For more on the
formation of Qin, the events during the Zhou, Spring & Autumn Period
and much much more, do read the very long info below taken from an
education site. Please
be noted I did not write the info below.
The info above are a shot summary of what you can find below.
Qinshihuang is also Shih Huang Ti.
Qinshihuang - 1st Emperor of China (259 - 210 BC)
By General Zhaoyun
It has often been said that without the presence of Qinshihuang in Chinese history, there would probably be no China as of today. Without
Qinshihuang, history might develop on a different track on the land of what’s called China today, where it will be segregated into something like Europe today; a continent with several different small countries.
History likes to play a different interesting drama each time a historical figure enters into the scene. In 259 BC, the historical settings for playing the drama of unification of China had already been well established. It was only left for the appearance of a person with great capability and strength to play the leading role and complete this historical drama. Qinshihuang’s appearance from 259 BC onwards had made this possible after he determinedly undertook to play the leading role to complete this drama. And by doing so, he had not only opened up a new chapter in Chinese history, but also become one of the most influential historical giants in the next 2000 years of Chinese history. The fact that the name “China” was derived from the “Qin” or “Chin” dynasty he founded has further reinforced his historical importance in Chinese history.
Along with Confucius and Emperor Wudi (of Han dynasty), Qinshihuang is regarded as one of the historical figures with the greatest impact on China. He was the first man to unify China into the first Empire that gives the country its name. With the formation of the first Chinese empire, he had established a path towards Imperialism in China, in which the ruler of China came to be known as “Emperor” rather than “king”. He also founded a centralized bureaucracy system (government), in which he appointed officials to govern his Empire. These imperialistic systems he had founded were to last for 2000 years till the collapse of the last dynasty in 1911 AD.
In this article, I will take all of you back into the times of ancient China to get to know this important historical figure in Chinese History, who had in 221 BC become the 1st Emperor of China. Other than a biography of him, I will also attempt to make a fair critique on him as well as his impact on the next 2000 years of Chinese history.
It is hoped that at the end of this article you will be able to understand why Chinese history from 221 BC onwards had undergone a different road from that of Europe; one that was based on a cyclic path of unification/disintegration with lots of internal civil wars. You will also be able to understand why the concept of “unification” had been deeply entrenched in Chinese history and it was for this reason that had made Chinese civilization strong and lasting, so much so that it still continues up till today.
Historical Settings of China before 259 BC
The Zhou Dynasty (1066 BC – 221 BC), founded in the 11th century BC by the Zhou tribe, was the historical settings, during which Qinshihuang was born. We will therefore begin our story by first looking into the historical settings of this dynasty. Understanding this will be enable us to have an overview over the development and the historical settings that leads to the unification of China, a great feat that is to be accomplished later by the appearance of Qinshihuang in 259 BC.
Historians divide this dynasty into two main eras: Western Zhou (1066 BC – 771 BC) and Eastern Zhou (771 BC – 221 BC). The Western Zhou Dynasty was so-called because its capital, Haojing (near today’s Xi’an), was in the west, while the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, on the other hand, was founded when the capital was moved to the city of Luoyi (today’s
Luoyang) in the east.
The Western Zhou (1066 BC – 771 BC) was a strong state with a slavery system. Originally, the Zhou tribe was an ancient tribe living in the deltas of Wei and Jing rivers. It gradually grew stronger during the latter part of the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC – 1066 BC) and began to declare itself as a separate kingdom from that of the
Shang. During King Wen’s reign, the Zhou Kingdom expanded incessantly. After his death, Prince Wu (his son), seizing the opportunity when King Zhou of the Shang Dynasty ruled brutally and corruptly, conquered the Shang Dynasty by joining forces with some other tribes and founded the Zhou Dynasty.
From it’s beginning, the Zhou Dynasty began to consolidate its state power by implementing the “fenfengzhi” (feudalism). The “fenfengzhi” (feudalism) of Zhou was the practice of granting and delegating the land and slaves owned by the king to the “zhuhou” (feudal lords, princes, dukes, vassals or relatives of the king). The king, on the whole, owned the land in the whole kingdom, but the lands granted to the zhuhou were not vested with the feudal ownership of the property. Thus, the zhuhou were not allowed to buy, sell, give or receive such property. Their descendents could carry on using the land and slaves. Adopting the same method, the zhuhou could present their land and slaves to other high-ranking officials. The zhuhou’s duty was to rule the land and walled towns granted to him to assist the king’s overall effort in governing the whole Zhou kingdom. He himself commanded a small army and if the Zhou kingdom waged war with other foreign kingdoms, all the zhuhou will be summoned for battle. In times, these vassal states become more and more autonomous.
