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Qin Shi Huang — First Emperor in History of China and His Unified Qin Dynasty

Qin Shi Huang or Shi Huangdi (259 BC — 210 BC), named Ying Zheng or Zhao Zheng, also respected as Zu Long, was the founder of the first unified feudal empire, the Qin Dynasty, in the history of China.

He defeated the other six kingdoms of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC) and established the Great Qin Empire with a unified language, currency, roads, and measurement system. 

 

He also invented the Emperor System that had been implemented in China for two millenniums, constructed the Great Wall to defend against Xiongnu (or the Huns), and built an extraordinarily grand and fancy mausoleum underground that the Terracotta Army guarded.

As the first emperor of China and one of the greatest monarchs with unprecedented achievements, Qin Shi Huang left the world with valuable legacies and mysterious legends.

Qin Shi Huang the first emperor in China

Qin Shi Huang's Turbulent Childhood As A Hostage

As an unappreciated prince of State Qin, Yi Ren was a hostage in State Zhao, where he married a beautiful woman and gave birth to Ying Zheng.

A merchant named Lv there believed that investing in a prince of the powerful State Qin would be the best business he could ever do, so Lv offered them lots of money to make sure that they lived more comfortably and wouldn't be poorly treated by the guard soldiers of the State Zhao.

Lv also bribed the favorite imperial concubine of Ying Zheng's grandfather to gain her support.

Despite this, as hostages, he and his parents still frequently suffered and experienced many life-and-death moments. 

Unearthed Inlayed Silver Carriage Piece of the Qin Dynasty​

Unearthed Inlayed Silver Carriage Piece of the Qin Dynasty — British Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

After General Bai Qi won a big war against State Zhao and massacred around 450,000 of Zhao’s fine soldiers, the King of Zhao planned to kill Ying Zheng’s entire family. 

Under that circumstance, Lv helped his father disguise himself and escape back to the State Qin, while Ying Zheng and his mother were left in the State Zhao.

Luckily, his mother was the daughter of a wealthy businessman of State Zhao, so they were hidden in his mansion safely for a long time.

Most of Ying Zheng’s childhood was spent in hiding and escaping, without a proper royal education, until his father finally ascended to the throne and welcomed him back to the State Qin. 

Dragon Shaped Jade Decoration of Warring States Period

Dragon Shaped Jade Decoration of Warring States Period — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Challenges and Difficulties As A Teenager King

But his father passed away very soon, and Ying Zheng ascended to the throne as a 12-year-old teenager, only three years after returning to the State Qin. 

Hence, the new King of the Qin wasn't close to anyone there. 

At that time, the State Qin was under the charge of powerful nobles and the merchant Lv, who had a romantic relationship with his mother, according to many gossips. 

Besides, his mother had two other bastards with another lover, who obtained great power in the following years.

The other six kingdoms' forces tried to influence and manipulate this young king as their puppet monarch.

Ying Zheng stayed extremely careful, humble, and quiet while trying to make some talented friends of his age.

Bronze Weapon Ge Produced Under Command of Merchant/Prime Minister Lv

Bronze Weapon Ge Produced Under Command of Merchant/Prime Minister Lv — Chengdu Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Retrieving Power and Eliminating Political Enemies

When Ying Zheng was 20, he held the Coming of Age Ceremony, an important rite in ancient Chinese culture, and started retrieving the State Qin's centralized power.

His younger brother and his mother's lover initiated coups to expel him from the throne, but they were defeated and killed.

Then he forced Lv to commit suicide, imprisoned his mother, and killed her lover and their two bastards. 

Around one year later, all his political enemies inside the kingdom were defeated. He gained all the centralized power with the assistance of younger officials he trusted, such as General Wang Jian.

Afterward, the young and ambitious king marched toward the path of establishing a more extensive and substantial empire. 

Bronze Arrow Bolts of the Qin Dynasty

Bronze Arrow Bolts of the Qin — Shaanxi Museum (Photo by Professor Gary Lee Todd)

Perishing of Six Kingdoms and Disappearing of His Queen 

Then the king nominated Wang Jian as the chief commander of Qin’s army.

When Wang Jian and his son Wang Ben were fighting and defeating countries in the north of China, Ying Zheng married a princess from State Chu, the vast empire in the south, and had his first baby boy.

Decades later, after all the northern lands were under Qin’s control, the king started to fight against Chu. 

Years later, General Wang Jian led Qin’s 600,000 soldiers and successfully conquered State Chu. 

Unearthed Sword of the Qin Dynasty
Unearthed Armour of the Qin Dynasty

Unearthed Sword and Armor of the Qin Dynasty — Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum

He finally brought an end to the period of endless battles and contentions and established a unified and centralized empire.

But he erased his queen, the princess of the State Chu, from all types of official records.

 

Afterward, Ying Zheng never nominated another queen.

No one knew what exactly happened between them, but their son was always his favorite child and trusted heir. 

Unearthed Jade Goblet of the Qin Dynasty

Jade Goblet Unearthed From Site of Royal Palace (Epang Palace) of the Qin Dynasty — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Emperor Qin Shi Huang and His Exceptional Achievements

 

Ying Zheng now was no longer a king of a smaller state. As a believer in Great Unification and centralized power, he announced himself as the first emperor, the Qin Shi Huangdi (First Emperor of Qin), of this substantial empire. 

 

Implementing Unprecedented Political Systems

  • Innovated the Autocratic Monarchy — the Emperor System.

In this system, no one could share power with the emperor, who had absolute control over his country.

The central government had three principal officials in charge of administration, military, and supervision, respectively. They were independent of each other and reported directly to the emperor. ​

Restoration Map of Newly Constructed Royal Palace in the Qin Dynasty, the Epang Palace.

