18th century picture of Emperor Qin

It was said that Emperor Qin conquered other states “like a silkworn devouring a mulberry leaf." One by one, he defeated neighbouring states and swallowed their territory. His reputation as an invincible warrior became so strong that the other kingdoms in China chose to lay down their arms and submit to his power rather than confront him.

Qin Shi Huang built a formidable fighting force exemplified by the famous terra cotta army in Xian. His armies were believed to be similar to the terra-cotta armies unearthed near his tomb. In the forward position were archers who could rain arrows on their enemies from a considerable distance. Behind them were units of cavalry men, infantry and charioteers that converged on their foes weakest points. Reserve forces of chariots were positioned to move in when needed.

"The Qin was really the first state to really go into total mobilisation for war," Peter Bol told the BBC. "It really saw the work of its population being fighting and soldiering to win wars and expand." He was also quite cruel, enslaving and castrating the citizens of the places he conquered. "Every time he captured people from another country, he castrated them in order to mark them and made them into slaves," says Hong Kong University's Xun Zhou. "There were lots and lots of eunuchs in his court. He was a ruthless tyrant." [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 15, 2012]

Good Websites and Sources: Qin Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Emperor Qin Wikipedia Wikipedia ; First Emperor Qin Royalty.nu : Xian : Wikipedia Wikipedia China Map Guide China Map Guide ; Film: The First Emperor (also known as The Emperor and the Assassin ) by Chen Kaige was made about Emperor Qin's life with $20 million budget and is regarded as over-produced and boring. Not only that Gong Li looks fat. Terra-cotta Army of Emperor Qin Wikipedia Wikipedia ; UNESCO World Heritage Site : UNESCO ; Emperor Qin's Tomb: National Geographic nationalgeographic.com UNESCO World Heritage Site UNESCO

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; 4) Zhou Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; 5) Ancient China Life ancientchinalife.com ; 6) Ancient China for School Kids elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; 7) Oriental Style ourorient.com ; Books: Cambridge History of Ancient China edited by Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy (1999, Cambridge University Press); The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties by Jessica Rawson (British Museum, 1996); “Early Chinese Religion” edited by John Lagerwey & Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: 2009); A fully annotated translation of the “Shiji” text appears in William Nienhauser, et al., The Grand Scribe’s Records (Bloomington), v. 1.

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History)

Ying Zheng Takes the Title Emperor

Dr. Eno wrote: “One of the first problems facing the Qin was deciding the title its ruler should have. The Zhou founders had been titled “Wang,” or King. But this title had long since been employed by lesser rulers, starting with the Chu lords in the seventh century. King Zheng already possessed this title and clearly a grander one was called for. The legendary emperors, as well as Shang kings, had been titled “Di,” the name given to the supreme divinity in the early pantheon (see the discussion in reading 3.6: “Shang Religion,” pp. 4-12). This is the term that has traditionally been rendered “emperor” in English. Were the Qin ruler to adopt this title, he would be placing himself in a class with the Yellow Emperor (Huang di ) as a semi-divine ruler. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“A commission of the highest ministers was formed to study the issue of the title (Li Si was among the commissioners). Their finding was that the Qin had “brought peace to the world, made the entire area within the four seas into commanderies and counties, and insured that laws and ordinances proceed from a single authority. From highest antiquity to the present such a thing has never before occurred, nor could any of the Five Emperors equal this.” Accordingly, they recommended that the ruler adopt an entirely new title that would designate his superiority to all previous rulers, from the Yellow Emperor on. The title they recommended was Grand Augustness. /+/

“It was the First Emperor himself who determined his own title. He liked the ring of “August,” so he retained that. But he seems to have wished to maintain a link with the ancient sage emperors, and so he ordered that he be known as “August Emperor,” rather than “Grand Augustness.” In addition, he determined that it was inappropriate to continue the Zhou practice of bestowing upon late rulers a posthumous title indicative of their virtue or the nature of their reigns, titles such as “Wen,” “Wu,” “Huan,” and so forth. “This allows the son to pass judgment upon the father and subjects upon their ruler,” he exclaimed. “It is highly improper!” Instead, he insisted that all Qin emperors, down to the thousandth and ten thousandth generation, be numbered rather than named. He himself, though, would not have a number. He would be known as the “Initial” emperor, with his successor to be known as “Second Generation Emperor” (note that in this way, in an infinite line of Qin rulers, there would only be one whose name stood out). Hence came the title by which King Zheng was to be known: The Initial August Emperor of the Qin, Qin Shi Huangdi, more commonly called in English “The First Emperor of the Qin.” The emperor’s title was the first indication that as part of the Qin revolution, the nature of the Son of Heaven was to be fundamentally redesigned as well.” /+/

Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Tours

Dr. Eno wrote: “The “Book of Documents” records that the great emperors at the beginning of Chinese history made regular tours of their realm, traveling far and wide to allow the charismatic influence of their virtue to have its full transforming effect, and to perform sacred rituals to the spirits of the land that only the Son of Heaven could properly perform. We now know that even the late Shang kings made such tours, but this fact (which would not have raised the prestige of the imperial tour) was unknown to the First Emperor, and he believed that the rite of the emperor’s tour had been abandoned after the reigns of the legendary sages. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Accordingly, the First Emperor determined to signal the revival of most customs of the most venerated of culture heroes by embarking on a series of imperial tours. These elaborate ventures, during which the emperor proceeded to truly distant points of his realm, were by no means pro forma ceremonies for the First Emperor. Since his days in Zhao, far to the north, he had lived only in Qin, and had seen nothing of the true cultural heartlands of China, about which he had been educated since his youth. /+/

“The emperor began his touring in 220 B.C., and traveled widely throughout his reign, dying by the sea in Shandong, far from his capital. In 219 B.C., he went to Mt. Tai, the sacred mountain of eastern China, to perform the most holy of all sacrifices to Tian. After having done so, he had a monument erected inscribed with an account of his virtues and accomplishments. This rite became standard for the emperor’s tours, and the “Shiji” has recorded a series of the monumental inscriptions commissioned by the emperor on his tours. Perhaps the greatest of these he erected at Mt. Langye, a promontory on the coast of southern Shandong that so delighted him that he remained there for three months, and subsequently ordered that 30,000 families be moved to the region of Langye to more perfectly establish the Qin hegemony in that area.

Langye Inscription on Emperor Qin’s Rule

The Langye inscription gives us some insight into the manner in which the First Emperor viewed himself and his reign. It reads: “In the twenty-eighth year of his reign, the August Emperor made a new beginning. He equalized all the laws and regulations and the standards for all things in the world, in order that human affairs should be made clear and that father and son should act in harmony. Sage, wise, ren, and righteous, he rendered the principles of the Dao clear. [Source: “Shiji” 6.245 (94 B.C.) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson in a separate volume of his Records of the Grand Historian ( Qin Dynasty [Hong Kong and New York: 1993 *-*]

“He brought comfort to the eastern lands, touring east to review the troops stationed there, and once those affairs were complete, his presence approached the sea. The August Emperor’s achievement is diligently to offer assistance to the root affairs, that is, to place agriculture first and eliminate superfluous activities. Hence the black-haired people have become wealthy.All under heaven are of a single heart’s resolve, gripping a single will. The vessels and measures of the land accord with a single standard and words are written in a single style. Wherever the sun and the moon shine down and vessels and carts bear cargo, all live out their allotted life spans and none fails to achieve their heart’s wish. *-*

Emperor Qin's Imperial Tour

“To initiate activities in accord with the seasons, such is the way of the August Emperor. He has brought to propriety diverse customs, sailing the rivers and crossing the land. Caring for the black-haired people, from dawn to dusk he is never slack, eliminating doubts and settling the laws so that all will know what they must avoid. “Local elders all know their tasks; all is ordered by simple norms. Decisions are always on the mark and none is not made with the clarity of a picture. *-*

“The August Emperor in his brilliance gazes over the four quarters. The honored and humble, high and low never overstep their proper ranks. None tolerate evil and wrongdoing, all devote themselves to perseverance and integrity. Exerting their utmost in matters large and small, none dares to be remiss. Near and far, in remote and hidden corners, all strive in solemn seriousness. Upright and honest in deep loyalty, they are constant in their devotion to their labors. /+/

“The virtue of the August Emperor preserves and brings order to the four ends of the earth. He punishes the rebellious and eliminates harm, gives rise to all benefits and brings blessings down. He times affairs according to the seasons, so the fruits of the earth proliferate. The black-haired people are at peace and no longer take up weapons. The six degrees of family relations all care for one another, never again fearing bandits and thieves. All delight in receiving the teachings and fully understand the laws and regulations. *-*

