Qin Shi Huang: The First Emperor of China

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Podcast Transcript

In 259 BC, a boy named Ying Zheng was born in the state of Qin in modern-day China. 

He was born into the royal family of the kingdom and ascended to the throne at the age of 13. 

For most people, becoming king would be the pinnacle of their achievements. However, this was not to be the case with the King of Qin. He would go on to achieve a status that there wasn’t even a word for.

Learn more about Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, his life, and his legacy on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Qin Shi Huang is arguably one of the most influential people in China’s history. 

If you read any list of the most influential and significant people in Chinese history, his name will almost always be at or near the top. 

It isn’t a stretch to say that Qin Shi Huang was responsible for the creation of China and that China wouldn’t exist in the form it does today without the actions that he took 2000 years ago. 

To understand what happened, we need to understand the geopolitical situation in China at the time. 

Around the time of the birth of Qin Shi Huang in 259 BC, China was deeply embroiled in the Warring States period, which lasted from about 475 BC to 221 BC. 

This era followed the decline of the Zhou dynasty and was marked by chaos, military conflict, and the rise of seven major states that vied for dominance. The geopolitical landscape during this time was complex and characterized by shifting alliances, frequent warfare, and significant cultural and technological advancements.

China had broken up into seven major states during this period: Qin, Chu, Zhao, Wei, Han, Yan, and Qi.

Each of the seven states had their own strengths and weaknesses.

  • Qin: Located in the western part of China, Qin was initially considered barbaric by the other states. However, it had abundant natural resources, notably iron, and coal, which facilitated the development of strong military technology and infrastructure.
  • Chu: This large state in the south was known for its strong military and cultural influence but was geographically isolated by mountains and rivers, which sometimes made it vulnerable to northern incursions.
  • Zhao: Situated in the northern central part of China, Zhao was a key military power that often bore the brunt of Qin’s initial expansions.
  • Wei: Central in location, Wei was a significant commercial hub but often found itself in conflict with its neighbors over territory.
  • Han: One of the smaller states, Han was situated between several larger powers and struggled to maintain its sovereignty against more powerful rivals.
  • Yan: Located in the northeast, Yan was geographically distant from the heart of the conflict but faced threats from both Qi and the northern nomadic tribes.
  • Qi: The easternmost state, Qi, was economically prosperous and culturally advanced, with significant developments in trade and technology.

The states often engaged in complex diplomatic maneuvers, forming and breaking alliances to counter the power of their rivals. Intrigue and betrayal were common as each state sought to improve its position or survive. The constant shifting of alliances often led to wars that were as much about weakening opponents through attrition as they were about conquering territory.

The best example I can think of to help make sense of this period would be Westeros in Game of Thrones, but without any dragons to keep all the major houses in check.

The man the world knows today as Qin Shi Huang was born Ying Zheng. The whole naming of ancient Chinese nobility is shockingly complicated. The name Qin Shi Huang is really just short of Qin Shi Huang-di, which literally translates to the “first Chin emperor.”

He was born to the crown prince of Qin, who became King Zhuangxiang in 250 BC. His reign was short, having only been king for a little over three years, and when he did, his young son became King Zheng. 

As he was too young to rule in his own right, his mother’s lover and his father’s former friend, Lü Buwei, was appointed the royal regent. There have been rumors and theories that have existed for centuries that Lü Buwei was actually his father. 

After an eight-year regency, he ascended to the throne, and the regent Lü Buwei attempted a coup with a man named Lao Ai, whom Qin Shi Huang’s mother had two children with. 

Qin Shi Huang cracked down on the rebellion brutally, executing Lao Ai by tearing him apart with horses and killing all of his children and extended family.

Lü Buwei was banished but lived under the constant threat of execution and eventually killed himself.

With the death of Lü Buwei, Qin Shi Huang was now the undisputed ruler of Qin. 

Having put down a coup, now his concern was fending off assassination attempts by neighboring kingdoms. There were multiple attempts on his life, several of which where he had to beat off his attackers by hand. 

The reason for the assassination attempts was the Qin had the largest and most powerful army, and the other warring states feared them.

In the year 230 BC, at the age of 29, Qin Shi Huang began a series of conquests of neighboring states. 

That year, the Han Kingdom fell to the Qin. 

The Kingdom of Wei fell in 225, and the Kingdom of Chu was conquered in 223.

The kingdoms of Yan and Zhao were conquered in 222, and the final of the seven kingdoms, Qi, fell in 221. 

Having finally conquered all of his rival states, King Zheng renamed himself Qin Shi Huangdi.