During the Western Zhou era, there remained to be a thriving period for the development of China’s slave system. But in 841 BC, a riot broke out and shook the ruling foundation of the slave system, causing it to go on the path of collapse. The control of the Zhou king over their domain began to fell apart. Towards the end of Western Zhou Dynasty in 771 BC, several vassal states rebelled and together with other non-Chinese barbarian forces routed the Zhou from their capital of Haojing and exterminated the western Zhou dynasty.
The zhuhou of Jin, Wei, Qin, Zheng and other vassal states soon enthroned Crown Prince Yijiu as the new Zhou king with the title “King Ping”. Because of the dilapidated state of the capital,
Haojing, King Ping moved the capital to Luoyi (in the east) in 770 BC. This was the beginning of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770 BC – 221 BC), a period of violent turbulence and big transformation in the history of China. During this epoch, the Eastern Zhou could no longer exercise much political or military control over the vassal states, many of which had grown larger and stronger than the
Zhou. The Zhou family drew no importance from the zhuhou. However, as the custodians of the mandate of heaven, the Zhou family continued “the practice of confirming the right of new lords to rule their lands and thus remained as titular overlords until 3rd century” (quote from Encarta). This decentralization of power and loss of control over the vassal states were the main reasons why from 770 BC onwards, China became divided into many separate states.
Historians further divided the Eastern Zhou Dynasty into two periods: the Spring/Autumn Period (770 BC – 476 BC) and the Warring States Period (476 BC – 770 BC).
The Spring/Autumn Period (770 BC – 476 BC) saw China disintegrated into more than 100 different states, each controlled by a different
zhuhou. Some of the big zhuhou were engaged in annexation war against each other ceaselessly in order to fight for land, people and the power of control (hegemony) over other vassal states. Rapid economic growth and social change took place against a background of extreme political instability and incessant warfare. During this time, China entered the Iron Age. In many states (for e.g.
Qi, Chu etc.), people started to use a large number of ironwares. The iron tipped, ox-drawn plough, together with improved irrigation techniques, helped to increase the agricultural yields and accelerate the development of agricultural and handicraft economy. It also accelerated the pace of commercial activities. Following the development of productivity, the relationship of land ownership and the forms of exploitation underwent a change. The old system of “jingtianzhi” (9 square systems of land ownership) was dissolved gradually. Burgeoning landlords and peasants emerged. The slave system was gradually replaced by the feudal system.
During the Spring/Autumn Period, an unprecedented prosperity and development in the Chinese culture and technology emerged. The invention of iron smelting technique and the improvement of astronomy and
calender, the abundance of poetry creation, the upsurge of private schools (academy), the emergence of burgeoning intellectuals such as Confucius, Lao
Tze, Sun Tze and other brilliant ancient philosophers, thinkers, educationalists, politicians and militarists symbolized the colossal achievements of the ancient Chinese civilizations.
After a long and ferocious war contending for hegemony during the Spring/Autumn Period, many small zhuhou (vassal) states were subjugated and swallowed up by bigger zhouhou states. The more than 100 states at the beginning of Spring/Autumn Period were reduced to less than 15 states towards the end of this period. By 475 BC, only 7 powerful states (
Qi, Chu, Qin, Yan, Han, Zhao, and Wei) emerged triumph among all. This began the so-called Warring States Period (475 BC – 221 BC). This was also the period when Qinshihuang was born, and which came to an end when Qinshihuang unified China in 221 BC.
During the Warring States Period, the warfare between the seven states became even more ferocious, bloodier and took place at an even greater scale than before. In what was previously a contention for hegemony during the Spring/Autumn period had by then changed to purely annexation and “swallowing up” (subjugation) of other states. During this period, the vestigial power of Zhou family grew even weaker until it collapsed in 256 BC. The zhuhou (feudal lords) of the seven states had during the Warring States Period declared themselves as kings of their own states and therefore turn their states into “kingdoms”. In a quest for survival, each feudal power underwent political reforms in order to strengthen their states.