“All within the four quarters, between the heavens and the earth below, is the land of the August Emperor: in the west to the land of the shifting sands, in the south to Beihu, in the east to the sea, in the north to Daxia. Wherever the footprint of man is found, none is not his subject. “His achievements stand above the Five Emperors of the past, his bounty extends to the realm of the beasts. None does not receive the gift of his virtue, all at peace in their homes. *-*

Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Religious Practices

Dr. Eno wrote: “The First Emperor’s tours were an indication of the seriousness with which he took his role as a dynastic founder. Another manifestation of this was the urgency with which the emperor sought to fulfill the religious role of the Son of Heaven. The most famous of his exploits in this regard was his enactment of the fengshan sacrifice to Heaven. The fengshan sacrifice was the most sacred of all the sacrifices to Heaven. It was well known that every sage king since the predecessors of Fu Xi, many dynasties before the Yellow Emperor, had journeyed to Mt. Tai to offer this supreme sacrifice to Tian. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Mt. Tai
“Only the holder of the Mandate of Heaven could perform this holy rite. Only at the summit of the sacred peak of Mt. Tai, on the border of the regions of Qi and Lu on the Shandong peninsula, could this solemn ritual be enacted. Only, records of the specifics of the sacrifice were somewhat scanty, perhaps owing to the fact that the entire idea of the fengshan was in all likelihood the invention of some third century charlatan at the court of Qi! The First Emperor entertained no suspicions concerning the authenticity of the fengshan sacrifice. His only concern was to do the thing with absolute propriety so as to confirm his receipt of the Mandate. For this purpose, on a tour in 218 B.C., the emperor summoned all the great Confucian ritual scholars in the regions of Qi and Lu to attend him as he made preparations for the ritual. Seventy men were recruited and joined the emperor’s entourage at the foot of Mt. Tai. /+/

“When the Confucians were assembled to instruct the emperor, an unfortunate scene ensued. Each scholar had his own version of the proper li to follow. One said that the emperor must ride a carriage with wheels wrapped in grass, so as not to damage the ground of the sacred mountain; another said that the ground must be swept and sacrifices offered along the route; others said that mats of certain grasses must be laid down. The emperor listened closely as the Confucians rose one after another, maintaining their contradictory views, each more complicated than the last, until, disgusted, he finally sent the lot of them away and designed the ritual himself. /+/

“The fact that the emperor called upon Confucians to advise him suggests, if the story is true, that the Qin court did not maintain the strident anti-Confucian stance that Legalist ideology would seem to demand. It points towards the fact that in his efforts to accord with the precedents of past sage kings, the emperor was, in many respects, trying to satisfy Confucian, rather than Legalist, visions of the ideal ruler – as the inscription translated earlier equally suggests – though it could be argued that the sage emperors were the property of many ideological schools. /+/

“In any event, the fengshan incident is often cited by historians as a key factor in what ultimately did become a strong anti-Confucian bias. When the First Emperor finally set out on his journey up the mountain he encountered a terrific storm. The wind and rain forced him to leave the path and seek shelter under a tree.When news of the storm was leaked to the Confucians they were delighted and spread satiric accounts of the incident, poisoning further relations between the Confucians and the emperor.” /+/

Still it seemed there were many fangshi receiving “patronage from the emperor. At one point in the “Shiji” account of the First Emperor’s reign (a narrative that must be seen as exaggerating every negative feature), a fangshi courtier complains: “The laws of Qin forbid a man from practicing more than one kind of magical art and puts him to death if he fails to show results. Consequently, the 300 experts who now practice the arts of divination by stellar qi at court are terrified of offending the emperor and merely flatter him.” It is difficult to determine how, if the law had been applied with the efficiency for which Qin is famous, there could have been any large group of diviners at court, much less hundreds expert in a single divination form. But it is clear that regardless of how they came to be there, the fangshi at court understood that their duty, to the state and to themselves, was to cater to the superstitious emperor’s whims, rather than practice any of the arts they had been taught. /+/

Emperor Qin’s Quest for Immortality

Penglai mythical island, reputed home of the Elixer of Immortality

In his later years Emperor Qin became obsessed with finding "the elixir of immortality” and seeking other ways to circumvent death. In Imperial China it was thought that people could become immortal by climbing the right mountains and consuming elixirs made with the things like mercury, arsenic, jade, gold, special fungi, wild mushrooms and other herbs. The cult of immortality was linked with Taoism.

