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For other uses, see Qin Shi Huang (disambiguation).

Qin Shi Huang (Chinese: 秦始皇; literally: "First Emperor of Qin"  pronunciation (help·info)) or Shihuangdi (Chinese: 始皇帝; literally: "First Emperor") (18 February 259 BC – 10 September 210 BC) was the founder of the Qin dynasty (秦朝) and was the first emperor of a unified China. He was born Ying Zheng (嬴政) or Zhao Zheng (趙政), a prince of the state of Qin. He became Zheng, the King of Qin (秦王政) when he was thirteen, then China's first emperor when he was 38 after the Qin had conquered all of the other Warring States and unified all of China in 221 BC.[2] Rather than maintain the title of "king" (王wáng) borne by the previous Shang and Zhou rulers, he ruled as the First Emperor (始皇帝) of the Qin dynasty from 220 to 210 BC. His self-invented title "emperor" (皇帝 huángdì), as indicated by his use of the word "First", would continue to be borne by Chinese rulers for the next two millennia.

During his reign, his generals greatly expanded the size of the Chinese state: campaigns south of Chu permanently added the Yue lands of Hunan and Guangdong to the Chinese cultural orbit; campaigns in Central Asia conquered the Ordos Loop from the nomad Xiongnu, although eventually it would also lead to their confederation under Modu Chanyu. Qin Shi Huang also worked with his ministerLi Si to enact major economic and political reforms aimed at the standardization of the diverse practices of the earlier Chinese states.[2] He is traditionally said to have banned and burned many books and executed scholars, though a closer examination renders the account doubtful.[3] His public works projects included the unification of diverse state walls into a single Great Wall of China and a massive new national road system, as well as the city-sized mausoleum guarded by the life-sized Terracotta Army. He ruled until his death in 210 BC after a futile search for an elixir of immortality.

Origin of name

Modern Chinese sources often give the personal name of Qin Shi Huang as Ying Zheng, with Ying (嬴) taken as the surname and Zheng (政) the given name. In ancient China however the naming convention differed, and Zhao (趙) may be used as the surname. Unlike modern Chinese names, the nobles of ancient China had two distinct surnames: the ancestral name (姓) comprised a larger group descended from a prominent ancestor, usually said to have lived during the time of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors of Chinese legend, and the clan name (氏) comprised a smaller group that showed a branch's current fief or recent title. (This is remarkably similar to the practice of contemporary Romans for naming men, such as M. Tullius Cicero and C. Julius Caesar.) The ancient practice was to list men's names separately—in Sima Qian's "Basic Annals of the First Emperor of Qin" introduces him as "given the name Zheng and the surname Zhao"[4][6]—or to combine the clan surname with the personal name: Sima's account of Chu describes the sixteenth year of the reign of King Kaolie as "the time when Zhao Zheng was enthroned as King of Qin".[7] However, since modern Chinese surnames (despite usually descending from clan names) use the same character as the old ancestral names, it is much more common in modern Chinese sources to see the emperor's personal name written as Ying Zheng,[8] using the ancestral name of the Ying family.

The rulers of Qin had styled themselves kings from the time of King Huiwen in 325 BC. Upon his ascension, Zheng became known as the King of Qin[4][5] or King Zheng of Qin.[9][10] This title made him the nominal equal of the rulers of Shang and of Zhou, the last of whose kings had been deposed by King Zhaoxiang of Qin in 256 BC.

Following the surrender of Qi in 221 BC, King Zheng had reunited all of the lands of the former Kingdom of Zhou. Rather than maintain his rank as king, however,[11] he created a new title of huángdì (emperor) for himself. This new title combined two titles—huáng of the mythicalThree Sovereigns (三皇, Sān Huáng) and the of the legendaryFive Emperors (五帝, Wŭ Dì) of Chinese prehistory.[12] The title was intended to appropriate some of the prestige of the Yellow Emperor,[13] whose cult was popular in the later Warring States period and who was considered to be a founder of the Chinese people. King Zheng chose the new regnal name of First Emperor (Shǐ Huángdì, formerlytranscribed as Shih Huang-ti)[14] on the understanding that his successors would be successively titled the "Second Emperor", "Third Emperor", and so on through the generations. (In fact, the scheme lasted only as long as his immediate heir, the Second Emperor.)[15] The new title carried religious overtones. For that reason, Sinologists—starting with Peter Boodberg[16] or Edward Schafer[17]—sometimes translate it as "thearch" and the First Emperor as the First Thearch.[18]