In the ferocious war of annexation, the State of Qin, one of the 7 strong states located in the northwest, emerged as the strongest force among the 7 states, due to its most thorough and successful political reform. In the end, under Qinshihuang (king of Qin State), it subjugated the other states and unified China in 221 BC.
Development and rise of the Qin State
The Qin State probably began in 897 BC, when the house of Zhou gave some land to a chieftain to breed horses (make him a
zhouhou) in the region of today’s Shaanxi province (northwest China). In the ensuing years, not only did the ancestors of Qinshihuang expanded eastwards as well as occupy much of the land formerly owned by the
Zhous, but they also illegally raised their noble titles to the high rank of Duke. The Qin state soon became one of the 5 strongest hegemony states during the Spring/Autumn Period (770BC – 476 BC).
During the Warring State Period (475 BC – 221 BC), under the reign of Duke Xiao (361 BC – 338 BC), the Qin state embarked on a program of administrative, economic and military reform suggested by
Shangyang, a leading legalist theoretician. This “Shangyang reform” greatly strengthened the Qin state and propelled the Qin state into the most powerful state at that time. This caused the Qin state to start its ambitious plan of expanding its territory eastwards through military conquest of other states. In many wars that involved the Qin army fighting against an alliance armies of other states, the Qin army defeated them many times and thus annexed more and more lands. In 325 BC, the state changed the ruler’s title from Duke to King, and the state of Qin became a kingdom. The Qin state enjoyed a string of capable kings and under their reign, the Qin state rose in prominence and power.
Qinshihuang’s biography (257 BC onwards)
Qinshihuang’s father, Zichu, was the son of crown prince of Qin state, An
Guojun. Due to the fact that Zichu’s mother was only a concubine and was not in the favour of the crown prince, Zichu thus had no status in Qin state. He was thus dispatched to Zhao state to be held as a hostage. As a result, the Zhao state treated him coldly and he found it difficult to maintain the minimum requirements of the life style of his imperial status.
On one occasion, Zichu got to know Lu Buwei, a big trader, who was doing business in
Handan, capital of Zhao. Lu Buwei noticed that Zichu was in dire strait and decided that he could make an excellent “commodity trading” if he were to help Zichu become the grand-crown prince of
Qin-state. By heightening Zichu’s position, he hoped to be able to raise his own position. After talking to Zichu about this plan, he headed for Qin state, where he met Madam Huayang’s elder sister. Madam Huayang was the Crown Prince (An Guojun)’s favourite concubine, but so far she had not given birth to any children. Through her sister, Lu conveyed this message to her:
“Though you’re leading a comfortable life now, you’ll have no one to depend on when the crown prince passes away. I suggest you promote
Zichu. He’ll repay you for this favour in the future and he’ll be like your natural son.”
Madam Huayang felt that Lu’s allegation was reasonable. Thereupon she did her utmost to put in good word about Zichu to her husband, requesting that Zichu be made a grand-crown prince. The Crown Prince acceded to her request and made a jade seal as proof of his authorization. To celebrate this tremendous success, Lu invited Zichu to his residence for a feast. At the feast, Zichu fell for Lu’s wife, Zhao
Ji, who came out to serve wine to the guest. Reluctantly, Lu gave her wife to Zichu and in the year 259 BC, Zhao Ji gave birth to a son. He was none other than
Qinshihuang, who was named Yingzheng and born in the Zhao state. (In the Records of the Historian by Sima
Qian, it had been hypothesized that Lu was actually Qinshihuang’s father, since Zhao
Ji, Qinshihuang’s mother, was formerly wife of Lu. But here, we’ll maintain our argument that Zichu was the legitimate father of
In 257 BC, Qin state had launched an attack against Handan, capital of
Zhao. The situation was critical as Zhao wanted to kill Zichu to retaliate against the attack. In response to this, Lu bribed the Zhao officials and together with the hostage
Zichu, they flee back to Qin state. Zichu’s wife and son, on the other hand, remained in Zhao state. 6 years later, King Zhao of Qin state died. An Guojun was made King Xiaowen and
Zichu, Crown Prince. Zhao did not dare to offend Qin excessively; it had Yingzheng and his mother sent back to
Qin. One year later, King Xiaowen died of illness and Zichu finally became the King of Qin and was known as King
Zhuangxiang. To repay Lu for his assistance, the new king appointed him Prime Minister and made him a duke as well. But in 247 BC, three years after his ascension to the throne, Zichu died of sickness and the 13-year-old Yingzheng succeeded him to the throne. His mother
(Zhao Ji) became Empress Dowager. Lu was appointed Regent.
