The First Emperor of China

Qin Shi Huangdi (pronounced “Chin Shuh Wongdee”)

In the ancient world, before the time of China, the Far East was home to the Warring States, including the state of Qin, otherwise known as the kingdom of Ch’in. One day, the ruler of that land vowed to wage a war to end all wars among the Warring States, thereby allowing Heaven and Earth to come together through civility. So, just as the Punic Wars would determine the fate of the West, this would determine the fate of the East. In this way, Qin Shi Huangdi was able to end centuries of conflict through conquest. At that point, the kingdom of Ch’in became the empire of China. In 221 BCE, the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi, founded a new country. The following year he founded a new dynasty. This is the story of his epic struggle and tragic demise.

It all began in the year 260 BCE when Prince Yiren of Qin went to temporarily reside in the kingdom of Zhou. He had gone to the court there in an effort to guarantee an armistice between the state of Qin and the state of Zhao. The thing is that, while he was in the neighboring kingdom, Prince Yiren fell in love with a beautiful concubine who belonged to a wealthy merchant named Lu Buwei. More importantly, to their surprise, he actually consented for Lady Zhao to marry Prince Yiren. Following this, in 259 BCE, she brought a little baby boy into the world. His name was Zhao Zheng. Later, in 250 BCE, Prince Yiren became King Zhuangxiang of Qin, and his wife became Queen Zhao Ji. This turned their son into a noble prince. Then, as fate would have it, in 246 BCE King Zhuangxiang died. So, he was succeeded on the throne by Prince Zheng, who had just become a teenager.

Since the boy was still so very young, Lu Buwei acted as the Chancellor of State. However, Lu Buwei soon became romantically involved with his former lover, Lady Zhou. Thus, as King Zheng matured, Lu Buwei began to worry that the king might discover his liaison with the boy’s mother. So, Lu Buwei decided to distance himself and look for a replacement for the Queen Dowager. He soon found a man named Lao Ai, who pretended to be a eunuch in order to gain access to the royal court. Eventually, Lao Ai and Zhao Ji secretly had two sons together. Unbeknownst to Zhao Zheng, this was all part of a treasonous plot to dethrone King Zheng and replace him with one of Queen Zhao Ji’s other children. In 238 BCE, Lao Ai even seized the royal seal and mobilized rebel forces in an attempted coup.

Of course, when King Zheng found out what had happened, he ordered Lu Buwei to have the royal soldiers attack hundreds of rebel troops. Although many of them were killed that day, Lao Ai and many others succeeded in fleeing from the skirmish. However, Lao Ai’s supporters were soon captured and beheaded. Then, to make an example of him, Lao Ai was captured, tied up, and torn to pieces by horses. The two sons were also killed and their heads were put on public display. Of course, since she was his mother, Zhao Zheng only exiled Zhao Ji, rather than killing her. Finally, fearing what fate had in store for him, Lu Buwei committed suicide in 235 BCE. Then, and only then, King Zheng was truly able to assume full control of the state of Qin.

It’s important to realize that the East has long been centuries, if not millennia ahead of the West. They even developed the very first military-industrial-complex, complete with the assembly-line manufacture of weapons. They were militarily and technologically centuries ahead of their rivals. As part of this, the Qin worked diplomatically to keep the Warring States at odds with each other to prevent them from forming alliances. The Qin had also learned about the successful use of cavalry from marauding Mongols. Qin soldiers even used extra long chrome-plated bronze swords and halberds. Their knowledge of metallurgy and close combat was way ahead of its time. This gave them a tremendous edge over their opponents. Like the Spartans in the West, they became the fiercest fighting force in the East. This would eventually lead to an army of more than half a million men and the loss of more than a million lives in less than a decade.

