20080216-qinshihuang osu.jpg
One rendering of Emperor Qin Shihuang
Emperor Qin Shi Huang (Qin Shihuang,ruled 221–210 B.C.) is arguably the greatest leader in Chinese history. Sometimes called the "Chinese Caesar," he unified China, founded the Qin Dynasty, gave China its name (in China Qin is pronounced as Chin as well as Qin), built large sections of the Great Wall of China, and was China's first bonafide emperor. He was buried in the world's largest tomb in Xian not far from the famous terra cotta army that was created to honor him and protect him in the afterlife. Qin Shi Huang real name was Ying Zheng. In China, he has always called the First Emperor (Qin Shi Huang) in histories.

Qin was a military adventurer who unified China by conquering and subsuming the six warring states. His achievements came at great human costs though. He imposed absolute order by executing anyone suspected of disloyalty. Thousands were killed in his military campaigns, in his attacks against intellectuals, and among the labor gangs that built the Great Wall and other structures. But in doing all this he brought China together."We wouldn't have a China without Qin Shi Huang," Harvard University's Peter Bol told the BBC. "I think it's that simple."

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: The judgments passed on him vary greatly.: the official Chinese historiography rejects him entirely—naturally, for he tried to exterminate Confucianism, while every later historian was himself a Confucian. Western scholars often treat him as one of the greatest men in world history. Closer research has shown that Qin Shi Huang was evidently an average man without any great gifts, that he was superstitious, and shared the tendency of his time to mystical and shamanistic notions. His own opinion was that he was the first of a series of ten thousand emperors of his dynasty (Qin Shi Huang means "First Emperor"), and this merely suggests megalomania.” [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Ying Zheng was 38 years old when he declared himself Emperor. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “It is difficult to find any parallel in history. He was not a conquering general like King Wu of the Zhou, Alexander in Greece, or Caesar in Rome. There is no hint that as king of the pre-conquest state of Qin Ying Zheng ever ventured into the field of battle to establish his abilities as a leader of men.As a child, his father had been no more than an insignificant junior son with no expectation of succeeding to the throne of Qin. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Good Websites and Sources: Qin Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Emperor Qin Wikipedia Wikipedia ; First Emperor Qin Royalty.nu : Xian : Wikipedia Wikipedia 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: UNESCO World Heritage Site UNESCO ; 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 ; 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)

Emperor Qin Shi Huang and the Creation of China

According to the BBC: When Qin came to power China was a land of many states that had as much in common — in terms of climate, lifestyle and food — as northern Germany and southern Spain. Before Qin, China's multiple states were diverging, rather than converging, Bol told the BBC. "They have different calendars, their writing was starting to vary… the road widths were different, so the axle width is different in different places." [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, October 15, 2012]

Shi Huangdi (First Emperor) took his title after he consolidated his power. The Emperor title was a formulation previously reserved for deities and the mythological sage-emperors. He imposed Qin’s centralized, nonhereditary bureaucratic system on his new empire. In subjugating the six other major states of Eastern Zhou, the Qin kings had relied heavily on Legalist scholar-advisers. Centralization, achieved by ruthless methods, was focused on standardizing legal codes and bureaucratic procedures, the forms of writing and coinage, and the pattern of thought and scholarship. To silence criticism of imperial rule, the kings banished or put to death many dissenting Confucian scholars and confiscated and burned their books. Qin aggrandizement was aided by frequent military expeditions pushing forward the frontiers in the north and south. *

Dr. Eno wrote: “The First Emperor wished to be the founder of dynasty that would last forever. The accomplishments of the Qin were...astonishing. Nevertheless, he has traditionally been regarded as a failure and his ambitions mocked as the grossest form of megalomania. It is true that the Qin Dynasty lasted a mere fifteen years and that the First Emperor himself completed the last of his many imperial tours as a decomposing corpse whose smell was camouflaged by cartloads of rotting fish. How much more astonishing, then, that in so brief a time the Qin managed to thoroughly transform the nature of the Chinese state and establish the structures that would organize and constrain political life in China until the end of the Imperial era in 1911. All this was accomplished before the First Emperor died in 210 B.C., at the age of forty-nine.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University ]

