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China’s First Emperor and His Legacy

Updated December 26, 2021
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China’s First Emperor and His Legacy essay

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Introduction

Emperor Qin Shi Huang was one of the most influential leaders in Chinese history and in world history. His obsession with legacy was of utmost importance in the continuation of the Chinese state. Qin, the first emperor of a unified China, transformed the country from a nation of contradictory and warring states into the geographical and political powerhouse it is today. During his reign, he engaged in major public works projects which pulled China together in a way that had never been done before. He ordered a massive mausoleum be built in his honor to preserve his own legacy and the legacy of his country.

Beyond the mausoleum and the thousands of accompanying terracotta warriors, his public works projects included a national road system and the beginnings of the Great Wall of China. His vision of China’s potential and ruthless leadership launched China into a powerful global position. In particular, the building of the terracotta army and mausoleum indicates his acute perception of the importance of legacy in beginning and preserving a dynasty and a nation. Emperor Qin’s consistent dedication to building and preserving both his own legacy and that of the Chinese empire contributed to China’s beginnings as a strong geopolitical actor. Emperor Qin’s obsession with personal and national legacy was an important contributing factor in China’s economic, political, and architectural foundation.

Qin Shi Huang’s Early Life

Qin Shi Huang was born February 19, 259 BC in the Qin State, which covered modern Gansu and Shaanxi provinces in western China. This time period was known as the Warring States period in which the seven states within geographical China functioned as independent kingdoms that frequently clashed with one another. He was known as(Ying Zheng), with (Ying) as the ancestral name and (Zheng) as the clan name. Nobility in China carried two different surnames: the family ancestral name (Xing) and the clan name (Zu). There is some historical debate regarding which ancestral name the emperor used at the time, but the main consensus is that (Ying) is the most historically accurate surname.

Ying Zheng was raised by parents King Zhuangxiang of Qin and Queen Zhaoji. However, some records and some people during the time believed that Zheng was an illegitimate child born of Lu Buwei, a prominent politician of the Qin State, and Zhaoji. This rumor of his illegitimate birth contributed to many of the negative views of Zheng during his reign and throughout Chinese history. Modern scholars doubt this rumor and ascribe it to slander from those who protested his leadership. King Zhuangxiang reigned during a turbulent time of only three years from 251 BC to 247 BC. His reign was marked by a time when the State of Qin was waging war against the other six states. During his reign, Ying Zheng was the crown prince, who would become Zhuangxiang’s successor. In 247 BC, King Zhuangxiang died, when Zheng was only 13 years old. Because of Zheng’s youth, Lu Buwei, a prominent political actor, took the role of regent prime minister of the state for nine years prior to Zheng’s ascension to the throne.

Early Reign as King Zheng of Qin

Ying Zheng assumed the throne and took full power as King Zheng of Qin in 235 BC. He was still incredibly young at the time, at only twenty-two years old. The inconsistency and upheaval of his childhood, paired with his youth in taking on such a powerful role, led him to be rather paranoid. He was said to have expressed constant fears of overthrow, assassination, the afterlife, and most importantly, his legacy after death. These fears were reinforced by consistent attacks on his reign. His early reign was marked by an attempted coup d’état involving Lu Buwei and Lao Ai. Lu Buwei had acted as regent prime minister of the state for nine years while Zheng was too young to manage the affairs of the state himself. During that same time Lu became involved in an affair with Zheng’s mother, Lady Zhaoji.

Once King Zheng came into power, Lu Buwei became concerned about this affair and distanced himself from the possibility of scandal by getting another member of the court, Lao Ai, to keep her company. Lao Ai had disguised himself as a palace eunuch and was able to meet the queen consistently without suspicion. This affair resulted in two sons, though only Lu Buwei knew of it. In 238 BC, Lu Buwei and Lao Ai plotted to have the king overthrown and Lao took control of an army to mobilize a coup against King Zheng.

As soon as King Zheng caught wind of this rebellion, he ordered that Lao’s army be attacked. All involved were put to death rather brutally, and Zheng put his own mother Zhaoji under house arrest for her involvement. This coup attempt was important for King Zheng because it was so early in his reign. It defined his perceptions of those close to him and involved some of his first real decisions while in power. He defined himself as a leader who was committed and brutal in response when necessary. In addition to this coup d’état, there were multiple assassination attempts during his reign. The first took place soon after he took power, during the time that the Qin State was fighting to take down the Yan state in 227 BC. Jing Ke of the Yan State plotted along with Crown Prince Dan of Yan to take his life.

Crown Prince Dan sent Jing Ke to present King Zheng with a gift. While presenting the gift, Jink Ke pulled out a dagger and attempted to kill King Zheng. Zheng overcame him with a sword and Jing Ke suffered severe wounds before surrendering with the knowledge that he would be put to death afterward. This assassination attempt was largely in vain as the Yan state was conquered just a few years later. The second assassination attempt on King Zheng occured as a direct result of the first.