Soon, King Zheng set his sights on taking over all the Warring States in a violent reign of conquest, starting with the state of Yan, which was no match for the Qin. As such, the Crown Prince Dan of Yan plotted an assassination attempt to get rid of King Zheng. In 227 BCE, Jing Ke and Qin Wuyang were dispatched to kill the king. Each of the men was supposed to present a gift to King Zheng. One was a map of Dukang and the other gift was the severed head of the treacherous General Fan Wuji. The thing was that when Jing Ke unrolled the map, a hidden dagger was revealed. A struggle then ensued but no one was allowed to approach the throne without permission, so even the guards couldn’t help him. Jing Ke pursued Zhou Zheng, attempting to stab him, but missed. Then, he then threw the dagger but missed again, so King Zheng made his move. In the end, the assassination attempt was thwarted and the culprits were both executed.

In 230 BCE, King Zheng unleashed the final campaigns of the centuries of strife during the Warring States period. He set out to conquer the remaining independent kingdoms, one by one. The first state to fall was the Han. The following year, Zhou Zheng took advantage of natural disasters. His mighty army invaded and then conquered the state of Zhou in 228 BCE. The Qin took down the Yan in 226 BCE, the Wei in 225 BCE, and the Chu in 223 BCE, falling one after the other, like dominoes. The only one left to annex was the state of Qi. So, in 221 BCE, the Qin invaded from the north and successfully defeated the Qi. For the first time ever, the Warring States were all unified. That same year, King Zheng proclaimed himself to be the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi. Moreover, the “di” at the end of this was of the most significance. It meant that he was a star-god, thus making him the divinely ordained link between Heaven and Earth. He was a ruthlessly ambitious revolutionary who took charge in a very Machiavelian meteoric rise to power and established the most enduring culture in the world.

Seven States
One Nation

During his reign of triumph and terror, The First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi enlisted the help of numerous archaic advisers, such as astrologers and alchemists. He became totally obsessed with authority and immortality, wanting the members of his court to provide him with horoscopes and the elixir of life. This way he would know exactly when to do things and he would be able to go on doing them forever, at least that was the plan. Unfortunately for him, at least one of the ingredients that the alchemists gave him was poisonous. They believed that quicksilver was a magical substance, but it makes people “mad as a hatter”. Repeated exposure to soluble mercury gave Qin Shi Huangdi brain damage, kidney damage, and tremors. It even caused him to have extremely vivid hallucinations. This led to increased aggression and then finally total paranoia, turning Qin Shi Huangdi into the Mad Emperor.

One night Qin Shi Huangdi dreamed that he was on the Moon looking down at China where he saw a stone serpent slithering across the northern border protecting his people from harm. Upon awakening, the Mad Emperor instructed his men to connect the various different border walls left over from the Warring States, thereby building a single Great Wall. In this way, Qin Shi Huangdi envisioned the largest man-made structure that has ever been conceived. As such, the Chinese began turning a discontinuous series of barriers into an ancient wonder of the world. Of course, the epic project was a monumental display of national power, not so much a defensive strategy, at least not the way most people think. Unbeknownst to many, the Great Wall of China from the Qin dynasty was actually meant to be a magical barrier that would repel evil spirits coming out of the northern wastelands. The truth is that the single biggest engineering project ever undertaken was originally done in an effort to protect against demons, not nomads.

Since the Mad Emperor feared death and evil spirits so much, he ordered a series of secret tunnels and passageways to be built under 270 different palaces. This was the result of a reading the emperor had received from an Ancient Chinese mystic who told him that traveling unseen would keep him safe. Then, along with overseeing construction on the Great Wall, the Emperor’s loyal subjects worked on a number of other amazing technical feats, like a new national road system. They also worked on an irrigation system which brought more water to the land than ever before. Along with this, the dynastic despot had a major canal built, to help transport more and more supplies to his massive army. This connected two of the nation’s most important waterways, thus allowing shipments to go between north and south China, thereby aiding in China’s expansion into the Korean Peninsula and other parts of Asia. Plus, the most magnificent tomb on Earth was also built during the decade-long reign of the Mad Emperor.