The First Emperor intended that his realm would remain intact through the ages but, following its overthrow and replacement by Han after his death, it became customary to prefix his title with Qin. Thus:

  • 秦, Qín or Ch‘in, "of Qin"
  • 始, Shǐ or Shih, "first"[1]
  • 皇帝, Huángdì or Huang-ti, "emperor", a new term[20] coined from

As early as Sima Qian, it was common to shorten the resulting four-character Qin Shi Huangdi to 秦始皇,[23] variously transcribed as Qin Shihuang or Qin Shi Huang.

Following his elevation as emperor, both Zheng's personal name 政 and possibly its homophone 正[25] became taboo.[26] The First Emperor also arrogated the first-person Chinese pronoun朕 (OC*lrəm’,[27]mod.zhèn) for his exclusive use[29] and in 212 BC began calling himself The Immortal(真人,OC*Tin-niŋ,[27]mod.Zhēnrén, lit. "True Man").[11] Others were to address him as "Your Majesty" (陛下,mod.Bìxià, lit. "Beneath the Palace[30] Steps") in person and "Your Highness" (上) in writing.[11]

Birth and parentage

According to the Records of the Grand Historian, written by Sima Qian during the Han dynasty, the first emperor was the eldest son of the Qin prince Yiren, who later became King Zhuangxiang of Qin. Prince Yiren at that time was residing at the court of Zhao, serving as a hostage to guarantee the armistice between the Qin and Zhao states.[1][31] Prince Yiren had fallen in love at first sight with a concubine of Lü Buwei, a rich merchant from the State of Wey. Lü consented for her to be Yiren's wife, who then became known as Lady Zhao (Zhao Ji) after the state of Zhao. Lady Zhao gave birth to the child on 18 February; and he was given the name Zhao Zheng – the name Zheng (正) came from his month of birth Zhengyue, the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar;[31] the clan name of Zhao came from his father's lineage and was unrelated to either his mother's name or the location of his birth.[citation needed] Lü Buwei's machinations later helped Yiren become King Zhuangxiang of Qin[3] in 250 BC.

However, the Records of the Grand Historian also claimed that the first emperor was not the actual son of Prince Yiren but that of Lü Buwei.[32] According to this account, when Lü Buwei introduced the dancing girl to the prince, she was Lü Buwei's concubine and had already become pregnant by him, and the baby was born after an unusually long period of pregnancy.[32] According to translations of the Annals of Lü Buwei, Zhao Ji gave birth to the future emperor in the city of Handan in 259 BC, the first month of the 48th year of King Zhaoxiang of Qin.[33]

The idea that the emperor was an illegitimate child, widely believed throughout Chinese history, contributed to the generally negative view of the First Emperor.[1] However, a number of modern scholars have doubted this account of his birth. Sinologist Derk Bodde wrote: "There is good reason for believing that the sentence describing this unusual pregnancy is an interpolation added to the Shih-chi by an unknown person in order to slander the First Emperor and indicate his political as well as natal illegitimacy".[34] John Knoblock and Jeffrey Riegel, in their translation of Lü Buwei's Spring and Autumn Annals, call the story "patently false, meant both to libel Lü and to cast aspersions on the First Emperor".[35] Claiming Lü Buwei – a merchant – as the First Emperor's biological father was meant to be especially disparaging, since later Confucian society regarded merchants as the lowest of all social classes.[36]

As the King of Qin


In 246 BC, when King Zhuangxiang died after a short reign of just three years, he was succeeded on the throne by his 13-year-old son.[37] At the time, Zhao Zheng was still young, so Lü Buwei acted as the regent prime minister of the State of Qin, which was still waging war against the other six states.[1] Nine years later, in 235 BC, Zhao Zheng assumed full power after Lü Buwei was banished for his involvement in a scandal with Queen Dowager Zhao.[38][39]

Zhao Chengjiao, the Lord Chang'an (长安君),[40] was Zhao Zheng's legitimate half-brother, by the same father but from a different mother. After Zhao Zheng inherited the throne, Chengjiao rebelled at Tunliu and surrendered to the state of Zhao. Chengjiao's remaining retainers and families were executed by Zhao Zheng.[41]