Not only was Lu in full control of Qin’s state affair, he also reconciled with the Empress Dowager. To cover up his adultery, Lu deliberately brought into the palace a bogus eunuch named Lao Ai to be her paramour. The trio formed an alliance, controlling all the state affairs of
As time passed, Yingzheng grew into manhood. He was not happy with his puppet position in which he was being checked politically. He also hated bitterly his mother’s self-indulgent, undisciplined behavior. All along he had been trying to seek an opportunity to eliminate the power and influence of dissidents. When Lao Ai found out that Yingzheng knew of his relations with the Empress Dowager, he staged a revolt at
Xianyang, capital of Qin-state. Swiftly, the king suppressed the revolt and had Lao Ai executed and his 3 immediate families exterminated. He also seized the opportunity to have his mother moved out of
Xianyang, thereby stripping her of her power.
In the process of settling the Lao Ai’s incident, the King discovered that Lu was heavily involved. He wanted to kill Lu, but on account of the meritorious services rendered by him to his late father, he only dismissed him from the post of Regent and let him move back to
Luoyang, his fief. As Lu’s influence and power in Qin was deeply rooted, more than one year after his dismissal, many officials came incessantly to the king to lobby on his behalf. Afraid that untoward incidents might happen again, Yingzheng ordered that Lu and his family be moved to far-off Shu Prefecture (Sichuan Province) in 236 BC. Upon hearing of the order, Lu feared the King might kill him. Overwhelmed with worry and indignation, he committed suicide by poisoning himself to death. Eventually, in 233 BC, the 24-year-old Yingzheng had completely eradicated the political powers of dissidents and was in actual control of the regime of the State of
The Unification of China and creation of 1st Chinese Empire: Qin Dynasty
After stability had been established internally in Qin, Yingzheng began to take actions to deal with external forces, with the intention of swallowing up the 6 neighboring states, thereby accomplishing the task of unification of China.
During this time, the 6 kingdoms had already lost the strength to resist Qin individually. The Han state, which was close to
Qin, became weaker than ever. To delay Qin’s external expansion, Han sent Zheng
Guo, irrigation works expert, to Qin, with the suggestion that Yingzheng open a canal in Guanzhong linking the Luo and Jing rivers. The purpose of this move was to divert Qin’s material resources and manpower. Yingzheng accepted Zheng Guo’s proposal as he thought that the opening of the canal would be beneficial to the irrigation of farms. He assigned Zheng Guo to take charge of the canal project.
However, halfway through the project, Zheng Guo’s identity (as a spy) was exposed. Fuming, Yingzheng wanted to kill him, but considering the fact that the canal would be advantageous to
Qin, Yingzheng let him complete the project. After the completion of the 300-li-long canal, over 4 million mu of farmlands were irrigated and their output increased considerably. This had a tremendous effect on the wealth and strength of
Qin. This provided the physical conditions for the successful unification of China by
Qin. Later, the canal was called Zheng Guo Canal.
Following this, Li Si, Premier of Qin, began to draw up strategies and plans for Qin in order to unify China. Yingzheng began to adopt two strategies:
Exterminate the Han-state first so as to deter the other states
Bribe the power-wielding officials of the other 6 states with money so as to wreck the “alliance” or “unity” among them. After that, attack them separately.
With the adoption of these strategies, Yingzheng scored one victory after another militarily.
Han state was conquered in the year 230 BC. The Wei state was conquered following that. Two years later, in 232 BC, Qin managed to capture
Handan, capital city of Zhao state. The king of Zhao surrendered and the conquest of Zhao state was completed. The Qin army continued to advance towards the Yan state, which was the next state to face the peril of extermination. Although Yan was not a strong country, nevertheless, it would not allow itself to be seized without putting up a fight. Prince Dan of Yan decided to send
Jingke, a warrior, to the Qin state to assassinate Yingzheng, in order to thwart his ambition to conquer Yan state. However, this attempt failed and following this,
Yingzheng, expedited military actions, exterminating in succession Yan and Chu states. Finally, with the extermination of Qi state in the year 221 BC, the task of unification of China was successfully completed.
