Qin Shihuangdi
Memorializing the First Emperor
Terra Cotta Warriors with definition of "memorialize"
Seal of the First Emperor
DVD of The Emperor and the Assassin
Memorialized in Film
The Emperor and the Assassin
King Ying Zheng
How does the movie's portrayal of Ying Zheng compare with the historical First Emperor?
Bamboo page divider
Lao AiIn the ninth year of the king’s reign [238 BCE] someone reported that Lao Ai was not a real eunuch at all, but had constantly been engaging in secret misconduct with the queen dowager, and that she had borne him two sons, both of whom were being kept in hiding. “He and the queen dowager have agreed,” said the report, “that, when the present king passes on, one of these sons shall succeed him.”
       The king thereupon referred the matter to his officials for investigation and all the facts were brought to light, including those that implicated the prime minister Lü Buwei. In the ninth month Lao Ai and his three sets of relatives were executed, the two sons whom the queen dowager had borne were put to death, and the residence of the queen was officially transferred to Yong. Lao Ai’s followers were all deprived of their household goods and sent into exile in Shu.
Lu Buwei        The king of Qin wanted to put the prime minister Lü Buwei to death as well but, because he had won great distinction in the service of the former king, and because so many followers and men of eloquence came forward to speak on his behalf, the king could not bring himself to apply the death penalty. In the tenth month of the tenth year [237 BCE] of his reign the king of Qin removed Lü Buwei from the office of prime minister. ... Map showing the distance between Xianyang (the capital) and Shu (where Lu Buwei was forced to retire)[Later, the king] ordered Lü Buwei, the marquis of Wenxin, to leave the capital and proceed to his fief in Henan. A year or so later [235 BCE] he learned that so many of the followers and envoys of the various feudal lords were travelling to Henan to call on Lü Buwei that their carriages were never out of sight of each other on the road. Fearful that there might be some plot afoot, the king sent a letter to Lü Buwei saying, “What did you ever do for the state of Qin that Qin should enfeoff you in Henan with the revenue from a 100,000 households? What relation are you to the ruler of Qin that you should be addressed as ‘Uncle’? Be so good as to take your family and retinue and move your residence to Shu!”
Lü Buwei judged that he would only have to suffer increasing insult and, fearing the death penalty, he drank poison and died. (Records of the Grand Historian: Qin, 164-5; cf. Clements, The First Emperor of China, Chapter 2)
How does this account (from the biography of Lu Buwei in Records of the Grand Historian) compare with the film version?
Bamboo copy of the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) with a timeline
Chronology of Events in the Shiji
Records of the Grand Historian

Qin destroys the state of Zhou in 256 BCE
Down Arrow
Ying Zheng (the future First Emperor) becomes King of Qin in 246 BCE
Down Arrow
Lao Ai (Marquis of Changxin) killed in 238 BCE
Down Arrow
Lü Buwei takes poison in 235 BCE
Down Arrow
The state of Han is annexed in 230 BCE
Down Arrow
The state of Zhao is annexed in 228 BCE
Down Arrow
Jing Ke dies in 227 BCE
Down Arrow
The state of Wei is annexed in 225 BCE
Down Arrow
The state of Chu is annexed in 223 BCE
Down Arrow
The state of Yan is annexed in 222 BCE
Down Arrow
The state of Qi is annexed in 221 BCE
(completing the unification of China)

Map of the Late Warring States Period
Bamboo page divider
What did Sima Qian have to say about Lady Zhao?
Seal of the First Emperor
Painting of Mount Tai (Taishan)

Memorialized in Stone
The Feng & Shan Sacrifices

Mount Tai (Taishan) today
Chinese Characters for "Feng and Shan (Sacrifices)"
The emperor ascended Mount Tai, erected a stone monument and offered sacrifice to Heaven. …
Empress Wu Zetian (of the Tang dynasty) performing the Feng sacrifice
The sacrifice to the Earth was offered at Mount Liangfu. And a stone monument was erected with this inscription [reputedly written by the Prime Minister, Li Si]:
The Sovereign Emperor came to the throne, made decrees and laws which all his subjects heeded;
In his twenty-sixth year the land was unified, all obeyed his rule;
He inspected the black-headed people in distant parts, ascended Mount Tai and viewed the eastern extremity;
His obedient subjects remember his achievements, trace them from the start and celebrate his virtue.
Map showing Qin capital (Xianyang/Xi'an) and Mt. Tai
   Beneath his wide sway all things find their place, all is decreed by law;
Great and manifest, his virtue is handed down to ages yet to come, to be followed without change.
The sage emperor who has pacified all under heaven is tireless in his rule;
He rises early, goes to sleep late, makes lasting benefits and offers wise instructions;
Wide spread his teachings, all far and near is well ordered according to his will;
High and low are set apart, men and women observe the proprieties, fulfill their different tasks;
Public and private affairs are clearly distinguished; peace reigned and will endure till a future age;
His influence knows no end, his will obeyed and his orders will remain through eternity.