Emperor Qin alienated his subjects and spent a large portion of his kingdom's wealth in his pursuit of the elixir of immortality and was taken advantage of by many charlatans who promised to find it. In addition, he went to great lengths to avoid foods and drinks that made him belch and fart because it was widely believed at the time that these and other bodily functions robbed people of their vital life energy qi, hastening death. Qin also had a 28-mile pathway constructed from his palace to a spike-shaped peak where it was believed immortals ascended to heaven.

Dr. Eno wrote: “It appears from many accounts that the First Emperor set great store by those who professed to possess the arts of magic and immortality characteristic of popular religion, and lavishly expended government funds in pursuit of these superstitious goals. As mentioned earlier, the First Emperor took a great liking to the region of Langye on the Shandong coast. Langye was the locality most prominently associated with the magical systems of a variety of practitioners known as fangshi, or “men of the arts.” During the last century of the Warring States era, Qi had become famous as the home of these fangshi, and they were sharp competitors with Confucians, also a native movement of the Shandong peninsula. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“One of the best known cults among the many fangshi arts was the cult of immortality. Practitioners had specialized knowledge concerning the formulas of certain rare and secret vegetable and mineral elixirs that could engender immortality in ordinary men. They also knew all that mortals could know about the realms and practices of the immortals, many of whom lived on islands in the Pacific opposite the Shandong coast, especially on the island of Penglai.” /+/

Emperor Qin’s Pursuit of the Elixir of Immortality

Emperor Qin sent off various officials, emissaries and explorers in search immortality herbs and potions. According to one story, one of Qin’s ministers, Cheng On Kee, found the "herb of immortality" growing in abundance in the White Cloud Hills near Canton. After eating some he was surprised that the rest had disappeared. Afraid of returning to Emperor Qin empty handed, the minister leaped off a cliff and, because he had eaten the herb, was snatched by a crane and taken to heaven.

Emperor Qin sent a mariner named Hsu Fu to search the Pacific for the "drug of immortality." One his second attempt he failed to return. Some have speculated he may have made it to America but never made it back. Adventurer Tim Severin tried to duplicate the voyage with an ocean going raft, made of Vietnamese bamboo, rigging sails and hand-woven rattan ropes. He too never made it: a succession of storms waterlogged the bamboo and Severin and his crew had to be rescued. Other emperors were equally obsessed with immortality. Two hundred years after Emperor Qin another emperor spent what some said was the equivalent of the Manhattan Project on the development of a pill of immortality. [National Geographic Geographica, April 1994].

In another tale, one alchemist made it back and reported that the herb or immortality could be found on an island guarded by a giant fish. According to this story the Emperor decided to seek the herb himself. He managed to kill the giant fish with an arrow he fired from a crossbow but before he could claim his prize he died of a fatal disease. Some scholars have theorized that these tales are based on the reality that Qin simply was very sick and sent emissaries to find medicines that could heal him.

Dr. Eno wrote: “In 219 B.C., after erecting the great inscription at Langye translated earlier, the emperor was approached by an immortalist from Qi named Xu Fu, who informed him of the islands” linked to immortality off Shandong. “He told the emperor that the elixirs of everlasting life could be distilled from herbs that grew upon Penglai, and requested funds for a sea voyage to bring these back. He said that for such a voyage to be successful, it would be necessary for him to sail with a large retinue of young boys and girls. The emperor, fascinated by these exotic eastern teachings, eagerly bestowed upon Xu Fu funds adequate to sustain several thousand young people on the proposed trip. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Xu Fu apparently made a number of such trips on behalf of the First Emperor. Several times, he and his crew got near enough to these magical islands to sight them through the mist, but each time, an enormous fish interposed itself and blocked their way, leaving Captain Xu Fu no alternative but to return in defeat, and request (and receive) funds for another try. /+/

Emperor Qin’s Becomes Increasing Suspicious and Isolated

In the last years of his life, Emperor Qin became paranoid and changed his sleeping quarters every night after he was nearly slain by a man who delivered the head of bitter enemy. Emperor Qin began building the massive tomb for himself and a terra cotta army to guard it when he was still alive. Jessica Rawson, an expert on Emperor Qin at the British Museum, told the Daily Yomiuri, “He saw himself not just as the ruler of the world but as the ruler of the universe. And he saw himself as a cosmic figure, and that is perhaps not unusual in early Chinese emperors — they all believed they ruled with the mandate of heaven. But in a sense he saw himself almost as a deity, alongside the great cosmic spirits."

