First emperor of the Qin Dynasty, Quin Shi Huang-di (259 B.C.-210 B.C.) unified China in 221 B.C. and turned the country into a centralized empire.
Before Qin Shi Huang (Ch'in Shih Huang-ti) unified China in 221 b.c., the country was torn apart by wars between the regional kingdoms. From the 8th century b.c., the rival principalities were constantly engaged in warfare during the later Zhou Dynasty. By 403 b.c., only seven major kingdoms remained, of which the Kingdom of Qin gradually became the strongest. These kingdoms continued their fighting until 221 b.c., when Qin's king, later known as Qin Shi Huang-di, defeated all the other kingdoms. His unification of China not only ended six centuries of wars but also started a centralized imperial system which was to last for over 2, 000 years.
After his father's death, Qin Shi Huang acceded to Qin's throne in 247 b.c. He was only 13 years old. LüBu Wei, prime minister of the former king, continued to hold his position under the new king, who was now called Qin Wang Zheng (King Zheng of Qin). In 238 b.c., the ninth year of his kingship, King Zheng reached the age of 22, the legal age to rule the kingdom by himself. When he left for the old capital Yong for his coronation, Lao Ai, the Queen mother's lover, attempted a coup d'etat. Lao Ai's conspiracy was immediately discovered by King Zheng, who had him executed. Later, the king learned that his prime minister LüBu Wei was also involved in the attempted coup and banished Lü to Shu (today's Sichuan), which was a remote area at that time. Desperate, Lü committed suicide by poison in 235 b.c.
After the removal of Lü Bu Wei, King Zheng used the scholar Li Si as his major adviser in planning the conquest of China's six other kingdoms. Han, Zhao, and Wei were the three kingdoms directly to the east of Qin; beyond these were Yan in the north, Chu in the south, and Qi in between. King Zheng accepted Li Si's proposal to first launch frontal attacks upon Han, Zhao, and Wei, and then attack Yan and Chu, before finally taking over Qi for the final unification. Han, the weakest kingdom, was conquered in 230 b.c. In 228 b.c., Qin besieged Han Dan, the capital of the Zhao kingdom, and captured the king of Zhao. After Zhao's fall, Qin presented a great threat to the kingdom of Yan. In the hope of preventing Qin's attack, in 227 b.c. the crown prince of Yan sent an assassin to kill King Zheng. After the attempt failed, the king of Yan killed the crown prince to make peace with Qin. In the five years between 225 b.c. and 221 b.c., Qin defeated and conquered the rest of the regional kingdoms and brought China to unification.
Following his triumph, King Zheng discussed with his ministers an appropriate title for the new ruler of China. Praising the King for his accomplishments, the court suggested the most respectable title of Ancient China: Tai Huang. But King Zheng, for his part, believed he incarnated the virtues and achievements of San Huang Wu Di ("Three Monarchs and Five Emperors, " meaning all the great emperors of Ancient China). He, therefore, dropped Tai and added Di to Huang to form Huang-di, which can be translated as august emperor. Convinced he had established an eternal empire, of which he was the first emperor, he called himself, appropriately, Shi Huang-di, or the first emperor. Thus, King Zheng of Qin became Qin Shi Huang-di, or first emperor of the Qin Dynasty. With the conquest complete and the establishment of his emperorship, Qin Shi Huang began a series of reforms to consolidate his rule.
In the central government, the emperor was the highest ruler, followed by San Gong Jiu Qing (three Gong and nine Qing; the titles distinguishing their hierarchical status) who assisted the emperor in ruling the country. The three Gong were: (1) Cheng Xiang, or prime minister, the highest administrative official of the central government; (2) Tai Wei, the highest military officer who advised the emperor on military affairs (without, however, the power to move troops); and (3) Yu Shi Dai Fu, the general supervisor, who was to provide assistance to Cheng Xiang in his administrative work. In theory, the three Gong would exert checks on each other, while all power was concentrated in the hands of the emperor. Below the three Gong, there were nine Qing, whose major responsibilities included caring for the palace, the royal family, and the emperor.
For the local administration, Qin Shi Huang accepted Li Si's suggestion to abolish the old system of enfeoffment (feudalism) and establish a new system of administrative districts throughout the country. Qin Shi Huang divided the empire into 36 Jun (prefectures), under each of which were a number of Xian (counties). Under each county, were a number of Xiang (towns), under each town were a number of Ting, and under such Ting were 10 Li, the smallest rural administrative units. All the officials of prefectures and counties were appointed by the emperor with fixed salaries; their positions were not hereditary, and they were subject to recall or removal by the emperor. Most of the appointees were military officers who distinguished themselves in battles. This hierarchical system of administration achieved political unification and strongly reinforced the central government.
