10 Fascinating Things About China’s First Emperor that Will Leave You Speechless

10 Fascinating Things About China’s First Emperor that Will Leave You Speechless

Khalid Elhassan - March 17, 2018

China’s first emperor, Chin Shi Huang Di, was one of history’s most extraordinary rulers. On the one hand, he possessed exceptional talent, which allowed him to essentially create China from scratch by conquering all his neighbors, uniting their lands under his rule, and founding China’s first imperial dynasty. On the other hand, he was a gullible fool, who sought a magic potion that would allow him to live forever, and was exploited by charlatans promising to get it for him.

Following are ten fascinating things about the emperor who unified China, turned megalomaniacal, and spent much of his reign seeking an immortality drug.

Chin Shi Huang Unified China, Then Tried to Live Forever

Chin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BC), whose name means “First Emperor of Chin”, started off as king of the Chinese state of Chin – one of several competing kingdoms during China’s Warring States Period (475 – 221 BC). He ascended the throne as a child, and in his teens, he wrested power from the regents and courtiers who had governed during his minority.

The young king then consolidated his power by massacring palace plotters who sought to usurp his prerogatives. He then went on the warpath, pushed back the northern barbarians, defeated and conquered all competing Chinese states by 221 BC, and consolidated them under his rule. Then, having accomplished all that, he declared himself the First Emperor of a united China.

10 Fascinating Things About China’s First Emperor that Will Leave You Speechless
Chin Shi Huang. Citaty

He was a capable ruler. He unified his newly conquered empire by standardizing it currency, weights, and measures, and imposed a system of government known as Legalism, based on strict laws and harsh punishments. He also ended feudalism, which had led to the centuries of warfare that gave the Warring States Period its name. In its place, he instituted a centralized bureaucratic government, with advancement based on merit – a basic template that was followed by all subsequent Chinese dynasties, for more than 2000 years.

The darker side of Chin Shi Huang Di was an unchecked megalomania, coupled with an unprecedented oppression of his subjects. He ordered massive projects that utilized the forced labor of millions, and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands. Such tyranny made Chin Shi Huang’s name one of the most loathed throughout most Chinese history.

Another manifestation of his megalomania was his manic pursuit of immortality drugs. That entailed the lavish funding of searches for a “Life Elixir” that would keep him alive forever. His efforts included the funding of an expedition with hundreds of ships that sailed off into the Pacific in search of a mythical “Land of the Immortals”. It was never heard of again.

10 Fascinating Things About China’s First Emperor that Will Leave You Speechless
Lu Buwei, as depicted in the 1998 movie, ‘The Emperor and the Assassin’. Alchetron

Chin Shi Huang Was the Illegitimate Son of One of History’s Greatest Adventurers

Chin Shi Huang was born into the Chin royal household, but was actually the biological son of a merchant named Lu Buwei, one of history’s most enterprising entrepreneurs. Lu Buwei’s adventure began when the Lady Huayang, favorite wife of Prince Ankuo, the aging heir to the Chin throne, found herself childless and with a husband who might die of old at any moment. Life was good for Lady Huayang, but if another wife’s son became king, her standing and power would vanish.

Lu Buwei looked at that scenario, and saw an opportunity. So he visited a neighboring state where Tzu-Chu, one of Prince Ankuo’s sons by a junior wife, was kept as a hostage to ensure Chin’s compliance with a peace treaty. Tzu-Chu lived in squalid conditions when Lu Buwei paid him a visit and made him an astonishing offer: “with your permission, I will invest 1000 pieces of gold to make you heir of Chin“. Tzu-Chu promised Lu Buwei that he would share the kingdom with him if he succeeded.

Having worked out a deal with Tzu-Chu, Lu Buwei set out for the Chin capital. There, he bought presents for Lady Huayang’s older sister, telling her that they were from Tzu-Chu, who was saddened by her sister’s childless condition. He then laid out his proposal, for the sister to convey to Lady Huayang: she should adopt Tzu-Chu, and make him Prince Ankuo’s heir.

Tzu-Chu was way down in the line of succession. If Lady Huayang catapulted him to the front of the line, he would be forever loyal and grateful. Thus, even after Prince Ankuo’s death, Lady Huayang would retain her influence as the new king’s mother. Lady Huayang saw the wisdom in that idea, and convinced Prince Ankuo to let her adopt Tzu-Chu, and to make him heir. Lu Buwei was appointed his royal tutor.