Lao Ai's attempted coup

As King Zheng grew older, Lü Buwei became fearful that the boy king would discover his liaison with his mother Lady Zhao. He decided to distance himself and look for a replacement for the queen dowager. He found a man named Lao Ai.[42] According to The Record of Grand Historian, Lao Ai was disguised as a eunuch by plucking his beard. Later Lao Ai and queen Zhao Ji got along so well they secretly had two sons together.[42] Lao Ai then became ennobled as Marquis Lào Ǎi, and was showered with riches. Lao Ai's plot was supposed to replace King Zheng with one of the hidden sons. But during a dinner party drunken Lào Ǎi was heard bragging about being the young king's step father.[42] In 238 BC the king was travelling to the ancient capital of Yōng (雍). Lao Ai seized the queen mother's seal and mobilized an army in an attempt to start a coup and rebel.[42] When King Zheng found out this fact, he ordered Lü Buwei to let Lord Changping and Lord Changwen attack Lao Ai and their army killed hundreds of the rebels at the capital, although Lao Ai succeeded in fleeing from this battle.[43]

A price of 1 million copper coins was placed on Lao Ai's head if he was taken alive or half a million if dead.[42] Lao Ai's supporters were captured and beheaded; then Lao Ai was tied up and torn to five pieces by horse carriages, while his entire family was executed to the third degree.[42] The two hidden sons were also killed, while mother Zhao Ji was placed under house arrest until her death many years later. Lü Buwei drank a cup of poison wine and committed suicide in 235 BC.[1][42] Ying Zheng then assumed full power as the King of the Qin state. Replacing Lü Buwei, Li Si became the new chancellor.

First attempted assassination

Main article: Jing Ke

King Zheng and his troops continued to take over different states. The state of Yan was small, weak and frequently harassed by soldiers. It was no match for the Qin state.[44] So Crown Prince Dan of Yan plotted an assassination attempt to get rid of King Zheng, begging Jing Ke to go on the mission in 227 BC.[3][44]Jing Ke was accompanied by Qin Wuyang in the plot. Each was supposed to present a gift to King Zheng: a map of Dukang and the severed head of Fan Wuji.[44]

Qin Wuyang first tried to present the map case gift, but trembled in fear and moved no further towards the king. Jing Ke continued to advance toward the king, while explaining that his partner "has never set eyes on the Son of Heaven", which is why he is trembling. Jing Ke had to present both gifts by himself.[44] While unrolling the map, a dagger was revealed. The king drew back, stood on his feet, but struggled to draw the sword to defend himself.[44] At the time, other palace officials were not allowed to carry weapons. Jing Ke pursued the king, attempting to stab him, but missed. King Zheng drew out his sword and cut Jing Ke's thigh. Jing Ke then threw the dagger, but missed again. Suffering eight wounds from the king's sword, Jing Ke realized his attempt had failed and knew that both of them would be killed afterwards.[44] The Yan state was conquered by the Qin state five years later.[44]

Second attempted assassination

Main article: Gao Jianli

Gao Jianli was a close friend of Jing Ke, who wanted to avenge his death.[45] As a famous lute player, one day he was summoned by King Zheng to play the instrument. Someone in the palace who had known him in the past exclaimed, "This is Gao Jianli".[46] Unable to bring himself to kill such a skilled musician, the emperor ordered his eyes put out.[46] But the king allowed Gao Jianli to play in his presence.[46] He praised the playing and even allowed Gao Jianli to get closer. As part of the plot, the lute was fastened with a heavy piece of lead. He raised the lute and struck at the king. He missed, and his assassination attempt failed. Gao Jianli was later executed.[46]

Unification of China

Main article: Qin's wars of unification

In 230 BC, King Zheng unleashed the final campaigns of the Warring States period, setting out to conquer the remaining independent kingdoms, one by one.

The first state to fall was Hán (韓; sometimes called Hann to distinguish it from the Hàn 漢 of Han dynasty), in 230 BC. Then Qin took advantage of natural disasters in 229 BC to invade and conquer Zhào, where Qin Shi Huang had been born.[47][48] He now avenged his poor treatment as a child hostage there, seeking out and killing his enemies.

