Qin Shi Huangdi
The First Emperor of China
King Ying Zheng
The legend says he was a great warrior and a ruthless tyrant. But, he
was also driven by an obsession to build the greatest nation on Earth.
The vision drove him to insanity, but the vision became China and he was
its first emperor.
When the first emperor was laid to rest, the legend says that he was the
most powerful man on Earth. That for 30 years he’d subjected China to
it’s most violent and bloody phase in it’s history, yet he achieved the
impossible, he unified a people. Ten times as many people as the
pharaohs of Egypt across an empire that would outlast Rome by a thousand
years. China was his, and he fortified it with the largest single
structure on Earth – The Great Wall of China.
When the doors of his tomb were closed for the final time, the most
fantastic part of that legend was born. The great ruler, it’s said, was
sealed in a bronze model of his world in the largest mausoleum on Earth,
surrounded by rivers and seas of flowing mercury. And so the legend has
remained for two thousand years.
The ancient land that would become China was comprised of seven warring,
feudal states of which the westernmost was Qin or Chin. For two
millennia, the only detailed information about these events came from a
single written history, compiled a hundred years after the death of the
emperor. The Shih-chi, the records of the grand historian Ssuma Ch’ien
are the foundation of the legend.
In the year 247BC, the future emperor becomes king of the western state
of Qin. King Ying Zheng was barely 13 years old when he succeeded his
father Zhuang Xiang and already the sharks began to circle. His mother,
Zhao Ji, the Queen, has a long-time lover, the king’s former adviser, Lu
Buwei. For Lu Buwei this is the perfect opportunity to finally get his
hands on the reins of state.
Just months after Ying Zheng becomes king, a young scholar, Li Si,
arrives at the court looking for a job, but the man who hires and fires
here is Lu Buwei, now prime minister. Impressed by Li Si’s obvious
ambition he is quick to take him onto his staff. It’s an impulsive
decision he will come to regret.
Ssuma Ch’ien describes him as a poor young man with extraordinary
ambition, as this Machiavellian figure who, he implies, is the person
who wants to run the entire country and will stop at nothing.
It is alleged that, while waiting in the palace courtyard, Li Si mused
“I never expected to see rats in a royal palace, but then why not? Drawn by
the chance of an easy meal, conditioned by fear. Control the food and the
fear, and you control the rat”.
Prime Minister Lu Buwei allows Li Si an audience with the young king
without bothering to be present. Li Si awakens, in Ying Zheng, a realisation
that real power is his; he just needs the courage and vision to use it.
A decade after ascending the throne, King Ying Zheng is fighting for his
life and a dream. Many great kings before him has tried and all have failed.
But, this time will be different, because Ying Zheng is different. The youngest
king to lead his nation into war, he is its greatest warrior. A visionary leader,
burning with ambition, if anyone can unify China it is him.
A chance discovery reveals some vital clues about Ying Zheng’s ability to wage
war. In 1974, farmers digging a well near the first emperor’s burial mound stumbled
across part of the gravesite. It contained the terracotta army, some 7,000 life-size
soldiers, horses and weapons.
One of the most incredible finds is a sword, perfectly preserved after two thousand years in
the ground. It was significantly longer than any earlier known sword. Qin armourers managed to
perfect the art of bronze making, to give their soldiers on the battlefield 30% more reach and
cutting power in close-quarters combat.
Professor Rubin Yates of the McGill University comments “With the discovery of the pottery
army, we are finding the truth behind Ssuma Ch’ien’s story, which for two thousand years has
been just a legend”.
In it’s campaign against the state of Zhao, the Qin army has taken over 10,000 prisoners.
The rules of war are explicit, prisoners must be cared for, but that would slow down his campaign.
All 10,000 prisoners are executed and Ying Zheng defines his quest for empire as bloody, utterly
ruthless, and totally dependant on the army.
The well-trained, highly motivated Qin army, equipped with precision weapons and led from the
front by a ruthlessly ambitious king creates the perfect conquest machine. Within 7 years Ying Zheng
captures 13 cities from the state of Hah, a further 20 cities from other states, and repels a combined
force intent on stopping him in his tracks. But, while foreign enemies are easily brushed aside,
inside his own court, unseen enemies are conspiring to destroy him.
History record Ying Zheng’s coming of age as the defining moment. The entire court was assembled
for the celebrations, including the queen with her new favourite Lao Ai who is presented as a eunuch.