Stone inscriptions from the top of Mt. Tai
Seal of the First Emperor of China
Qin memorial at Mt. Langya
The emperor had a tower built on Mount Langya and a stone inscription set up to praise the power of Qin and make clear his will. The inscription read:
A new age is inaugurated by the Emperor;
Rules and measures are rectified, The myriad things set in order,
Human affairs are made clear And there is harmony between fathers and sons.
The Emperor in his sagacity, benevolence and justice Has made all laws and principles manifest.
He set forth to pacify the east, To inspect officers and men;
This great task accomplished He visited the coast.
Great are the Emperor’s achievements, Men attend diligently to basic tasks,
Farming is encouraged, secondary pursuit discouraged,
All the common people prosper;
All men under the sky Toil with a single purpose;
Tools and measures are made uniform, The written script is standardized;
Wherever the sun and moon shine, Wherever one can go by boat or by carriage,
Men carry out their orders And satisfy their desires;
For our Emperor in accordance with the time
Has regulated local customs, Made waterways and divided up the land.
Caring for the common people, He works day and night without rest;
He defines the laws, leaving nothing in doubt, Making known what is forbidden.
The local officials have their duties, Administration is smoothly carried out,
All is done correctly, all according to plan.
The Emperor in his wisdom Inspects all four quarters of his realm;
High and low, noble and humble, None dare overshoot the mark;
No evil or impropriety is allowed,
All strive to be good men and true, And exert themselves in tasks great and small;
None dares to idle or ignore his duties, But in far-off, remote places
Serious and decorous administrators Work steadily, just and loyal.
Great is the virtue of our Emperor Who pacifies all four corners of the earth,
Who punishes traitors, roots out evil men, And with profitable measures brings prosperity.
Tasks are done at the proper season, All things flourish and grow;
The common people know peace And have laid aside weapons and armor;
Kinsmen care for each other, There are no robbers or thieves;
Men delight in his rule, All understanding the law and discipline.
The universe entire Is our Emperor’s realm,
Extending west to the Desert, South to where the houses face north,
East to the East Ocean, North to beyond Dahsia;
Wherever human life is found, All acknowledge his suzerainty,
 His achievements surpass those of the Five Emperors, His kindness reaches even the beasts of the field;
All creatures benefit from his virtue, All live in peace at home.
(Selections from Records of the Grand Historian, 169-72)
Seal of the First Emperor
Memorialized in Culture
cf. HEA, 47-8
Established a standard currency
Qin dynasty coin
Bamboo Page Divider
Unified weights and measures
weights and measures
Bamboo Page Divider
Standardized wheel-span for carts
Bronze chariot from the First Emperor's tomb
Bamboo Page Divider
Standardized the Chinese written script
Chinese "seal script" characters for Shi Huangdi (First Emperor)
Bamboo Page Divider
Established the commandery system of centralized government
Map showing the Commandery system of the Qin dynasty
Bamboo Page Divider
Built a network of over 4,000 miles of roads, dug irrigation canals
and connected existing walls to build the first “Great Wall of China”
The original Great Wall with inset image showing construction method (pounded earth)
Timeline of the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China at Badaling
Seal of the First Emperor of China
Painting showing the burning of the books and burial of scholars
Memorialized in History
The Burning of the Books and the Burial of Scholars
[The First Emperor said:] “I confiscated all the books from the empire and got rid of all those that were of no use. I also summoned a great many learned scholars and practitioners of various magic arts, hoping to initiate an era of great peace. The magicians said they wanted to employ their skills to search for rare herbs. But now Han Zhong has disappeared without any report, and Xu Fu and the others, after expending countless tens of thousands of cash, have never been able to obtain the herbs, and daily I hear reports that they are merely scheming for illicit gain. I have shown the utmost generosity in showering Master Lu and the others with honours and gifts, but now they speak slanderously of me so as to exaggerate my lack of virtue. I have also directed people to question the various scholars residing in Xianyang, and it appears that some are spreading dubious stories in order to mislead the black-headed people!”
       He then ordered the imperial secretary to subject all the scholars to investigation. The scholars reported on one another in an attempt to exonerate themselves. Over 460 persons were convicted of violating the prohibitions, and were executed
at Xianyang, word of it being publicized throughout the empire so as to act as a warning to later ages. [Note:  the word translated here as “executed” is sometimes interpreted as “buried alive,” though contemporary scholars reject this interpretation.] (Records of the Grand Historian: Qin, 58)
NOTE: Jonathan Clements states that the 460 scholars were specialists in alchemy who had been employed by the First Emperor to produce an elixir of immortality and were executed for their failure to provide any evidence of success (cf. FEC, 134-5). Although scholars have traditionally interpretated the passage from the Records of the Grand Historian as implying that the scholars were executed for possessing banned books, the full context of the above quote does suggest that they were executed for various offenses. It should also be noted that the word “executed” is sometimes interpreted as “buried alive,” though most contemporary scholars reject this interpretation.
Icon with the Chinese character for "history" (shi)
Open Empire (Chinese history textbook)
Contemporary Perspectives