Emperor Qin’s Early Life

Another rendering of Emperor Qin Shi Huang

Qin Shi Huang was born Prince Ying Zheng in 270 B.C. and began his career as an empire builder at the age of 12 or 13 when he inherited the throne of Ch'in Qin, a small kingdom in what is now the Shaanxi region. His kingdom was known for its horsemen and occupied an area regarded as a wasteland inhabited by savages by Chinese further to the east. To remove possible threats to his throne Qin had his mother's lover executed, along with his entire clan. During the first 25 years of his reign he engaged in ruthless battles that led to the annexation of six kingdoms.

A hundred years after Qin’s death the famous historian Sima Qian said of the young king: "With his puffed-out chest like a hawk and voice of a jackal, Qin is a man of scant mercy who has the heart of a wolf. When he is in difficulty he readily humbles himself before others, but when he has got his way, then he thinks nothing of eating others alive. If the Qin should ever get his way with the world, then the whole world will end up his prisoner."

Dr. Eno wrote: “As a child, his father had been no more than an insignificant junior son with no expectation of succeeding to the throne of Qin. A series of strange events had changed all that, but not before the boy Ying Zheng had passed his childhood in the distant state of Zhao, where he had lived in hiding with his commoner mother at a time when his father was rising to power in Qin. Ying Zheng did not even enter the state he was to rule until five years before his accession to the throne. He had inherited the throne when still a boy and faced, during his earliest years, a most difficult type of challenge – his mother was disgraced in a wild sexual scandal and his prime minister and chief mentor, whom some reports claim as his secret father, was involved. Ying Zheng, among his early acts as a young king, was forced to banish his mother and his closest male senior companion and counselor. Now, quite suddenly, this lonely man found the world fall into his absolute power. He now ruled the entire civilized world, as he knew it. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“For those who are curious, the Qin annals record that the Ying clan was founded by the son of a grand-daughter of the Emperor Zhuanxu. It seems that she gave birth to him after a dark bird dropped an egg to her while she was weaving. She swallowed the egg, and the eventual result was the reunification of China. /+/


h3> Merchant Lu Buwei and the Rise of Qin Shi Huang

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “A son of one of the concubines of the penultimate feudal ruler of Qin was living as a hostage in the neighboring state of Chao, in what is now northern Shanxi. There he made the acquaintance of an unusual man, the merchant Lu Buwei, a man of education and of great political influence. Lu Buwei persuaded the feudal ruler of Qin to declare this son his successor. He also sold a girl to the prince to be his wife, and the son of this marriage was to be the famous and notorious Qin Shi Huang. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Lu Buwei came with his protege to Qin, where he became his Prime Minister, and after the prince's death in 247 B.C. Lu Buwei became the regent for his young son Qin Shi Huang (then called Cheng). For the first time in Chinese history a merchant, a commoner, had reached one of the highest positions in the state. It is not known what sort of trade Lu Buwei had carried on, but probably he dealt in horses, the principal export of the state of Chao. As horses were an absolute necessity for the armies of that time, it is easy to imagine that a horse-dealer might gain great political influence.

“Soon after Qin Shi Huang's accession Lu Buwei was dismissed, and a new group of advisers, strong supporters of the Legalist school, came into power. These new men began an active policy of conquest instead of the peaceful course which Lu Buwei had pursued. One campaign followed another in the years from 230 to 222, until all the feudal states had been conquered, annexed, and brought under Qin Shi Huang's rule.

