|Qin Shi Huang |
|Ancestral name (姓): ||Ying (嬴) |
|Clan name (氏): ||Zhao¹ (趙), or Qin² (秦) |
|Given name (名): ||Zheng (政) |
|King of the State of Qin |
|Dates of reign: ||July 247 BC–221 BC |
|Official title: ||King of Qin (秦王) |
|Emperor of Qin Dynasty |
|Dates of reign: ||221 BC–Sept. 10, 210 BC |
|Official name: ||First Emperor (始皇帝) |
|Temple name: ||None³. |
|Posthumous name: ||None4 |
|General note: Dates given here are in the |
proleptic Julian calendar.
They are not in the proleptic Gregorian calendar.
|1. This clan name appears in the Records of the Grand Historian |
written by Sima Qian. Apparently, the First Emperor being born
in the State of Zhao where his father was an hostage, he later
adopted Zhao as his clan name (in ancient China clan names
often changed from generation to generation), but this is
not totally sure.
|2. Based on ancient China naming patterns, we can infer that |
Qin was the clan name of the royal house of the State of Qin,
derived from the name of the state. Other branches of the Ying
ancestral family, enfeoffed in other states, had other clan
names. Qin was thus possibly also the clan name of
the First Emperor.
|3. The royal house of Qin did not carry the practice of temple |
names, which were not used anymore since the establishment
of the Zhou Dynasty, so the First Emperor does not have a
temple name per se. However, his official name "First Emperor"
can somehow be assimilated to a temple name, being the
name under which the emperor would have been honored
in the temple of the ancestors of the dynasty.
|4. Posthumous names were abolished in 221 BC by the First |
Emperor who deemed them inappropriate and contrary
to filial piety.
Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) (November or December 260 BC - September 10, 210 BC), personal name Zheng, was king of the Chinese State of Qin from 247 BC to 221 BC, and then the first emperor of a unified China from 221 BC to 210 BC, ruling under the name First Emperor.
Having unified China, he and his prime minister Li Si passed a series of major reforms aimed at cementing the unification, and they undertook some Herculean construction projects, most notably the precursor version of the current Great Wall of China. For all the tyranny of his autocratic rule, Qin Shi Huang is still regarded today as some sort of a colossal founding father in Chinese history whose unification of China has endured for more than two millennia (with interruptions).
Qin Shi Huang was born in the Chinese month zheng (正), the first month of the year in the Chinese calendar (in the 3rd century BC the Chinese year started before the Winter solstice, and not after as it does today), and so he received the name Zheng (政), both characters being used interchangeably in ancient China. In ancient China, people never joined family name and given name together as is customary today, so it is anachronistic to refer to Qin Shi Huang as "Ying Zheng". The given name was never used except by close relatives, therefore it is also incorrect to refer to the young Qin Shi Huang as "Prince Zheng", or as "King Zheng of Qin". As a king, he was referred to as "King of Qin" only. Had he received a posthumous name after his death like his father, he would have been known by historians as "King NN. (posthumous name) of Qin", but this never happened.
After conquering the last independent Chinese state in 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang was now the king of a state of Qin ruling over the whole of China, which was unprecedented. Wishing to show that he was no more a simple king like the kings of old during the Warring States Period, he created a new title, huangdi (皇帝), combining the word huang (皇) which was used to call the legendary Three Huang (Three August Ones) who ruled at the dawn of Chinese history, and the word di (帝) which was used to call the legendary Five Di (Five Sovereigns) who ruled immediately after the Three Huang. These Three Huang and Five Di were considered perfect rulers, of immense powers, and very long lives. The word huang also meant "big", "great". The word di also referred to the Supreme God in Heaven, creator of the world. Thus, by joining these two words, which no one had ever done before, Qin Shi Huang created a title on par with his feat of uniting the seemingly endless Chinese realm, in fact uniting the world (ancient Chinese, like ancient Romans, believed their empire encompassed the whole world, a concept referred to as all under heaven).