Lu Buwei rushed back to Tzu-Chu, bearing the good news. However, at a party celebrating their success, Tzu-Chu fell head over heels in love with a dancer, who happened to be Lu Buwei’s mistress. Tzu-Chu asked if he could have her, and Lu Buwei reluctantly agreed. He had nearly bankrupted himself to get that far, and he was not about to blow it now by alienating Tzu-Chu.

What Tzu-Chu did not know was that the dancer was already pregnant by Lu Buwei. Eventually, she bore a son – the future Chin Shi Huang – and Tzu-Chu married her. Finally, Prince Ankuo ascended to the throne of Chin, but died soon thereafter, and was succeeded by Tzu-Chu as king of Chin. He fulfilled his promise to Lu Buwei, granting him vast fiefs with 100,000 households, and named him prime minister.

Then, Tzu-Chu unexpectedly died, and was succeeded as king of Chin by his “son”. Lu Buwei had risen beyond even his most ambitious expectations. He was now the most powerful man in the kingdom. His former mistress, with whom he resumed the affair after king Tzu-Chu’s death, was the queen dowager. He continued as prime minister, was given the title “Second Father”, and became regent during the minority of the child king – his biological son. Things could not have been better for the enterprising adventurer. It could not last forever.

10 Fascinating Things About China’s First Emperor that Will Leave You Speechless
Lao Ai, as depicted in the 1998 movie, ‘The Emperor and the Assassin’. Sony Pictures

He Ended His Own Father’s Life

Things had been going great for Lu Buwei, but by 241 BC, he had a problem: he needed to end his affair with the young king’s mother. It had been manageable while the future Chin Shi Huang was a child, but the king was now fast reaching adulthood. If he found out that his prime minister was sleeping with his mother, things would not go well for Lu Buwei.

The king’s mother did not see it that way, however, and complained that Lu Buwei simply did not love her anymore. So to take her mind off him, the enterprising adventurer hit upon the idea of a finding her another lover. He found him in a certain Lao Ai, an extremely well hung young man, whom he presented to the king’s mother. One look at Lao Ai’s big bat, and she fell for him, head over heels.

So Lu Buwei had all of Lao Ai’s hair plucked out to disguise him as a eunuch, and moved him into the dowager queen’s palace. It was a passionate love affair. The queen was soon pregnant by Lao Ai, and moved to the countryside to have his babies. She also gifted him with a palace, complete with hundreds of attendants. It went to Lao Ai’s head, however, and he eventually began conspiring with the besotted queen dowager to have their son ascend the Chin throne.

Word got back to the young king, who so far had been turning a blind eye to his mother’s affair. The threat to his throne spurred him into action, however, and he ordered Lao Ai’s arrest. The latter responded by raising troops in the queen dowager’s name, and launching a rebellion. It was easily crushed, and ended with Lao Ai’s head, and that of his children, hung in public. As to the king’s mother, she was placed under house arrest for the rest of her life.

The only thing that saved Lu Buwei’s head in the revolt’s aftermath was the intercession of courtiers, who pled with the king for mercy on his behalf. So the Chin king settled for firing him as prime minister, but let him keep his life. However, some time later, he reconsidered, and issued a decree stripping Lu Buwei of his holdings and titles. It was accompanied by an ironic letter that asked: “What have you done for Chin, sir, to deserve a fief of 100,000 households? What relation are you to me that you should have the title ‘Second Father’?” Lu Buwei was done for, so he ended his amazing career, and life, by drinking poison.

10 Fascinating Things About China’s First Emperor that Will Leave You Speechless
Third century AD stone rubbing depicting the first assassination attempt on Chin Shi Huang. Wikimedia

He Survived Some of History’s Most Colorful Assassination Attempts

When the future Chin Shi Huang king began his campaigns of conquest, the royal family in the state of Yan fretted because they realized that Chin armies would eventually show up at their borders. When that day arrived, Yan simply lacked the strength to stand against them and resist their onslaught. Since military resistance was not an option, the crown prince of Yan decided to avert that showdown by having the ambitious Chin king assassinated.