The title hunag-di was a new title. He believed that having conquered too many kingdoms, the title of king wasn’t sufficient. The word huangdi was a combination of two words. Huang, which meant “shining” or “splendid,” and di, which was the name of the high god in the ancient Chinese religion and a reference to the mythical yellow emperor who used the title. 

The word translates into English as emperor, and it was the title used by all subsequent Chinese emperors. This is one reason why Qin Shi Huang is considered to be the first Emperor of China. 

With the conquest of the warring states, the conquest of the Qin didn’t cease. His armies continued in the south, going all the way down to what is today Vietnam.

While the armies continued south, the Emperor set about leaving his stamp on on the empire. He changed and instituted many laws. He completely eliminated all of the nobility in the country and replaced them with his own people. He built a system of roads throughout the country. He established a system of weights and measures, and he also simplified the characters in the Chinese language. 

The Qin Empire now began facing threats from the north. To counter the attack, the Emperor began the construction of a Great Wall. There had been other small, disjointed walls before. This wall was to be far greater than any ever before. 

This was the origin of the Great Wall of China, the construction of which continued for centuries.

The other great engineering project he commissioned was the great Lingqu Canal. The canal connected the Yangtze and Pearl Rivers, the two largest waterways in the empire, which allowed for the movement of soldiers and goods between the two rivers. 

Internally, he cracked down on intellectuals and dissidents. In the year 213 BC, he had every book that was not explicitly about his regime burned. 

The next year, in 212 BC, he had 460 scholars buried alive and another 700 stoned to death. 

After that, all schools of thought or philosophies, including Confucianism, were banned. The only thing allowed was the doctrine of legalism, a strict philosophy that emphasized severe punishment for lawbreaking and strong central authority, which helped maintain control over the newly unified state but also led to widespread resentment.

Despite all of the massive engineering projects, the purges of scholars, the political reforms, and the military conquests, none of these are the lasting memory most people have of the Emperor Qin. 

The thing that most people associate with him is his quest for immortality. 

Being the ruler of all he could survey probably went to his head. He felt that he could use his power and influence as emperor to avoid death itself. 

Qin Shi Huang was deeply influenced by Taoist alchemy practices, which often promised the possibility of immortality through the ingestion of certain elixirs or the performance of specific rituals. Historical records detail the emperor’s dispatching of emissaries to search for the mythical islands of the immortals, where it was believed these life-prolonging substances could be found.

His court alchemists created many elixirs and potions for him to consume to extend his life. Ironically, many of them contained mercury, a highly toxic substance that probably ended up shortening his life, not extending it.

Qin Shi Huang’s most famous attempt to secure his immortality was through the construction of his massive mausoleum complex, which is best known for the Terracotta Army that guarded it. The mausoleum itself was a monumental project:

The life-sized statues were crafted to serve as the emperor’s protectors in the afterlife, indicating his belief in a continued existence that required safeguarding. There are over 8,000 statues of warriors that were used to guard him in the afterlife. 

The amazing thing about the statues is that each statue appears to have been created based on an individual soldier. Each statue is unique, and no two are the same. 

The Terracotta Warriors were only first discovered in 1974.

However, as incredible of a discovery as the Terracotta Warriors were, the greatest discovery may yet to be found. 

The mausoleum complex, which has not yet been found, is believed to be an underground palace surrounded by a miniature cosmos, complete with rivers and seas of mercury intended to mirror the celestial bodies of the universe,

Ancient accounts suggest that the emperor’s tomb contains models of palaces, scenic towers, and the hundred rivers of China, represented by flowing mercury. This design was intended not only to serve the emperor in the afterlife but also to protect the tomb by thwarting would-be robbers with traps and a seemingly eternal celestial ocean. Modern scientific studies, including soil analysis around the tomb mound, have found unusually high concentrations of mercury, lending credibility to the historical descriptions of the tomb’s elaborate defenses and decoration.

Qin Shi Huang Is believed to have died on July 12, 210 BC, at the age of 49.

The imperial name he chose implied that he thought he would be the first of many rulers from the Qin Dynasty. However, his dynasty was to be short-lived. After the emperor’s death, the Qin dynasty quickly fell into chaos due to harsh governance, widespread discontent, and a power struggle among his successors. By 206 BC, just four years after his death, the dynasty collapsed entirely under the weight of internal rebellion and external attacks, leading to the rise of the Han dynasty.

While the Qin Dynasty barely survived Qin Shi Huang, his legacy can still be felt over two thousand years later. The unification of China was something that every successive emperor and dynasty attempted to achieve. 

The title he created, Huangdi, was used by emperors up until the early 20th century. 

Moreover, the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Warriors, two massive projects that he built, are two of the most iconic symbols of China today. 

For these reasons and many more Qin Shi Huang has gone down not only as China’s first emperor but also perhaps its greatest.