Qin armies conquered the state of Zhao in 228 BC, the northern country of Yan in 226 BC, the small state of Wei in 225 BC, and the largest state and greatest challenge, Chu, in 223 BC.[49]

In 222 BC, the last remnants of Yan and the royal family were captured in Liaodong in the northeast. The only independent country left was now state of Qi, in the far east, what is now the Shandong peninsula. Terrified, the young king of Qi sent 200,000 people to defend his western borders. In 221 BC, the Qin armies invaded from the north, captured the king, and annexed Qi. Some of the strategies Qin used to unify China were to standardize the trade and communication, currency and language.

For the first time, all of China[dubious– discuss] was unified under one powerful ruler. In that same year, King Zheng proclaimed himself the "First Emperor" (始皇帝, Shǐ Huángdì), no longer a king in the old sense and now far surpassing the achievements of the old Zhou Dynasty rulers.[50] The emperor made the He Shi Bi into the Imperial Seal, known as the "Heirloom Seal of the Realm". The words, "Having received the Mandate from Heaven, may (the emperor) lead a long and prosperous life." (受命於天,既壽永昌) were written by Prime Minister Li Si, and carved onto the seal by Sun Shou. The Seal was later passed from emperor to emperor for generations to come.

In the South, military expansion in the form of campaigns against the Yue tribes continued during his reign, with various regions being annexed to what is now Guangdong province and part of today's Vietnam.[48]

As the Emperor of Qin

Administrative reforms

Further information: History of the administrative divisions of China before 1912

In an attempt 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.[48] The empire was then divided into 36 commanderies (郡, Jùn), later more than 40 commanderies.[48] The whole of China was thus divided into administrative units: first commanderies, then counties (縣, Xiàn), townships (鄉, Xiāng) and hundred-family units (里, Li, which roughly corresponds to the modern-day subdistricts and communities).[51] This system was different from the previous dynasties, which had loose alliances and federations.[52] People could no longer be identified by their native region or former feudal state, as when a person from Chu was called "Chu person" (楚人, Chu rén).[51][53] Appointments were subsequently based on merit instead of hereditary rights.[51]

Economic reforms

Qin Shi Huang and Li Si unified China economically by standardizing the Chinese units of measurements such as weights and measures, the currency, and the length of the axles of carts to facilitate transport on the road system.[52] The emperor also developed an extensive network of roads and canals connecting the provinces to improve trade between them.[52] The currency of the different states were also standardized to the Ban liang coin (半兩, Bàn Liǎng).[51] Perhaps most importantly, the Chinese script was unified. Under Li Si, the seal script of the state of Qin 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 to form one language, one communication system for all of China.[51]


Main articles: Legalism (Chinese philosophy), Wu Xing, and Burning of books and burying of scholars

Qin Shi Huang also followed the school of the five elements, earth, wood, metal, fire and water.(五德終始說) Zhao Zheng's birth element is water, which is connected with the colour black. It was also believed that the royal house of the previous dynasty Zhou had ruled by the power of fire, which was the colour red. The new Qin dynasty must be ruled by the next element on the list, which is water, represented by the colour black. Black became the colour for garments, flags, pennants.[1] Other associations include north as the cardinal direction, winter season and the number six.[54] Tallies and official hats were 15 centimetres (5.9 inches) long, carriages two metres (6.6 feet) wide, one pace (步, ) was 1.4 metres (4.6 ft).[1]

While the previous Warring States era was one of constant warfare, it was also considered the golden age of free thought.[55] Qin Shi Huang eliminated the Hundred Schools of Thought which incorporated Confucianism and other philosophies.[55][56] After the unification of China, with all other schools of thought banned, legalism became the endorsed ideology of the Qin dynasty,[51] which was basically a system that required the people to follow the laws or be punished accordingly.

