Shi Huangdi

Shi Huangdi

Qin Shi Huangdi
King of the State of Qin
Reign 7 May 247 BC – 221 BC
First Emperor of China
Reign 221 BC – 10 September 210 BC
Crown Prince Fusu
Prince Gao
Full name
Ancestral name: Ying (嬴)
Clan name: Zhao (趙)
Given name: Zheng (政)
House Qin Dynasty
Father King Zhuangxiang of Qin
Mother Queen Dowager Zhao
Born 18th February 259 BC
Died 11th August 210 BC (aged 49)

Qin Shi Huang (Wade-Giles: Ch'in Shih Huang; Chinese: ; 259 BC – 210 BC);[1] personal name: Zhao Zheng (Wade-Giles: Chao Cheng; Chinese: 趙政 or 趙正);[2][3] was the king of the Chinese State of Qin from 246 BC to 221 BC, during the Warring States period.[4] He became the first emperor of a unified China in 221 BC.[4] He ruled until his death in 210 BC at the age of 49.[5]

Calling himself the First Emperor (Chinese: 始皇帝, Shǐ Huángdì) after China's unification, Qín Shǐ Huáng is a pivotal figure in Chinese history, ushering in nearly two millennia of imperial rule. After unifying China, he and his chief advisor Li Si passed a series of major economic and political reforms.[4] He undertook gigantic projects, including building and unifying various sections of the Great Wall of China, the now famous city-sized mausoleum guarded by the life-sized Terracotta Army, and a massive national road system, all at the expense of numerous lives. During his reign, Qin Shi Huang outlawed and burned many books and buried some scholars alive.[5]

Name of Shi Huangdi

From the beginning of the Zhou dynasty in 1045 BC to the time of the First Emperor, rulers of the Chinese states were titled Wang (Chinese: ), a term that originally meant "big man" but later came to mean "chief" or "king".[6] Following his defeat of the last of the Warring States in 221 BC, King Zheng of Qin became de facto ruler of all China. To celebrate this achievement and consolidate his power base, King Zheng created a new title calling himself the First Sovereign Emperor of Qin (Chinese: ; pinyin: Qín Shǐ Huángdì; Wade–Giles: Ch'in Shih Huang-ti), often shortened to Qin Shi Huang (Chinese: ; pinyin: Qín Shǐ Huáng; Wade–Giles: Ch'in Shih-Huang).

  • The character shǐ 始 means "first".[7] The first emperor's heirs would then be successively called "Second Emperor", "Third Emperor" and so on down the generations.[8]
  • The term Huangdi (Chinese: 皇帝; Wade–Giles: Huang-ti) comes from the mythical Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors Era (Chinese: ; pinyin: Sān Huáng Wŭ Dì), from which the two terms "Sovereign" and "Emperor" (huang 皇 and di 帝) are extracted.[9] By adding such a title, Qin Shihuang hoped to appropriate some of the previous Yellow Emperor's divine status and prestige.[10]
  • Additionally, the character huáng 皇 literally means "shining" or "splendid" and was "most frequently used as an epithet of Heaven."[11]


Both "Qín Shǐ Huángdì" (秦始皇帝) and "Qín Shǐ Huáng" (秦始皇) appear in the Records of the Grand Historian written by Sima Qian. The longer name "Qín Shǐ Huángdì" (秦始皇帝) appears first in chapter 5,[12] though the shorter name "Qín Shǐ Huáng" (秦始皇) was the name of chapter 6 (秦始皇本紀, Qín Shǐ Huáng Běnjì).[13][14] However, the name Qin Shi Huangdi is believed to be the correct one since Ying Zheng joined together the words Huang (Imperial) and Di (ruler), to create Huangdi (emperor).[15]

Naming taboo

In Chinese history, the emperors' and seniors' given names must be avoided as they are a naming taboo. When it came to Zhao Zheng's given name Zheng, it was considered as a National Taboo (国讳).

Zhao Zheng was born in the first month of the year (Zhengyue 正月 in the Chinese calendar) thus he received the character Zheng (正) as given name. According to the footnote of the "The lunar calendar of Qin and Chu" (《秦楚之际月表》) from the Index of the Records of the Grand Historian (《史记索隐》), the first month Zhengyue, "due to the taboo of the First Emperor's given name Zheng, was reformed as Duanyue (端月).