To avoid a recurrence of the previous political instability, Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi and Prime Minister Li Si had abolished feudalism and replaced it with legalism. This strictly rewarded law-keeping and severely punished law-breaking. The system was quite different from the previous dynastic regimes, which consisted of loose alliances and federations. This meant that people no longer had native ties to the former feudal states. They were now part of a single nation instead. The new administration appointed governors to provinces and required a census of citizens. In line with this, appointments became based on merit rather than heredity. Meritocracy replaced aristocracy, save for the dynasty. The emperor found the best of the best at everything. Qin Shi Huangdi also unified China economically by standardizing the currency, weights and measures, and even the length of cart axles to better facilitate transport and commerce along the trade routes. Most importantly, the Chinese script was standardized. This established an official language, thus connecting people like never before.

In sharp contrast to this progress, the golden age of reason would soon come to an end in the East. Qin Shi Huangdi quickly eliminated the Hundred Schools of Thought, which incorporated Confucianism, Taoism, and other important Ancient Chinese philosophies. It’s said that he had hundreds of scholars buried alive for refusing to let go of their beliefs. Qin Shi Huangdi is also responsible for the world’s first book burning which began in 213 BCE. Countless bamboo scrolls were foolishly destroyed, with certain texts like the Book of Songs and the Classic of History being specifically targeted. The only texts that were spared were books on astrology, agriculture, medicine, divination, and the history of the state of Qin. As such, the iconoclastic edicts more or less completely destroyed centuries of learning. Legalism was the only school of thought that wasn’t banned. It became the endorsed ideology of China which then required people to follow the laws of the empire or be punished accordingly. Qin Shi Huangdi demanded complete obedience from his subjects with the ever-present threat of death keeping them under his thumb.

The Mad Emperor was well aware of the fact that he was despised by most of China and it troubled him deeply. The older he got the more Qin Shi Huangdi worried about dying, particularly at the hands of his own people. He feared losing everything that he had amassed in nearly no time at all. So, he devised a way to take it all with him, in case he couldn’t find a way to live forever. In antiquity, it was believed that those with the biggest tomb and the highest number of grave goods would have the best afterlife. Thus, Qin Shi Huangdi had thousands of life-sized terracotta soldiers individually sculpted and painted by hand. They were made to contain the bravest souls of the royal guard. In this way, it was believed that his army could protect him until the end of time. They still stand watch over a tomb filled with countless riches making up a scale model of China, including copper walls, silver and gold ducks and geese, jade foliage, waterways of flowing mercury, and even diamonds and pearls in the ceiling to symbolize the stars and planets in the night sky. Plus, this is all protected by numerous different kinds of booby traps, which are all meant to help keep the enshrined emperor safe for eternity.

Oddly enough, during the year 211 BCE, a large meteor fell in the lower reaches of the Yellow River. On it, someone inscribed a message:


“The First Emperor will die and his land will be divided.”

By this point in his life, the poison-induced hallucinations had become quite severe. So, of course, when the Mad Emperor heard about what had happened, he sent out an imperial secretary to thoroughly investigate the matter. Since no one would confess to having written the prophecy, all of the people living nearby were put to death. The stone was even burned and pulverized in an effort to cover up the portend of an improper rule. Regardless, both the celestial and terrestrial warnings turned out to be correct. In 210 BCE, Qin Shi Huangdi was declared dead. In the end, the Ancient Chinese elixir of life turned out to be an elixir of death. The court physicians who were tasked with extending his life had actually shortened it instead. His poisoned body simply went the way of his poisoned mind.

The First Emperor of China was eventually laid to rest in the greatest tomb ever built, complete with the finest treasures in the Ancient Far East. Thousands of people were buried alive with his interred remains, including concubines, engineers, architects, artisans, and more. Everyone who knew the way in or out was locked inside, and to this very day, his tomb still remains undisturbed. This only adds to the overall immensity of his legacy. Qin Shi Huangdi was one of the most important people in the whole of human history and his tomb stands as a testament to that fact. When you really think about it, conquerors like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan held the fate of the world in their hands and the same can be said of Qin Shi Huangdi. China has accomplished many great things in the last twenty-two centuries and none of it would have been made possible were it not for the achievements of one man. Ultimately, the world would be a much different place had it not been for the Mad Emperor. Such is the awesome power of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi.

May he rest in peace forever…

An Eclectic Autodidact Polymath Essayist

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