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About China > History > Emperors > Famous Emperors
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Qin Shihuang

Emperor Qin Shihuang (also called the First Emperor of China) was the founder of the first unified empire in the history of China. He established an autocratic state with centralized power over the feudal society.

Qin Shihuang, named Yingzheng, was born in Hanan in the late Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256BC). Legend has it that his father, prince of the Qin State, was held hostage in the State of Zhao until Lu Buwei, a wealthy merchant secured their release back to the Qin. Finding that his own wife, who was an exceedingly beautiful woman, was pregnant, Lu Buwei managed to inspire the prince with great love for her. With apparent reluctance Lu Buwei granted the prince's request of his wife, for Lu thought in due time his own offspring would have the acknowledged heir to the throne. When the prince became King Zhuang Xiang of Qin, he made Lu his prime minister, and for the next ten years Lu was the ruling force in the state. 

When King Zhuang Xiang died, his son, or, rather, Lu Buwei's son, came to the throne. This boy of thirteen may be considered the real founder of the Qin Dynasty. His name was Yingzheng, better known as Qin Shihuang (246-221BC), and took over the reins of government at twenty-two.

When he grew up, he discovered that his mother had been guilty of the gravest immoralities with Lu Bubei, and that Lu revealed that he was his natural father. He at once banished his mother to a fortress and dismissed Lu Buwei from his office and sent him home to his estate, with a warning that any indiscretion of Lu Buwei would be severely punished. At last, being afraid of the king's vengeance Lu Buwei poisoned himself.

With assistance of wise and innovative men, Yingzheng carried out a series of reforms to develop agriculture and the military. Qin rose rapidly among the warring states at that period. During his reign, Yingzheng succeeded in putting down internal rebellions, and, externally, waged wars for unification on the other six states. It took him only ten years to wipe them out, thus putting an end to the state of chaos caused by rival principalities. When Qin defeated the other six states in 221BC, for the first time in history, China became a unified centralized state, Qin. Yingzheng assumed the title "Shihuangdi" as he considered his achievement surpassed those of "San Huang" (three previous emperors) and "Wu Di" (five previous emperors), legendary rulers in remote antiquity. "Shi" which means the first, combined with "Huangdi", the given names of his predecessors signifies his supremacy over them.

To organize his new empire, Qin Shihuang abolished the existing feudal system. He established prefectures and counties with further townships. These were put under the control of military and administrative officials who were his direct appointees. The state was divided into thirty-six prefectures with counties under their jurisdiction. Besides, roads radiating from Xianyang, the capital, were built linking the former Yan, Qi, Wu and Chu areas. He also standardized the script used for writing, the coinage, introducing a circular copper coin with a square hole in the center. Equally important reforms were the standardization of weights and measures, and codification of the law. These reforms benefited both the economy and cultural exchange during the period.

To strengthen the northern border, the Emperor sent slaves and criminals to build the line of defense now known as the Great Wall.

To silence criticism of imperial rule, in the 34th year (213BC) of the Qin Dynasty, Emperor Qin Shihuang decided to burn all the books in the empire and to execute those scholars and their families who opposed his rule. His command was remarkably efficient, and all historical records but those of the Qin State were burned. The second year, the emperor arrested approximately 460 Confucian scholars and buried them alive in Xianyang City, Shaanxi Province.

To reinforce his rule, Qin Shihuang practiced autocracy, imposing harsh laws and severe punishments and heavy levies and corves upon his people. Moreover, he levied war year after year and thus caused untold sufferings to the people.

Qin shihuang ruled by terror and spent massive amount of money to build extravagant palaces and his tomb. After five big travels across the country and the building of the Great Wall, China was in debt financially and people lived in terrible conditions. All this strengthened people's hatred towards the emperor and sped the fall of the Qin.

Qin shihuang believed in a medicine that could make him eternal. A group of doctors prescribed him a medicine that had a small dose of mercury in it. This mercury poisoned Qin shihuang and was what eventually killed him. He died while away from his capital on tour in 210BC. His demise sparked uprisings across the country. The second son Hu Hai of Qin Shihuang took over the throne. Hu Hai was even of inferior quality than his late father. He neglected his responsibilities as emperor and allowed the eunuch Zhao Gao to govern the country on his behalf.

In 206BC, the Qin Dynasty of Emperor II, 900 laborers were on a long march to Yuyang. It seemed impossible for them to get there in time, owing to a long spell of strong wind and heavy rain, which stopped them at Daxexiang. According to Qin's cruel rules, they would all be put to death. So Chen Shen and Wu Guang, of the 900 laborers, killed the officers, raised the standard of revolt, and led the first great peasant uprising in China's history. Very soon they captured the Ji County. People from every corner of the country came thick and fast to join Chen, as Emperor II was an unbearable tyrant. Chen won battle after battle, and later called himself Emperor of Zhang Chu. The Qin dynasty ended in 206BC.

Qin Shihuang, though on the throne for little more than a decade, had a tremendous influence on the Chinese civilization. He laid the foundation for a unified Chinese nation, and is called by posterity "An Emperor of Myriads of Ages". A reformer as well as tyrant, Qin Shihuang, left to posterity his immense and monumental Qin Mausoleum, a creation of both blood and tears.

     
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