The First Emperor of the Chinese History: Qin Shi Huangdi

Qin Shi Huangdi

The history of China has witnessed the ruling of the variety of great and influential families. The Chinese Qin Dynasty had governed the state from 221 BC to 207 BC. It was the dynasty reigning for the shortest period in the history of the country. Especially it becomes notable if comparing its ruling with the hundreds of years of governance of other families before and after the Qin Dynasty. Nonetheless, the direction of the Chinese history development, culture, and civilization had been determined exactly during the fourteen years of its rule. The most prominent was the first representative and the founder of the Qin Dynasty, Qin Shi Huangdi, who unified the Chinese state after the years of the Warring States Period.

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After the time when the capital of the Zhou Dynasty, Chengzhou, was annexed by the Qin’s army in 256 BC, and the last king from this family, Zhou Nan Wang, was murdered, the dynasty seized to exist. Even though the Zhou royal house proclaimed the Duke of Hui as the successor to the throne, none of the sons of the killed ruler claimed the title. The Duke together with Ji Zhao, one of the dead king’s sons, tried to organize the resistance against the Qin state. However, their army was defeated in 249 BC. Simultaneously, the Qin family collected the victories: between 256 and 221 BC, their troops had been successful in attacking other six big and significant states. These ones were fighting to become dominant, i.e. Chu, Yan, Qi, Wei, Han, and Zhao (Tan, 2014, p. 56). After it, China turned into a unified state; and this event put an end to the Warring States Period of the Chinese history.

This way, Zhao Ying Zheng, the governor of the Qin State, fulfilled the two main demands of the doctrines of tian ming and tian xia being required to become the ruler of China. He overthrew the last king of the previous dynasty and united all lands under heaven (Tan, 2014, p. 57). Therefore, Zhao Ying Zheng (259-210 BC) after the unification proclaimed himself the Emperor of the Qin Dynasty. He was the first emperor of China, who used the title Huangdi, which had not been applied by any of the rulers of the previous dynasties. Qin Shi Huangdi believed that his military and political achievements were equal or even surpassing those ones of the prehistoric legendary three divine Sovereigns (Sanhuang) and five legendary Emperors (Wudi) (Tan, 2014, p. 57). Thereby, he combined the names of these prominent people to create the notion Huangdi, which together with the word Shi  meaning first or primary, had become his title, i.e. Shi Huangdi referring to the First Sovereign Emperor.

Other Chinese dynasties like Shang or Xia named their rulers Di, which could be translated as sage and regal ancestor. Meanwhile the Zhou family utilized the term Wang with the meaning king. However, the origin of the Qin Shi Huangdi’s title is different. The notion huang, which means the demigod king and sovereign, as well as di were derived from the mythical period of the Chinese history. At that time, the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors were ruling the state (Tan, 2014, p. 57). Therefore, the term huang is applied to address not the king of the country, but the sovereign ruler. Even though the Huang and Di are translated as the emperor or the king, for the Chinese people they have a more significant meaning. They are used to demonstrate that the sovereign ruler has divine origins, while other definitions like Wang simply emphasize the king for the state monarch. When the Qin dynasty became the ruling one, there were still many local state governors calling themselves Wang. Therefore, in order to elevate himself from all other rulers, the Qin emperor decided to use the prehistoric title and, thus, created the term huangdi to demonstrate his dominating position. Moreover, he wanted to show that he was not only the ruler on the earth but that also was related to heaven (Tan, 2014, p. 58). All Chinese emperors of all dynasties, until the last one, which ended his ruling in 1912, utilized this title.

Qin Shi Huangdi was the son of Qin Zhuangxiang, the ruler of the Qin state. He was born in 259 BC. His father and grandfather did not control their territories for a long time, i.e. three years and three months respectively. Therefore, it was believed that Lu Buwei, the government official, had been involved in conspiracies against the family (Tan, 2014, p. 58). He acted as a regent when Qin Shi Huangdi succeeded the title of the ruler of lands at the age of thirteen until 235 BC. At that time, Lu Buwei killed himself as it was discovered that he was plotting against the new ruler. Thereby, the young king started the war against all other state rulers. First, he took the city of Yangdi in 230 BC in the State of Han, and then he attacked the State of Zhao in 228 BC, the State of Yan – in 226 BC, and then the State of Chu in 223 BC (Tan, 2014, p. 59). In 225 BC, Qin Shi Huangdi as well took the Daliang city. Later, he killed the descendants of the Zhou Dynasty in Luoyang. Finally, in 221 BC, he conquered the State of Qi, united all Chinese states under his ruling, and, thus, started the Qin Dynasty.

