Qin Shihuangdi
Memorializing of the First Emperor
Memorialized in Film
The Emperor and the Assassin
  • How does the movie’s portrayal of Ying Zheng compare with the historical First Emperor?

  • Is Jing Ke’s character in the movie consistent with the facts presented in the Prologue of The First Emperor of China?
Note: For the primary sources on which Jonathan Clements’ account is based, see Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian: Qin, translated by Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 53-55, 167-178.

III. Lao Ai (the Marquis)
& Lü Buwei (the P.M.)
In 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.
       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.
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 Lü Buwei in Records of the Grand Historian) compare with the version in the film?

Chronology of Events in the Shiji
Records of the Grand Historian
  • Qin destroys the state of Zhou in 256 BCE
  • Ying Zheng (the future First Emperor) becomes King of Qin in 246 BCE
  • Lao Ai (Marquis Changxi) killed in 238 BCE
  • Lü Buwei takes poison in 235 BCE
  • The state of Han is annexed in 230 BCE
  • The state of Zhao is annexed in 228 BCE
  • Jing Ke dies in 227 BCE
  • The state of Wei is annexed in 225 BCE
  • The state of Chu is annexed in 223 BCE
  • The state of Yan is annexed in 222 BCE
  • The state of Qi is annexed in 221 BCE (completing the unification of China)
  • What did Sima Qian have to say about Lady Zhao?

The emperor ascended Mount Tai, erected a stone monument and offered sacrifice to Heaven. … The sacrifice to the Earth was offered at Mount Liangfu. And a stone monument was erected with this inscription:
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.
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.


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)

Memorilized in History
cf. HEA, 47-8
  • Established a standard currency
  • Unified weights and measures
  • Standardized wheel-span for carts
  • Standardized the Chinese written script
  • Established the commandery system of centralized government
  • 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”

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)


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)
Explain why you either agree or disagree with Sima Qian’s assessment of the First Emperor. Your position should be supported by examples of the First Emperor’s conduct drawn from Jonathan Clements’ The First Emperor of China, with at least three focusing on the period prior to the unification and three on the subsequent period when he reigned as the Son of Heaven. Note: since Clements’ book does not have an index, you should take notes on relevant passages as you read through the text.