Beginning in 213 BC, at the instigation of Li Si and to avoid scholars' comparisons of his reign with the past, Qin Shi Huang ordered most existing books to be burned with the exception of those on astrology, agriculture, medicine, divination, and the history of the State of Qin.[57] This would also serve the purpose of furthering the ongoing reformation of the writing system by removing examples of obsolete scripts.[58] Owning the Book of Songs or the Classic of History was to be punished especially severely. According to the later Records of the Grand Historian, the following year Qin Shi Huang had some 460 scholars buried alive for owning the forbidden books.[1][57] The emperor's oldest son Fusu criticised him for this act.[59]

Recent research suggests that the "burying of the Confucian scholars alive" is a Confucian martyrs' legend; rather, the emperor ordered the killing (坑 kēng) of a group of alchemists after having found that they had fooled him. In Han times, the Confucian scholars, who had served the Qin loyally, used that incident to distance themselves from the failed dynasty. Kong Anguo (孔安國 c. 165 – c. 74 BC), a descendant of Confucius, turned the alchemists (方士 fāngshì) into Confucianists (儒 ) and entwined the martyrs' legend with the strange story of the rediscovery of the lost Confucian books behind a demolished wall in the house of his ancestors.[60] The emperor's own library still had copies of the forbidden books but most of these were destroyed later when Xiang Yu burned the palaces of Xianyang in 206 BC.[61]

Third attempted assassination

Main article: Zhang Liang (Western Han)

In 230 BC, the state of Qin had defeated the state of Han. A Han aristocrat named Zhang Liang swore revenge on the Qin emperor. He sold all his valuables and in 218 BC, he hired a strongman assassin and built him a heavy metal cone weighing 120 jin (roughly 160 lb or 97 kg).[42] The two men hid among the bushes along the emperor's route over a mountain. At a signal, the muscular assassin hurled the cone at the first carriage and shattered it. However, the emperor was actually in the second carriage, as he was travelling with two identical carriages for this very reason. Thus the attempt failed.[62] Both men were able to escape in spite of a huge manhunt.[42]

Public works

Main articles: Great Wall of China and Lingqu Canal

Great Wall

The Qin fought nomadic tribes to the north and north-west. The Xiongnu tribes were not defeated and subdued, thus the campaign was tiring and unsuccessful, and to prevent the Xiongnu from encroaching on the northern frontier any longer, the emperor ordered the construction of an immense defensive wall.[48][63][64] This wall, for whose construction hundreds of thousands of men were mobilized, and an unknown number died, is a precursor to the current Great Wall of China. It connected numerous state walls which had been built during the previous four centuries, a network of small walls linking river defences to impassable cliffs.[65][66]

Lingqu Canal

A famous South China quotation was "In the North there is the Great wall, in the South there is the Lingqu canal" (北有長城、南有靈渠, Běiyǒu chángchéng, nányǒu língqú).[67] In 214 BC the Emperor began the project of a major canal to transport supplies to the army.[68] The canal allows water transport between north and south China.[68] The canal, 34 kilometres in length, links the Xiang River which flows into the Yangtze and the Li Jiang, which flows into the Pearl River.[68] The canal connected two of China's major waterways and aided Qin's expansion into the south-west.[68] The construction is considered one of the three great feats of Ancient Chinese engineering, the others being the Great Wall and the SichuanDujiangyan Irrigation System.[68]

Elixir of life

Later in his life, Qin Shi Huang feared death and desperately sought the fabled elixir of life, which would supposedly allow him to live forever. He was obsessed with acquiring immortality and fell prey to many who offered him supposed elixirs.[69] He visited Zhifu Island three times in order to achieve immortality.[70]

In one case he sent Xu Fu, a Zhifu islander, with ships carrying hundreds of young men and women in search of the mystical Penglai mountain.[62] They were sent to find Anqi Sheng, a 1,000-year-old magician whom Qin Shi Huang had supposedly met in his travels and who had invited him to seek him there.[71] These people never returned, perhaps because they knew that if they returned without the promised elixir, they would surely be executed. Legends claim that they reached Japan and colonized it.[69] It is also possible that the book burning, a purge on what could be seen as wasteful and useless literature, was, in part, an attempt to focus the minds of the Emperor's best scholars on the alchemical quest. Some of the executed scholars were those who had been unable to offer any evidence of their supernatural schemes. This may have been the ultimate means of testing their abilities: if any of them had magic powers, then they would surely come back to life when they were let out again.[72] Since the great emperor was afraid of death and "evil spirits", he had workers build a series of tunnels and passageways to each of his palaces (he owned over 200), because traveling unseen would supposedly keep him safe from the evil spirits. Qin Shi Huang was said to have died by drinking mercury, believing it to be an elixir of immortality.

