Qin Shi Huang- The First Emperor of China.
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Qin Shi Huang- The First Emperor of China.

China had two thousand years of imperial rule that came to an end at the beginning of the 20th century. The first emperor to rule over a unified China was responsible for many political and economic reforms, he also ensured his period of rule would be remembered through his gigantic mausoleum guarded by the terracotta warriors.

China had two thousand years of imperial rule that came to an end at the beginning of the 20th century. The first emperor to rule over a unified China was responsible for many political and economic reforms, he also ensured his period of rule would be remembered through his gigantic mausoleum guarded by the terracotta warriors.

Qin Shi Huang was born in 259BC with the name Ying Zheng and at the age of just 13 he became the king of the state of Qin. His control of this state was during the turbulent Warring States Period when much of what is today’s China was fighting for overall control. In 221BC he declared himself to be the first emperor of unified China after defeating his enemies, he held this position until his death at the age of 49 in 210BC.

He devised a number of projects that included an early version of the Great Wall of China, the mausoleum guarded by a life sized terracotta army, a national road system and canals to aid his troop movements and supply routes. All this came at a great cost in terms of lives lost. He outlawed many books, those he disapproved of were burnt along with many of the scholars of that time who were buried alive.

At the completion of the Warring States period he gave himself a new title calling himself the First Sovereign Qin Emperor. His heir and successor would then become the Second Emperor and this would continue through each generation. The title ‘Huang’ means shining or splendid, these were at the time associated with meanings for heaven. Some scholars at the time called him Qin Shi Huangdi, Huang means Imperial, Di is Ruler and when combined they translate into Emperor.

His father, King Zhuangxiang ruled for just three years bringing the thirteen year old to the throne. It was decided by his advisers that Lu Buwei should act as his regent for the State of Qin as they were at that time at war with six other states. During these early days a first attempt was made to remove the young ruler through a coup. The plot was discovered and all those responsible and their entire families were captured and killed. Lu Buwei himself drank a cup of poison wine to commit suicide. The young king then assumed power as the King of Qin.

King Zheng then began military campaigns to remove the independent kingdoms opposed to him during the period known as the Warring States. In 229BC he took advantage of an earthquake in Zhao, the place of his birth to conquer that state. He defeated the remaining states until all that remained against him was the State of Qi in the far east of China in what is today Shandong province. The king of that state sent 300,000 soldiers to defend the western border against the expected invasion. In 221BC the invasion came but not from the west as expected. The Qin armies invaded from the north, captured its king and China then became unified under its one ruler, the powerful first emperor.

The conquered states were not allowed to be referred to as independent nations as they had been until then. The country was divided into administrative units, rulers were appointed on merit and not as previously on hereditary or family rights. China was standardized with one system of weights and measures. One currency was used nationally and the axles of carts were also standardized as the road system was developed. Improvements to trade were enabled with this system to develop the roads, canals were built to further develop trade. This period brought the first attempts to standardize the Chinese script, the one used in Qin became the only official script to be used throughout each of the conquered regions, one language and one communication system would be used throughout China.

Despite the unification of China there were still many nomadic tribes to the north that periodically attacked. These nomadic warriors were not defeated and any campaigns against them were long and unsuccessful. The order was given to construct a defensive wall. In reality a number of walls had been in place for over four hundred years but these were short local defensive structures. The order was given to link these together to create one barrier. Thousands of men were mobilized to create this engineering project and an unknown number died during its creation. This wall has largely been rebuilt over time although the defensive concept of one wall dates from this time.

During the Warring States Period, although it was a time of almost constant warfare it was also an age of free thought. Confucianism and other philosophical thought and ideas were encouraged. With the unification came a ban on all schools of thought. A system of legalism or a strict following of the laws was developed and punishments were delivered to those that opposed this rule. All books were to be burned under the orders of the new Emperor. The only exceptions were those on astrology, medicine, agriculture and the history of the State of Qin. A list of forbidden books was developed and 460 scholars were buried alive for owning these forbidden works of the written word. The emperors own son criticized his father for the ban. Their were copies of the banned books within the emperors own library. Many of these were later destroyed when the palace was itself destroyed in 206BC.

During the latter years of his life he feared death and sought immortality. He became obsessed with eternal life and many offered him elixirs of life. He sent ships and hundreds of men in search of a mystical 1,000 year old magician, the ships and their crews never returned, probably in fear of execution for returning without the magician. During a tour in 210BC to the east of China the emperor died about two months travelling time from his home. It was reported that he died after eating pills of mercury, prescribed by his doctors. These pills were given to him to give him a supposed immortality. His death was kept secret for fear that such an announcement would create an uprising.

On arrival back at the capital of Xianyang the death of the emperor was announced and fearing for their own lives the late emperors closest advisers developed a plan to install the younger son Huhai as the new leader and the older son Fusu was instructed to commit suicide, supposedly on the wishes of his father. Huhai became the Second Emperor or Qin Er Shi. He was not as capable as his father and revolts soon developed that led to civil unrest and much that the first emperor had built was soon destroyed.

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Comments (1)

Fascinating and educational well done article.