Through his conquest, Yingzheng ended the constant warfare and division, which had characterized China for the previous 500 years.
“I raised my troops the punish the six evil kings, and by the grace of ancestry virtue, all six had been punished as they deserved to be. Now at last, I have brought peace to the whole land.” (Quote from Records of the Historians by Sima
An Empire was established: China, the name from his dynasty.
The First Emperor of China and the Qin Imperial System
For the first time, China was unified into a single empire. After the unification of China, Yingzheng was enormously proud of his military accomplishment. He changed the title of the ruler from “King” to “Emperor” to show his achievement excelled that of all his predecessors. Henceforth, “Emperor” became the exclusive name of the supreme rulers of the dynasties in China from 221 BC – 1911 AD. Yingzheng proclaimed himself “Qin Shihuang” (the first Emperor of China) with the illusion that his throne would be passed from one generation to another perpetually and that his Empire would last forever.
Perhaps, Qinshihuang’s greatest impact on Chinese history was that he abolished the feudal system of landholding and removed the aristocratic warlord, and replaced it with a new political and administrative order (centralized bureaucracy). At the same time, he also established and imposed a uniform and enormous detailed code of law. He founded a centralized state governed by a non-hereditary bureaucracy (government). No longer was the government in the hands of aristocrats, but it was now run by officials appointed based on their abilities and qualifications. This centralized style of bureaucracy was to last for 2000 years till the collapse of the last Imperial dynasty in 1911AD.
Qinshihuang also established a land-division system that was different from the past. He divided his Qin Empire into 36 (later 42) prefectures, connected by a road network. Each prefecture was further subdivided into counties. Representing the central government in each prefecture would be 3 officials – a Civil Governor
(shou), a Military Governor (wei) and an Imperial Overseer or Inspector (jian yu shi). This created a check-and-balance system (inspection system) such that no provincial official became too powerful. A centrally appointed magistrate also governed each county.
Although Qinshihuang was not the 1st ruler to apply this system, he was the first to apply it universally and by making refinements, ensured its success. It provided a powerful alternative to the feudal system and had been used in China ever since. The educated administrator would supplant the warrior as the dominant figure in society. This centralization of political power in the cause of unity was arguably Qinshihuang’s greatest achievement and impact on China.
The Common Written Language
Qinshihuang realized very early that to achieve real unity, physical unity (same territory) would not be enough. Cultural and language unity would be needed the make the Chinese as one.
Before the unification, the Chinese characters were very confusing. The tone and form of the same word in one state differed from that in another. After the unification of China, this created a problem for the implementation of government orders and cultural exchanges. To eliminate this problem, the first Emperor ordered Premier Li Si and Zhao
Gao, senior official in charge of transport, to sort out the written characters, basing “zhuan” as the standard script. These are the “zhuan” characters of
All the varied and confusing local scripts used throughout the empire were eliminated and replaced by these standardized written scripts, which preserved as the base for all future evolutions of the written Chinese language. This standardization was mainly done through simplifying earlier scripts and suppressing variant forms of the same one. Later, based on the scripts circulating among the people, a simpler, newer form of writing was produced. It was called “Lishu”. The first Chinese dictionary covering 3,300 characters was also composed.
Unification of Currency, Weight and Measures
Besides unifying the written language, Qinshihuang also standardized currency, weights and measures throughout his Empire.
During the Warring States Period, each kingdom minted its own currency with different shapes, sizes and weights. The currency of Qi and Yan was for instance shaped like a knife, while that of Han and Wei was made of cloth. Zhou and Qin had round coins while Chu had “ant-nose” coins. These currencies presented difficulties in calculation and were not favorable for the development of commerce. After the unification of China, Qinshihuang standardized the currency and divided it into 2 classes, gold being the superior currency with “yi” (20
taels) as the unit. The round copper coin with a square hold was classified as the inferior currency with half a tael as the unit. From then on, these round coins had been in circulation for a long period of time until recently.