The Qin State, like many other Chinese dynasties, had the pedigree ancestry. The origins of the Qin family can be traced to the political adviser Gao Yao. Zhao Feizi received the title Qin Ying and the small territory of the Qin fief as a reward from the eighth Zhou king, Xiao Wang. Therefore, he founded the State of Qin (Tan, 2014, p. 59). Its rulers before and during the governance of Qin Shi Huangdi tried to create the centralized state and reject the feudal structure, which had been imposed by the Zhou Dynasty. They began using the laws and regulations offered by the Legalist philosophers, which allowed them establishing a highly militaristic state system. It involved smart and talented people that were doing everything possible to discard the feudal practice of dependence on heredity relations and transform the country (Tan, 2014, p. 59). Thereby, based on the previous reforms conducted by the earlier governors of the Qin State, Qin Shi Huangdi with the help of such advisers as Shang Yang and Han Fei managed fully enforcing the philosophy of the Legalist school. They established a highly centralized state with very rigid laws and legislations that covered all aspects of citizens’ lives.

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Previously, during the period of Warring States, every Chinese state had its own currency, written language, and the system of measures and weights. Qin Shi Huangdi changed the situation completely by standardizing some distinct economic, social, and cultural practices. First, he ordered his prime minister, Li Si, to introduce a single standard script for the whole country (Ong, 2011, p. 27). If this was not done China could have been like the neighboring country India, where many different written languages were used. Additionally, the common script was also implemented to wipe away all traces of the past (Tan, 2014, p. 60). Thereby, all classic literary works of the Zhou period of the Hundred Schools of Thought were destroyed. Meanwhile only the Legalist school works remained not involved. Such policy was followed by burning the books, as well as by the persecution and murder of those philosophers and scholars that tried to oppose the Legalist school in 213 BC. Moreover, Qin Shi Huangdi ordered to burn all materials that contained any facts of the Chinese country’s history because he was afraid that such documents would undermine his legitimacy (Tan, 2014, p. 60). The only works spared were the books on the art of war, medicine, religious rites, and agriculture.

Next, the new emperor standardized weights, measures, and currency across the entire country to unite the nation. He also ordered to design carriages with a single unified axle length so that the carts were able to travel by the roads (Ong, 2011, p. 27). Additionally, during the reign of Qin Shi Huangdi, the developed system of routs that stretched from the capital in the center to all other regions of the country was created. During the peaceful times, it allowed a very easy transportation of food and other commodities, while during the war it helped transporting soldiers very quickly. The waterways were also improved to make the navigation and irrigation more efficient.

Qin Shi Huangdi also centralized the state administration and military formations. Before his ruling, the aristocracy was allowed inheriting titles and official positions. For example, if the ruler of some region died, his son automatically inherited his positions (Ong, 2011, p. 27). Qin Shi Huangdi removed this feudal system and established the centrally controlled administrative process instead. According to the new model, only the Emperor appointed all local government officials. Every such official starting the village level was accountable to the higher rank person finally linking him or her to the emperor. The latter one decided on the policy of the state. Simultaneously, the state lands were divided into prefectures and counties instead of the previously used system of feudal fiefdoms (Tan, 2014, p. 60). This new government structure allowed the Emperor enhancing the centralized power.

Another significant achievement of the Qin Shi Huangdi’s reign is the construction of the Great Wall. However, it is a mistake to suppose that the Emperor created the whole Wall because the defensive stretches had already existed in distinct states. He only strengthened and linked them all together into one big fortification (Tan, 2014, p. 60). The Wall stretched from Liaodong Province in the northeastern part of the country to Lintao in the north-west. It was around 6.000 kilometers long (Ong, 2011, p. 28). It was created mainly to protect the state from the nomads that were attacking China from the north. The building of this huge fortification was conducted under the oppressive and brutal exploitation of workers as around two million people were conscripted to create it, the palace, and the Emperor’s tomb, as well as the system of routs stretching from it (Ong, 2011, p. 28). Many laborers lost their lives during the construction due to severe and inhumane working conditions. Even though the Great Wall was constructed by Qin Shi Huangdi to protect the state from external enemies, though the end of his dynasty was caused by the issues with the internal policy.

