Qin Shi Huang (259 BCE – 210 BCE), personal name Zhao Zheng, was king of the Chinese State of Qin from 246 BCE to 221 BCE during the Warring States Period. He became the first emperor of a unified China in 221 BCE. He ruled until his death in 210 BCE at the age of 50.
Qin Shi Huang remains a controversial figure in Chinese history. After unifying China, he and his chief adviser Li Si passed a series of major economic and political reforms. He undertook gigantic projects, including the first version of the Great Wall of China, the now famous city-sized mausoleum guarded by a life-sized Terracotta Army, and a massive national road system, all at the expense of many lives. To ensure stability, Qin Shi Huang outlawed and burned many books. Despite the tyranny of his autocratic rule, Qin Shi Huang is regarded as a pivotal figure.
According to the Records of the Grand Historian of the time, Zhao Zheng, first emperor, was born in 259 BCE as the eldest son of King Zhuangxiang of Qin. King Zhaoxiang of Qin saw a concubine belonging to Lu Buwei, a rich merchant who had helped him become king, and she bore the first emperor. At birth, he was given the personal name Zheng. Because Zheng was born in Handan, capital of the enemy state of Zhao, he had the name Zhao Zheng. Zhao Zheng's ancestors are said to have come from Gansu province.
In 246 BCE, when King Zhuangxiang died after a short reign of just three years, he was succeeded to the throne by his 13-year-old son. At the time, Zhao Zheng was still young, so Lu Buwei acted as the regent prime minister of the Qin state, which was still waging war against the neighbouring seven states.
As King Zheng grew older, Lu Buwei became fearful that the boy king would discover his liaison with his mother Zhao Ji. He decided to distance himself and look for a replacement for the king. He found a man named Liao Ai to help in his scheme. The Record of Grand historian said 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. Lu Buwei's plot was to replace King Zheng with one of the hidden sons. But during a dinner party drunken Lao Ai was heard bragging about being the young king's step father. In 238 BCE, while the king was traveling to the ancient capital of Yong, Lao Ai seized the queen mother's Chinese seal and mobilized an army in an attempt to start a coup and rebel.
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. Lao Ai's supporters were captured and beheaded; then Lao Ai was tied up and torn to two pieces by horse carriages. His entire family was executed. The two hidden sons were also killed, while mother Zhao Ji was placed under house arrest until her death many years later. Lu Buwei drank a cup of poison wine and committed suicide in 235 BCE. Zhoa Zheng then assumed full power as the King of the Qin state.
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. 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 BCE. Jing Ke was accompanied by Qin Wuyang in the plot. Each was supposed to present two gifts to King Zheng, a map of Dukang and the decapitated head of Fan Yuqi.
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. 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. At the time other palace officials were not allowed to carry weapons. Jing Ke pursued the king, attempting to stab him but missing. King Zheng then drew out his sword and cut Jing Ke's thigh. Jing Ke then threw the dagger, but missed again. Jing Ke, suffering 8 wounds from the king's sword, realised his attempt had failed. Both he and Qin Wuyang would be killed afterwards. The Yan state was conquered by the Qin state 5 years later.
Gao Jianli was a close friend of Jing Ke, who tried to avenge his death. As a famous lute player, one day he was summoned by King Zheng to play the instrument. 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.
In 230 BCE, 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 Han (sometimes called Hann to distinguish it from the Han of Han dynasty), in 230 BCE. Then Qin took advantage of a natural disaster, the 229 BCE Zhao state earthquake, to invade and conquer Zhao where Qin Shi Huang had been born. 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 BCE, the northern country of Yan in 226 BCE, the small state of Wei in 225 BCE, and the largest state and greatest challenge, Chu, in 223 BCE.
In 222 BCE, the last remnants of Yan and its 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 300,000 men to defend his western borders. In 221 BCE, 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"
In the South, military expansion continued during his reign, with various regions being annexed to what is now Guangdong province and part of today's Vietnam.
In an attempt to avoid a recurrence of the political chaos of the Warring States Period, Qin Shi Huang and his prime minister Li Si completely abolished feudalism and independent states; the conquered states were not allowed to be referred to as independent nations. The empire was then divided into 36 commanderies, later more than 40 commanderies. The whole of China was now divided into administrative units: first commanderies, then districts, counties and hundred-family units. This system was different from the previous kingdoms, which had loose alliances and federations. People could no longer be identified by their native region or former feudal state, as when a person from Chu was called "Chu person". The administration was now based on merit instead of hereditary rights.
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. The emperor also developed an extensive network of roads and canals connecting the provinces to improve trade between them. The currency of the different states were also standardized to the Ban Liang coin. 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.
The Qin fought nomadic tribes to the north and northwest. The Xiongnu tribes 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. 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. Very little survives today of the great wall built by the first emperor as the original wall sections went to ruins centuries ago.
A famous South China quotation was "In the North there is the Great wall, in the South there is the Ling canal". In 214 BCE the Emperor began the project of a major canal to transport supplies to the army. The canal allows water transport between north and south China. The 34 km canal links the Xiang River which flows into the Yangtze and the Li Jiang, which flows into the Pearl River. The canal connected two of China's major waterways and aided Qin's expansion into the southwest. The construction is considered one of the three great feats of Chinese engineering, the others being the Great Wall and the Sichuan Dujiangyan Irrigation System.
While the previous Warring States era was one of constant warfare, it was also considered the golden age of free thought. Qin Shi Huang eliminated the Hundred Schools of Thought which incorporated Confucianism and other philosophies. After the unification of China, with all other schools of thought banned, legalism became the endorsed ideology of the Qin dynasty. Legalism was basically a system that required the people to follow the laws or be punished accordingly.
Beginning in 213 BCE, at the instigation of Li Si and to avoid scholars' comparisons of his reign with the past, Qin Shi Huang also ordered for most previously existing books to be burned, with the exception of books on astrology, agriculture, medicine, divination, and the history of the Qin state. 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. The emperor's oldest son Fusu criticized him for this act. 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 BCE.
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. He visited Zhifu Island three times in order to achieve immortality. In one case he sent Xu Fu, a Zhifu islander, with ships carrying hundreds of young men and women in search of the mystical elixir. 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. These people never returned, 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.
The emperor died during one of his tours of Eastern China in 210 BCE, at the palace in Shaqiu prefecture, about two months away by road from the capital Xianyang. Reportedly, he died from swallowing mercury pills made by his court scientists and doctors. Ironically, these pills were meant to make Qin Shi Huang immortal.
After the emperor's death Prime Minister Li Si, who accompanied him, was extremely worried that the news of his death could trigger a general uprising in the empire. 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; 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. 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. Eventually, after about two months, Li Si and the imperial court reached Xianyang, where the news of the death of the emperor was announced.