This word huangdi was rendered in most Western languages as "emperor", a word with also a long history going back to ancient Rome, and which Europeans deemed superior to the word "king". Qin Shi Huang adopted the name First Emperor (Shi Huangdi, literally "commencing emperor"). He abolished posthumous names, by which former kings were known after their death, judging them inappropriate and contrary to filial piety, and decided that future generations would refer to him as the First Emperor (Shi Huangdi), his successor would be referred to as the Second Emperor (Er Shi Huangdi, literally "second generation emperor"), the successor of his successor as the Third Emperor (San Shi Huangdi, literally "third generation emperor"), and so on, for ten thousand generations, as the imperial house was supposed to rule China for ten thousand generations ("ten thousand" is equivalent to "forever" in Chinese, and it also means "good fortune").
Qin Shi Huang had now become the First Emperor of the State of Qin. The official name of the newly united China was still "State of Qin", Qin having absorbed all the other states. The name China (中華 or 中國) was never used officially for the country China until 1912 when the Republic of China (中華民國) was founded. Contemporaries called the emperor "First Emperor", dropping the "of the State of Qin", which was obvious without saying. However, soon after the emperor's death, his regime collapsed, and China was beset by a civil war. Eventually, in 202 BC the Han Dynasty managed to reunify the whole of China, which now became officially known as the State of Han (漢國), which can also be translated as the Empire of Han. Qin Shi Huang could no longer be called "First Emperor", as this would imply that he was the "First Emperor of the Empire of Han". The habit started to have his name preceded by Qin (秦), which does not refer to the State of Qin anymore, but to the Qin Dynasty, a dynasty now replaced by the Han Dynasty. The word huangdi (emperor) in his name was also shortened to huang, so that he became known as Qin Shi Huang. It seems likely that huangdi was shortened to obtain a three-character name, which matches the three-character name of Chinese people (Chinese people have extremely rarely a name made of four or more characters).
This name Qin Shi Huang (i.e. "First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty") is the name that appears in the Records of the Grand Historian written by Sima Qian, and is the name most favored today inside China when referring to the First Emperor. Westerners sometimes write "Qin Shi Huangdi", which is improper given Chinese naming conventions; it is more conventional to write "Qin Shi Huang" or "First Emperor".
Youth and King of Qin: the conqueror
At the time of the young Zheng's birth, China was divided into warring feudal states. This period of Chinese history is referred to as the Warring States Period. The competition was extremely fierce and by 260 BC there were only a handful of states left (the others having been conquered and annexed), but Zheng's state, Qin, was the most powerful. It was governed by Legalist philosophy and focused earnestly on military matters.
Zheng was born in Handan (邯鄲), the capital of the enemy State of Zhao. He was the son of Zichu, a prince of the royal house of Qin who served as an hostage in the State of Zhao under an agreement between the states of Qin and Zhao. Zichu later returned to Qin after much adventures and with the help of a rich merchant called Lü Buwei, and he managed to ascend the throne of Qin, Lü Buwei becoming chancellor (prime minister) of Qin. Zichu is known posthumously as King Zhuangxiang of Qin. According to a widespread story, Zheng was not the actual son of Zichu, but the son of the powerful chancellor Lü Buwei. This tale arose because Zheng's mother had originally been a concubine of Lü Buwei before he gave her to his good friend Zichu shortly before Zheng's birth. However, the story is dubious since the Confucians would have found it much easier to denounce a ruler whose birth was illegitimate.
Zheng ascended the throne in 247 BC at the age of 12 and a half, and was king under a regent until 238 BC when at the age of 21 and a half he staged a palace coup and assumed full power. He continued the tradition of tenaciously attacking and defeating the feudal states (dodging a celebrated assassination attempt by Jing Ke while doing so) and finally took control of the whole of China in 221 BC by defeating the last independent Chinese state, the State of Qi.
Then in that same year, at the age of 38, the king of Qin proclaimed himself First Emperor (see chapter above).