We must be cautious ... in using later sources to study the Qin. In one of the most infamous incidents recorded by later historians, the Qin emperor launched a large-scale book burning in 213 B.C.E. that sought to destroy all dissenting points of view. ... Still, we must remember that books were made of wooden slips. Because most classical learning, and certainly The Book of Songs, continued to be transmitted from teacher to student, a book burning would not have had much effect.
Painting of Chen Sheng leading the rebellion that toppled the Qin dynasty
Jia Yi’s Confucian viewpoint, with its emphasis on humanity and righteousness, provided the Han dynasty with the perfect justification for the overthrow of the Qin. [Note: Jia Yi (c. 200-169 BCE) was a famous official from the early Han dynasty, which succeeded the Qin; in his work The Faults of Qin, Jia provides a thorough critique of Qin rule in an attempt to explain why the dynasty fell.] As a piece of historical writing dictated by political considerations, the story of the rebelling laborers further contributed to the myth. In the Grand Historian Sima Qian’s account of the Zhou conquest of the Shang (occurring some eight hundred years earlier and described in chapter 1), the last Shang king, surrounded by beautiful women and luxuries, could do no right, while the first Zhou king could do no wrong. The same kind of stereotyping shaped later accounts of how the Han dynasty leaders overthrew the Qin.
Bamboo slips from the Shuihudi tomb
A tomb excavated in 1975 provides a surprising corrective to received wisdom about Qin brutality. The legal materials from the Shuihudi tomb reveal that men called up for service who failed to report or who absconded were liable to be beaten, not killed, as the Han historians falsely maintained in their account of the dynasty’s founding. The officials in charge of a group of laborers could be fined one shield if the laborers were six to ten days late; a suit of armor if over ten days late. We must conclude that the Han-dynasty historians overstated these punishments to discredit the previous and fallen Qin dynasty. ... Contrary to the writings of the Han historians, and contrary to the expectations of modern scholars, the provisions from the Qin code stress close adherence to a rigorously delineated series of judicial procedures. ... [They] depict a legal system that stressed careful procedures usually marked by unvarying punishments for specific crimes — they show, in short, a legal system far different from that suggested by Han-dynasty denunciations of the unjust rule of the Qin. (Open Empire, 103-5)
Chinese character for the "Qin" (Dynasty)
... and What About Ulrich Heininger?
Ulrich Heininger
Only when in our century the image of the past changed with the collapse of the Empire, modern historiographers stressed the lasting merits Qin Shihuang deserved for China’s unity. The negative aspects of his rule receded proportionately. Thus the losses occasioned by the burning of the books, were given less weight, when historians referred to the destruction of the Imperial library by rebels as the chief cause for the big gaps in the pre-Han literary tradition. Yet up to the present, the emperor remains in Chinese and Western accounts incriminated with the murder of the Confucianists.
Painting of the Burying of Scholars
An event like the murdering of four hundred and sixty Confucian scholars was monstrous enough. So a treatise dealing with the despotism of the First Emperor should mention it. That the Xinyu contains no comment on this atrocity, proves the whole story as a later invention. [Note: the Xinyu is a short political treatise that was written by Lu Jia (d. 170 BCE), a Confucian official from the early Han dynasty; the work is famous for its argument that the Qin dynasty fell because of its cruelty and intrigues.] (Burying the Scholars Alive)
Seal of the First Emperor of China
Li Si, Zhao Gao, and Huhai (a.k.a. Qin Ershi, the Second Emperor of the Qin Dynasty)
Memorialized through Fraud!
Li Si, Zhao Gao, and the Second Qin Emperor
According to traditional histories, the very harshness and inflexibility of the Qin Legalist regulations soon provoked revolt. Within a year of the First Emperor’s death in 210 BCE, the land was writhing with rebellion. At the same time, a power struggle at court was simultaneously also tearing it apart from within. It is said that when Qin Shi Huangdi died, a certain eunuch (eunuchs were castrated imperial household servants) conspired to briefly keep news of the emperor’s death secret and forged an edict ordering the emperor’s capable eldest son to commit suicide. The throne therefore passed to an incompetent younger son, who was soon reduced to a puppet. With the eunuch’s encouragement, this Second Emperor began to suspect other members of his own family and ordered twelve of his own brothers and ten of his sisters executed. After three years, the Second Emperor’s position had become so pathetic that he killed himself. By this time, rebels were already at the gates. (HEA, 49; cf. FEC, 141-6)
King's War on Netflix
Seal of the First Emperor of China
Site of the First Emperor's Tomb
In the ninth month, the First Emperor was interred at Mt. Li. When the emperor first came to the throne he began digging and shaping Mt. Li. Later, when he unified the empire, he had over 700,000 men from all over the empire transported to the spot. They dug down to the third layer of an underground springs and poured in bronze to make the outer coffin. Replicas of palaces, scenic towers, and the hundred officials, as well as rare utensils and wonderful objects, were brought to fill up the tomb. Craftsmen were ordered to set up crossbows and arrows, rigged so they would immediately shoot down anyone attempting to break in. Mercury was used to fashion imitations of the hundred rivers, the Yellow river and the Yangtze, and the seas, constructed in such a way that they seemed to flow. Above were representations of all the heavenly bodies, below, the features of the earth. “Man-fish” oil was used for lamps, which were calculated to burn for a long time without going out. (Records of the Grand Historian: Qin, 63)