Around the time the quest for immortality was at its peak, Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: the emperor began to grow increasingly secretive. We are told that one of his fangshi convinced him that the cause of his inability to procure the herbs of immortality was due to black magic exercised by some enemy. To counter the magic, it would be necessary for the emperor to conceal his whereabouts so that the magic could not find its target. Consequently, the emperor had a network of elevated walkways and walled roads constructed so that none would be able to detect his movements. Access to the emperor became restricted to a few high ministers and the emperor’s eunuch attendants. The court began to close down. “Even the heir apparent felt the effects of this change. When, in 212 B.C., he attempted to remonstrate with his father about the growing unpopularity of the state’s increasingly severe policies, the First Emperor ordered his son to leave the capital area and travel to the northern borders to supervise the wall-building activities of General Meng Tian. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“If we consider the entire course of the First Emperor’s career, we can see that he does, in fact, appear to have had a considerable influence on the fate of the Qin Dynasty. The assassination attempt of Jing Ke prior to the conquest suggests that he was no passive patrician lord presiding over a court of talented ministers, he was a key factor in the rise of the Qin. /+/

“After the conquest, the emperor’s active efforts to define the role of the new universal ruler probably contributed to the rapid establishment of Qin authority, as reflected in the astonishing accomplishments that were made during the First Emperor’s eleven-year imperial reign. Later, his personal obsessions with immortality and his willingness to increase the severity of Qin tyranny beyond its productive limit probably laid the foundations for the downfall of Qin. /+/

Xu Fu's expedition for the Elixer of Immortality

Death of Emperor Qin

In 206 B.C.,Qin Shi Huang died at the age of 49, after an 11 year reign, while on a tour his empire. When he died only four people knew about his death. They kept his death secret because of concerns over chaos, murder and war breaking out in a fight for the succession to his throne, and to further their own ambitions. On the trip back to Xian, the smell of Emperor Qin’s dead body was masked by smelly fish.

Dr. Eno wrote: “The gruesome circumstances surrounding the death of the First Emperor delighted Confucian historians throughout the centuries of traditional Chinese history. The First Emperor’s postmortem fate, as portrayed by the “Shiji”, parallels in some respects the dreary fate that met the greatest ruler of the Classical period, Duke Huan of Qi. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“The First Emperor died near Langye, the point from which he had first dispatched Xu Fu to seek the isles of the immortals. The emperor returned there in 210 B.C., accompanied by Li Si, his most intimate eunuch attendant, a man named Zhao Gao, the emperor’s favorite son, a younger boy named Huhai, and a large entourage of eunuchs and palace guards. While at Langye, he dreamed that he was fighting with the spirit of the sea, who appeared to him as a man. A soothsayer of dreams interpreted this as a sign that the emperor’s quest for immortality was, in fact, being obstructed by the spirit of the sea. “The water spirit cannot himself be seen,” he told the king, “but he may appear as a huge fish.”

“This seemed to confirm the reports that the emperor had received from Xu Fu. He ordered that all future expeditions to Penglai be equipped with gear for capturing so great a fish. In the meantime, he himself marched north along the coast, searching for his enemy, the spirit of the sea. At length, he did indeed see a huge fish swimming in the waters near the coast, and using a powerful crossbow, he killed it. But soon thereafter, he fell ill. /+/

“Apparently, the spirit of the sea exacted swift revenge. The emperor died within days. The only people who were aware of the emperor’s death were his son Huhai, Li Si, the eunuch Zhao Gao, and a few of Zhao’s eunuch subordinates. Huhai and the two ministers found themselves faced with a perilous choice. The emperor’s rightful heir was a man of good reputation and a close intimate of General Meng Tian, the most powerful of the Qin military leaders. It was clear to all three men that as soon as the prince was informed of the death of his father, he would cast off Li Si and Zhao Gao and appoint Meng Tian – no friend to either – as prime minister. Huhai, one of twenty sons of the emperor, would live out his life in obscurity. The three hatched a plan. They informed no one among the imperial entourage of the emperor’s death. They continued to carry food to the emperor’s curtained tent or carriage as before. Meanwhile, they forged a letter to the heir apparent in the emperor’s name, instructing him to commit suicide for his unfilial admonitions to his father, and Meng Tian to do likewise. After that had been sent north, they forged a testimonial edict, said to have been entrusted by the emperor to Li Si, designating Huhai as the new heir apparent. Then they ordered the imperial procession to return to the capital. As the weather was hot, the emperor’s corpse soon began to decay, and the plotters ordered that fish be loaded on the carts near the imperial carriage in order to mask the smell. /+/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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