The Birth of an Empire
& the Death of an Emperor
Qin Shihuang's Terracotta Army
Qin Dynasty Icon
DVD cover of The Emperor and the Assassin
[King Zheng’s] enemies hatched a final plot to kill him before he could lay claim to All Under Heaven: a convoluted scheme to put a suicidal assassin in his throne room. The man in question was Jing Ke, a swordsman of ill repute, who arrived in Qin in 227 BCE and announced himself as an undercover emissary from the northern state of Yan.
Map of the Warring States and Qin Conquest
As a symbol of his lord’s integrity, he presented the king with the head of a fugitive Qin general in a box. The man had sought asylum in Yan, but here was proof that Yan wanted to appease Qin.
          Jing Ke was beckoned onto the royal dais to show Ying Zheng the map he carried, which marked out great areas on the Yan borders that were to be ceded to Qin without a single arrow being fired. It was surely the grandest victory that Qin could hope for, the very pinnacle of the Art of War, the creation of a state so fearsome and powerful that rivals would surrender voluntarily before war had even been declared. But this was a moment that would be celebrated ever more in a a Chinese proverb.
“As the map unrolls, the dagger is revealed.” (BHC, 73-4)
Jing Ke attacking King Zheng
"Seal Script" characters for "First Emperor" (Shihuangdi)The assassination attempt on the King of Qin did not work. Jing Ke chased Ying Zheng with his poison dagger around the pillars of the throne room in a fateful, fruitless scuffle, the King struggling to pull the oversized Taia blade from his belt. His physician threw his medicine bag at the would-be assassin, distracting Jing Ke for a vital moment. Ying Zheng finally unsheathed his sword and cut Jing Ke down, hacking at his body as it slumped against a pillar.
          If anything, the botched mission presented Qin with a new excuse to stage a punitive invasion of the state that had tried to have him killed. Within a few years, the last kingdoms had fallen. With nobody to stand in his way, the King of Qin proclaimed himself to be the First Emperor, combining two old words for sovereign to make an ultra-ruler, greater than all the others. (BHC, 77-8)
Qin Dynasty Icon
Qin Shihuangdi: The First Emperor
Qin Shihuangdi’s Legacy

Established a standard currency

Qin Coin

Bamboo Page Divider

Unified weights and measures

Qin Weights and Measures

Bamboo Page Divider

Standardized wheel-span for carts

Terra Cotta Chariot

Bamboo Page Divider

Standardized the Chinese written script

"Seal Script" characters for "First Emperor" (Shihuangdi)