The Yan prince sent two emissaries to the Chin court, bearing presents to its fearsome king: the severed head of one of his enemies, and a beautifully illustrated map in an exquisitely decorated case, that contained a concealed dagger. When one of the emissaries, Jin Ke, ascended the throne to offer the king his present, he suddenly whipped out the dagger, and launched himself at the king.

The only weapon in the throne room was a ceremonial sword worn by the king – none of his courtiers was armed, as bearing weapons in the king’s presence was illegal. So a farcical scene ensued, as the Chin king ran around the throne room, attempting to unsheathe his ceremonial sword from its scabbard, while being chased by the dagger wielding Jin Ke. The only attendant who came to the king’s aid was his physician, who raced behind the would be assassin, smacking him with his doctor’s bag. It finally ended when the king managed to pull out his sword and wound Jin Ke, slowing him down long enough for armed guards to reach the throne room and finish him off.

All of Jin Ke’s relatives and friends went into hiding, fearing retaliation from the Chin king. One of them was a musician named Gao Jianli, who hid his lute, changed his name, and became a waiter. However, his boss overheard him singing one time, and recommended him to the Chin king. The king summoned Gao to the court, but while he was playing the lute and singing, somebody recognized him.

Upon being informed of the musician’s true identity, the king, who liked his talent, decided to go easy on him: instead of having him executed, he simply had his eyes put then. He then offered him a job as the court’s musician. Gao Jianli had little choice, but was understandably resentful of his new boss for putting out his eyes. So the blind musician played and sang for the king, gradually sidling closer each day. Then one day he weighted his lute with lead, and when he thought the moment was right, took a swing, hoping to smash the king’s head. Unsurprisingly, he missed – he was blind, after all. The king had him executed, and from then on, would not allow anybody from Yan to come anywhere near him.

As to the kingdom of Yan, its royal family’s fears were realized. Even if the Chin king had not planned on attacking, the failed assassination attempt gave him all the excuse he needed. In 226 BC, Chin invaded Yan, and destroyed its armies. The king of Yan sought to appease the invaders by ordering the execution of his own son, and sending his head to the Chin king as an apology. The apology was accepted – temporarily. In 222 BC, the Chin invaded what was left of Yan, destroyed their remaining forces, captured their king, and annexed their kingdom into the Chin state.

The First Emperor survived yet another bizarre assassination attempt, when a former Han minister named Zhang Liang vowed vengeance after the Chin conquered Han. He sold everything he had in 218 BC, hired China’s strongest man, and commissioned a specially manufactured 160 pound metal cone. He then hid in ambush, atop a mountain outcrop overlooking a road frequently travelled by the emperor. When the imperial entourage passed by, the strongman hurled the cone at the lavishly decorated imperial carriage, crushing it and killing its occupants. It was a decoy, however, and Chin Shi Huang had actually been traveling in another, inconspicuous carriage.

10 Fascinating Things About China’s First Emperor that Will Leave You Speechless
The Warring States, and the dates of their conquest by Chin Shi Huang. Ancient China

He Ended China’s Centuries-Long Warring States Period by Conquering All the Warring States

When the future Chin Shi Huang ascended the throne towards the end of the Warring States Period, China consisted of seven competing states: Chin, Chi, Chu, Chao, Han, Wei, and Yan. After the king resolved his domestic dramas at home, what with his mother and her lovers, he launched campaigns of conquest to and bring the six other states under his control.

For generations, Chin armies had engaged in more or less regular warfare with their neighbors. By 230 BC, the Chin king had consolidated his position domestically, and felt strong enough to put in play an ambitious plan of expansion. The aim was not simply to enhance Chin power at the expense of its Warring States rivals, but to outright conquer all the Warring States.

The Chin strategy was to ally with the states farthest away from their borders, Yan and Chi, contain and deter the states of Wei and Chu, while conquering the states of Han and Chao. Han was the weakest of the Chin’s six rivals, so they began by invading it in 230 BC. The Han capital was captured within a year, and the Han king was forced to surrender soon thereafter. His erstwhile kingdom became a Chin province.

Next was the kingdom of Chao, which had been weekend during the 230s BC by bouts of intermittent warfare against Chin. It was further weakened in 231 – 230 BC by an earthquake that caused widespread devastation, followed by a famine that sapped the kingdom’s energies and resources. It made the Chin armies’ job that much easier, and by 228 BC, Chao had been conquered and annexed to the Chin kingdom.

