He was the first man to rule over a united China after years of separate states warring with each other. Qin Shi Huang’s life and legacy have been subjected to much study, and for good reason. He oversaw massive construction projects which still exist today and he helped shape China’s history to an extent that very few others have done. Read on to discover more about this legendary emperor!
1. An Emperor by Any Other Name
Qin Shi Huang’s name means "First Emperor of Qin". As you can imagine, he only took this name when he assumed power. His birth name was either Ying Zheng or Zhao Zheng, depending on who’s writing.
2. Where’s His Birth Certificate?
Qin was born on February 18, 259 BC. Given how far back that goes, and given the lack of writing to confirm, no one knows exactly where he was born. We do know that it was likely in the state of Zhao, where his father was at the time (more on that later).
3. Hindsight is 20/20
While you might expect the man who united China into one empire to be praised and revered within China, the exact opposite is more often the case. Traditional Chinese histories often portray Qin as a ruthless man with a barbaric thirst for blood and a man who was paranoid over his mortality—and that’s even with all his accomplishments as China’s first emperor. We’ll go into the reasons why that is the case, but it’s safe to say that Qin is one of the most polarizing figures in the history of China.
4. For the Sake of Ease
Qin Shi Huang spent part of his adult life as a king of one of the independent Chinese states that warred with each other. After he united these states, Qin assumed the title of emperor. Keep this in mind while reading the article; we’ll call him a king or emperor depending on what he was calling himself at the time.
5. How I Met Your Mother
Qin’s father was Yiren, the prince of the state of Qin. According to the histories, Yiren met Qin’s mother when he was living as a captive in the state of Zhao to guarantee the continuation of a peace treaty. At the time, Qin’s future mom was the concubine of a wealthy merchant named Lu Buwei. Yiren fell in love with said concubine and persuaded Lu to let them marry.
She was known as Lady Zhao thereafter, in reference to the region where she came from.
6. Not Quite as Impressive as You Thought
Understandably, Qin Shi Huang was the founder of the Qin dynasty, named after himself and the state which he’d ruled as king. It was the first dynasty in the history of Imperial China, beginning in 221 BC. Unfortunately for Qin, it was a very short-lived dynasty, ending in 206 BC, less than 20 years later. Some of you have had pets that lived longer than that dynasty did!
7. Rumors with a Motive
Given the lowborn status of Qin’s mother as a concubine to a merchant, a dark theory emerged about his parentage. Rumors spread that he was actually the illegitimate son of said merchant, rather than Prince Yiren. This idea has often been dismissed in recent times as merely being an attempt to slander Qin’s legacy. It’s worth pointing out that Confucian China considered a merchant to be part of the lowest of social classes, and Confucians had quite a few reasons to hate Qin (more on that later).
8. Change of Plans
Qin’s father reigned as King of the Qin state for just three years. While the exact cause is unknown, the king died when Qin was only 13 years old. As Qin was too young to rule, a regent ruled in his stead. Interestingly, this regent was none other than Lu Buwei, the merchant whom Qin’s mother had served as a concubine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Qin’s mother reacquainted herself with Lu, perhaps for old times’ sake?
9. The Downfall of the Ambitious
The irony of Qin’s life is that while he oversaw a period that greatly shaped China in the long run, his own dynasty was very short-lived. Because he so feared death, Qin never dared to make a will. With no official documentation, people presumed Qin’s heir was his eldest son, Fusu. However, Qin’s former Prime Minister, Li Si, was sure that Fusu would remove him from power—so he came up with a dark plot.
Li Si falsified a letter from Qin which instructed Fusu to kill himself—and amazingly, this worked! With the demise of Fusu, Li Si crowned a younger son of Qin as Qin Er Shi. Unfortunately, Li Si’s plot to keep his power was undone due to the very person he made Emperor. Qin Er Shi was ill-suited to replace his father, and the Qin dynasty collapsed in a sea of rebellions and revolts. In its place was the Han dynasty, which ruled China for 400 years.
10. Impressive Final Resting Place
In preparation for the end, Qin ordered the construction of a massive tomb that contained an army to protect him in the afterlife. These eternal warriors were fashioned out of terracotta. Incredibly, Qin arranged for the construction on the tomb to begin when he first became king at 13 years old. Work on the tomb continued for decades, allegedly requiring the labor of 700,000 men (though some historians have pointed out that this number is likely just a little exaggerated).