But, a eunuch he is not, he is the queen’s new lover and has fathered two sons with her. The boys have
been raised in secret and Lao Ai intends to place one of them on the throne.
The queen’s secret is discovered by Ying Zheng’s spies and Lao Ai is forced to make his move. He
has stolen royal seals, giving him the authority to mobilise troops. District troops now under Lao Ai’s
command prepare to attack the palace. Ying Zheng has already found the boys and Lu Buwei has discover
Lao Ai’s true intention.
Lao Ai’s forces meet no resistance as they approach the palace, until it is too late to withdraw.
It is a trap and Lao Ai’s forces are annihilated. He is taken prisoner. His execution is designed to
send a very clear and deliberate message, soon to be reinforced by the killing of his sons.
By 227BC, the Qin state has swallowed three of the other feudal states. Panic spreads ahead of
the advancing war machine. The state of Yen is next in the firing line, and they know they will be
powerless to resist.
A diplomatic mission is sent to the Qin court bearing peace offerings to King Ying Zheng. However,
the two members of the party are professional assassins and their intention is not peaceful. Since
Lao Ai’s attempted coup, no one in court is permitted to carry weapons except Ying Zheng, so when
the assassins attack the king has to defend himself. He survives another attempt on his life.
Ying Zheng is becoming increasingly paranoid about death. It isn’t so much the act of dying he fears
but the realisation that he is filling the spirit world with the souls of those he has sacrificed.
Souls who, as soon as he is dead, will seek terrible retribution.
There is only one thing that can protect him in the next world – a spirit army. Since the moment
he became king, Ying Zheng has planned for his own death. A tomb is being constructed which, by
tradition, will contain replicas of his most precious possessions, including his army. That tradition
will continue, but on a scale no one has ever seen before. One of the most incredible aspects of the
terracotta army is size. Not just the size of the army itself, but every member of it. Each figure
measures nearly 2 metres tall, an army of giants by the standard of the time.
But it seems even the terracotta army was not enough. Closer to the emperor’s burial mound, a new pit
has been discovered.
Professor Jeffrey Riegel from the University of California is working with Chinese archaeologists
exploring the burial site. With the discovery of the new pit they expected to find an imperial guard
but what they have unearthed are suits of stone armour. Riegel believes this shows how obsessed with
death Zheng had become. “When we look at Chinese historical texts, it’s unprecedented that we should
find, or know about, stone armour. The belief of the team is that the burial of the stone armour may
have had something to do with the rituals surrounding the worship of the spirits of dead soldiers,
who’ve suffered violent deaths, whose bodies were torn apart and could not undergo the proper kind
The team have found 200 suits of stone armour in this one small pit. The excavation is just the
corner of a pit as big as the terracotta army. Tens of thousands of stone armour suits were made ready
for the spirits of dismembered Qin soldiers.
By 223BC, Ying Zheng stands at the brink of achieving his ultimate dream, the unification of all
China. He’s taken all but two of the seven warring states, with the largest state of Chu the last great
prize to be claimed. But, the conquest machine has stalled.
The Chu army has destroyed his first invasion force and they’re more than ready to do it again.
Half a million Chu soldiers threaten to end Ying Zheng’s dream of empire. In a desperate bid to overcome
them, he commits everything he has, new provisions, better weapons, and half a million more men. Now two
vast forces of equal size face each other and the fate of China hangs in the balance.
The Qin army has dug in for a long siege of the state of Chu. It prompts the Chu generals to
reconsider their advanced position and they decide to withdraw to more defensible lines. But, the
Qin encampment is an illusion; the entire force is primed and ready to move. As soon as the Chu
forces begin their retreat, the Qin forces spring their surprise and press the advantage.
The last great obstacle to Ying Zheng’s imperial dream is finally crushed. The sole remaining
independent state of Chi succumbs without a fight. By 221BC, the ultimate prize is won; Chin is
now China, Zheng’s China.
At the age of 34, Ying Zheng is crowned with a veil of stars; symbolising the divinity of the first emperor.
Ignoring the suggestions of his ministers, the first emperor assumes the title of Qin Shi Huangdi
which translates, literally, as ‘First August God of the Chin’.
||The First Emperor
of China - Jonathan Clements
Silent Army - Jane O'Connor