Gao Jianli had been a close friend of Jing Ke and wanted to kill the King in response to his friend’s death. He was a famed lute player and was allowed to play in the palace and become close to the king. He attempted to kill the king by filling his lute with heavy lead and striking the king, but his attempt failed and he was later executed. The final recorded assassination attempt came much later after the defeat of the Han state in 230 BC. Zhang Liang, a Han aristocrat, wanted to avenge his state and punish King Zheng for causing his loss of status in society. He hired two assassins to take down Zheng’s carriage, but they attacked the wrong carriage and the king survived.

The culprits of this final assassination attempt were never found or executed. Despite these various attempts to end his reign and his life, King Zheng was able to accomplish much during his reign. These difficult events only added to the urgency in Zheng’s reign and prompted his foreign policy choices that eventually unified China. Unification of China When Zheng became king, China was a very different place than what it is today. The country was separated into seven different states which were at constant war with each other. Between 230 BC and 221 BC, Zheng began several different campaigns to conquer the independent kingdoms that existed in China at the time.

First, Zheng took down the Hann state following natural disasters that left the country struggling both economically and from an infrastructure standpoint. Under the direction of King Zheng, the Qin military then took over the states of Zhao, Yan, Wei, and Chu in just five years. The final state of Qi, located in the present-day Shandong Province, was the last to be taken as Zheng used nearly all of his military resources, including over 200,000 ground troops to take the state at the border.

These military campaigns resulted in the eventual unification of the Chinese state and brought an official end to the Warring States period. Upon the unification of the Chinese Empire, King Zheng chose to advance his rank from king to emperor. This change indicated not only a change in his own life and perception, but a change in the significance of China moving forward. Zheng’s intention was to create an empire that would last through the ages and beyond his death and felt this change in royal vernacular would assist him in reaching such a goal. From this point forward, King Zheng was known as, Qin Shi Huang. Huang, or Huangdi, is translated as “Emperor” and was a new term created by the emperor combining the two characters to mean “shining, from Heaven” and “the high god.” Shi is translated as “first or start.” Emperor Qin’s specific naming of himself as the first emperor of China demonstrates just how important he saw his own role in the future of his nation.

Economic and Political Gains of the Qin Empire

Emperor Qin’s policy goals did not stop at the simple unification of the Chinese nation geographically. He also implemented massive reform policies that worked to unify and modernize the nation from an economic, legal, architectural, and political standpoint. It appears that his goal was to not only create a unified state but to pull that state together in such a way that it couldn’t separate into warring states ever again. Economically, Emperor Qin worked very closely with Li Si, a legal writer and consistent advisor during Qin’s rule. The two crafted standardized units of weight, measurement, and currency. They created laws to standardize transportation across the country. The written Chinese language was also cleared of inconsistencies and bought together into one written language. The goal of unification was also mirrored by the public policy put into place during Qin’s rule.

These measures were vital to the unification of China and were important strategic objectives the Emperor saw through. The infrastructure achievements of the Qin empire were some of the most stunning achievements of his rule. For the first time, canals and roads were connected across the country to improve communication and trade. The Lingqu Canal was one of the most important of these infrastructure projects. The canal connected the Xiang River and the Li River, creating a broader connection between the Yangtze River with the Pearl River. It allowed boats to travel easily across miles and prepared the country for further domestic and international expansion.

The Great Wall of China was also an infrastructure project begun by Emperor Qin. Following the unification of the empire, China still faced the threat of nomadic tribes along its northern border. Rather than continuing to deploy so many human resources to the defense of the border, the Emperor ordered that a defensive wall be built along the border. This wall was the antecedent to the Great Wall. Building the Tomb and The Terracotta Army Qin Shi Huang was constantly focused on immortality and preserving his legacy. His obsession with mortality was consistent throughout his life. Because of this, much of his reign was focused on the formation of a mausoleum for him in the afterlife. This mausoleum project began as early a the first year of his reign.

The mausoleum, located a little more than twenty miles out from present-day Xi’An, is one of the largest of its kind the world. The mausoleum was meant to provide him with a sovereign to rule and an army to command in the next life. He wanted to perpetuate his life and his rule through his terracotta army. As such, it included an army of at least thirteen thousand warriors, arranged in precise battle formation. He was very particular that the army be reflective of reality, so he forced those who worked on the project to make each soldier unique instead of making an army of identically replicated soldiers. Additionally, he ordered that terracotta musicians, acrobats, servants, and animals be made for his afterlife enjoyment as well.

The mausoleum is split across several different chambers. Perhaps what is most interesting about the Emperor’s project is the fact that there is no evidence of a previous king taking on such a task to preserve their future afterlife. This is yet another piece of evidence that demonstrates Qin’s specific commitment to creating a new China and making himself the first emperor. He believed that his impact would continue long after his death. According to historian Sima Qian, more than 720,000 workers worked on the project. They were forced to labor on the project by order of the king. They molded each piece of terra cotta one by one. All of the warriors were meticulously painted in bright colors.