By the end of 1975, at Shuihudi archaeological excavations site, in Yunmeng County, Hubei province, a large number of the Qin Dynasty bamboo slips were unearthed from the tombs, some dating from the end of the Warring States period. In a group of bamboo slips called "phrase book" (《语书》), there were several encounters of the word "Zheng", they were all reformed as the character "Duan" (端) instead. Such as "To correct the people's support" (以矫端民心), "no justice of the heart" (毋公端之心), and so on, "Duan" was supposed to be Zheng. They were clearly changed in order to avoid the First Emperor's taboo.

But according to the "Biography of Li Si" in the Records of the Grand Historian, the naming taboo was not adhered to universally: "General Tian and Fusu were living far away. They do not avoid the taboo by correcting the word Zheng (正). It was easy to understand their motive."[16]

Family history and birth

A rich merchant in the State of Han, named Lü Buwei, met Master Yìrén (公子異人, Gōngzǐ Yìrén). Lü Buwei's manipulation helped Yiren become King Zhuangxiang of Qin.[5] At the time, King Zhuāngxiāng of Qin was a prince of Qin blood, who took residence at the court of the State of Zhao as a hostage to guarantee an armistice between the two states.[17]

According to the Records of the Grand Historian, the first emperor was born in 259 BC as the eldest son of King Zhuangxiang of Qin.[1][18] King Zhuangxiang of Qin saw a concubine belonging to Lü Buwei, and she bore the first emperor on 18 February, it was in January according to the Chinese calendar.[18] At birth, he was given the clan name of Zhao (the clan name of the royal house of Qin) inherited from his father and personal name Zheng (正), because he was born in the first month (Zhengyue 正月 in the Chinese calendar). His clan name Zhao has nothing to do with being born at the Kingdom of Zhao; it was a coincidence.

Birth controversy

According to the Records of the Grand Historian, written by Sima Qian during the next dynasty, the first emperor was not the actual son of King Zhuangxiang. By the time Lü Buwei introduced the dancing girl Zhào Jī (趙姬, or the Concubine from Zhao) to the future King Zhuangxiang of Qin, she was allegedly Lü Buwei's concubine and had already become pregnant by him.[17] According to translations of the Annals of Lü Buwei the woman 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.[19]

The idea that the emperor was an illegitimate child was widely believed throughout Chinese history, and contributed to the generally negative view of the First Emperor.[7] However, modern analysis has revealed that the sentence in Records of the Grand Historian describing Qin Shi Huang's unusual birth is probably a later interpolation added in order to slander him.[20] 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."[21] Claiming Lü Buwei – a merchant – as the First Emperor's biological father was meant to be especially disparaging, since later Confucian society held merchants to be the lowest of all social classes.[22]

King of the Qin state

Teenage years

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.[23] 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.[7]

Chengjiao, the Lord Chang'an (长安君),[24] 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.[25]

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 Zhào Jī (趙姬). He decided to distance himself and look for a replacement for the queen dowager. He found a man named Lào Ǎi (嫪毐).[26] 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.[26] Lao Ai then became ennobled as Marquis Lào Ǎi, and was showered with riches. Lü Buwei'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.[26] In 238 BC the king was traveling 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.[26] 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 to flee from this battle.[27]

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.[26] 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.[26] 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.[7][26] Ying Zheng then assumed full power as the King of the Qin state. Replacing Lü Buwei, Li Si became the new chancellor.

Jing Ke's assassination mission

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.[28] 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.[5][28] 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 decapitated head of Fan Wuji.[28]

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.[28] 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.[28] 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.[28] The Yan state was conquered by the Qin state five years later.[28]

Gao Jianli's assassination mission

Main article: Gao Jianli

Gao Jianli was a close friend of Jing Ke, who wanted to avenge his death.[29] 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".[30] Unable to bring himself to kill such a skilled musician, the emperor ordered his eyes put out.[30] But the king allowed Gao Jianli to play in his presence.[30] 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.[30]

First unification of China

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.[31][32] 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.[33]

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.

