Qin Shi Huangdi: First Emperor of China 259-210 BCE
Once upon a time, a very long, long time ago, on a far away continent we refer to as Asia, there was a mystical land of spice and silk, dragons and lo mein noodles. A lot of amazing innovations that we take for granted today originated from the Far East of the Orient around this time: paper, porcelain, an early printing press, iron plows, and eventually the all important bottle rocket. China, as we call it today, was a country divided by warring states a good double millennia ago. Following the prosperous Dynasties of Xia and Shang these provinces fell into chaos. Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ became a bestseller while the Kings of China attempted to consolidate power, or destroy themselves in the process.
One man succeeded in unifying the people of China.
Unfortunately that man was a total jackass…
Qin Shi Huangdi is perhaps the best historical example of man’s hubris embodied in one dude. The Warrior King is often revered in retrospect, but many sources claim that he was an abhorrently reprehensible tyrant. Although he is well known for uniting the Chinese cultures under a single banner and constructing the Great Wall (of China), he is also well known for being a gigantic douche-canoe with an ego the size of which could be seen from space.
Ying Zheng was born into the royal house of Qin (pronounced Chin, to which all of China is named) during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. During this time, ‘China’ was divided into several State provinces: Qi, Yan, Zhao, Han, Wei, Chu and Qin. Each of these individual nations were like many of the Native American tribes in North America, prior to the barbaric European invasion. The rulers of these provinces were referred to as ‘Wangs’ meaning ‘Big Man’, which is absolutely hilarious. As the Zhou Dynasty crumbled, each of these ‘dukes’ wanted a bigger piece of the pie.
Enter: Ying Zheng, the Wang of Qin (Chin). Sorry, give me a second, I can’t stop laughing.
Ying was a bastard… I do mean that both figuratively and literally, in the sense that he was the illegitimate child of Zhao Ji, the King’s wife, who was knocked up by Lu Buwei, the King’s advisor. This didn’t stop Ying from inheriting the throne at the age of 13 following the demise of King Zhuangxiang. His biological father, Lu, was his regent until he was old enough to get his shit together, at which point Ying set about using his people’s resources for the sole purpose of raising an unstoppable army with the single purpose of crushing everything in his ‘divine’ path.
According to Shiji (The Records of the Grand Historian), Lu Buwei, Ying’s bio-dad, attempted to usurp power from his greedy son, before it was too late. He conspired against Ying by hatching a convoluted scheme to lead a coupe, seize control, and maintain order. To sum it up, Lu went to this guy Lao Ai, whose literal claim to fame were legends of his gigantic penis, and like a brosome wing man with ulterior political motives, hooked him up with the bitchin hot Queen, Zhao Ji, in 238 B.C.E.
After knocking up Ying Zheng’s mother, this Ron Jeremy of Ancient China, Lao Ai, raised an army with the the Wang of Wei (lol), while her son was out of town playing a real-life ‘Command and Conquer’ campaign. This plan backfired horrifically in everyone’s face when Ying returned home to find Lao banging his mom…
To say that Lao Ai suffered an over the top, grizzly and gory execution would be putting it mildly. Lao was drawn and quartered, their illegitimate sons were murdered, the Queen spent the rest of her days under house arrest, and as for Lu Buwei, the traitorous regent (and true father of the young King), was forced into exile and in shame took his own life via poison in 235 BCE. Thus, the 24 year old King of Qin, Ying Zheng, assumed full control over his people, before extending that definition to the rest of the world.
In 229 BCE, Ying used the aftermath of a natural disaster to conquer the land of Zhào. One by one the Kingdoms of Hán, Yan, Wei, and Chu all fell before the ever-increasing might of the Qin’s army. The last remaining independent state (Qi), was so terrified by the monstrous army of Qin that it bowed down without so much as a complaint.
And so, King Ying Zheng renamed himself Qin-Shi-Huangdi, becoming the first Emperor of a unified China. He deified himself as a God on Earth, the heir to the throne that The Five Sovereigns, and the Three Ancient Emperors of lore, had left behind just for him. ‘Qin Shi Huang Di’ literally means “First Emperor of China, Son of Heaven.”
Qin-Shi was nothing if not humble.
Anything that he did not own, he wanted. Everything he could not have, he would ensure no one else could either. During his totalitarian regime, even free thought was banned. Scrolls were burned, Confucian philosophers were banished, and those who resisted were either murdered or worse. 1160 scholars were either stoned to death or buried alive. People found with the forbidden books were sent to labor camps, forced to take part in one of the largest construction projects in human history: The Great Wall of China. The Great Wall would serve to protect the borders of Huangdi’s empire. This 3,000-mile long engineering feat was built with the slave labor of millions. Thousands died building this monument to Qin’s paranoia, many of which ended up as a part of the wall, some were even buried alive in its foundations, just another brick in THE WALL.