First Emperor: the unifier
To avoid the anarchy of the Warring States Period, Qin Shi Huang and his prime minister Li Si completely abolished feudalism. They instead divided the empire into thirty-six provinces run each by three governors: one civilian, one military, and a moderator between them. Each was appointed by the emperor and could be dismissed by him. The civilian governor was also reassigned to a different province every few years to prevent him from building up a base of power.
Qin Shi Huang ordered all the members of the former royal houses of the conquered states to move to Xianyang (咸陽), the capital of Qin, in modern day Shaanxi province, so they would be kept under tight surveillance for rebellious activities.
The emperor also developed an extensive network of roads and canals connecting the provinces to accelerate trade between them and to accelerate military marches to revolting provinces.
Qin Shi Huang and Li Si unified China economically by standardizing weights and measures, the currency, the length of the axles of carts (so every cart could run smoothly in the ruts of the new roads), the legal system, and so on.
Perhaps most importantly, the Chinese script was unified. A new script was developed by Li Si, called the small seal script, based on the script in use in the State of Qin, and this new script was made mandatory, thus doing away with all the regional scripts and local Chinese characters that existed in the various Chinese states. Edicts written in the new script were carved on the walls of sacred mountains around China, such as the famous carved edicts of Mount Taishan, to let Heaven know of the unification of Earth under an emperor, and also to propagate the new script among people.
Qin Shi Huang continued military expansion during his reign, annexing regions to the south (what is now Guangdong province was penetrated by Chinese armies for the first time) and fighting nomadic tribes to the north and northwest. These tribes (the Xiongnu) were subdued, but the campaign was essentially inconclusive, and to prevent the Xiongnu from encroaching on the northern frontier any longer, the emperor ordered the construction of an immense defensive wall, linking several walls already existing since the time of the Warring States. This wall, for whose construction hundreds of thousands of men were mobilized, and an unknown number died, is the precursor version of the current Great Wall of China. It was built much more north than the current Great Wall of China which was built only during the Ming Dynasty, when China had at least twice more inhabitants than in the days of the First Emperor, and when more than a century was devoted to building the wall (as opposed to a mere 10 years during the rule of the First Emperor). Very little survives today of the great wall built by the First Emperor.
Death and aftermath
The emperor died while on a tour to Eastern China, searching for the legendary islands of the immortals (off the coast of Eastern China) and for the secret of eternal life. Reportedly he died of drinking a potion containing too much mercury.
His death occurred in the beginning of September 210 BC at the palace in Shaqiu prefecture, about two months away by road from the capital Xianyang. Prime minister Li Si, who accompanied him, was extremely worried that the news of his death could trigger a general uprising in the empire, given the brutal policies of the government, and the resentment of the population forced to work on Herculean projects such as the great wall in the north of China or the mausoleum of the emperor. It would take two months for the government to reach the capital, and it would not be possible to stop the uprising. Li Si decided to hide the death of the emperor, and return to Xianyang.
Most of the imperial entourage accompanying the emperor was left uninformed of the emperor's death, and each day Li Si entered the wagon where the emperor was supposed to be traveling, pretending to discuss affairs of state. The secretive nature of the emperor while alive allowed this stratagem to work, and it did not raise doubts among courtiers. Li Si also ordered that two carts containing fish be carried immediately before and after the wagon of the emperor. The idea behind this was to prevent people from noticing the foul smell emanating from the wagon of the emperor, where his body was starting to decompose severely. Eventually, after about two months, Li Si and the imperial court were back in Xianyang, where the news of the death of the emperor was announced.
Qin Shi Huang did not like to talk about death and he never really wrote a will. After his death, Li Si and the chief eunuch Zhao Gao persuaded his second son Huhai to forge the Emperor's will. They forced his first son Fusu to commit suicide, stripped the command of troops from Meng Tian — a loyal supporter of Fusu — and killed Meng's family too. Huhai became the Second Emperor (Er Shi Huangdi), known by historians as Qin Er Shi.
Qin Shi Huang was buried in his mausoleum, with the famous Terracotta Army, near modern day Xi'an (Shaanxi province), but his burial chamber has yet to be opened.