Emperor Qin’s Character

Emperor Qin statue

Dr. Eno wrote: “Chinese historical texts, for all their voluminous records, are among the world’s most barren when it comes to the personal character of rulers; how are we to imagine the psychological stresses that bore upon the conquering ruler of Qin as the Chinese world watched him take his place beside the demi-gods who had founded previous dynasties? No turning point in Chinese history was a more decisive pivot than 221 B.C. Yet, in many ways, none involved a more delicate balance of unstable political and personal factors. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“It is difficult to find significant information concerning the character of the First Emperor prior to the Qin conquest; his role in the politics of Qin is unclear, and there is little specifically pertaining to his personal conduct. This situation is dramatically reversed when we come to the years following the conquest, when, for a time, Ying Zheng, the first “emperor” of China, was by far the most powerful man on earth, overseeing a revolution of unprecedented scale and with an impact lasting to this day. Most of what we know of the First Emperor after the conquest reflects an increasing tendency towards self-aggrandizement, religious obsession, despotism, paranoia, and secrecy.” /+/

“It is possible to view the First Emperor as a passive beneficiary of the system within which he ruled, the talent of his ministers and generals, and the weakened state of Qi and Chu during the time of his rule. However, one famous event suggests, if the accounts we have of it are at all accurate, that the First Emperor was seen as the controlling force of Qin politics. That event is the failed assassination attempt of Jing Ke,” described below. Jing Ke had an opportunity to kill the great Emperor Qin but failed to do so. /+/

Story of Jing Ke

Dr. Eno wrote: “Jing Ke was a native of Wey who was well educated and skilled in swordsmanship. He seems to have attempted a career as a persuader, but failing to attain any position in Wey he began a life of wandering and eventually wound up in the state of Yan. In Yan, a famous swordsman recognized that Jing had great qualities as a man of valor and became his patron. Jing himself lived a life of insignificance in Yan, keeping company with a dog butcher and a lute player named Gao, with whom he would drink in the marketplace day after day until all three collapsed in maudlin tears, moved by Gao’s remarkable musical abilities.[Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, based Shiji 86 from “The Shinji” (94 B.C.) by Sima Qian /+/ ]

“About 230 B.C., the crown prince of Yan, who had been residing in Qin as a diplomatic hostage, fled back to his home state in resentment over the poor treatment he had received at the hands of King Zheng of Qin. Holding this grudge against Qin, he became alarmed to see the forces of Qin begin their march eastward, destroying the state of Han and threatening the other eastern states. /+/

“Shortly thereafter, a General Fan of Qin who had committed some offense against the throne fled to Yan, where he was harbored by the crown prince. The prince’s advisors were anxious to return the general to Qin, but the prince would not hear of any plan that would accord with wishes of Qin. Understanding, however, the danger of openly provoking the king of Qin in this way, the prince set out to find a man who could relieve the threat of Qin by assassinating King Zheng. His courtiers recommended the swordsman who had become Jing Ke’s patron, but when they met, the man disappointed him. /+/

““They say,” the swordsman said to the prince, “that when a thoroughbred is in its prime it can gallop 1000 li in a day, but when it is old, the weakest nag can outdistance it. It seems that you have heard reports of how I was in my prime and do not realize that now my strength has left me. Nevertheless, I have a friend named Master Jing who could be consulted for a task serving the state.”

Jing Ke’s Plan to Assassinate Emperor Qin

Dr. Eno wrote: “The prince eagerly requested an interview, but added, as the swordsman departed, “These matters are of vital concern to the state. Please do not let a word of this leak out!”The swordsman sought out Jing Ke and conveyed to him the wishes of the prince. Then, speaking of the prince’s caution to keep silent he said, “If my actions have given him cause to mistrust me, I am not a worthy warrior. When you visit the prince, tell him that I died without betraying him.” And with that he slit his throat and died. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, based Shiji 86 (94 B.C.) by Sima Qian /+/ ]

“The death of his patron not only spurred Jing Ke on to serve the prince, but assured that the prince would trust Jing Ke to the utmost. Together they set out to determine how Jing Ke could either coerce a favorable peace with the king of Qin or assassinate him. But how was Jing Ke to gain admission to the Qin court?Jing Ke proposed to kill General Fan and carry his head to Qin as a token of Yan’s submission, so that he could, in presenting this trophy, come close to the person of the king. But the prince refused. “I could never bear to betray the trust of a worthy man for the sake of my own wishes,” he said. “I must ask that you think of some other plan.”

