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Statue of emperor Qin, China (reconstitution).

The Ruthless Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang: How He Unified and Tyrannized His Subjects


Qin Shi Huang Di (秦始皇帝, translated as ‘the First Emperor of the Qin’) (often shortened as Qin Shi Huang) is arguably one of China’s best known emperors. It is undeniable that Qin Shi Huang was an extremely ruthless ruler. Nevertheless, it was this trait that enabled him to unify China, thus bringing an end to the Warring States period.

Although, Qin Shi Huang made many important contributions that benefitted his realm, and left an indelible mark on subsequent Chinese history, he is not exactly remembered as a benevolent ruler who cared for the welfare of his subjects. Instead, he is often viewed as a tyrannical and authoritarian ruler by later generations.

Quin Shi’s Life

Qin Shi Huang was born in 259 BC, and was the son of the king of the state of Qin. According to one ancient account (Sima Qian’s Shji), Qin Shi Huang was not actually the son of the Qin monarch, Zhuangxiang. The historian claimed that towards the end of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (which corresponds with the later part of the Warring States period), the Prince of Qin, Yiren (the future Zhuangxiang), befriended a wealthy merchant by the name of Lu Buwei. The merchant arranged for the prince to meet his wife, Zhao Ji, whom the former fell in love with, and took as a concubine. Unbeknownst to Yiren, Zhao Ji was already pregnant with Lu Buwei’s child.

Qin Shi Huang, Emperor of China.

                Qin Shi Huang, Emperor of China. (Public Domain)

When Zhao Ji gave birth to a son in 259 BC, the baby was thought to be the prince’s own, and given the name Ying Zheng. The prince grew up at the Qin court, and became the king of Qin at the age of 13 when his father died.

As he was a minor, the affairs of the state were managed for a number of years by a regent, Lu Buwei. The regent, however, grew increasingly anxious that Ying Zheng might find out who his real father was, and of his affair with his mother. Therefore, Lu Buwei decided to distance himself from Zhao Ji, and got another member of the court, Lao Ai, to keep her company. Lao Ai disguised himself as a palace eunuch, and was able to meet the queen in her chambers without suspicion. The pair somehow had two sons together without anyone, except Lu Buwei, knowing.

Later Life of Ying Zheng

As Ying Zheng was growing up into an adult, it occurred to Lu Buwei that he could retain power if one of these sons were placed on the Qin throne. Moreover, he would no longer need to fear being exposed as the king’s real father. Thus, in 238 BC, whilst the king was away on his travels, a coup was launched by Lao Ai, who used Zhao Ji’s signet ring to incite the army to revolt.

These rebels, however, were defeated by the king’s forces. Lao Ai and his family were put to death, Zhao Ji was placed under virtual house arrest, and Lu Buwei committed suicide by poison. By putting down this attempted coup, Ying Zheng solidified his position as the king of Qin, and was able to focus on external affairs.

Qin Shi Huang, King of Qin.

Qin Shi Huang, King of Qin. (Public Domain)

During this period, China had fragmented into seven major states – Qin, Han, Wei, Chu, Zhao, Yan, and Qi. One by one, the Chinese states fell to the Qin. Some states surrendered willingly, whilst others put up a resistance. Eventually, the unification of China was completed in 221 BC, just nine years after the first state, Han, was conquered by the Qin.

It has been suggested that one reason for the success of the Qin state over its rivals was Qin Shi Huang’s adherence to the philosophy of Legalism. For example, it has been pointed out that in ancient Chinese warfare, there were definite rules that needed to be observed. Based on the principles of Legalism, however, these rules can be ignored in order to achieve victory over the enemy.

It was also under the guidance of Legalistic principles that Qin Shi Huang’s rule as emperor was carried out. For example, he abolished the feudal system that was in practice in China, and replaced it with a centralized, autocratic government. Additionally, laws were codified, and people were punished if they did not obey them. Moreover, the script used for writing, coinage, as well as weights and measures, which had previously varied from state to state, was standardized during his reign.

Furthermore, the construction of the famous Great Wall of China also took place during this time. This wall is said to mark the empire’s northern border and protected China against the nomads of the north. Whilst such projects benefitted the people, it is the ruthlessness of their enforcement that has been better remembered, hence the largely negative evaluation of Qin Shi Huang’s reign.

The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling.

The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Qin Shi Huang is said to have desired eternal life, and obsessively sought after elixirs of immortality. One such ‘elixir’ came in the form of pills that contained mercury, which were made by the king’s alchemists. It has been claimed that it was these pills caused his death, rather than granting him immortality.

Qin Shi Huang died in 210 BC. The dynasty that he founded collapsed just four years after his death, due to a number of factors, including the incompetence of Qin Shi Huang’s successor and the displeasure of the people, which resulted in revolts. Nevertheless, the reforms which Qin Shi Huang instituted outlasted his dynasty, the influence of which can still be felt even today.

Featured image: Statue of emperor Qin, China (reconstitution). Photo source: (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By: Wu Mingren                                                            


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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