collapsed, and China was beset by a civil war. Eventually, in 202 B.C.E. the Han Dynasty managed to reunify the whole of China, which now became officially known as the State of Han (漢國), or Empire of Han. Qin Shi Huang could no longer be called "First Emperor," as this would imply that he was the "First Emperor of the Empire of Han." The custom thus arose of preceding his name with Qin, which no longer referred to the State of Qin, but to the Qin Dynasty, a dynasty replaced by the Han Dynasty. The word huangdi (emperor) in his name was also shortened to huang, so that he became known as Qin Shi Huang. It seems likely that huangdi was shortened to obtain a three-character name, because it is rare for Chinese people to have a name composed of four or more characters.

This name Qin Shi Huang (that is, "First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty") is the name that appears in the Records of the Grand Historian written by Sima Qian, and is the name most favored today inside China when referring to the First Emperor. Westerners sometimes write "Qin Shi Huangdi," which is improper given Chinese naming conventions; it is more conventional to write "Qin Shi Huang" or "First Emperor."

Youth and King of Qin: the conqueror

At the time of the young Zheng's birth, China was divided into warring feudal states. This period of Chinese history is referred to as the Warring States Period. The competition was extremely fierce and by 260 B.C.E. there were only a handful of states left (the others having been conquered and annexed), but Zheng's state, Qin, was the most powerful. It was governed by Legalist philosophy and focused earnestly on military matters.

Zheng was born in Handan, the capital of the enemy State of Zhao. He was the son of Zichu, a prince of the royal house of Qin who served as a hostage in the State of Zhao under an agreement between the states of Qin and Zhao. Zichu later returned to Qin after many adventures and with the help of a rich merchant called Lü Buwei, and he managed to ascend the throne of Qin, Lü Buwei becoming chancellor (prime minister) of Qin. Zichu is known posthumously as King Zhuangxiang of Qin. According to a widespread story, Zheng was not the actual son of Zichu, but the son of the powerful chancellor Lü Buwei. This tale arose because Zheng's mother had originally been a concubine of Lü Buwei before he gave her to his good friend Zichu shortly before Zheng's birth. However, the story is dubious since the Confucians would have found it much easier to denounce a ruler whose birth was illegitimate.

Zheng ascended the throne in 247 B.C.E. at the age of 12 and a half, and was king under a regent until 238 B.C.E. when, at the age of 21 and a half, he staged a palace coup and assumed full power. He continued the tradition of tenaciously attacking and defeating the feudal states (dodging a celebrated assassination attempt by Jing Ke while doing so) and finally took control of the whole of China in 221 B.C.E. by defeating the last independent Chinese state, the State of Qi.

For the first time, all of China was unified under one powerful ruler. In that same year at the age of 38, King Zheng proclaimed himself the "First Emperor."

First Emperor: the unifier

To avoid a recurrence of the political chaos of the Warring States Period, Qin Shi Huang and his prime minister Li Si completely abolished feudalism.

They instead divided the empire into thirty-six commanderies. Power in the commanderies was in the hands of governors dismissed at will by the central government. Civilian and military powers were also separated to avoid too much power falling in the hands of a single civil servant.

Thus, each commandery was run by a civilian governor (shōu) assisted by a military governor (wèi). The civilian governor was superior to the military governor, a constant in Chinese history. The civilian governor was also reassigned to a different commandery every few years to prevent him from building up a base of power.

An inspector (jiàn) was also in post in each commandery, in charge of informing the central government about the local implementation of central policies, reporting on the governors' exercise of power, and possibly resolving conflicts between the two governors.

This administrative system was only an extension to the whole empire of the system already in place in the State of Qin before the Chinese unification. In the State of Qin, feudalism had been abolished in the fourth century B.C.E., and the realm had been divided into commanderies, with governors dismissed at will by the ruler.

Qin Shi Huang ordered all the members of the former royal houses of the conquered states to move to Xianyang, the capital of Qin, in modern day Shaanxi province, so they would be kept under tight surveillance for rebellious activities.

The emperor also developed an extensive network of roads and canals connecting the provinces to accelerate trade between them and to accelerate military marches to revolting provinces.

Qin Shi Huang and Li Si unified China economically by standardizing the Chinese units of measurements such as weights and measures, the currency, the length of the axles of carts (so every cart could run smoothly in the ruts of the new roads), the legal system, and so on.