Despite this, Jing Ke decided to go directly to General Fan. “In retaliation for your actions,” he said, “Qin has killed your parents and all the members of your family. I am told that Qin has offered a reward of 1000 catties of gold and a city of 10,000 households for your head. What shall we do?” Then he revealed his plan. “Give me your head so that I can present it to the king of Qin! He will surely receive me with delight. Then with my left hand I will grab hold of his sleeve and with my right I will stab him in the chest – your wrongs will all be avenged.” Baring his shoulder, General Fan stepped towards Jing Ke. “Day and night I gnash my teeth and eat out my heart searching for some plan. Now you have shown me the way!” And with this he slit his throat and died.” /+/

Assassination attempt of Emperor Qin

Jing Ke’s Attempt to Assassinate Emperor Qin

Dr. Eno wrote: “The prince was greatly upset, but had no choice now but to carry forth Jing Ke’s plan. He equipped him with an assistant and gave him a set of maps to the state of Yan as a further token of good faith to Qin. He ordered that a stiletto dagger with a poisoned tip be cast and prepared for Jing Ke’s mission, and had it tested on several men, all of whom died instantly. Then Jing Ke set out. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, based Shiji 86 (94 B.C.) by Sima Qian /+/ ]

“At the crossing of the River Yi, the party of men who had joined to send off Jing Ke and his assistant stopped to sacrifice to the spirit of the road and bid their friend farewell. Gao the lute player began to play and Jing Ke stood forward and sang:
Xiao, xiao, cries the wind,
and the waters of the Yi run cold;
The brave warrior, once he has gone,
will never again return.
As all the followers wept, Jing set off without so much as looking back. /+/

“The king of Qin was so delighted with the news that an envoy had arrived from Yan bearing the head of General Fan that he called a full court assembly to receive him. Jing Ke entered the palace throne room carrying the box with General Fan’s head, his assistant trailing behind with the case of maps. But before they had reached the throne, the assistant’s courage ran out and he began to tremble visibly, attracting the attention of the courtiers. Jing Ke turned, and realizing that all was about to be lost he let out a great laugh. “This bumpkin from the northern borders is trembling to see the Son of Heaven! Pardon him, your majesty! Let me complete my mission to you.” Then taking the map case along with General Fan’s head, he approached the throne and presented them to the king. /+/

“When the king opened the container of maps, the dagger was revealed. Jing Ke had hidden it there because the laws of Qin forbade any man to carry arms in court in order to safeguard the person of the king. Jing Ke instantly seized the dagger and gripped the king by the sleeve. But instead of plunging the knife, he hesitated, intending first to whisper to the king a proposal for peace and release him if it were accepted. /+/

“The king, however, did not hesitate. He leapt from the throne, ripping his sleeve, and dashed away from Jing Ke, his scabbard tangled in his robes so that he could not draw his sword. Jing Ke pursued him to a bronze pillar and the two began a chase around the pillar while the unarmed courtiers watched helplessly. Only the king’s physician attempted to intervene, thrashing at Jing Ke with his medicine bag. Eventually, the king was able to push back his scabbard and draw his sword. He slashed Jing Ke in the thigh, and as he fell, Jing Ke hurled the poisoned dagger at the king. But the dagger struck the pillar and the king was saved. He cut down Jing Ke, who soon lay sprawled against the pillar, laughing.“I failed because I tried to threaten you without killing you!” he cried. And then the king’s guard silenced him forever.” /+/