The Chin then prepared to invade Yan, which led its crown prince to order the failed assassination attempt described in the previous entry. Using that assassination attempt as an excuse for what he had planned to do anyhow, the Chin king sent his armies into Yan in 226 BC. The Yan king bought temporary peace by sending the Chin his son’s head as atonement for the assassination attempt, but the peace was short lived. The Chin armies returned in 222 BC, and swiftly overran Yan, snuffing it out as an independent state and annexing it to Chin.

Wei lay between the states of Han to its south, and Chao to its north, with the Chin on their western border. After the Chin conquered Han and Chao, Wei found itself surrounded by the Chin on three sides, like a juicy morsel in a wolf’s mouth. In 225 BC, the Chin wolf snapped its jaws shut, invading with 600,000 men. After a siege of the Wei capital culminated with the Chin redirecting a river to flood it, killing over 100,000 in the process, the Wei king surrendered.

Chu was the most powerful of Chin’s rivals, so it was saved until 224 BC. An overconfident Chin general convinced his king that Chu could be conquered with only 200,000 men, but that proved woefully insufficient. The Chu ambushed the invaders, and wiped out the 200,000 Chin. The Chin king regrouped, and launched another invader under the command of a different general, with 600,000 troops this time. The second invasion met with more success, and Chu was conquered in 223 BC.

By 221 BC, Chi was last state yet to be conquered by the Chin. Their turn came that year, when the Chin king used a Chi refusal to meet with one of his envoys as a casus belli, and sent in his armies. The Chin invaders managed to outflank the Chi defenders, bypassing their fortified positions and penetrating deep into Chi, to arrive before its nearly undefended capital. The Chi king surrendered without a fight.

Having conquered all the Warring States and incorporated them into his kingdom, the Chin king proclaimed the Chin Dynasty, and himself Chin Shi Huang, meaning “First Emperor of Chin”. He divided his empire into 36 provinces, ruled from the Chin imperial capital of Xianyang. He then set about creating a centralized state that became the model for all future Chinese dynasties until 1911, when the last imperial dynasty was overthrown.

10 Fascinating Things About China’s First Emperor that Will Leave You Speechless
The Chin Empire. China Highlights

He Created a Centralized Bureaucratic State

The newly proclaimed First Emperor set out to consolidate his nascent empire by reforming its politics, economy, and culture. A political debate erupted in the imperial court about how best to organize the new empire. Confucian scholars called for a return to traditional feudalism, and urged the Chin Shi Huang to appoint his sons princes of provinces, and grant fiefs to his loyal generals, relatives, and retainers.

The sole voice of oppositions came from the emperor’s minister of justice, Li Ssu, who pointed out that feudalism had caused the downfall of China’s last major dynasty centuries earlier. The rulers in those days had granted fiefs to their relatives, and when those nobles eventually started fighting amongst themselves, the government was powerless to stop them.

When the emperor asked how else he could reward his relatives and loyal followers if not with fiefs, Li Ssu advised him to simply keep them in the imperial capital, and grant them pensions and fancy titles. That would keep them under the emperor’s gaze and under his thumb. Dependant and pliant, they would be unable to create an independent power base out in the provinces that might threaten the imperial throne.

Chin Shi Huang revolutionized China’s political landscape by siding with Li Ssu and abolishing feudalism. Following Li Ssu’s advice, the nobility were transformed from an uncontrollable warrior class with independent power bases, and into tame and dependent courtiers. All aristocratic titles and ranks were abolished, except for those created and bestowed by the emperor. Former aristocrats who had not won imperial favor were either killed, or put to manual labor.

Feudalism was replaced with a centralized bureaucracy, in which all power flowed from the emperor. China was divided into provinces that were subdivided in turn, in descending order, into counties, townships, and hundred-family units. Streams of officials flowed out from the capital and into the provinces, from which they sent back a stream of reports and recommendations. The flow of information from the provinces to the imperial throne, and of orders from the throne back to the provinces, was remarkably efficient. The emperor was a hardworking ruler and an avid reader of his officials’ reports, and set for himself a daily quota of 120 pounds of documents to peruse.