Perhaps most importantly, the Chinese script was unified. Under Li Si, the seal script of the state of Qin, which had already evolved organically during the Eastern Zhou out of the Zhou dynasty script, was standardized through removal of variant forms within the Qin script itself. This newly standardized script was then made official throughout all the conquered regions, thus doing away with all the regional scripts and becoming the official script for all of China.

Contrary to popular belief, Li Si did not invent the script, nor was it completely new at the time. Edicts written in the new script were carved on the walls of sacred mountains around China, such as the famous carved edicts of Mount Taishan, to let Heaven know of the unification of Earth under an emperor, and also to propagate the new script among people.

However, the script was difficult to write, and an informal Qin script remained in use which was already evolving into an early form of clerical script.

Qin Shi Huang also had most previously-existing books burned (excepting some held in the palace archives). Qin Shi Huang's motives behind burning the books has been known to be caused by the possibility of them to be used against him. Concomitant with this, he had many scholars executed.

Qin Shi Huang continued military expansion during his reign, annexing regions to the south (what is now Guangdong province was penetrated by Chinese armies for the first time) and fighting nomadic tribes to the north and northwest.

These tribes (the Xiongnu) were subdued, but the campaign was essentially inconclusive, and to prevent the Xiongnu from encroaching on the northern frontier any longer, the emperor ordered the construction of an immense defensive wall, linking several walls already existing since the time of the Warring States.

This wall, for whose construction hundreds of thousands of men were mobilized, and an unknown number died, is a precursor of the current Great Wall of China. It was built much further north than the current Great Wall, which was built during the Ming Dynasty, when China had at least twice as many inhabitants as in the days of the First Emperor. More than a century was devoted to building the Great Wall (as opposed to a mere ten years during the rule of the First Emperor). Very little survives today of the wall built by the First Emperor.

Death and aftermath

Imperial tours of Qin Shi Huang

The emperor died while on a tour to Eastern China, searching for the legendary Islands of the Immortals (off the coast of Eastern China) and for the secret of eternal life.

Reportedly, he died of swallowing mercury pills, which were made by his court scientists and doctors, containing too much mercury. Ironically, these pills were meant to make Qin Shi Huang immortal.

His death occurred on September 10, 210 B.C.E. (Julian Calendar at the palace in Shaqiu prefecture, about two months away by road from the capital Xianyang.

Prime minister Li Si, who accompanied him, was extremely worried that the news of his death could trigger a general uprising in the empire, given the brutal policies of the government, and the resentment of the population forced to work on Herculean projects such as the great wall in the north of China or the mausoleum of the emperor.

It would take two months for the government to reach the capital, and it would not be possible to stop the uprising. Li Si decided to hide all news of the death of the emperor, and return to Xianyang.

Most of the imperial entourage accompanying the emperor was left uninformed of the emperor's death, and each day Li Si entered the wagon where the emperor was supposed to be traveling, pretending to discuss affairs of state.

The secretive nature of the emperor while alive allowed this stratagem to work, and it did not raise doubts among courtiers. Li Si also ordered that two carts containing fish be carried immediately before and after the wagon of the emperor. The idea behind this was to prevent people from noticing the foul smell emanating from the wagon of the emperor, where his body was starting to decompose severely.

Eventually, after about two months, Li Si and the imperial court were back in Xianyang, where the news of the death of the emperor was announced.

During his life, Qin Shi Huang did not like to talk about death and he never really wrote a will. After his death, Li Si and the chief eunuch Zhao Gao persuaded his eighteenth son Huhai to forge the Emperor's will.

They forced his first son Fusu to commit suicide, stripped the command of troops from Meng Tian, a loyal supporter of Fusu, and killed his family. Huhai became the Second Emperor (Er Shi Huangdi), known by historians as Qin Er Shi.

Qin Er Shi was not nearly as capable as his father. Revolts against him quickly erupted. His reign was a time of extreme civil unrest, and everything the First Emperor had worked for crumbled away, for a short period. The imperial palace and state archives were burned: this has been disastrous for later historians, because after the burning of the books by his father, almost the only written records left were those in the palace archives.

Within four years of Qin Shi Huang's death, his son was dead. Thus did the Qin Dynasty come to an end. It was during Qin Er Shi's "rule" that powerful families came to war, with the strongest of them rising to power and bringing order back to the land, thus starting the next dynasty of emperors.