Bamboo Page Divider

Established the commandery system of centralized rule

Map of Qin Commanderies
Some officials proposed that the emperor make his sons princes over some of the newly conquered outlying areas, but on Li Si’s advice he rejected this proposal and divided the entire country into xian administered by magistrates appointed by the central government. Several xian were combined into a commandery (jun). There was no single official in charge of a commandery; control over it was divided among a civil governor, a military commander, and an inspector. A similar three-way division of power among civil, military, and supervisory or inspecting arms was developed in the central government. The fundamentals of this pattern of bureaucratic government persisted, with many permutations, down to the end of imperial rule in 1911 and have echoes even in the party-army-ministry structure of power in the People’s Republic. In its combining of firm central control with a system of checks and balances that made it very hard for any one official to accumulate enough power to challenge the ruler, the Qin order was a work of political genius. ... Chinese historians see this change from a long-dying feudal (feng jian) order to one of bureaucratically administered commanderies and prefectures (jun xian) as the central feature of the great transformation of 221. (MOF, 43-4)
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 Contemporary Great Wall
All though the Warring States period the northern states had been worried by conflicts with nomadic peoples of the steppes to their north, moving about following their herds, perfecting their skills in mounted archery and cavalry warfare. A people the Chinese called the Xiongnu developed large-scale political organizations under great warrior kings; they were the great power on these steppes for about four hundred years and may have been the “Huns” who descended on Europe thereafter. After the establishment of the Qin Empire, Meng Tian, son and grandson of Qin generals, led a force of as many as 300,000 warriors and transport workers into the grasslands. The Xiongnu were driven out of the borderlands and withdrew far to the north, beyond the Gobi Desert. Meng Tian then directed the building of a great road leading north and west from the capital into the steppes. That road was used to move laborers and food supplies north for more great construction works, in which defense walls that had been build by the various states were linked together.
Qin Era Great Wall
Traditionally this has been seen as the first agricultural-bureaucratic Chinese Empire; that is, the first Great Wall of China. We now understand that the modern Chinese and Western concepts of a millennial and unchanging Great Wall are complex myths, and that for most of Chinese history there was no such unified structure of walls. But the Qin wall was real; traces of the road and the wall still can be seen. It was much farther north than the present Great Wall, much of which dates from the Ming dynasty, and was built of pounded earth, a much more modest structure than the Ming wall. (MOF, 45-6)
The Great Wall Throughout History
  Qin Dynasty Icon
The Burning of the Books and the Burying of Scholars
On the Other Hand ...
The Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), provided the following reflection on the rise and fall of the First Emperor:
Sima Qian
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)
Qin Dynasty Icon
Text of the Shiji with Qin Shihuang on the left and Sima Qian on the right
On the Other Other Hand ...
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.
Bamboo Scroll
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. 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.
       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 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)
... 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.
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. (Burying the Scholars Alive)
So ...
was the
First Emperor:
a hero?
a villain?
Qin Shihuangdi: The First Emperor
Qin Dynasty Icon
Death of the First Emperor
The Death of an Emperor
The First Emperor hated any talk of dying, and none of his officials dared even allude to the matter of death. When his illness grew increasingly grave he wrote a letter under the imperial seal to be sent to his son, Prince Fusu, saying, “When mourning is announced, proceed to Xianyang and carry out the burial.” The letter had already been sealed and deposited with Zhao Gao, chief of the office of imperial carriage, who had charge of official seals, but it had not yet been entrusted to a messenger.
          In the seventh month [of 210 BCE] ... the First Emperor passed away at the Ping Terrace in Shaqiu or Sand Hill. Because the emperor had died outside the capital, the chancellor Li Si feared that the other princes and their supporters in the empire might start an uprising, and therefore he kept the matter secret and died not announce a period of mourning.
          The coffin was placed in a carriage that could be opened up for cooling or closed for warmth, with the ruler’s oldest and most trusted eunuch riding in attendance. At each stopping place, food was delivered to the carriage. The various officials continued as before to submit matters for the emperor’s approval, and at such times the eunuchs would immediately approve them and hand them down from the closed carriage. Only the emperor’s son Huhai, Zhao Gao, and five or six of the trusted eunuchs knew that the emperor had died. (
Records of the Grand Historian: Qin, 62)
Seal of the First Emperor of China
Mausoleum of the First Emperor
The Burial of an Emperor
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)

Click for Slide Show of the Terra Cotta Warriors

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)
The Fall of the Qin
& the Rise of the Han