The Terracotta Army, as this collection of statues is named, featured more than 40,000 bronze armaments, 520 horses, 130 chariots, and over 8,000 soldiers—even some non-military figures were included in the massive tomb. Believe it or not, when the tomb was finally finished, it was bigger than any city which existed at that point in human history! It is currently registered as a World Heritage Site.
11. Dead Men Tell No Tales
Reportedly, once Qin’s tomb—including the entire Terracotta Army—was completed, most of the workers who built it were put to the sword. This was done in order to keep the secrets of how the tomb was laid out and where treasures could be found from potential grave robbers. Frankly, though, that’s not the severance pay we’d ever ask for!
12. He Must Die
Qin Shi Huang was an ambitious king from almost the very start of his reign. One of his first targets was the state of Yan. It was clear that they could not oppose Qin, so in 227 BC, the crown prince of that state-organized an attempt on Qin's life. Two men, Jing Ke and Qin Wuyang, were to approach Qin with gifts, only to fatally stab him with daggers before he could defend himself.
Since it was forbidden to bear arms in the king’s court, the plan seemed to be an effective one.
13. When Things Go Wrong…
Unfortunately for the would-be assassins of Qin, their attempt in 227 BC was a disaster. First, one of the would-be assassins lost his nerve, so the other man had to go it alone. Then, Qin proved quicker with his reflexes and drew his sword to strike back. In desperation, Jing Ke flung his dagger at the king, but it missed. Qin made Jing pay for the attempt by inflicting eight wounds upon Jing with his sword.
14. Another Failed Plot
Speaking of Jing Ke, he had a friend who took his demise at Qin’s hands less than well. Even though he was a lute player by trade, Gao Jianli was determined to avenge Jing (forgetting that Jing had been trying to assassinate Qin prior to dying). Gao made his way to the king’s court and catered to Qin’s famous love of music. However, he was identified by a courtier who knew of his friendship to Jing. What a bad stroke of luck for Gao!
15. Magnanimous over Music
Presented with yet another would-be assassin, Qin surprisingly didn’t have him executed. Gao Jianli was such a skilled musician that Qin couldn’t bring himself to have him slain. Instead, he ordered Gao to be blinded, but he also kept him around to play music!
16. Brotherly Conflict
In order to secure his father’s kingship, Qin had to deal with his half-brother. Zhao Chengjiao had also been born to Qin’s father, and he took issue with Qin becoming the new king. This resulted in rebellion, but Zhao proved unable to oust Qin from power. He fled for his life, leaving his followers and their families to be executed by Qin.
17. A New Friend
When Qin assumed his father’s kingship, it would have been protocol to have the former regent become chancellor. However, with Lu Buwei’s exile, Qin chose another man. This was Li Si, and he proved to be one of the most important figures in Qin’s life. During the regency period, Qin spent many hours speaking with Li, and the two men bonded over the dream of getting the Chinese states into one kingdom.
18. Down with Tribalism!
In 237 BC, Qin Shi Huang was urged to expel all foreigners from his state to prevent espionage (this included Chinese people who weren’t from that state). This would have meant expelling his friend Li Si, who was originally from the Chu state. Li actually took it upon himself to defend the rights of foreigners in Qin’s kingdom, and his arguments were so persuasive that Qin promoted him.
19. Repackaged for Entertainment
Jing Ke’s attempt on Qin's life inspired the plot of the 2002 Chinese action film Hero, released in 2002. Jet Li stars as a nameless protagonist who may or may not be an assassin sent to kill the king (you'll have to watch the movie to find out!). At the time, Hero was one of the most expensive Chinese films ever made, and it went on to become one of the highest-grossing films in Chinese film history.
20. Oh the Drama!
You might be wondering just what kind of hint Qin needed to realize that his courtier was shacking up with his mom and producing children. Qin allegedly didn’t find out until a drunken Lao Ai, feasting with friends, began bragging that he was the king’s stepfather. To be honest, we’re wondering how Qin missed the two boys that his mom gave birth to!
21. No Second Chances
Despite Qin’s desire to keep his failed assassin, the blinded Gao Jianli, as his personal musician, Gao wasn’t deterred from trying to kill the king, even after he was blinded. Gao once again relied on his incredible music playing to lull Qin into a false sense of security. The plan actually worked well enough that Qin allowed the blind musician to come close to him. Prior to playing, Gao fastened a piece of lead to his lute, so he swung the weighted instrument at Qin, hoping to bludgeon the king.