Death and post-mortem events

In 211 BC a large meteor is said to have fallen in Dōngjùn (東郡) in the lower reaches of the Yellow River. On it, an unknown person inscribed the words "The First Emperor will die and his land will be divided" (始皇死而地分).[73] When the emperor heard of this, he sent an imperial secretary to investigate this prophecy. No one would confess to the deed, so all the people living nearby were put to death. The stone was then burned and pulverized.[31]

The Emperor died during one of his tours of Eastern China, on 10 September 210 BC (Julian Calendar) at the palace in Shaqiu prefecture (沙丘平台, Shāqiū Píngtái), about two months away by road from the capital Xianyang.[44][44][74][75] Reportedly, he died from Chinese alchemical elixir poisoning due to ingesting mercury pills, made by his alchemists and court physicians.[76] Ironically, these pills were meant to make Qin Shi Huang immortal.[76]

Second Emperor conspiracy

After the Emperor's death, Prime Minister Li Si, who accompanied him, became extremely worried that the news of his death could trigger a general uprising in the Empire.[44] It would take two months for the entourage to reach the capital, and it would not be possible to stop the uprising. Li Si decided to hide the death of the Emperor, and return to Xianyang.[44] Most of the Imperial entourage accompanying the Emperor were left ignorant of the Emperor's death; only a younger son, Ying Huhai, who was travelling with his father, the eunuch Zhao Gao, Li Si, and five or six favourite eunuchs knew of the death.[44] Li Si also ordered that two carts containing rotten 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 as it was summertime.[44] They also pulled down the shade so no one could see his face, changed his clothes daily, brought food and when he had to have important conversations, they would act as if he wanted to send them a message.[44]

Eventually, after about two months, Li Si and the imperial court reached Xianyang, where the news of the death of the emperor was announced.[44] Qin Shi Huang did not like to talk about his own death and he had never written a will. After his death, the eldest son Fusu would normally become the next emperor.[77]

Li Si and the chief eunuchZhao Gao conspired to kill Fusu because Fusu's favorite general was Meng Tian, whom they disliked[77] and feared; Meng Tian's brother, a senior minister, had once punished Zhao Gao.[78] They believed that if Fusu was enthroned, they would lose their power.[77] Li Si and Zhao Gao forged a letter from Qin Shi Huang saying that both Fusu and General Meng must commit suicide.[77] The plan worked, and the younger son Hu Hai became the Second Emperor, later known as Qin Er Shi or "Second Generation Qin".[44]

Qin Er Shi, however, was not as capable as his father. Revolts quickly erupted. His reign was a time of extreme civil unrest, and everything built by the First Emperor crumbled away within a short period.[48] One of the immediate revolt attempts was the 209 BC Daze Village Uprising led by Chen Sheng and Wu Guang.[73]


Main article: Chinese emperors family tree (early)

The following are some family members of Qin Shi Huang:

Qin Shi Huang had about 50 children (about 30 sons and 15 daughters), but most of their names are unknown. He had numerous concubines but appeared to have never named an empress.[81]



Main article: Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

See also: Terracotta Army

The Chinese historian Sima Qian, writing a century after the First Emperor's death, wrote that it took 700,000 men to construct the emperor's mausoleum. British historian John Man points out that this figure is larger than the population of any city in the world at that time and he calculates that the foundations could have been built by 16,000 men in two years.[82] While Sima Qian never mentioned the terracotta army, the statues were discovered by a group of farmers digging wells on March 29, 1974.[83] The soldiers were created with a series of mix-and-match clay molds and then further individualized by the artists' hand. Han Purple was also used on some of the warriors.[84] There are around 6,000 Terracotta Warriors and their purpose was to protect the Emperor in the afterlife from evil spirits. Also among the army are chariots and 40,000 real bronze weapons.[85]