The next Chinese dynasty, the Han Dynasty, rejected legalism (in favor of Confucianism) and moderated the laws, but kept Qin Shi Huang's basic political and economic reforms intact. In this way his work was carried on through the centuries and became a lasting feature of Chinese society.

Mausoleum and Terracotta Army

Part of the Terracotta Army

Qin Shi Huang was buried in his mausoleum, with the famous Terracotta Army, near modern day Xi'an (Shaanxi province).

For 2000 years, a secret army of clay soldiers has protected the hidden tomb of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. Until 1974 none knew of its existence; now Chinese archaeologists are gradually unfolding the mystery.

Did you know?
Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of unified China, was buried with an army of thousands of life size terracotta soldiers to guard him in the afterlife

To guard him in his afterlife the emperor ordered an army of over 7500 life size clay soldiers to be made. When he died, the burial place was as magnificent and bizarre as even the treasure laden tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs.

The site measures some three miles across and took 700,000 conscripts to construct it. Many wonders of the tomb were described by a Chinese historian, Sima Qian, writing less than a century after the emperor's death. He wrote of rare jewels, a map of the heavens with stars represented by pearls, and, on the floor of the tomb a panorama map of China with the rivers and seas represented by flowing mercury.

Sima Qian never mentioned, however, the terracotta army - which was discovered by a team of well diggers. It is the detail of the terracotta armies that makes it so valuable. The soldiers were created with a series of mix-and-match clay molds and then further individualized by the artists' hand.

No two terracotta soldiers are identical. The sculptures represent a standard of art that experts previously believed was far beyond the craftsmen of the Qin Dynasty. Each man was built with solid legs and a hollow torso. The soldiers were originally armed with bronze spears and bows and arrows. But soon after the burial there was a revolution in China and the rebels broke into the vaults to steal the weapons.

All the standing warriors were attached to clay plinths that rested on the tiled floor, which still resembles a modern pavement. The soldiers were arranged in battle formation, with 600 clay horses and 100 life-sized working wooden chariots.

Chinese archaeologists have been meticulous and patient in their work. The main tomb containing the emperor has yet to be opened and there is still hope that it remains intact. It is said that molten copper was used to seal it.

A magnetic scan of the site has revealed that a large number of coins are lying in the unopened tomb, occasioning speculation that the royal treasury was interred with the emperor. Scans of the earth atop the tomb have revealed unusually high concentrations of mercury in the shape of china's waters, adding further to the credibility of Sima Qian's description.


A modern statue of Qin Shi Huang, located near the site of the Terracotta Army

In traditional Chinese historiography, the First Emperor was almost always portrayed as a brutal tyrant, superstitious (a result of his interest in immortality and assassination paranoia), and sometimes even as a mediocre ruler.

Ideological prejudices against the Legalist State of Qin were established as early as 266 B.C.E., when Confucian philosopher Xun Zi compared it later, Confucian historians condemned the emperor who had burned the classics and buried Confucian scholars alive. They eventually compiled the list of the Ten Crimes of Qin to highlight his tyrannical actions.

The famous Han poet and statesman Jia Yi concluded his essay The Faults of Qin, with what was to become the standard Confucian judgment of the reasons for Qin's collapse. Jia Yi's essay, admired as a masterpiece of rhetoric and reasoning, was copied into two great Han histories and has had a far-reaching influence on Chinese political thought as a classic illustration of Confucian theory.

He explained the ultimate weakness of Qin as a result of its ruler's ruthless pursuit of power, harsh laws and unbearable burdens placed on the population in projects such as the Great Wall - the precise factor which had made it so powerful; for as Confucius had taught, the strength of a government ultimately is based on the support of the people and virtuous conduct of the ruler.

Because of this systematic Confucian bias on the part of Han scholars, some of the stories recorded about Qin Shi Huang are doubtful and some may have been invented to emphasize his bad character. Some of the stories are plainly fictitious, designed to tarnish the First Emperor's image, for example. the story of a stone fallen from the sky engraved with words denouncing the emperor and prophesying the collapse of his empire after his death.

This makes it difficult to know the truth about other stories. For instance, the accusation that he had 460 scholars executed by having them buried with only their heads above ground and then decapitated seems unlikely to be completely true, but we have no way to know for certain.

