The first unified empire in Chinese history was established in 221 BC when Ying Zheng, king of the Qin state, conquered Qin’s six main rival states, ending years of warring between states. The king gave himself the title Shihuangdi (pronounced ‘shir hwahng dee’), which means ‘First Emperor’. In modern Chinese he is often called Qin Shihuang, which means ‘First Emperor of the Qin’. The name ‘China’ comes from the name of the state, Qin (pronounced ‘chin’).
Establishing the Empire
The system of power and property ownership in China had been based on the feudal system. Nobles controlled the land, and the people who lived and worked on the land, in return for services to the king. Qin Shihuang changed this way of life by dividing the country into local-government areas administered by officials. These officials were appointed on merit rather than family connections. Farming land was no longer controlled by nobles but could be bought and sold freely. Officials collected taxes, which were used to finance the administration and extensive building works of the empire.
To remove local opposition to the new administration, tens of thousands of former rulers, nobles and officials were resettled, with their families, in new residences near the city where they could be watched and prevented from plotting to overthrow the Emperor. City walls and long defensive walls between former states were all destroyed. Weapons were melted down and recast as bells, or as massive human figures of ‘guardians’ which were placed in the capital.
In 213 BC, to stamp out old ideas that might encourage rebellion and to keep ordinary people focused on government policies, the Emperor approved his chief minister’s recommendation to confiscate all copies of philosophical and historical writings from private scholars. Private scholars who opposed the restriction were subject to humiliating public execution if they continued to discuss the banned books. Books about divination, farming, medicine and forestry were exempted from the ban. Recent western scholarly opinion holds that the traditional story of mass burial of scholars is probably fictional, intended to discredit the First Emperor.
Qin Shihuang also issued major reforms to unify the empire’s administration. Standard laws were rigidly enforced throughout. The writing system was reformed and standardised. Weights and measures, and currency were unified. Qin Shihuang even unified the axle widths of carts. This enabled all transport to pass rapidly along the same wheel ruts in the unpaved roads. Interestingly, many of these roadways featured a middle lane that was reserved expressly for the Emperor’s use.
Millions of people were put to work building roadways, canals, palaces and the Emperor’s burial ground. A vast network of highways was built, fanning out from the capital, Xianyang, to the north, east, and south. The total length of Qin highways is estimated at roughly 6,800 km, almost 15% above Edward Gibbon’s estimate (5,984 km) of Roman highways 350 years later. To increase agricultural production, tens of thousands of convicts were resettled in newly conquered border areas.
The First Emperor was also deeply superstitious and obsessed with a fear of death. As a much-hated conqueror, his life was repeatedly threatened. These threats apparently stimulated his search for everlasting life and in this he sought supernatural support. He surrounded himself with fortune-tellers, magicians and others who promised to find him the secret drugs for everlasting life. On one occasion he sent a group of several hundred men and women on rafts to magical lands off the east coast where they were to find these secret drugs. Since none of the group returned, Chinese sometimes say they became the ancestors of the Japanese.
The most spectacular feature of the First Emperor’s obsession with death was his burial ground. This underground world mirrored his power and influence in real life. It was not just a measure of his vanity, but formed a vital part of his existence in the afterlife.
Despite his best attempts to find a drug for everlasting life, Qin Shihuang died suddenly in 210 BC at the age of 49, possibly due to poisoning by mercury, which was used in many ‘immortality’ drugs. At first officials tried to conceal the death while they planned for the Emperor’s successor. After the eldest son was forced to commit suicide a younger son was placed on the throne. But the Qin dynasty was not to last much longer.
The First Emperor’s brutal and tyrannical rule had made him enormously unpopular. This caused great social unrest. Within a year of the Emperor’s death, unrest had exploded in a wave of rebellions. These were led initially by disgruntled minor officials. They were soon joined by large numbers of convicts, made desperate by a system which had treated them so harshly.
In 206 BC a rebel army led by Liu Bang attacked and occupied the capital. So ended the shortest, but most influential dynasty in imperial China. It also led to civil war from which appeared China’s longest dynasty – the Han.
Although the First Emperor was unable to achieve physical immortality and conquer death, his legend and name has survived the ages. His burial mound remains an enigmatic site, inspiring awe and wonder in visitors, and tantalising archaeologists who dream of the day when the development of suitable technology allows them a peek inside.