One of the first projects which the young king accomplished while he was alive was the construction of his own tomb. In 215 BC Qin Shi Huang ordered General Meng Tian to begin its construction with the assistance of 300,000 men.[1] Other sources suggest that he ordered 720,000 unpaid laborers to build his tomb according to his specifications.[37] Again, given John Man's observation regarding populations at the time (see paragraph above), these historical estimates are debatable. The main tomb (located at 34°22′52.75″N109°15′13.06″E / 34.3813194°N 109.2536278°E / 34.3813194; 109.2536278) containing the emperor has yet to be opened and there is evidence suggesting that it remains relatively intact.[86]Sima Qian's description of the tomb includes replicas of palaces and scenic towers, "rare utensils and wonderful objects", 100 rivers made with mercury, representations of "the heavenly bodies", and crossbows rigged to shoot anyone who tried to break in.[87] The tomb was built at the foot of Mount Li, 30 kilometers away from Xi'an

A portrait painting of Qin Shi Huangdi, first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, from an 18th-century album of Chinese emperors' portraits.
Jing Ke's assassination attempt on Qin Shi Huang; Jing Ke (left) is held by one of Qin Shi Huang's physicians (left, background). The dagger used in the assassination attempt is seen stuck in the pillar. Qin Shi Huang (right) is seen holding an imperial jade disc. One of his soldier (far right) rushes to save his emperor. Stone rubbing; 3rd century, Eastern Han
Qin's unification of seven warring states
A 5-catty weight inscribed with a description of Qin Shi Huang's edict to standardize weights and measures, 221 BC
Xu Fu's ships set sail in 219 BC in search of the medicine for immortality.
Imperial tours of Qin Shi Huang

Qin Shi Huang (or Shi Huangdi) was the First Emperor of a unified China, who ruled from 246 BCE to 210 BCE. In his 35-year reign, he managed to create magnificent and enormous construction projects. He also caused both incredible cultural and intellectual growth, and much destruction within China. Whether he should be remembered more for his creations or his tyranny is a matter of dispute, but everyone agrees that Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, was one of the most important rulers in Chinese history.

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Early Life:

According to legend, a rich merchant named Lu Buwei befriended a prince of the Qin State during the latter years of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 BCE). The merchant’s lovely wife Zhao Ji had just gotten pregnant, so he arranged for the prince to meet and fall in love with her. She became the prince’s concubine, and then gave birth to Lu Buwei’s child in 259 BCE. The baby, born in Hanan, was named Ying Zheng. The prince believed the baby was his own. Ying Zheng became king of the Qin state in 246 BCE, upon the death of his supposed father. He ruled as Qin Shi Huang, and unified China for the first time.

Early Reign:

The young king was only 13 years old when he took the throne, so his prime minister (and probable real father) Lu Buwei acted as regent for the first eight years. This was a difficult time for any ruler in China, with seven warring states vying for control of the land. The leaders of the Qi, Yan, Zhao, Han, Wei, Chu and Qin states were former dukes under the Zhou Dynasty, but had each proclaimed themselves king as the Zhou fell apart. In this unstable environment, warfare flourished, as did books like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Lu Buwei had another problem, as well; he feared that the king
would discover his true identity.

Lao Ai’s Revolt:

According to the Shiji, or “Records of the Grand Historian,” Lu Buwei hatched a new scheme to depose Qin Shi Huang in 240 BCE. He introduced Zhao Ji to Lao Ai, a man famed for his large penis. The queen dowager and Lao Ai had two sons, and in 238 BCE, Lao and Lu Buwei decided to launch a coup. Lao raised an army, aided by the king of nearby Wei, and tried to seize control while Qin Shi Huang was traveling outside of the area. The young king cracked down hard on the rebellion; Lao was executed in a grisly fashion, along with his family. The queen dowager was spared, but spent the rest of her days under house arrest.

Consolidation of Power:

Lu Buwei was banished after the Lao Ai incident, but did not lose all of his influence in Qin. However, he lived in constant fear of execution by the mercurial young king. In 235 BCE, Lu committed suicide by drinking poison. With his death, the 24-year-old king assumed full command over the kingdom of Qin. Qin Shi Huang grew increasingly paranoid (not without reason), and banished all foreign scholars from his court as spies. The king’s fears were well-founded; in 227, the Yan state sent two assassins to his court, but he fought them off with his sword. A musician also tried to kill him by bludgeoning him with a lead-weighted lute.