Also, during the Warring States Era, the weights and measures of the various states differed from one another. For weights, Qin used “sheng”, “dou” and “qu” as the unit (with every 4 units becoming the larger unit) and “fu” with the decimal system. After the unification, the Emperor put into practice in the whole country the weights and measures system adopted by Shang Yang (Prime Minister of Qin state before unification) during his reforms. This allowed the weights and measures to be standardized across the Empire.
Cultural Standardization and Unity
The steps taken by Qinshihuang in unifying the written language, measures, weights and currency were seen by historians as an imposition of cultural unity. No Chinese dynasty can claim to have succeeded in doing so, but Qinshihuang certainly made great strides. And in no terms, it has been argued that this cultural standardization held China together for the next 2000 years.
The Great Wall of China and Defense from Barbarian Invasion
The Great Wall of China is perhaps arguably one of the greatest projects and engineering feats undertaken in the history of mankind. Although built over a long period spanning some 1600 years over different dynasties, Qinshihuang was accredited for pioneering its construction, which provided an effective defense of China from barbarian nomadic invasion of the north.
During the period when Qin was busy in the unification of China, the Xiongnu (Huns) in the north seized the opportunity to expand their power and influence southwards. After unification, Qinshihuang assigned General Meng Tian with a 300,000 strong army for the northern expedition, which recovered the Hetao region and founded Jiuyuan Prefecture away from
Thenceforth, to prevent Xiongnu’s invasion, Qinshihuang did 2 things, one of which was the construction of the 1900 km thoroughfare from
Xianyang, capital of Qin Empire, to the Jiuyuan Prefecture to provide military assistance in case of foreign invasion.
The second thing he did was the construction of the Great Wall of China. For this task, Qinshihuang assigned General Meng Tian with a 300,000 strong army and a large number of labourers for this gigantic task. The task was to consolidate earlier walls as well as extend any existing walls. It took them more than 10 years of hard labor to connect the original walls in former
Yan, Zhao and Qin states, stretching to Lintao in the west and Liaodong in the east. When completed, it measured more than 5,000 li (about 2,500 km).
The Great Wall was laid on stone foundations or solid rock, and made of hard-baked brick with clay filling between. Brick platforms were built on top, crowned by parapets. The upper surface was built to allow rainwater to drain off and there were loopholes in the parapet for archers. Every few hundred yards, a watchtower (beacon towers) rose above the Wall to provide crossfire in the event of an attack. Each was 12 m .sq and 12 m high and there were a total of 2,500 such towers.
It was an engineering feat that the Wall was built at all – a testimony of human endeavor. It covered land on marshes and quicksand (in the Ordos region), semi-deserts (in the east), mountains and in one area, raises 1,800 m above sea level. In addition, the building was constantly subjected to attacks from the nomads and the demands to build ever quicker. Countless thousands were buried in the Wall itself.
Although there has been much debate on the practical value of the Wall as a defense barrier, most scholars agree that properly manned, it was fairly effective. If it could not stop the full-scale nomadic invasions, it did effectively delay and discourage smaller-scale raids. Otherwise, Chinese settlements in the north and northwest would have been prevented and the lives of the peasants a certain misery.
The Great Wall of China defined the Chinese identity, dividing symbolically the civilized “within” from the uncivilized ”outside”. It marked the territory, which Emperors henceforth needed to firmly rule; it defined a border.
Agriculture, Canal, Roads and Expansion of Empire southwards
During his reign, Qinshihuang encouraged agriculture, as this was both a necessity and a political goal. It provided the means from which the empire could be fed. It served as the base from which much economic growth and wealth could be generated.
To stimulate agriculture, Qinshihuang ordered the constructions of 3 main canals: the Zhengguo Canal, the Dujiang Wei and the canal connecting Xiang and Li rivers to help irrigate the farmlands. He also ordered the expansion of his empire southwards by dispatching a 300,000 strong army to subdue Lingnan in South China. With the conquest of this region, he founded 3 prefectures -
Guilin, Xiang and Nanhai.
Starting in 220 BC, thousands of miles of new roads were built. The roads radiated from the capital of Qin Empire like wheel-spooks. In total, the royal roads covered about 6840 km. This exceeded the Roman road system (which was completed 350 years later) by 800 km. The roads were necessary for Imperial inspections. But more importantly, they stimulated commerce and development. And intentionally or unintentionally, they tied the empire together.