Controversy of the Qin Empire

The policies and decisions that were made during Qin’s reign had an immense historical impact on China, Asia, and the world. However, his policies were often brutal and resulted in the death of his own people. He is a controversial figure with an important and divisive legacy. He brutally eliminated those close to him who proved untrustworthy or disloyal. The unification of China came at the expense of many Chinese lives and resources from a military standpoint. Many also died during the construction of his mausoleum project. However, the forced labor to build an army for him to take into the after life was in fact less brutal than many other world leaders who had forced human sacrifice to ensure that they would have their people with them in the afterlife. (This was most commonly practiced in Ancient Egypt).

Between the Great Wall, multiple palaces, the Terracotta Warriors, and his other infrastructure projects, hundreds of thousands of Chinese people labored to create his new vison of China. During the construction of the Great Wall, hundreds of thousands of men were forced to work and a large number of them died. This loss of life has led to an overall negative view of the Emperor, framing him as ruthless and domineering over his people. Despite this controversial view, it is important to recognize that this cost to unify and preserve the Chinese empire came with many great benefits. Politically and economically, people in China began to prosper. There were significant improvements to infrastructure, literacy, and technology through his policies. Emperor Qin will always remain a historically controversial leader because of his choices, but he will also be a historically powerful leader across most accounts.

Qin Shi Huang’s Death and the Continuation of the Empire

Qin Shi Huang’s death was most likely related to his fear of it. His obsession with legacy and mortality led to a deep paranoia that impacted both his personal life and his political decisions. His continual search for the elixir of immortality led him to force many alchemists and court physicians to make him various chemical mixes for him to ingest in hopes of increasing longevity. He sent these alchemists on long searches across the world in search of the ingredients he believed would bring him immortality. However, those very mixes are believed to have poisoned him. After ingesting too much mercury from Chinese alchemical elixirs, China’s first emperor died in the year 220 BC. Despite his many attempts to avoid death, he passed away at the age of 49. Compared to the modern era, this would be young but it was average for his time.

The Discovery of the Terracotta

Army Qin Shi Huang intended for his legacy to be known for a millennia. Beyond the geopolitical and economic impact of his reign in China, much of the infrastructure projects that he began are to this day important historical sites. One of the most important pieces of his legacy was his Terracotta Army. One of the greatest archeological finds of the last century, the Terracotta Army was not discovered until 1974. The discovery itself was a miracle disguised as a seemingly normal incident. On March 29, 1974, a farmer named Yang Zhifa found a piece of terracotta as he was digging a water well about a mile east of Emperor Qin’s tomb. He was very surprised to find out that this was a piece of the first warrior of the Emperor’s Terracotta Army.

Once word began to spread that the Terracotta Army had been found, archeologists from across the world came to Xi’An to carefully excavate and preserve the thousands of warriors, horses, and other terracotta creations. The warriors were surrounded by underground chambers which made the archeological dig very difficult. The original excavation damaged and destroyed the paint of these warriors. The organic material involved in the terracotta clay lost its top layer in the process of excavation. One of the chambers has been left untouched in hopes that archeologists can find a way to preserve the paint while still excavating the remainder of the project in the future. Unfortunately, this chamber is Emperor Qin’s actual tomb and cannot be seen or studied as of yet. To this day, approximately 13000 soldiers, horses, and artifacts have been unearthed.

One archeologist described the project as something of massive importance, stating that, “We (as archeologists) feel a heavy responsibility on our soldiers.” Another state that the project won’t be complete for at least another hundred years, “but we have to leave something for future generations.” Despite these unique archeological challenges, Emperor Qin’s goal of preserving his legacy through the Terracotta Army was largely met. The project is largely intact over two thousand years later and thousands of people flock to Xi’An each year to view the findings. The site has now been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Conclusion

As the first Qin emperor, Qin Shi Huang ended the Warring States period through the unification of China and established a powerful new pattern for the nation. Though his thirty-six-year reign was fraught with opposition, his major geopolitical, economic, infrastructure, and policy gains were unprecedented. Qin Shi Huang was prompted to have the Terracotta Army built as a means to preserve his life and legacy. Emperor Qin’s consistent dedication to building and preserving both his own legacy and that of the Chinese empire contributed to China’s beginnings as a strong geopolitical actor. Emperor Qin’s obsession with personal and national legacy was an important contributing factor in China’s economic, political, and architectural foundation.

Bibliography

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  7. Hongmei Sun. “Becoming a Ruin: Breaking into the First Emperor’s Necropolis.” Frontiers of Literary Studies in China. 2017, Vol. 11 Issue 2, p.352-374.
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