Regardless of all improvements and developments, the rule of Qin Shi Huangdi was very harsh and inhumane; and the punishments for any wrongdoing were very cruel. Moreover, the Emperor was rather paranoid. Except burning the majority of books that had been written before his dynasty to get the total control over the minds of his citizens, he also ordered to confiscate all the weapons from common people to prevent revolts (Ong, 2011, p. 27). He also tied up and buried 400 Confucian philosophers being alive that had criticized his policies. Additionally, Qin Shi Huangdi was obsessed with the idea of acquiring immortality; thus, charlatans rather often deceived him. The latter ones presented him distinct elixirs of life (Ong, 2011, p. 28). For example, a couple of years before his death, the fraud named Xu Fu came to the Emperor and told him that he knew about the herbs of immortality growing on some distant island (Tongson, 2013, p. 15). The man received ships, supplies, and a crew of 1,000 men but never returned.

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Eventually, the harsh rule of Qin Shi Huangdi caused the quick end of the Dynasty. Many peasants revolted against the sever governance. Nine hundred people called to the army and sent to the distant location started the rebellion. Due to bad weather conditions, they did not manage to arrive to the fortress in time, thus, the part of soldiers was killed as a punishment for their delay (Ong, 2011, p. 28). The people were outraged with such attitude; and since they had nothing to lose Chen Sheng and Wu Guang organized peasants and quickly took one of the nearby villages. Many not satisfied citizens joined the insurgents; thus, the group was growing. It allowed them conquering several provinces. Even though the imperial army eventually defeated this particular rebellion later, the new and better-organized groups emerged conquering the capital Qin in 206 BC.

According to the court historian Siam Qian, Qin Shi Huangdi ordered to start the building of his mausoleum soon after he had taken the throne. More than 7,000 people were involved in the creation of this tomb. This work stopped in 209 BC due to the rebellions across the state (Liu, Pagan, & Liu, 2011, p. 352). The mausoleum was discovered in 1974, when the peasants of Xian city were digging the well. Today, four pits were excavated. Three of them are filled with thousands of terra-cotta soldiers having the unique facial expressions and being placed, according to their rank. They seem to be ready for a battle, together with horse-drawn carriages, arrow tips, swords, and other weapons. All of them are located in the underground corridors; and the archeologists believe that the tomb might contain around 8,000 statues (Liu et al., 2011, p. 352). The fourth pit was found empty, which proved that the construction had been abandoned.

Although Huangdi’s tomb is still unexcavated, the historians’ writings suggest that great treasures can be found there. According to Siam Qian, the mausoleum includes the models of palace buildings and offices, vessels, replicas of the region’s rivers made of mercury flowing down the hills and mountains to the sea and being made of bronze, and a variety of precious stones representing the stars, the moon, and the sun (Liu et al., 2011, p. 353). The modern soil tests have demonstrated that the ground around the Emperor’s tomb contains the unusually high concentration of mercury. It has been also revealed that the mausoleum includes the additional underground chamber. Scientists assume that it was created for the soul of the Emperor, while the terra cotta army had to follow him into the afterlife period to conquer death. Therefore, in such a way, he could finally achieve immortality.

In conclusion, even though the Qin Dynasty had ruled for a very short period it managed to enhance the culture and civilization of the Chinese state. First, the standardized written Chinese language, which had been developed and used during the reign of Qin Shi Huangdi by the previously multi-dialectical society, is one of the greatest achievements of that time. Its existence had the unifying effect on the population, culture, and civilization. It means that the Chinese language was spoken differently in distinct regions of the big country, but in the written form, it was created as structurally similar. Therefore, the state received the single means of communication that was written identically everywhere though pronounced differently.

Second, the Legalist school with its centralized bureaucracy and strict laws, which were adopted by Qin Shi Huangdi, confronted the decentralized feudal system. Previous rulers and dynasties had utilized it. The centralized state administration allowed enhancing the effectiveness of the government, even though such approach had been condemned. Moreover, its autocratic nature lacked humanism and constantly was violating human rights. Finally, Qin Shi Huangdi extended the Great Wall to the northern regions by uniting all separate fortifications into one unified wall. It is today perceived as one of the miracles of the ancient world. Thus, all these contributions allow calling the Qin Dynasty one of the most important and influential ones in the Chinese history. The contemporary discovery of Qin Shi Huangdi’s tomb with all its treasures and the magnificence of the clay terra cotta army has proved the following fact. Even though his reign was harsh and severe, he was one of the greatest, wisest, and farseeing rulers of China.

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