Hundreds of palaces and pavilions were built for 120,000 deposed nobles Qinshihuang had moved away from their conquered territories in order to weaken their power. Most were housed in exact replicas of their original homes. Although at a great price, by so doing, he knew it would contribute to achieving stability.
Of these buildings, the greatest was his fabled palace at Afang (meaning “beside the capital”). Construction work began in 212 BC. It measured 675 m east to west and 112 m north to south. The galleries could contain 10,000 persons and banners 15 m high could stand. More than 700,000 men worked on it and his neighboring tomb.
The Royal Tomb
Qinshihuang’s enormous tomb was situated at Mount Li. He was buried with his childless concubines and 7000 terrocotta warriors and horses (army). The total circumference of the tomb is 13 km. The earth mound covering it is 45 m high, probably half its original height after 2200 years of erosion. The actual date of constructions is uncertain. And even today, the actual contents of the tomb remain unknown. Excavation began in 1974, which uncovered the Terracotta army that shook the world. History records two previous times when the tomb was opened – in 207 BC, by rebel troops in search of weapons, and 700 years later when it was plundered
The Search for Immortality
Having amassed great fortune and power, Qinshihuang soon became obsessed with death and began a futile search for immortality. He sent out officials to discover the land of Immortality and the Elixir of Life. When this failed, he commissioned his alchemists to prepare a portion that would enable him to live forever. Alas, the elixir he ingested contained poisonous mercury, lead and arsenic. This eventually led to his death in 210 BC at the age of 49.
Book-burning, Live Burial of Scholars and Persecution of Confucianism
Just as peace was finally settling in, the state was once again thrown into disarray when the scholars were accused of inciting people to rebel against the system. The scholars were also condemned for disputing the laws of Qinshihuang and for criticizing his ways, thereby forming factions among the people.
To end this, Premier Li Si suggested that all official documents of the contending states except the annals of Qin should be burnt. Qinshihuang approved this and had those found possessing the Confucian Book of Odes and the Book of History be executed. Those who dared to discuss their works in public were to be cruelly executed. Anyone who opposed the edict would have his face tattooed and be sent to force labor on the Great Wall, a penalty that was a sure death sentence.
Qinshihuang effected the decree and under such scheme of persecution against Confucianism, almost all the literary works of the day were cremated in a fiery cleansing that was designed to preserve the empire, but instead eventually helped to destroy it.
One of Qinshihuang’s merciless acts, brought upon by his obsession with immortality, was the live burial of about 460 great scholars. Convinced that the scholars were determined to see him fail in his quest for eternal life, Qinshihuang ordered all the scholars together and personally sealed the horrible fate of 460 amongst them. This cruel execution, coming within a year of the burning of the great literary works in China, shocked and enraged many of the Emperor’s subjects. It also divided the Emperor’s family. Qinshihuang’s eldest son, Fu Su, who opposed the degree meted out to the scholars was banished to the Great Wall together with the last group of terrified scholars.
Qinshihuang’s Devotion to Administration and his Tyranny
Qinshihuang devoted a lot of his time attending to state affairs. With full powers in his hands, he would handle over 60 kg of “imperial documents” everyday, and would not rest until he had finalized his work.
To show his prestige and to strengthen his control over the empire, he made several inspection tours. On every trip, a grand guard of honor and a long convoy of carriages would accompany the Emperor. . Wherever he went, the Emperor would have an inscription carved onto a stone to show his merits in the unification of China. The carving at Mount Yi – his first – was done in the year 219 BC on his eastern trips. The carving at
Huixi- his last- was done in 210 BC during his southern tours.
At the same time, to prevent the common folks from staging a revolt, the Emperor ordered that their weapons be confiscated and transported to
Xianyang, capital of Qin Empire, where they were destroyed and cast into 12 colossal copper statues, each weighing 120,000 kg. These were placed in the palace as a symbolic deterrent force and power.
