Qin Shi Huang: The Man and His Legacy

While King of the Qin State, Ying Zheng rained hellfire on the opposition and united China under a single imperial banner for the first time in history. Emerging from the Warring States Period with six notches in his imperial belt, the State of Qin King proclaimed himself Qin Shi Huang Di which translates to something along the lines of First Imperial Ruler of Qin, or, Total Ruthless Badass, and is often shortened to simply Qin Shi Huang. The year was 221 BC.

The Origins of Qin Shi Huang

The man rose to the throne at a young age, and by his teenage years he was commanding a state well on its way to total domination. Throughout the fourth century BC, the Qin State underwent major structural and political reforms under the guidance of Shang Yang and the principles of legalism by consolidating power and ruling with an iron fist, increasing agricultural output and inviting those outside of the nobility to prove their worth and rise from within.

By the time Qin Shi Huang took the reins from his father in 246 BC at the tender age of 13, the weak Qin State had been transformed into a disciplined military powerhouse. The reforms of the previous century had placed an emphasis on meritocracy, and with the limits to upward mobility lifted, the Qin military was soon in possession of some of the most talented commanders and troops in history.

The focus on agricultural development, and the presence of a large labor force and sophisticated public works projects (transportation infrastructure, irrigation projects, etc.), allowed the Qin State to support a military of more than a million soldiers. In 230 BC the Qin army conquered the Han State, and in less than ten years, the remaining five major powers had all fallen (the Zhao in 228 BC, the Wei in 225 BC, the Chu in 223 BC, the Yan in 222 BC, and finally the Qi in 221 BC). The Qin Dynasty was born.

Standardizing the Qin Dynasty

Qin Shi Huang and his cadre of ministers and advisers quickly began standardizing many facets of life under the banner of Qin: axle size for transportation efficiency, units of measure, money and, most importantly, a standardized Chinese script across the entire empire. Public works projects like canals and roads were pushed, and the seeds of what would eventually become the Great Wall of China were planted.

He sent troops north to fortify the border against the roving tribes that would eventually form the Xiongnu confederation during the Han Dynasty, and began connecting pieces of the wall that separate states had built during the Warring States Period. The majority of his army traveled south and continued the expansion of the empire down the coast, taking territories in and around current day Guangzhou and Guilin, and eventually traveling as far south as Vietnam. Of course, imperial domination never comes easily or without internal strife. There were attempts on Qin Shi Huang’s life and, although he crushed those who opposed his rule, he soon became obsessed with the idea of immortality.

Though the centuries prior to Qin domination had been fraught with war, they had also seen tremendous intellectual expansion. Confucianism, Taoism, the school of Yin Yang and Legalism all emerged during this era. Deemed the Hundred Schools of Thought many of these ideologies persist today, despite Qin Shi Huang’s attempts to eliminate all but Legalism. Beginning in 213 BC, all books that were seen as subversive were burned in massive pyres, and history was rewritten by Qin scholars. In many ways, it isn’t the unification of China that Qin Shi Huang is remembered for; for many, it is the suppression of ideas (particularly Confucianism, which became the official ideology of China during the Han Dynasty) and the allegation that he buried hundreds of dissenting scholars alive that remain the greatest legacy of his reign. Indeed, within a year of his death, popular revolt had begun to break out across the empire, and the Qin fell from power not even a quarter century after the triumphant unification of China.

The Legacy of the First Emperor of a Unified China

The size of Qin Shi Huang’s empire was rivaled by another colossal entity: his ego. As he grew older and his mortality became more apparent, he began researching alchemy, searching for elixirs and potions to extend his life (he died, unsurprisingly, in 210 BC). While pursuing immortality, he simultaneously oversaw the construction of Qin Shi Huang’s tomb and the outrageously elaborate Terracotta Army that would protect him in the afterlife, and ensure his legacy in the event of his (inevitable) death. Legend has it that his tomb, located at the base of Li Mountain is full of rivers flowing with mercury, massive amounts of beautiful gold and silver ornaments, replicas of temples and monuments, maps of the empire—all protected by elaborate booby-traps meant to kill any that tried to enter. The tomb itself has never been opened (and those who took part in its construction were allegedly killed upon completion), but tests of the surrounding soil in recent years have yielded wildly high mercury ratings. Even the most rational person must wonder what lies within the burial mound, particularly in light of the discovery, in 1974, of the Terracotta Army.

Discovered by peasants digging a well outside of Xi’an, the initial discovery of just one terracotta soldier led to the eventual uncovering of over 8,000 individual soldiers, hundreds of horses and chariots and collections of non-military figures like acrobats and musicians. The soldiers were made from six different molds, furnished with armor and weapons according to rank, and their faces were individually crafted by artisans. The figures were organized in rows in three enormous pits (a fourth pit was also built, but it contains no soldiers; it is unclear exactly why the fourth pit remained unfinished) facing east, looking out on the territories conquered by the mighty Qin armies.

Today, the Terracotta Army is one of the greatest archeological finds in history, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a tourist destination immensely popular with foreigners and Chinese. Every year thousands flock to look out in awe at the amassed soldiers, stonily standing guard at the feet of the First Emperor, the great Qin Shi Huang. For now, one can only imagine what could possibly be buried in his tomb, but if the scale of the Terracotta Warriors is any indication, it must be something grand.

Don’t know your Qin from your Qing? Check out our guide to Chinese dynasties. If you’re more interested in seeing the history for yourself, see our Xi’an travel guide to plan your trip to Qin Shi Huang’s imperial capital.

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