Only in modern times were historians able to penetrate beyond the limitations of traditional Chinese historiography. The political rejection of the Confucian tradition as an impediment to China's entry into the modern world opened the way for changing perspectives to emerge.

In the three decades between the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the outbreak of the Second World War, with the deepening dissatisfaction with China's weakness and disunity, there emerged a new appreciation of the man who had unified China.

In the time when he was writing, when Chinese territory was encroached upon by foreign nations, leading Kuomintang historian Xiao Yishan emphasized the role of Qin Shi Huang in repulsing the northern barbarians, particularly in the construction of the Great Wall.

Another historian, Ma Feibai, published in 1941 a full-length revisionist biography of the First Emperor entitled Qin Shi Huangdi Zhuan, caling him "one of the great heroes of Chinese history."

Ma compared him with the contemporary leader Chiang Kai-shek and saw many parallels in the careers and policies of the two men, both of whom he admired. Chiang's Northern Expedition of the late 1920s, which directly preceded the new Nationalist government at Nanjing was compared to the unification brought about by Qin Shi Huang.

With the coming of the Communist Revolution in 1949, new interpretations again surfaced. The establishment of the new, revolutionary regime meant another re-evaluation of the First Emperor, this time following Marxist theory.

The new interpretation given of Qin Shi Huang was generally a combination of traditional and modern views, but essentially critical. This is exemplified in the Complete History of China, which was compiled in September 1955 as an official survey of Chinese history.

The work described the First Emperor's major steps toward unification and standardization as corresponding to the interests of the ruling group and the merchant class, not the nation or the people, and the subsequent fall of his dynasty a manifestation of the class struggle.

The perennial debate of the fall of the Qin Dynasty was also explained in Marxist terms, the peasant rebellions being a revolt against oppression—a revolt which undermined the dynasty, but which was bound to fail because of a compromise with "landlord class elements."

Since 1972, however, a radically different official view of Qin Shi Huang has been given prominence throughout China. The re-evaluation movement was launched by Hong Shidi's biography Qin Shi Huang. The work was published by the state press to be a mass popular history, and sold 1.85 million copies within two years.

In the new era, Qin Shi Huang was seen as a farsighted ruler who destroyed the forces of division and established the first unified, centralized state in Chinese history by rejecting the past. Personal attributes, such as his quest for immortality, so emphasized in traditional historiography, were scarcely mentioned.

The new evaluations described how, in his time (an era of great political and social change), he had no compunctions in using violent methods to crush counter-revolutionaries, such as the "industrial and commercial slave owner" chancellor Lü Buwei. Unfortunately, he was not as thorough as he should have been and after his death, hidden subversives, under the leadership of the chief eunuch Zhao Gao, seized power and used it to restore the old feudal order.

To round out this re-evaluation, a new interpretation of the precipitous collapse of the Qin Dynasty was put forward in an article entitled "On the Class Struggle During the Period Between Qin and Han" by Luo Siding, in a 1974 issue of Red Flag, to replace the old explanation. The new theory claimed that the cause of the fall of Qin lay in the lack of thoroughness of Qin Shi Huang's "dictatorship over the reactionaries, even to the extent of permitting them to worm their way into organs of political authority and usurp important posts."

Qin Shi Huang was ranked #17 in Michael H. Hart's list of the most influential figures in history.

Reference by Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong, chairman of the People's Republic of China, was reviled for his persecution of intellectuals. Being compared to the First Emperor, Mao responded: "He buried 460 scholars alive; we have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive… You [intellectuals] revile us for being Qin Shi Huangs. You are wrong. We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold."[1]


  1. Mao Zedong sixiang wan sui! (1969): 195. Referenced in Kenneth Lieberthal, Governing China, 2nd ed. (NY: W. W Norton, 2004) ISBN 9780393967142

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Guisso, R. W. L., Catherine Pagani, and David Miller. First Emperor of China. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1989. ISBN 9781559720168
  • Lieberthal, Kenneth. Governing China. New York: W. W Norton, 2004. ISBN 9780393967142
  • O'Connor, Jane. The Emperor's Silent Army: Terracotta Warriors of Ancient China. New York: Viking, 2002. ISBN 9780670035120
  • Pancella, Peggy. Qin Shi Huangdi: First Emperor of China. Historical biographies. Chicago, IL: Heinemann Library, 2004. ISBN 9781403437044


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