The great tragedy of the First Emperor’s legacy was enacted by a eunuch called Zhao Gao, who had a personal vendetta to pursue against some of the First Emperor’s most trusted military men, the Meng family. The records, as ever, are garbled, but it may well have been that one of the Meng family had sentenced Zhao Gao to castration in the first place, in punishment for an unnamed crime. Zhao Gao and the First Emperor’s chief minister, Li Si, kept the Emperor’s death quiet for as long as possible, while issuing edicts in his name to settle scores and remove opponents. As part of his vendetta, Zhao Gao arranged for the death of the First Emperor’s eldest son along with the Meng family, coincidentally destroying the Qin dynasty’s military capabilities in the north. ...
Zhao Gao "pointing at a horse and calling it a deer"
The Second Emperor was the First Emperor’s youngest son, persuaded by his puppet masters that he served the empire best by being neither seen nor heard. As a result, he was kept in the dark about his empire’s decline until it was too late. His short reign is characterized in the Grand Scribe’s Records as a set of calamities: vindictive putsches against his half-brothers and their families, the inadvisable raiding of provincial granaries to feed the capital, and the dogged pursuit of ongoing large-scale building projects, even as the empire slid into revolt. In a moment that has passed into Chinese legend, and a mocking parody of the writing reforms of the Qin empire, Zhao Gao tested the loyalty of the courtiers by telling the Second Emperor that a red deer (in Chinese, a malu or literally “horse-deer”) was actually a horse. Only those who agreed with him or abstained were allowed to hold onto their lives; everyone who protested it was really a deer was executed. In Chinese, “pointing at a horse and calling it a deer” has become a proverbial analogy for deception. ...
The Chen Sheng and Wuguang Uprising
The brief, single-generation dividend in infrastructure development, paid largely in slave labor, was all but used up. Although there were thousands of aristocratic hostages close to the Qin capital, there were sufficient discontents of all classes to start multiple revolts. One of the biggest began in what had formerly been the state of Chu, where two army officers, late for duty because of a rainstorm, rebelled against the death penalty they were sure to receive under Qin law. Figuring they had nothing to lose, they led their company of 900 men in a revolt. ...
King's War on Netflix
Chu soon became the site of a far more organized rebellion, when a local family tracked down a grandson of one of its last kings, and proclaimed the royal house to be restored. This resurgent state was merely the most prominent of several rebel standards, chiefly because two generals that fought in its name would eventually fight each other for supreme control. Xiang Yu was the son of the original kingmaker who proclaimed Chu to be back in business, a towering, ruthless military figure from an aristocratic family, who infamously ordered the burial alive of 200,000 surrendered Qin troops. The other was Liu Bang, a self-made man who had served Chu both as a kingdom and as a Qin province. Like the instigators of the first uprising, he was supposedly propelled into action by the threat of Qin punishments — escorting convict laborers to the site of Qin emperor’s tomb, he had allowed several prisoners to escape. Realizing that his life would be forfeit, he released the rest and went on the run, finding himself as the leader of a rebel army, its ranks swelled by many of his own freed prisoners.
The Second Emperor (Qin Ershi) takes his own life
Xiang Yu and Liu Bang tore up the old Qin provinces in a series of victories against the luckless Qin army, which itself was lacking in support from the Second Emperor’s collapsing regime. As they marched on the Qin capital, the eunuch Zhao Gao feared that he would be executed for incompetence, and preempted any punishments by staging a palace coup. The Second Emperor pleaded for his life in a diminishing set of bargains that poetically encapsulates the fall of Qin. At first, he begged to be given a command as a prince in the new order, or failing that, some noble title and an estate somewhere. His last recorded words have him begging to be allowed to live as a commoner with his wife and children. When even this was refused, he took his own life. ...
Map of the "Chu-Han Contention" between Xiang Yu and Liu Bang
The two adversaries [Xiang Yu and Liu Bang] divided China between them in a short-lived truce, before it was settled for good in 202 BCE at the Battle of Gaixia, when Liu Bang and his allies advanced from multiple sides, and a dejected Xiang Yu, most of his forces dead, refused a ferry to safety and chose to make a last stand at the riverside against overwhelming odds. ... Victorious at Gaixia, Liu Bang allowed himself to be proclaimed as the first Emperor of the Han dynasty. Already in his fifties, he would reign for only seven years before his death from an arrow wound sustained in a battle with yet another rebel princeling. However, his son would succeed him, and the Liu family would remain at least nominally the rulers of China for much of the next 400 years. (BHC, 79-83)
Han Gaozu (Liu Bang) with his heir
Seal of the First Emperor of China
Essay 1
Memorial to the Second Qin Emperor

In 210 BCE, the Second Qin Emperor (Qin Er Shi) was enthroned at the age of twenty-one following the death of his father, the First Emperor of China (Qin Shihuangdi). According to the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), the Second Emperor was placed on the throne by the Prime Minister Li Si and the Chief Eunuch Zhao Gao, who manipulated the line of succession for their own benefit and in the process destabilized the dynasty and contributed to its collapse a few years later. However, what if Li Si and Zhao Gao had been challenged by a brilliant official with the capacity to teach the Second Emperor the proper Way of the Ruler and thereby stabilize the dynasty? For your first assignment, you will be that brilliant official, writing a detailed “memorial” to the Second Emperor that (i) identifies the causes of the Zhou dynasty’s failure; (ii) explains the reasons for the First Emperor’s success; and (iii) establishes a new ideology that will secure the dynasty for ten thousand generations. Since the First Emperor implemented a Legalist polity, you will need to decide whether to advocate for continuing this approach without modification or to temper/replace it with one of the other political solutions of the period, such as Confucianism or Daoism. You should also indicate whether you would maintain the centralized rule of the First Emperor or restore (partially or fully) the type of “feudalism” that prevailed during the Zhou dynasty. For grading details, see the Essay 1 Rubric.
Qin Dynasty Icon