For the first time, all of China 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.[34] 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.[32]

First emperor of the Qin dynasty

Division and politics

In an attempt to avoid a recurrence of the political chaos of early imperial China, the conquered states were not allowed to be referred to as independent nations.[35] The empire was then divided into 36 commanderies (郡, Jùn), later more than 40 commanderies.[32] The whole of China was now divided into administrative units: first commanderies, then districts (縣, Xiàn), counties (鄉, Xiāng) and hundred-family units (里, Li).[36] This system was different from the previous dynasties, which had loose alliances and federations.[37] 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).[36][38] Appointments were now based on merit instead of hereditary rights.[36]


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 to facilitate transport on the road system.[37] The emperor also developed an extensive network of roads and canals connecting the provinces to improve trade between them.[37] The currency of the different states were also standardized to the Ban liang coin (半兩, Bàn Liǎng).[36] 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.[36]


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 color red. The new Qin dynasty must be ruled by the next element on the list, which is water, represented by the color black. Black became the color for garments, flags, pennants.[39] Other associations include north as the cardinal direction, winter season and the number six.[40] Tallies and official hats were six inches long, carriages six feet wide, one pace (步, ) was 6 ft (1.8 m).[39]

Zhang Liang's assassination attempt

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).[26] 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 traveling with two identical carriages for this very reason. Thus the attempt failed.[41] Both men were able to escape in spite of a huge manhunt.[26]

North: Great wall

Main article: Great Wall of China

The Qin fought nomadic tribes to the north and northwest. 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.[32][42] 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 defenses to impassable cliffs. A great monument of China to this day, the Great Wall still stands, open to the public to challenge its million steps.[43][44]

South: Lingqu canal

Main article: 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).[45] In 214 BC the Emperor began the project of a major canal to transport supplies to the army.[46] The canal allows water transport between north and south China.[46] The canal, 34 kilometers in length, links the Xiang River which flows into the Yangtze and the Li Jiang, which flows into the Pearl River.[46] The canal connected two of China's major waterways and aided Qin's expansion into the southwest.[46] The construction is considered one of the three great feats of Ancient Chinese engineering, the others being the Great Wall and the Sichuan Dujiangyan Irrigation System.[46]

End of hundred schools of thought

While the previous Warring States era was one of constant warfare, it was also considered the golden age of free thought.[47] Qin Shi Huang eliminated the Hundred Schools of Thought which incorporated Confucianism and other philosophies.[47][48] After the unification of China, with all other schools of thought banned, legalism became the endorsed ideology of the Qin dynasty.[36] Legalism was basically a system that required the people to follow the laws or be punished accordingly.

Book burning period

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.[49] This would also serve the purpose of furthering the ongoing reformation of the writing system by removing examples of obsolete scripts.[50] 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.[49][51] The emperor's oldest son Fusu criticised him for this act.[52] 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.[53]

Death and aftermath

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.[54] He visited Zhifu Island three times in order to achieve immortality.[55]

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.[41] 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.[56] 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.[54] 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.[57] Since the great emperor was afraid of death and "evil spirits", he had workers build a series of tunnels and passage ways to each of his palaces (he owned over 200), because traveling unseen would supposedly keep him safe from the evil spirits.


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."[58] 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.[18]

The Emperor died during one of his tours of Eastern China, on September 10, 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.[28][28][59][60] Reportedly, he died due to ingesting mercury pills, made by his alchemists and court physicians.[61] Ironically, these pills were meant to make Qin Shi Huang immortal.[61]

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.[28] 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 the death of the Emperor, and return to Xianyang.[28] Most of the Imperial entourage accompanying the Emperor was left ignorant of the Emperor's death; only a younger son, Ying Huhai, who was traveling with his father, the eunuch Zhao Gao, Li Si, and five or six favorite eunuchs knew of the death.[28] 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.[28] 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.[28]

Second emperor conspiracy

Eventually, after about two months, Li Si and the imperial court reached Xianyang, where the news of the death of the emperor was announced.[28] 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.[62]