Restoration Map of Newly Constructed Royal Palace in the Qin Dynasty, the Epang Palace.

  • Widely applied the System of Prefectures and Counties, where the counties were directly regulated by the emperor and the officials that the central government assigned.

Afterward, the System of Enfeoffment and Hereditary was officially abolished in the history of China.

 

  • Unified the national currency and measurement (such as weights and measures) and set Xiaozhuan as his new empire's writing system.

Unearthed Unified Scale Hammer of the Qin Dynasty

Unearthed Unified Scale Hammer of the Qin Dynasty — National Museum of China

  • The Standardized Royal Roads, the rudiment of the highway, were constructed throughout the country.

 

  • Meanwhile, the defensive military sites of the former six kingdoms were demolished.

  • Acknowledged the Private Ownership of Land nationwide, which highly motivated farmers and promoted agricultural production.

  • The Household Registration System was implemented, making it possible for the emperor to manage and coordinate the whole country.

  • Besides, the salt and iron business could only be operated by the government. 

  • Royal members of the other six perished kingdoms were assigned some lands and under careful monitoring.

The Qin Empire became a big country with unification and harmony. 

Unearthed Eaves Tile of the Qin Dynasty

Unearthed Eaves Tile of the Qin Dynasty — Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Military Achievements and Construction of the Great Wall

Moreover, Qin Shi Huang extended Qin’s territory by initiating many other wars and encouraging people to move to remote places and cultivate more farmland.

After a big military success in defeating Xiongnu, he built the Great Wall to defend against this nomadic regime and constructed a luxury palace to enjoy life.

That palace was burnt into ashes by a leader of an uprising army named Xiang Yu later, but the Great Wall has been standing tall and upright for thousands of years.

Part of Ruins of the Great Wall of Qin Dynasty

Part of Ruins of the Great Wall of Qin Dynasty

Unification of National Ideology 

As a Legalism believer, Qin Shi Huang commanded to burn many books to reach a consensus, except those relevant to people’s livelihood and management.

 

Hundreds of intellectuals from other philosophical schools, except Legalism, were also executed.

This behavior has long been criticized by many historians that considered him a tyrant.

Besides that, he always trusted and respected his officials and generals; most of them were well-treated and rewarded.

Unearthed Bamboo Slips Recording the Laws of the Qin Dynasty

Unearthed Bamboo Slips Recording the Laws of the Qin Dynasty — Hubei Museum 

Pursuing of Immortals 

After Qin Shi Huang had gained extraordinary achievements in all respects, searching for immortals became one of his primary purposes.

He held the grand Feng Shan ceremony on the holy Mount Tai, the place believed to be the connection of heaven, the secular world, and hell.

In the meantime, many people were sent to search for celestial beings.

He also visited many other mountains and seas that, according to ancient myths and legends, might have immortals.

No one knows what exactly he had found, but many mysterious stories about him were passed on for generations in the places he had visited.

Unearthed Bronze Chariot and Horses of Emperor Qin Shi Huang

Unearthed Bronze Chariot and Horses — Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Departure of Qin Shi Huang and Contentions Over Throne

This great emperor passed away on his fifth tour. 

Before his departure, he left a will in which he gave the throne to his talented and well-respected first son named Fusu, the boy he had with his only queen, the princess of the State Chu.  

However, his 18th son stole the throne, and with the help of some powerful ministers, they forged a will saying the emperor commanded Prince Fusu to suicide, who was serving in the military far away.

Then Fusu, the legitimate heir of the Empire Qin, followed this fake will and committed suicide. 

A powerful and intelligent general who defeated Xiongnu and built the Great Wall was also forced to commit suicide because of his sincere fidelity to Prince Fusu. 

Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Certificate (Hu Fu) to Deploy Forces Garrisoned in Yangling

Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi's Certificate (Hu Fu) to Deploy Forces Garrisoned in Yangling — National Museum of China

End of the Qin Dynasty and Qin Shi Huang's Legacy

 

The new emperor, Hu Hai, snatched the crown but couldn't govern the empire well. 

He buried all of his father's imperial concubines alive and murdered all of his other siblings and disobedient officials cruelly.

Without a qualified monarch and exceptional generals, the Qin Dynasty was defeated and perished by some uprising armies only two years after Qin Shi Huang's death.

  

However, the centralized system he invented had been applied and inherited by successive Chinese emperors for thousands of years.

His ideology of the Great Unification, the pursuit of a unified China, was well established and still dominates in the current Chinese culture.

Life Sized Terrecotta Warriors of the Qin Dynasty

Life Sized Terrecotta Warriors of the Qin Dynasty — Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum 

Qin Shi Huang's Mysterious Grand Mausoleum

Qin Shi Huang's whole life was a legend with unprecedented achievements; moreover, his posthumous world was also exceptionally marvelous.

The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor is one of the few mysterious graves that had not been excavated yet, due to the limited protection technology. 

According to historical documents, his mausoleum utilized about 800,000 laborers and took 39 years to finish.

It is said that he reproduced his entire capital city underground, so his grave was super huge, mysterious, and full of magical legends.

Within his underground palace, valuable pearls were inlaid in the copper-made top as the stars, a large amount of mercury was arranged as lakes and seas, and countless treasures were displayed in many rooms of the enormous underground palace. At the same time, hazardous defensive mechanisms were delicately set all over the mausoleum. 

The famous Terra-Cotta Warriors were designed to be the mighty army that protects his grave; however, the excavated ones are only a small part of the entire burial pits of his magnificent mausoleum. 

Unearthed Terracotta Warriors Pit One — Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum

Unearthed Terracotta Warriors Pit One — Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum (Photo by Chen Siyuan)

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