As Emperor, between being a pompous dick and oppressor of his people, Qin Shi also standardized systems of measurement, as well as written language. He had copper coins minted, and a system of roads created, all leading to Epang Palace at Xianyang. Qin Shi also had the Lingqu Canal built to connect the Yangtze and Pearl Rivers.
Throughout his career as King of the World, Qin Shi Huangdi survived several separate assassination attempts. The most famous of these: Jing Ke attempted to off him with a weaponized fan. Qin Shi personally disposed of him with the sharp end of his sword. Gao Jianli later attempted to avenge his bro by playing the lute in the Emperor’s presence, when Gao got close enough he swung at Qin Shi, but missed, and was executed. His kung-fu was not so good. These incidents caused the Emperor to become very distrusting of everyone in his presence, and killed at the first sign of suspicion. No one else dared to defy the Emperor!
Now that the world had been conquered, there was only one thing left on His To-Do List…
In the footsteps of Gilgamesh, Qin Shi Huangdi decided he was so kickass that he should live forever. This conquest of death itself would prove to be… difficult. His army was sent to the ends of the known world in a futile search for the elixir of life. Many expeditions across the sea never returned, like the Crusaders of Arthurian legend, seeking a nonexistent Grail, or Ponce De Leon crossing the Atlantic on a selfish quest for the Fountain of Youth. Like all those other quests, this one would prove about as fruitful as a blind mind attempting to ascertain the location of Waldo.
Qin Shi Huang Di became obsessed with nothing else, but the conquest of death, while his people suffered from famine and disease. It was said that the elixir of life could be found on an island at the end of the ocean. Those who returned with nothing to show for it claimed that a race of Giant Fish protected the island. Upon learning of this, Qin Shi led an imperial convoy to the shore where he personally defied the sea itself and began firing a crossbow into the shallow water cackling madly. The divine warrior king had gone completely insane.
One day, the desperate chinese alchemists discovered a new element: A mystical substance that could dissolve Gold, a silvery liquid metal compound we call Mercury. The Emperor’s advisors convinced their paranoid ruler that this magical potion was the long sought after elixir of eternal life. Instead of achieving this goal, the Emperor ensured a slow and painful demise. Like our good pal Ivan the Terrible, Qin Shi eventually went crazy with, and died from, an overdose of mercury poisoning, at the age of 50.
The legend of Qin Shi Huangdi became myth, and after two thousand years, people became skeptical that he’d ever existed in the first place. Then his final resting place was discovered, by accident…
Huangdi’s vast mausoleum was discovered in 1974, Xian, when the Communist Chinese government (under Chairman Mao) went drilling for oil. Archeologists got all excited, like moths to a flame, they flew in from all over the world, and like moles on speed, instantly began excavating the hell out of the massive tomb, which turned out to be roughly the size of two football fields! This underground tomb is considered one of the greatest ancient monuments ever constructed, and is a perfect example of Qin Shi’s epic-sized ego.
What they discovered was un-freaking-believable: Qin’s bronze-sealed tomb was surrounded by a large-scale recreation of his entire kingdom, complete with rivers of flowing mercury, AND even more impressive: it was protected by an army of life-size Terracotta Warriors! 8,000 six-foot-tall fully equipped soldiers, with 130 chariots, 520 horses and 150 cavalry! It is believed that the mad-Emperor did this to prevent an uprising of vengeful souls in the afterlife. Many of his servants were buried alive with him.
Qin Shi Huang Di founded a mighty empire on the bones of his enemies, larger than the Kingdom of the Pharaohs, and would outlast the reign Rome. Driven mad by power, and paranoid by mercury, the ‘First Emperor’ set out to claim immortality, and failed, ultimately dying from in his attempt to live forever. He may have been the First Emperor of China, but he was the Last of his line to rule. Irony at its finest.
As soon as Hu Hai claimed the throne in his father’s absence, a Peasant Uprising led by Wu Guang and Chen Sheng overthrew the short-lived Qin Dynasty. The Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) rose to power, reunited China, and led the country into a prosperous Golden Age, after the dark reign of Qin Shi Huang Di!
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“The First Emperor: The Man Who Made China” – documentary (2010)
“The First Emperor” by: Sima Qian