In order to prevent conspiracy, Qin Shi Huang ordered that all weapons belonging to civilians be gathered in the capital for melting down. From the meltdown, 12 "gold men" (bronze) were molded, each weighing 120 tons; they were placed in the front hall of his new palace. At the same time, Qin Shi Huang forced the 120, 000 most powerful and wealthiest households in the empire to move into Xian Yang the capital, thereby, first, making the capital look prosperous and, second, making such powerful families easier to watch over. As for the old noble families of the conquered six kingdoms, Qin Shi Huang had some of them sent to Nan Yang and Ba Shu (southwest of China) from their native places, hoping that by forcing them to leave their hereditary lands, he was helping to reduce their power.
To tighten his rule of the empire, Qin Shi Huang also unified the code of laws, establishing laws regarding the responsibilities of government officials and punishment for the neglect of their duties. Officials at the basic levels, for example, were to report on time to county officials about agricultural and farming situations such as floods, droughts, storms, and insect pests. One law said that peasants were not allowed to drink liquor in "field huts"; if they did, they were punished. Criminal law enforcement was extremely cruel: the penalty for even small theft was cutting off the left foot or branding the face. The heaviest punishments included being torn apart by a chariot or the elimination of an entire family.
Prior to the unification, the writing of the same Chinese characters had varied in different regions of the kingdoms. Although all characters came from the script of the early Zhou Dynasty, known as the Large Seal Script, literature produced during the later Zhou Dynasty (known as the Period of Spring and Autumn and the Warring States, 770 b.c.-b.c.). brought about chronological and regional changes in the writing of Chinese characters. When Qin Shi Huang asked Li Si to help unify the script of Chinese language, Li Si and other scholars wrote a number of literary texts through which a new, simplified, standardized script, known as the Small Seal Script, was universalized throughout China.
Qin Shi Huang promoted the use of the reformed measuring system of his former kingdom, in which six feet equaled one Bu (Chinese double paces); 240 Bu equaled one Mu; and ten feet equaled one Zhang. In 221 b.c., a short imperial edict (of 40 Chinese characters) was promulgated on the unification of this measuring system, and it was required that all officially accepted measuring instruments must bear the edict's words.
In addition to writing and measuring systems, at the time of unification, different regions used different currencies. Qin Shi Huang reformed the currency system by declaring two types of currency: gold and copper. Gold was called upper currency, using Yi (24 ounces) as its unit, while copper was called the lower currency, which appeared in round coins with a square hole in the middle, each weighing a half Liang (half an ounce).
The second year after unification saw the beginnings of three major imperial highways, known as Chi Dao. With Xian Yang, the capital, as their center, the highways stretched northeast (reaching areas of the former kingdoms of Yan and Qi); southeast (reaching the former kingdoms of Wu and Chu); and north and south, about 800 kilometers (496 miles) with Wu Yuan (near today's Bao Tou in Inner Mongolia) at the northern end; and Ling Ling (in today's Hunan province) at the southern end. These highways were 50 Bu (300 feet) wide with pine trees planted along the sides at intervals of three Zhang (30 feet). Remnants of Chi Dao survive today. With the total length of the Qin imperial highways stretching approximately 6, 800 kilometers (4, 216 miles), the completion of Chi Dao greatly increased the convenience of transporting troops and their supplies. In comparison, the total length of the Roman road system (ca. 150 a.d.) from Scotland to Rome and then to Jerusalem was about 5, 984 kilometers (3, 710 miles).
When Qin Shi Huang conquered the six kingdoms, he had specifications for all the palaces of the conquered kingdoms copied down so that they could then be rebuilt in the north of Xian Yang. But, thinking them too small, Qin Shi Huang proved dissatisfied with these palaces and so began the building of a new palace, called A Fang Gong in the southwest of Xian Yang. In his General History of China, Fan Wen-lan describes the grandeur of the palace's front hall:
500 Bu from east to west and 50 Zhang from north to south. It could hold 10, 000 seats and flags of five Zhang height could stand in the Hall. … Magnetite was used … to detect people coming into the palace with hidden weapons.
It was estimated that more than 700, 000 people worked on the palace, though Qin Shi Huang would not live to see its completion. His son, the second emperor, continued the building of the palace, but three years after his father's death Xiang Yu, a rebellious general, would enter the capital with his troops and set the palace on fire. A Fang Gong would burn for three months before falling in ashes.
Another large construction project undertaken by Qin Shi Huang was the building of the Emperor's tomb. Upon succession to the throne, Qin Shi Huang immediately began work on his mausoleum in Li Shan (black horse mountain). After the country's unification, over 700, 000 corvée laborers (conscripts) were forced to work on the tomb which was more than 50 Zhang high with a radius of five Li (1.55 miles). There were palace halls in the tomb, providing seats for the hundred high officials. Mercury was used to create moving rivers and seas in the tomb. The inner tomb was protected by arrows that automatically discharged should anyone try to enter.
