Q: Qin Shi Huang
Who is he?
Born in 259 BC, he was the king of Qin (pronounced ‘chin’), one of the seven ‘Warring States’ that clashed with each other for hundreds of years. The chaos ended with Qin’s conquest of the other six states in 221 BC. Its ruler called himself Qin Shi Huang, with shi denoting “the first” in Chinese, and huang a self-invented title for emperor.
Qin Shi Huang is one of the better known of China’s rulers outside the country, thanks to the discovery of his tomb in 1974. It housed his Terracotta Army – a collection of life-size sculptures of more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots and 520 horses. Arguably one of the top archaeological finds ever, the Terracotta Army has also cemented his legacy as one of the most powerful tyrants in Chinese history.
Why is he considered a tyrant?
Qin Shi Huang’s hankering for construction projects extended far beyond his final resting place. For starters he initiated construction of the Great Wall (although it would be built over many centuries), which more than 2,200 years later remains China’s most iconic structure.
For Qin Shi Huang the wall served a military purpose (see W for Wudi of Han). So too his laying out of the skeleton of a nationwide network of roads (for horse-drawn carriages). That transport system also helped in his mobilisation of a massive army, a practice that was unpopular among the wider population (large standing armies requisitioned lots of food and also conscripted rural folk from their farms).
His lack of popularity was also related to his reforms. Before unification by the Qin, the seven ‘Warring States’ had differed in key areas like their language, their calendars and their cultural practices. But Qin Shi Huang launched ruthless campaigns to standardise the situation across his new empire, including changes to taxation, the legal system and the currency.
To subdue resistance to his reforms, Qin Shi Huang ordered the burning of much of China’s existing literature (his answer to limiting the memories of the past and older ways of doing things). He is also alleged to have ordered hundreds of ‘traditional’ Confucian scholars to be buried alive. Events like this mean that his rule is often viewed as a tyrannical period. He sat on the throne for just 11 years, dying in 210 BC aged 49 (possibly poisoned by potions he consumed in the hope of eternal life – these contained the likes of mercury, sulphur and lead, according to popular legend).
The Qin Dynasty crumbled with him, lasting only another three years.
How about his more positive contribution?
Aside from key pieces of infrastructure, Qin Shi Huang was responsible for laying the basis for the bureaucratic system that governed the vast Middle Kingdom. These were said to have provided the foundations for China as a superpower, in this case through the later reign of the Han (see W for Wudi of Han).
Without Qin’s ruthless standardisations, China might have ended up today looking more like Europe as a collection of smaller countries and different languages. The fact that China’s writing system is a common standard today also dates back to his ‘tyrannical’ behaviour.
Some of his other nastier acts, such as burying people alive, have been disputed by more modern historians. His rift with Confucian scholars seems to have been a real one, but many believe he stopped short of the famed atrocity. Accounts of it were perpetuated for 2,000 years, however, because the official history of his reign was written by scholars in the Han Dynasty – when Confucianism was the dominant ideology.
He was probably a workaholic – which some view as another reason for his early death. Frances Wood, in her history of the emperor, states: “According to one story that has been ignored ever since, he would not sleep until he had read a daily quota of 30 kilos of official documents.”
Are there many modern parallels?
Like him or loathe him, Qin Shi Huang plays a central role in China’s historical narrative as the man who united the country.
For this fact alone, he’s largely above criticism from the country’s contemporary leaders, who put national unity above other priorities.
Historians from the Communist Party of China (CPC) have also been admirers of Qin Shi Huang’s governing style, especially in taking unpopular decisions for the good of the nation. In fact, some of them have spent years reassessing earlier verdicts on Qin Shi Huang.
Some of that thinking was reflected in Hero, a 2002 blockbuster movie by famed Chinese director Zhang Yimou. In the film, Qin Shi Huang is portrayed as charismatic, intelligent and perceptive, and not just ruthless. So much so that after spending an hour chatting with his royal target, an assassin aborts an attempt to kill him.
Modern China’s founder Mao Zedong was an avowed fan of China’s first emperor and his methods too. “ We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold,” he once remarked as a signal of his admiration for the first emperor’s rule.
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