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Emperor Qin Shihuang 秦始皇 Ying Zheng 嬴政, the First Emperor of Qin

Mar 8, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Qin Shihuang 秦始皇 or Qin Shihuangdi 秦始皇帝 (r. 246-210 BCE), personal name Ying Zheng 嬴政, was the unifier of the ancient Chinese states and founder of the first empire in China, the short-lived empire of Qin (221-206 BCE). Ying Zheng succeeded to the throne as son of King Zhuangxiang 秦莊襄王 (r. 249-247) of the state of Qin 秦 at the age of thirteen.

The state of Qin had become the militarily strongest of the ancient state of the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE). Ruthless generals, strong armies, and a well-functioning bureaucracy made the state of Qin to a war machine to which the armies of the other states were no match.

When Ying Zheng became king of Qin the state was governed by Counsellor-in-chief Lü Buwei 呂不韋 and by the eunuch overseer Lao Ai 嫪毐. When King Ying became of full age, he had Lao Ai executed with the charge of rebellion and had exiled Lü Buwei to Shu 蜀 (modern province of Sichuan). Lao Ai is said to have had an affair with the Queen Mother, and Lü Buwei is said to have been the real father of Ying Zheng, but this might have been a slandering by later historiographers.

King Ying appointed Wei Liao 尉繚 and Li Si 李斯 as the new counsellors. Under their reign, the armies of Qin swallowed the six states of Han 韓, Wei 魏, Chu 楚, Yan 燕, Zhao 趙 and Qi 齊.

In 221 BCE Qin was the sole surviving of the ancient states, and King Ying adopted the title of "August Ancestor" (huangdi 皇帝), or Emperor. Marxist and nationalist historians praise him for the acheivement of unifying "China", a multi-ethnic state with an undisputed central government. His imperial dynasty, the Qin, was to be ruled by endless generations of emperors with the title of Ershi huangdi 二世皇帝 "Emperor of the Second Generation", Sanshi huangdi 三世皇帝 "Emperor of the Third Generation", and so on. His own title was that of Shi huangdi 始皇帝 "First Emperor".

The empire was to be governed in a new, centralized style. The first measure was to give up the system of quasi-autonomous regional states and to replace the ancient nobility by a bureaucratic administration in commanderies (jun 郡) administered by governors(taishou or shou 守). The law code of the state of Qin was used as the imperial code, with a few additions from the codes of the ancient regional states. The rigid application of this law code was the most important task of censors (jianchashi 監察使) that regularly visited the local offices. The former aristocracy of the regional states was moved to the region around the capital Xianyang 咸陽, known as the region of Guanzhong 關中. More than 100,000 households were resettled to populate the capital region and to contribute to the economical needs of the city of Xianyang and the central government. It was prohibited for these households to possess weapons. All swords and daggers were collected and recast to 12 large bronze giants.

Agriculture was seen as the economic basis for the empire. Peasants (called qianshou 黔首 "blackheads") tilled the soil, paid tax grain, delivered corvée labour and also staffed the armies of the Qin. For this reason it was necessary to establish household and tax registers. It was also necessary to unify weights and measures for these purposes. A lot of bronze weights from the Qin period have been discovered by archaeologists. The old coins of the regional states were also abolished. Another measure was the establishment of a system of military roads to all important corners of the empire. The width of these roads was standardized.

In the south, a canal system between the River Xiang 湘江 and the River Li 灕江 was built. The script was also standardized by adopting the so-called small seal script (xiaozhuan 小篆) as the standard, while local variants, like the script of Chu, were prohibited. A lot of regulations for official affairs were regulated according the theory of the Five Agents. The colour of the Qin dynasty was black, for which reason all official robes and banners were black. The corresponding number was six, for which reason all implements were produced in six specimen, and many administrative matters were divided into six parts. Water corresponds to the force Yin, which rules the penal law. This is the philosophical reason why the Qin dynasty made extensive use of a harsh and oppressive criminal law and resorted to cruel punishment. This tendency was aggravated by the belief of the legalist politicians that the ruler was constantly endangered by intrigues and corruption by the higher and lower officials.

In 213 Li Si suggested burning all books that were irrelevant for a mechanist and objective administration of the state. Ancient writings that were highly venerated by the Confucians were burnt, along with a lot of other books. Only books on medicine, pharmaceuticals, prognostication and agriculture were not destroyed. Confucians later reported that Li Si had buried alive more than 400 scholars (keng ru 坑儒 "burying alive the scholars"; the interpretation of ru as Confucians is less than secured). The tendency towards what we today call superstition was very prevalent during that period of time. The First Emperor himself believed that there was a herb of immortality and several times dispatched envoys (the most famous of which is Xu Fu 徐巿, also written 徐福, sometimes erroneously written Xu Shi 徐市) in search for such a herb, as well as in search for the island of immortality in the eastern sea. Chinese nationalists claim that they reached the Ryūkyū islands, which are therefore part of China.

General Meng Tian 蒙恬 repelled the invading tribes of the Xiongnu 匈奴 and started erecting the Great Wall 長城 to protect the northern border of the empire. This undertaking swallowed an immense amount of labour force, and thousands of recruited peasants are said to have died at the foot of the Great Wall. In the south, the tribes of the "hundred Yue" 百越 were controlled by establishing three new commanderies (Guilin 桂林, Xiangjun 象郡 and Nanhai 南海). The empire was now administered by 46 commanderies.

The fear of officals to remonstrate against less positive aspects of the First Emperor's politics led to an overextension of the economical resources of the Qin empire. The First Emperor did not only exhaust his own forces by working day and night but also did not allow the population to rest. He had copied the palaces of the six ancient regional states in his capital, had erected his own splendid Epang Palace 阿房宮 and began to build his own tomb at Mt. Lishan 驪山. He undertook five long inspection tours, especially towards the eastern parts of the empire. On a lot of mountains he had incised inscriptions praising the glory of the empire of Qin.

The oppressive politics of the Qin dynasty soon found resistance not only among the peasants that suffered under the duty to deliver corvée labour but also among the nobility and the upper class of the former regional states. During an inspection tour to Bolangsha 博浪沙 (near modern Zhongmou 中牟, province of Henan) somebody tried to assassinate the emperor, and there was an inscription made stating that after the First Emperor's death the empire would disintegrate.

During an inspection tour the First Emperor fell ill seriously. He prepared everything needed for the succession to the thone of his oldest son Prince Fusu 扶蘇. Yet the letter to Fusu was not forwarded by the eunuch Zhao Gao 趙高, director of the livery office (zhongchefu ling 中車府令). In the age of 50 years the First Emperor died in Shaqiu 沙丘 (near modern Guangzong 廣宗, province of Hebei). Zhao Gao conspired with counsellor Li Si. Fearing that the former nobility would rise in rebellion, the death of the First Emperor was kept secret, and instead of informing Prince Fusu, a last letter was forged that declared Prince Huhai 胡亥 as the successor, the Second Emperor 秦二世皇. Under his reign and the boundless influence of Zhao Gao the tyranny of the Qin regime would intensify. In 209 rebellions broke out, and in 206 the Qin dynasty was ended.

Lin Ganquan 林甘泉 (1992). "Qin Shihuang 秦始皇", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Vol. Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 800-801.