In 215 b.c., Qin Shi Huang sent General Meng Tian on an expedition to the north. In command of 300, 000 troops, Meng Tian defeated the Xiongnu (Huns) and recovered the territories previously lost to them. According to Shi Ji (Historical Records), 34 counties were established in the recaptured areas, and a large number of people were sent there to cultivate the land. To prevent further attacks of Xiongnu, Qin Shi Huang began to repair and link up the old defensive walls built by the former kingdoms of Qin, Zhao, and Yan, beginning the world-famous construction of the Great Wall. Starting in the west in present-day Gansu province, the wall ended in the east in present-day Liaoning province. From east to west, it extended the length of 10, 000 Chinese Li (over 1, 400 miles). Tens of thousands of people were sent to build the wall, of whom more than half would die due to harsh living conditions and heavy labor.
In 214 b.c., Qin Shi Huang appointed Tu Sui as commander of 500, 000 troops for the subjugation of areas in the south (today's Fujian, Guangdong and Guangxi). Tu Sui took over these areas without meeting much resistance. The newly conquered territories were divided into four prefectures, to which a large population of the Qin people were shifted to live with the native minorities. By this time, Qin Shi Huang had driven out the Xiongnu in the north and subdued minority tribes in the south, thereby greatly increasing and securing the whole empire.
Despite such methods of expansion and unification, the country remained far from intellectually unified. In 213 b.c., at Qin Shi Huang's birthday banquet in Xian Yang Palace, 70 scholars came forward to wish him longevity. One of them started to praise the emperor for his triumph over the rival kingdoms and the establishment of the new system of administrative districts throughout the country; but this praise induced a response from another scholar who thought that the new system of prefectures and counties was not as good as the old system of enfeoffment and that Qin Shi Huang should learn from the old dynasties. Remarked the scholar: "It's never heard that a government that does not model upon its predecessors ever lasts long." Li Si, now the Emperor's prime minister, refuted this fervently:
The five emperors never repeated each other; the three dynasties never inherited; they ruled by themselves not because they tried to be different but because times had changed. … Now the empire is established and all laws come from one source.… Men of letters should learn the laws. However, you scholars do not learn from the present but the past so as to criticize the present time and confuse the ordinary people.
Li Si's recommendation was that all books—except the history books about Qin—be burned. All the books of lyrics and the writings of the various schools of thought should be brought to governors of prefectures for burning; those who had these books and would not burn them within 30 days were to have their faces branded before being sent to labor for four years on the Great Wall. Those who dared to talk about these books were to be executed. Those who quoted the past to criticize the present were to be killed together with their entire families. Those who knew and did not report violations were to suffer the same punishment. The only books that were not to be burned were books on medicine, divination, and tree-planting. Qin Shi Huang approved of Li Si's plan and books were burned across the empire.
During the next year, 212 b.c., some Confucian scholars and magicians talked among themselves, criticizing the emperor of being power hungry, prone to kill and punish, and neglectful of intellectuals. When Qin Shi Huang learned of their dissent, he ordered a thorough investigation, during which the scholars blamed each other, rather than admitting to the criticisms. Finally, it was discovered that more than 460 scholars were involved. Qin Shi Huang ordered them all buried alive in the capital.
In 210 b.c., Qin Shi Huang made his fifth inspection tour around the country. When he reached a place called Sha Qiu (in today's Hebei province), he became seriously ill. Aware that he would soon die, he gave orders that his eldest son, Fu Su, should succeed him. But Zhao Gao, a favorite eunuch of the emperor and tutor of his second son, Hu Hai, changed the emperor's will. He issued a false edict ordering Fu Su to commit suicide and placed on the throne Hu Hai, who in three years lost the empire.
Meanwhile, the body of the first emperor was carried back to the capital. At his funeral, all the concubines who had not borne him sons were buried with him. Before they could escape, all the artisans who helped construct the emperor's tomb were also buried with him. In this way, the tomb was thought to be safe, because no one alive knew its secrets.
Further Reading on Quin Shi Huang-Di
Guisso, R. W. L., et al. The First Emperor of China. Carol Pub Group, New York: Birch Lane Press; 1989.
Lang, Zhou. Zhong Guo Li Dai Xing Wang Shi Tong Jian (Rise and Fall of Each Dynasty in China). Wu Nan Publishing Company, 1985.
Twitchett, Denis, and John Fairbank, eds. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Yu-ning, Liu, ed. The First Emperor of China. White Plains, N.Y.: International Arts and Sciences, 1975.
Bodde, Dirk. China's First Unifier: A Study of the Ch'in Dynasty as Seen in the Life of Li Ssu. Hong Kong University Press, 1967.
Cotterell, Arthur, The First Emperor of China: the Greatest Archeological Find of Our Time, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981.
Hsüe-chin, Li. Eastern Zhou and Qin Civilizations. Yale University Press, 1985.
Levenson, Joseph R. China: An Interpretive History, From the Beginning to the Fall of Han. University of California Press, 1969.