Although Qinshihuang had take great efforts in attending to state affairs, he was however extremely tyrannical. Most historians described him as an extremely despotic and merciless tyrant. Once, a huge aerolite fell into Eastern Prefecture. To vent his grudge, someone wrote on it “ After the Emperor’s death, our land will be split.” The Emperor knew someone was cursing him. He flew into a rage and assigned an officer to carry out investigations in the locality. But the official could not find the person who carved the inscriptions on the stone after lengthy investigations. In a rage, Qinshihuang ordered that the stone be destroyed and all the people in the vicinity be killed.
To seek the magical herbs of immortality, Qinshihuang heeded the necromancers’ instructions and kept his movements a top secret. He had his palaces joined up by secret passages and corridors so that no outsiders knew of his whereabouts. Once, when the Emperor was in Mount Liang Palace, he looked outside from the secret passage in the palace and saw Premier Li Si going out with a grand entourage. Although he uttered nothing, his facial expression showed that he was displeased. Later, the Emperor’s attendant who was friendly with Li told him
(li) about the monarch’s feelings. Before long, the Emperor discovered that Li’s entourage had been greatly reduced in size. From this, he came to know that someone had disclosed his mood and movements.
Immediately, the Emperor questioned his attendants, trying to find out who disclosed the secret, but no one admitted the crime and no one exposed the others. Unable to find the culprit, Qinshihuang had all the attendants who were with him in Mount Liang Palace killed.
Forced labor and Punishments
Qinshihuang had a penchant for being great and for scoring merits. He abused the physical strength of the ordinary people. Although it was necessary to build the thoroughfare, the Great Wall, the canal to consolidate the unification of China, the burden on the corvees (forced labor) was very heavy.
At that time, there was a folk song, which vividly reflected the people’s indignation. This was the lyric of the song:
“When a son is born, don’t let him cry. When a daughter is born, feed her with mother’s milk. Can you see the heap of bones at the bottom of the Great Wall?”
Most of the gigantic construction projects carried out by Qinshihuang were carried out at the expense of huge and harsh forced labor, many of which were for his own personal enjoyments (e.g. palaces, tombs etc). In major large-scale constructions, about 2 million men served as forced labor. When the male force was insufficient, women were forced to do transportation work. Many people who could not stand the hardship and sufferings hanged themselves on trees by the roads in the course of their service, presenting a tragic sight.
In addition to corvees, the common folks of Qin Dynasty were subjected to severe punishment. The Qin laws protected the lands and property of landlords. Sentence would be passed on those who violated the law. A person who moved the boundary line of his farmlands would be sentenced to serve a long jail term. Anyone who plucked someone else mulberry tree, even if they cost nothing, would have to serve 30 days of
corvee. Collective action by over 5 persons carried a heavier penalty – amputation of legs or tattooing on faces and doing hard labor.
Capital punishments were of many types – decapitation, castration, and extermination of the criminals’ close relatives. According to “Shi Ji” (Records of Historians by Sima
Qian), those in military service who could not reach the destination in time would be beheaded.
China underwent drastic changes and radical reforms during the rule of
Qinshihuang. Although he was a powerful figure, Qinshihuang was not popular with his people. They were antagonized and incensed over the way their country and lives were run. The people were revolting against the tyrant ruler in their hearts and mind; but there was little they could do about it. However, when Qinshihuang met his early death in 210 BC, his dynasty was marked for doom.
After Qinshihuang’s death, his son, Hu Hai, ascended to the throne as the second emperor. Hu Hai’s tyranny was even more severe than his father’s. His ruthless exploitation of the Qin Dynasty seriously disrupted production and economy. Unable to carry on living, the masses were filled with animosity against the Qin regime. A large-scale peasant’s uprising finally broke out in 206 BC, which toppled the Qin dynasty. The dynasty founded by the first Emperor of China certainly had a huge impact on Chinese history, but ironically, it was also the shortest dynasty in the history of China, lasting only 15 years. In this respect, history seems to mock on the inevitable downfall of a dynasty that was ruled tyrannically.
Qinshihuang, the Son of Heaven, the Dragon Emperor, the Tiger king, was a ruler more capable than any history had seen before. He was a man of great military strategy. He was a decisive politician. He was a powerful tyrant who commanded fear and yet much respect. He was a pragmatist and an achiever. He was the first man to unify and create China. He was no doubt one of the most influential historical figures in Chinese history. History and people will remember him; his accomplishments will always show that, above all, he was a man of great vision, a man who built a great nation. He is the 1st Emperor of China.