Battles with Neighboring States:

The assassination attempts arose in part because of desperation in neighboring kingdoms. The Qin king had the most powerful army, and neighboring rulers trembled at the thought of a Qin invasion. The Han kingdom fell in 230 BCE. In 229, a devastating earthquake rocked another powerful state, Zhao, leaving it weakened. Qin Shi Huang took advantage of the disaster, and invaded the region. Wei fell in 225, followed by the powerful Chu in 223. The Qin army conquered Yan and Zhao in 222 (despite another assassination attempt on Qin Shi Huang by a Yan agent). The final independent kingdom, Qi, fell to the Qin in 221 BCE.

China Unified:

With the defeat of the other six warring states, Qin Shi Huang had unified northern China. His army would continue to expand the Qin Empire’s southern boundaries throughout his lifetime, driving as far south as what is now Vietnam. The king of Qin became the Emperor of Qin China.

As emperor, Qin Shi Huang reorganized the bureaucracy, abolishing the existing nobility and replacing them with his appointed officials. He also built a network of roads, with the capital of Xianyang at the hub. In addition, the emperor simplified the written Chinese script, standardized weights and measures, and minted new copper coins.

The Great Wall and Ling Canal:

Despite its military might, the newly unified Qin Empire faced a recurring threat from the north: raids by the nomadic Xiongnu (the ancestors of Attila’s Huns). In order to fend off the Xiongnu, Qin Shi Huang ordered the construction of an enormous defensive wall. The work was carried out by hundreds of thousands of slaves and criminals between 220 and 206 BCE; untold thousands of them died at the task. This northern fortification formed the first section of what would become the Great Wall of China. In 214, the Emperor also ordered construction of a canal, the Lingqu, which linked the Yangtze and Pearl River systems.

The Confucian Purge:

The Warring States Period was dangerous, but the lack of central authority allowed intellectuals to flourish. Confucianism and a number of other philosophies blossomed prior to China’s unification. However, Qin Shi Huang viewed these schools of thought as threats to his authority, so he ordered all books not related to his reign burned in 213 BCE. The Emperor also had approximately 460 scholars buried alive in 212 for daring to disagree with him, and 700 more stoned to death. From then on, the only approved school of thought was legalism: follow the emperor’s laws, or face the consequences.

Qin Shi Huang’s Quest for Immortality:

As he entered middle age, the First Emperor grew more and more afraid of death. He became obsessed with finding the elixir of life, which would allow him to live forever. The court doctors and alchemists concocted a number of potions, many of them containing “quicksilver” (mercury), which probably had the ironic effect of hastening the emperor’s death rather than preventing it. Just in case the elixirs did not work, in 215 BCE the Emperor also ordered the construction of a gargantuan tomb for himself. Plans for the tomb included flowing rivers of mercury, cross-bow booby traps to thwart would-be plunderers, and replicas of the Emperor’s earthly palaces.

The Terracotta Army:

To guard Qin Shi Huang in the afterworld, and perhaps allow him to conquer heaven as he had the earth, the emperor had a terracotta army of at least 8,000 clay soldiers placed in the tomb. The army also included terracotta horses, along with real chariots and weapons. Each soldier was an individual, with unique facial features (although the bodies and limbs were mass-produced from molds).

The Death of Qin Shi Huang:

A large meteor fell in Dongjun in 211 BCE – an ominous sign for the Emperor. To make matters worse, someone etched the words “The First Emperor will die and his land will be divided” onto the stone. Some saw this as a sign that the Emperor had lost the Mandate of Heaven. Since nobody would fess up to this crime, the Emperor had everyone in the vicinity executed. The meteor itself was burned and then pounded into powder. Nevertheless, the Emperor died less than a year later, while touring eastern China in 210 BCE. The cause of death most likely was mercury poisoning, due to his immortality treatments.

Fall of the Qin Empire

Qin Shi Huang’s Empire did not outlast him long. His second son and Prime Minister tricked the heir, Fusu, into committing suicide. The second son, Huhai, seized power. However, widespread unrest (led by the remnants of the Warring States nobility) threw the empire into disarray. In 207 BCE, the Qin army was defeated by Chu-lead rebels at the Battle of Julu. This defeat signaled the end of the Qin Dynasty.


Mark Edward Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (2007). Lu Buwei, The Annals of Lu Buwei, trans. John Knoblock and Jeffrey Riegel. Stanford: Stanford University Press (2000). Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian, trans. Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press (1993).

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