Of course, being blind did hamper his assassination attempt, and Qin evaded the strike. This time, he granted Gao no mercy and had him executed.
22. Long-Awaited Vengeance
As was mentioned, Qin’s father lived in the Zhao state as a captive, along with his young son. In 229 BC, the adult monarch was able to avenge his and his father’s treatment after a series of natural disasters greatly weakened the Zhao state. The state was conquered within a year, even as Qin sought out his surviving enemies and dealt them a cruel end.
23. Right Hand Man
In his efforts to unite the Chinese states with standardized laws and language, Qin's chancellor Li Si worked tirelessly to aid him. When Qin became emperor, Li became the Prime Minister. Li held this position for many years, serving not just Qin, but his successor as well.
24. My Way or No Way
One of the less pleasant aspects of Qin’s rule as emperor (which in turn led to some of his cruelest atrocities) was his targeting of free thought. In his determination to unite China under one system, Qin suppressed any philosophy or study that he didn’t agree with, or which he thought could be a threat to his power.
25. Did He, or Didn’t He?
One philosophy that met Qin’s ire was Confucianism. Arguably Qin’s most ghastly action was allegedly ordering more than 450 Confucian scholars to be buried alive. However, the source that details the atrocity comes from long after Qin’s demise, and recent studies have created the suspicion that this story may be propaganda invented to vilify Qin’s legacy. Either way, however, Qin was certainly an enemy of Confucianism.
26. Change is in the Air
One of the biggest steps Qin Shi Huang took to cement his rule over a united China was abolishing feudalism. Instead, the newly formed Chinese Empire was divided into regions known as commanderies. This severed ties that people might have had to their former states. Not only that, appointments in the empire under Qin were merit-based instead of hereditary.
27. Time for a Trip to Hot Topic!
Under Qin, the royal color became black. He had all of his clothes, flags, and pennants embroidered in the color. This represented Qin's belief in the philosophy of the five elements (earth, wood, metal, water, fire). His birth element was water, and water was represented by black.
28. Lost in Adaptation
As you can imagine, Qin’s life has been the inspiration for several films and television series produced by Hong Kong and Chinese film industries. Among the series produced about Qin were Qin Shi Huang, A Step Into the Past, and Rise of the Great Wall.
29. Busy Father
Throughout his reign, Qin Shi Huang never seems to have named an empress to sit beside him. Don’t be mistaken about his love life, however. Qin had several concubines, with whom he had around 50 children (most of whose names are lost to history).
30. Fahrenheit 451
In an act that would make his reign infamous, Qin ordered the widespread burning of books, beginning in 213 BC. Some subjects were spared the blaze; books about agriculture, medicine, astrology, divination, and the history of the Qin state were allowed to continue existing. Qin was concerned with books that compared his reign with the past, but he also wanted to eliminate old writing systems to replace them with his own standardized language.
31. Take Notes, Venice!
In 214 BC, Emperor Qin organized the construction of a vast canal that would connect the north of China with the south of China by linking two major Chinese waterways. The Lingqu Canal is widely recognized as one of the very best accomplishments of Ancient Chinese engineering. An expression from antiquity states, "In the North, there is the Great Wall, but in the South, there is the Lingqu Canal".
Qin didn't build the canal for very altruistic reasons, however. He had a much darker purpose: he built it so that he could attack the indigenous Baiyue tribes living in the south.
32. A Random Name Drop
While most of the films which have portrayed Qin have been Chinese in origin, the emperor did become part of the backstory to the 1986 Hollywood film Big Trouble in Little China. Directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell, the film takes place in the present (1980s present) but deals with an ancient wizard who was cursed by Qin after defeating him in battle. The film wasn’t a success during its time but has since become hailed as a cult classic which has inspired a board game, a card game, and a comic book series.
33. Let’s Try It Again
In 230 BC, Qin Shi Huang was making strides in his conquests of the Chinese states, having just defeated the Han state. One nobleman of that fallen state, Zhang Liang, plotted vengeance. He hired a strongman to join him in an ambush against Qin.