Li Si and the chief eunuch Zhao Gao conspired to kill Fusu because Fusu's favorite general was Meng Tian, whom they disliked[62] and feared; Meng Tian's brother, a senior minister, had once punished Zhao Gao.[63] They believed that if Fusu was enthroned, they would lose their power.[62] Li Si and Zhao Gao forged a letter from Qin Shi Huang saying that both Fusu and General Meng must commit suicide.[62] The plan worked, and the younger son Huhai became the Second Emperor, later known as Qin Er Shi or "Second Generation Qin."[28]

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.[32] One of the immediate revolt attempts was the 209 BC Daze Village Uprising led by Chen Sheng and Wu Guang.[58]


Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

Main article: Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

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. The British historian John Man points out that this figure is larger than any city of the world at that time and calculates that the foundations could have been built by 16,000 men in two years.[64] While Sima Qian never mentioned the terracotta army, the statues were discovered by a group of farmers digging wells on March 29, 1974.[65] 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.[66] 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.[67]

Qin Shi Huang's tomb

One of the first projects 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 with 300,000 men to begin construction.[51] Other sources suggested he ordered 720,000 unpaid laborers to build his tomb to specification.[23] Again, given John Man's observation regarding populations of the time (see paragraph above), these historical estimates are debatable. The main tomb (located at 34°22′52.75″N 109°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.[68] 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.[69] The tomb was built at the foot of Li Mountain, and is only 30 kilometers away from Xi'an. Modern archaeologists have located the tomb, and have inserted probes deep into it. The probes revealed abnormally high quantities of mercury, some 100 times the naturally occurring rate, suggesting that some parts of the legend are credible.[61] Secrets were maintained, as most of the workmen who built the tomb were killed.[61][70]

Family of Qin Shi Huang

The following are some family members of Qin Shi Huang:

Qin Shi Huang had about 50 children, sons about 30, daughters about 15, but most of their names are unknown. He had numerous concubines but never seemed to name an empress.[72]

Historiography of Qin Shi Huang

In traditional Chinese historiography, the First Emperor of the Chinese unified states was almost always portrayed as a brutal tyrant who had obsessive fear of assassination. Ideological antipathy towards the Legalist State of Qin was established as early as 266 BC, when Confucian philosopher Xun Zi disparaged it. Later Confucian historians condemned the emperor who had burned the classics and buried Confucian scholars alive. They eventually compiled a 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 (過秦論, Guò Qín Lùn) 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.[73] He attributed Qin's disintegration to its failure to display humanity and righteousness or to realise that there is a difference between the power to attack and the power to consolidate.[74]

In more modern times, historical assessment of the First Emperor different from traditional Chinese historiography began to emerge. The reassessment was spurred on by weakness of China in the latter half of 19th century and early 20th century, and Confucian traditions at that time began to be seen by some as an impediment to China's entry into the modern world, opening the way for changing perspectives.

At a time 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 (馬非百), published in 1941 a full-length revisionist biography of the First Emperor entitled Qín Shǐ Huángdì Chuán (秦始皇帝傳), calling 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 prompted another re-evaluation of the First Emperor, this time in accordance with Maoist thought. 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 standardisation 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 as a manifestation of the class struggle. The perennial debate about 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 was initiated by Hong Shidi's biography Qin Shi Huang. The work was published by the state press as a mass popular history, and it 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 against using violent methods to crush counter-revolutionaries, such as the "industrial and commercial slave owner" chancellor Lü Buwei. However, he was criticized for not being as thorough as he should have been, and as a result, after his death, hidden subversives under the leadership of the chief eunuch Zhao Gao were able to seize power and use 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."

Mao Zedong, chairman of the People's Republic of China, was reviled for his persecution of intellectuals. On 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."[75]