Qin Er Shi was not nearly as capable as his father was. Revolts quickly erupted, and within four years of Qin Shi Huang's death, his son was dead, the imperial palace and state archives were burned, and the Qin Dynasty came to an end.
The next Chinese dynasty, the Han Dynasty, rejected Legalism (in favor of Confucianism) and moderated the laws, but kept Qin Shi Huang's basic political and economic reforms intact. In this way his work was carried on through the centuries and became a lasting feature of Chinese society.
Qin Shi Huang in historiography
In traditional Chinese historiography, the First Emperor was almost always portrayed as a brutal tyrant, superstitious (a result of his interest in immortality and assassination paranoia) and sometimes even as a mediocre ruler. Ideological prejudices against the Legalist State of Qin were established as early as 266 BC, when Confucian philosopher Xun Zi compared it to barbarian tribes and wrote "Qin has the heart of a tiger or a wolf … [and is] avaricious, perverse, eager for profit, and without sincerity"
Later, Confucian historians condemned the emperor who had burned the classics and buried Confucian scholars alive. They eventually compiled the list of the "Ten Crimes of Qin" to highlight his tyrannical actions. The famous Han poet and statesman Jia Yi concluded his essay The Faults of Qin with what was to become the standard Confucian judgment of the reasons for Qin's collapse. Jia Yi's essay, admired as a masterpiece of rhetoric and reasoning, was copied into two great Han histories and has had a far-reaching influence on Chinese political thought as a classic illustration of Confucian theory. He explained the ultimate weakness of Qin as a result of its ruler's ruthless pursuit of power, the precise factor which had made it so powerful; for as Confucius had taught, the strength of a government ultimately is based on the support of the people and virtuous conduct of the ruler.
Because of this systematic Confucian bias on the part of Han scholars, many of the stories recorded about Qin Shi Huang are of doubtful historical value and many were probably invented to emphasize his negative traits.
For instance, the accusation that he had 460 scholars executed by having them buried with only their heads above ground, and then decapitated is at the very least unlikely to be completely true and it is probable that the incident was fabricated to create a legend of Confucian martyrdom. There are also many varying tales of Heaven's anger against the First Emperor, such as the story of a stone fallen from the sky engraved with words denouncing the emperor and prophesying the collapse of his empire after his death. Almost all of these have been discredited by modern sinologists as hearsay and legend. Most were designed to tarnish the First Emperor's image.
Only in modern times were historians able to penetrate beyond the limitations of traditional Chinese historiography. The political rejection of the Confucian tradition as an impediment to China's entry into the modern world opened the way for changing perspectives to emerge. In the three decades between the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the outbreak of the Second World War, with the deepening dissatisfaction with China's weakness and disunity, there emerged a new appreciation of the man who had unified China. In the time when he was writing, when Chinese territory was encroached upon by foreign nations, leading Kuomintang historian Xiao Yishan emphasized the role of the 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 Qin Shi Huangdi Zhuan (《秦始皇帝傳》). He called Qin Shi Huang one of the great heroes of Chinese history. Ma compared him with the contemporary leader Chiang Kai-shek and saw many parallels in the careers and policies of the two men, both of whom he admired. Chiang's Northern Expedition of the late 1920s, which directly preceded the new Nationalist government at Nanjing was compared to the unification brought about by Qin Shi Huang.
With the coming of the Communist Revolution in 1949, new interpretations again surfaced. The establishment of the new, revolutionary regime meant another re-evaluation of the First Emperor, this time following Marxist theory. The new interpretation given of Qin Shi Huang was generally a combination of traditional and modern views, but essentially critical. This is exemplified in the Complete History of China, which was compiled in September, 1955, as an official survey of Chinese history. The work described the First Emperor's major steps toward unification and standardization as corresponding to the interests of the ruling group and the merchant class, not the nation or the people, and the subsequent fall of his dynasty a manifestation of the class struggle. The perennial debate of the fall of the Qin Dynasty was also explained in Marxist terms, the peasant rebellions being a revolt against oppression - a revolt which undermined the dynasty, but which was bound to fail because of a compromise with "landlord class elements" .