34. Ah-Ha! I Saw it Coming!
The third attempt on Qin’s life relied on perhaps the strangest plot concocted by Qin’s enemies. Hiding along a mountain trail where Qin would be traveling, Zhang Liang and the strongman waited for Qin’s carriage to approach their position. The strongman then threw a large, metal cone that weighed around 160 pounds into Qin’s carriage. However, Qin had anticipated possible assassination attempts, and so had sent out a carriage identical to his own as a decoy.
We’re not sure if he also anticipated the heavy metal cone part, but we can’t imagine that he was that crazy!
35. Playing the Big Baddie
Qin makes an appearance in the long-running Magic Tree House children’s books. In this series of a boy and girl traveling through time and space with the aid of a treehouse, they come face-to-face with Qin in the 1998 novel Day of the Dragon King. The protagonists must rescue a book from the book burnings ordered by the emperor, who is known as the Dragon King in the book.
36. They’ll Upgrade it in the Future
Qin was responsible for the construction of a wall that was a precursor to the Great Wall of China. After a campaign against northern tribes led to a bloody stalemate, the emperor wished to enforce the Chinese border. A huge wall was built, requiring hundreds of thousands of laborers. Part of this wall actually connected pre-existing walls built during the Warring States Period.
37. Have You Tried Horcruxes?
Qin Shi Huang grew to love his life as emperor so much that he was terrified of dying. This fear grew worse the older he got. Qin began falling victim to stories of elixirs that would give him the gift (or curse) of immortality. Unfortunately for him, he never did find one that actually existed.
38. Bloodthirsty and Proud of It
Qin’s persecution of intellectuals during his reign as emperor has become a stain on his legacy, but one man saw it as an inspiration. Even worse, that man happened to be Mao Zedong, who became the chairman of the People’s Republic of China. His own persecution of intellectuals was compared to the First Emperor, and he actually took the time to address that comparison.
Mao stated, "He buried 460 scholars alive; we have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive... You [intellectuals] revile us for being Qin Shi Huangs. You are wrong. We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold. When you berate us for imitating his despotism, we are happy to agree! Your mistake was that you did not say so enough". Oh boy…
39. Salacious Court Gossip
During Qin’s regency period, his mother, Lady Zhang, not only became Lu Buwei’s lover, but she also became particularly interested in Lao Ai, a retainer in Lu’s employ. One reason for this attraction was, and this was explicitly written in ancient sources, that Lao was very well-endowed.
40. He's Into It?
Lu Buwei allegedly supported Lady Zhang's bedroom escapades—or at least, believed it was in his best interest to keep her happy. He even masterminded a plot to spread a rumor that Lao Ai had been castrated, eliminating any suspicion that he and Lady Zhang were lovers.
41. That Ended Poorly
Things came to a head between the adult Qin and his mother when she became pregnant with Lao Ai's child and the two of them devised a chilling plot. They planned to depose Qin and install their illegitimate sons on the throne instead. They launched a revolt in 238 BC, but Qin was victorious in quashing it. Lao and his illegitimate sons were executed, while Qin’s mother was stripped of any authority.
For his association with the plotters (you know, the whole eunuch charade), Lu Buwei was exiled, only for him to take his own life while on the run.
42. Royal Sadist
Qin Shi Huang was definitely one for finding creative (and painful) ways to execute his enemies. Lao Ai, the dowager queen’s secret lover, me this end by being tied to horse carriages and torn into five pieces. His two sons were wrapped in sacks and battered to death. No wonder Lu Buwei took his own life rather than be caught by Qin!
43. Your Days are Numbered
If the written histories can be trusted, a rather unique meteor foreshadowed Qin’s demise. Falling to earth in China around 211 BC, it was inscribed with the words, "The First Emperor will die and his land will be divided". When Qin found out about the inscription (which he assumed a human wrote after the meteor fell), he sought out the person who inscribed the prophecy.
Nobody confessed (shocker) so the emperor had everyone who lived around the area executed just in case, then had the meteor destroyed. It was to no avail, however; he perished shortly after, on September 10, 210 BC.
44. Well, This is Awkward…
The irony of Qin’s desire to make himself immortal is that this very desire was likely what resulted in his end. The prevailing theory behind Qin’s demise is that it came about due to mercury pills. At the time, these were used by alchemists in the hope that they would help produce an elixir. Whoops!