Aftermath and Meaning of of Jing Ke’s Assassination Attempt of Emperor Qin

Dr. Eno wrote: “Yan fell in 222 B.C., and after the conquest, the First Emperor made every effort to hunt down all the men who had been involved in the assassination attempt. His agents failed, however, to find the lutenist Gao, who went into hiding and covered up his skills as a lutenist in fear that he would be identified. But after a time, his skills came to light and his fame spread, and at length he was summoned to play for the emperor. As he played, an attendant identified him, and the emperor, unable to bear killing so fine a musician, ordered that Gao’s eyes be put out. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, based Shiji 86 (94 B.C.) by Sima Qian /+/ ]

“Later, the emperor often ordered that Gao be brought to court to play, and Gao, each time he was led into court, would move his mat a bit closer to the emperor. At last, when he believed the emperor no longer feared him, Gao hid a heavy lead weight in his lute and approached nearly to the side of the throne. Then, in the midst of his playing, he suddenly raised his lute and attempted to strike the emperor dead. But once again, the emperor dodged an assassin, and Gao was immediately executed, ending the last breath of Jing Ke’s plot. /+/

“While assassinations of rulers were about as common as dinner parties in Classical China, etiquette demanded that one murder one’s own lord, not the ruler of another state. The accepted goal of assassination was the acquisition of power, although personal revenge could also play a role (recall the attempts of Wu Zixu to bring about the death of the king of Chu, and General Fan’s role here). We do not often see assassination employed as a part of state policy because rulers were not generally the determining factor in an enemy state’s political behavior. To sabotage a state, it was far more effective to murder or bribe key ministers, or to bring about their downfall by means of slander. /+/

“The plot of Jing Ke and the prince of Yan may be viewed as a personal matter – the prince had been slighted in Qin, and the “Shiji” tells us that his resentment was strong because he had been a boyhood friend of the First Emperor when both were sons of royal hostages in the state of Zhao. But the political goals of the assassination figure in every version of the story. All who recorded it saw it as an attempt to deflect the whirlwind military campaigns of Qin by eliminating their guiding force, the king – not Li Si.: /+/

Zhang Yimou’s Movie About Jing Ke’s Attempt to Assassinate Emperor Qin

Famed Chinese film director Zhang Yimou’s made a movie about Jing Ke’s failed attempt to assassinate Emperor Qin. The film known as “Hero” was a big-budget, big-name, Hollywood-style epic star film released in 2002. Described by Time magazine as a “a masterpiece” and by the Los Angeles Times as a “visual knockout," it is a dazzling, visual film, noted for its stunning use of color and imaginative use of “Crouching Tiger”-style digitalized action sequences. The censors in Beijing liked it too but some international critics condemned it as overproduced and silly and some Chinese critics claimed it promoted servility and glossed over the horrible things done by Emperor Qin. “Hero” expresses support for the idea that an all-powerful state is necessary to preserve unity and stability.Some critics panned Hero as being an “implicit homage to authoritarian rule." Government critics hailed it as a “new starting point."

Like the classic Rashomon, a single story is told several times from different perspectives as the assassin struggles to overcomes three rivals. The film is divided into three main sections, each dominated by a single color---red, blue and white, with green thrown in for flashbacks. The blue scenes were shot at the beautiful lakes in the Jiuzhaigou region of China and were said to be inspired by the lake's color. The white scene were shot in desert near the Kazakhstan border.

Hero was the most internationally successful Chinese film export until the mid 2000s and remains one of the top-grossing foreign-language films to appear in American theaters. Costing $30 million to make, Hero features grand battle scenes, martial art choreography and big names like Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi. It was a box office smash in China, where it ranked second only to Titanic as the highest grossing film ever in China. The United States version— with an imprimatur from Quenton Tarantino and with 20 minutes edited out to speed up the pace and make it more palatable to American audiences---came out in 2004. It broke box office records there for an Asian film. As of early 2005 it had earned $53.5 million in the United States and $155 million worldwide. The Chinese government lobbied hard to get the film an Academy Award nomination in 2002 for best foreign film and then lobbied hard to get it to win.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Emperor Qin, Early Great Wall, Ohio State University.

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; 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 \=/; 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 August 2021

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