Since 1972, however, a radically different official view of Qin Shi Huang has been given prominence throughout China. The reevaluation movement was launched by Hong Shidi's biography Qin Shi Huang. The work was published by the state press to be a mass popular history, and sold 1.85 million copies within two years. In the new era Qin Shi Huang was seen as a farsighted ruler who destroyed the forces of division and established the first unified, centralized state in Chinese history by rejecting the past. Personal attributes, such as his quest for immortality, so emphasized in traditional historiography, were scarcely mentioned. The new evaluations described how, in his time (an era of great political and social change), he had no compunctions in using violent methods to crush counter-revolutionaries, such as the "industrial and commercial slave owner" chancellor Lü Buwei. Unfortunately, he was not as thorough as he should have been and after his death, hidden subversives, under the leadership of the chief eunuch Zhao Gao, seized power and used it to restore the old feudal order.
To round out this reevaluation, a new interpretation of the precipitous collapse of the Qin Dynasty was put forward in an article entitled "On the Class Struggle During the Period Between Qin and Han" by Luo Siding, in a 1974 issue of Red Flag, to replace the old explanation. The new theory claimed that the cause of the fall of Qin lay in the lack of thoroughness of Qin Shi Huang's "dictatorship over the reactionaries, even to the extent of permitting them to worm their way into organs of political authority and usurp important posts."
Qin Shi Huang in fiction
To be sure, Qin Shi Huang could always be seen as relevant in fiction and folklore. During the Korean War, the play Song of the Yi River was produced. The play was based on an actual historical event, the attempted assassination of Ying Zheng by Jing Ke of Wei, at the request of the Prince of Yan, in 227 BC. In the play Ying Zheng was portrayed as a cruel tyrant and an aggressor and invader of other states. Jing Ke, in contrast, was a chivalrous warrior and one of his lines was "tens of thousands of injured people are all my comrades." A huge newspaper ad for this play proclaimed: "Invasion will definitely end in defeat; peace must be won at a price." The underdog fighting against the aggression of a cruel and powerful foreign invader and being supported by a sympathetic volunteer from another country was obviously a theme with considerable contemporary relevance.
The 1984 book Bridge of Birds (by Barry Hughart) portrays him as a power-hungry megalomaniac who achieved immortality by having his heart removed by an Old Man of the mountain.
The 1996 movie The Emperor's Shadow uses the various legends about him to make a political statement on Chinese Communism, and focuses on his relationship with the rebellious musician, Gao Jianli.
The 1999 movie The Emperor and the Assassin focused on the identity of his father, his heartless treatment of his officials, and betrayal by a concubine, paving the way for Jing Ke's assassination attempt.
The 2002 movie Hero tells the story of assassination attempts of Qin Shi Huang by legendary warriors.
Bob Bainborough portrayed Qin Shi Huang in an episode of History Bites.
In the Area 51 book series, Qin Shi Huang is revealed to be an alien exile stranded on Earth during an interstellar civil war. The Great Wall is actually the symbol for 'help' in his language, and the true reason for its construction was in hope that a passing alien ship would find it and rescue him.
He was interested in immortality and visited Zhifu Island. These deeds became a popular story of the emperor sending a Zhifu islander as the religious leader of ships with hundreds of young men and women in search of the pill of immortality. These people never returned, and the myth claims that they settled down in one of the Japanese islands.
The emperor often took tours to major cities in his empire to inspect the efficiency of the bureaucracy and to symbolize the presence of Qin's prestige. (It was on one of these tours that he died.) Nevertheless, these trips provided opportunities for assassins, the most famous of whom was Zhang Liang.
Late in life, after his assassination had been attempted too often for comfort, he grew paranoid of remaining in one place too long and would hire servants to bear him to different buildings in his palace complex to sleep in each night. He also hired several "doubles" to make it less clear which figure was the emperor.