Cultural references


  • Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986), the Argentine writer, wrote an acclaimed essay on Qin Shi Huang, "The Wall and the Books" ("La muralla y los libros") in the 1952 collection Other Inquisitions (Otras Inquisiciones).[76]
  • The 1984 book Bridge of Birds (by Barry Hughart) portrays Qin Shi Huang as a power-hungry megalomaniac who achieved immortality by having his heart removed by an "Old Man of the mountain".
  • The Chinese Emperor, by Jean Levi, appeared in 1985.
  • In the 1985 Contact (by Carl Sagan), the character Xi Qiaomu—who had been involved in excavations of the tomb of Emperor Qin during the Cultural Revolution—is visited by a personified alien in the form of the Emperor Qin.[77]
  • In the Area 51 book series, Qin Shi Huang is revealed to be an alien exile stranded on Earth during an interstellar civil war.
  • In Terry Pratchett's Interesting Times, the wizard, Rincewind, discovers a suit of armor owned by a previous emperor which gives him control of a terracotta army. As with most of Pratchett's Discworld series, this book is a play on a real-world concept. In this case, the model is Emperor Qin Shi Huang's cultural impact on modern-day China.
  • In Hydra's Ring, the 39th novel in the Outlanders series, Qin Shi Huang is revealed to be still alive in the early 23rd century through extraterrestrial nano-technology that has bestowed a form of immortality.


  • Shin No Shikoutei (1962) - The film portrays Qin Shi Huang as a battle-hardened emperor with his roots in the military.[78]
  • The Emperor's Shadow (1996) - The film focuses on Qin Shi Huang's relationship with the musician Gao Jianli, a friend of the assassin Jing Ke.[79]
  • The Emperor and the Assassin (1999) - The film centers on the identity of Qin Shi Huang's father, his supposed heartless treatment of his officials, and a betrayal by his childhood lover, paving the way for Jing Ke's assassination attempt.[80]
  • Hero (2002) - The film starred Jet Li, a nameless assassin who plans an assassination attempt on the King of Qin (Chen Daoming). The film is a fictional re-imagining of the assassination attempt by Jing Ke on Qin Shi Huang.[81]
  • The Myth (2005) - The film starred Jackie Chan as Meng Yi, a military general serving under Qin Shi Huang. Meng is reincarnated into the present-day as an archaeologist. Kim Hee-sun co-starred as a Korean princess who was forced to marry the emperor.[82]
  • The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) - Third installment in the Mummy film series. Jet Li plays Qin Shi Huang, resurrected from the dead along with his Terracotta Army.


  • Rise of the Great Wall (1986) - a 63 episode TV series chronicling the events from the emperor's birth until his death.[83]
  • The Not-So-Great Wall Of China (1999) - one of the episodes of History Bites. Bob Bainborough played Qin Shi Huang.
  • A Step into the Past (2001) - a Hong Kong TVB production based on a science fiction novel by Huang Yi.[84]
  • Qin Shi Huang (2002) - a mainland Chinese TV series production. It features a semi-fictionalized story of the emperor's life, from his childhood until his death. Zhang Fengyi starred as Qin Shi Huang.[85]
  • First Emperor: The Man Who Made China (2006) - a drama-documentary special about Qin Shi Huang. James Pax played the emperor. It was shown on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom in 2006.[86]
  • Secrets of China's First Emperor, Tyrant and Visionary (2006) - a documentary by National Geographic. It provided an in-depth look at the magnificent and controversial ruler.[87]
  • China's First Emperor (2008) - a special three-hour documentary by The History Channel. Xu Pengkai played Qin Shi Huang.[88]
  • Kingdom (2012) - An anime featured during the Warring States Period (475-221BCE) portraying Qin Shi Huang before he became emperor Shi Huangdi, and his legacy of uniting China.


Video games

  • The 2003 video game Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb portrays Indiana Jones entering the tomb of Qin Shi Huang to recover "The Heart of the Dragon".
  • In the 2005 video game Civilization IV, Qin Shi Huang is one of the two playable leaders of China.[89]
  • In the computer game Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom, the Qin Dynasty campaign has the player as the head architect of Qin Shi Huang, in charge of overseeing the construction of the capital, the Lingqu canal, the Great Wall, as well as his tomb and the terracotta army.
  • Qin Shi Huang is also revealed to be the final boss of the video game Shin Sangoku Musou: Multi Raid 2.

See also


Further reading

External links

  • History of China
  • "What's Inside Qin Shi Huang's Tomb?"

First Emperor of Qin
Born: 259 BC Died: 210 BC
Regnal titles
Preceded by
King Zhuangxiang
King of Qin
246–221 BC
with Lü Buwei (246–235 BC)
Title next held by
Qin San Shi
New title Emperor of China
House of Zhao
221–210 BC
Succeeded by
Qin Er Shi