Cross Section of QinShihuang's Mausoleum
Visualization of the interior of the First Emperor's tomb

Photo of the Terra Cotta Warriors with the words "Click for Slide Show"
Seal of the First Emperor of China
Sima Qian with a bamboo scroll of the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian)
Then Qin faced south to call itself ruler of the empire, which meant that the world now had a Son of Heaven to head it. The masses hoped that they would be granted the peace and security to live out their lives, and there was not one of them who did not set aside selfish thoughts and look up to the sovereign in reverence. ... But the First Emperor was greedy and short-sighted, confident in his own wisdom, never trusting his meritorious officials, never getting to know his people. He cast aside the kingly Way and relied on private procedures, outlawing books and writings, making the laws and penalties much harsher, putting deceit and force foremost and humanity and righteousness last, leading the whole world in violence and cruelty. In annexing the lands of others, one may place priority on deceit and force, but insuring peace and stability in the lands one has annexed calls for a respect for authority. Hence I say that seizing, and guarding what you have seized, do not depend upon the same techniques. (Records of the Grand Historian: Qin, 81; cf. HEA, 49)
Jonathan Clements' The First Emperor of China
Essay 1: The First Emperor of China
The Grand Historian, Sima Qian, offers the following reflection on the First Emperor’s unification of China:
Then Qin faced south to call itself ruler of the empire, which meant that the world now had a Son of Heaven to head it. The masses hoped that they would be granted the peace and security to live out their lives, and there was not one of them who did not set aside selfish thoughts and look up to the sovereign in reverence. ... But the First Emperor was greedy and short-sighted, confident in his own wisdom, never trusting his meritorious officials, never getting to know his people. He cast aside the kingly Way and relied on private procedures, outlawing books and writings, making the laws and penalties much harsher, putting deceit and force foremost and humanity and righteousness last, leading the whole world in violence and cruelty. In annexing the lands of others, one may place priority on deceit and force, but insuring peace and stability in the lands one has annexed calls for a respect for authority. Hence I say that seizing, and guarding what you have seized, do not depend upon the same techniques.1
Explain why you either agree or disagree with Sima Qian’s assessment of the First Emperor. Your position should be supported by at least four examples of the First Emperor’s accomplishments and/or failures drawn from Jonathan Clements’ The First Emperor of China as well as references to at least two additional peer-reviewed secondary sources. Since Clements’ book does not have an index, you should take notes on relevant passages as you read through the text. For more details on the essay requirements see the Essay 1 Rubric.
Seal of the First Emperor of China