To further unify the new empire economically, Chin Shi Huang abolished the Warring States’ weights, measures, and currencies, and replaced them with Chin units as the standard. To accelerate communications between the imperial capital and the provinces, a network of roads and canals were built. All carriages on those roads had to have axles and gauges of the same size. Culturally, all local variants of the Chinese script were abolished, and replaced with the Chin script as a standard. It remains the basis of Chinese script to this day. Within a decade, the First Emperor had successfully converted China from a fractured feudal society, and into an efficient centralized bureaucracy.

10 Fascinating Things About China’s First Emperor that Will Leave You Speechless
The burning of the books and the burial of the scholars. University of California, San Diego

Chin Shi Huang Turned Into a Tyrannical Megalomaniac

Chin Shi Huang pulled off the impressive task of ending the chaotic and ever warring feudalism that had prevailed in China for over five centuries. In its place was now a unified, peaceful, and efficiently governed centralized state. Unification, pacification, and efficiency, came at a high price, however: tyranny and crushing oppression. As a result, even though Chin Shi Huang was the most influential figure in Chinese history, he was also the figure most abhorred by the Chinese throughout most of their history.

The First Emperor’s most trusted and influential official was his minister of justice, Li Ssu. In addition to being a bureaucrat, Li Ssu was also a philosopher who followed a school of thought known as “Legalism”, which advocated strict laws and draconian punishments for even petty crimes. As Li Ssu put it: “If light offenses carry heavy punishments, one can imagine what will be done against a serious offense. Thus the people will not dare to break the laws“.

Criticizing the law became a capital offense, and cowed citizens were expected to inform on their neighbors. Then, with unchecked power and the resources of an entire empire to draw upon, the First Emperor grew megalomaniacal, and launched huge projects with massive amounts of forced labor. One such project used 700,000 laborers working on his tomb for 30 years. The famous Terracotta Warriors site, discovered in the 1970s and now open to tourism with its thousands of life size statues, is but a fraction of his gigantic tomb complex. The bulk of the tomb is yet to be unearthed. Millions more labored to dig canals, level hills, make roads, and build over 700 palaces. The biggest project of all was the Great Wall of China, which did double duty: keeping the northern barbarians out, and keeping the Chinese seeking to flee the emperor’s onerous taxation and oppressive rule, in.

The previous Warring States period had been a period of chaos, but it had also been a golden age of Chinese philosophy and free thinking. The centuries preceding China’s unification in 221 BC came to be known as the “Hundred Schools of Thought”. It was an era during which a broad range of philosophies, including Confucianism and Taoism, emerged and were freely debated.

The First Emperor brought that to an end by banning all schools of thoughts, except Legalism. He saw his new state as a radical break from the past, and to emphasize that break, as well as to keep his subjects from pining for bygone days, he ordered the burning of all history books throughout his realm. He also ordered the burning of books on philosophy, and every other subject except for agriculture, science, and magic. When scholars protested, he ordered 460 of them buried alive.

10 Fascinating Things About China’s First Emperor that Will Leave You Speechless
Xu Fu’s ships, sailing in search of the Elixir of Life. Wikimedia

He Went Mad in Pursuit of an Immortality Drug

Magic books were among the few exempted from the First Emperor’s bonfires. And that was because Qin Shi Huang wanted to live forever, and so he wanted somebody to find or magic up for him an “Elixir of Life” that would allow him to cheat death. He became obsessed with achieving immortality, and numerous charlatans exploited his desperation to live forever.

One such was Xu Fu, a self proclaimed magician who assured the emperor that immortality was within reach. Its elixir, promised Xu Fu, awaited in Penglai Mountain, the mythical home of the Eight Immortals. There was no such mountain, but Xu Fu convinced the emperor that he got in touch with the Eight Immortals, and they agreed to share the secret. However, the Immortals demanded 6000 virgins in return. Chin Shi Huang gave him a fleet of ships, and 6000 virgins. Xu Fu took the ships and virgins and sailed off, never to return. Legend has it that he sailed to Japan, and started a colony there.

In the meantime, while waiting for Xu Fu to return with the magic potion that would make him immortal, the First Emperor went on a rampage against all who dared question his quest for the Elixir of Life. His crackdown on the scholars, which culminated in the live burial of 460 of them, was inspired in part by their criticism of his quest for immortality.

In order to further lessen his odds of dying before Xu Fu’s return, the emperor did his best to avoid contact with evil spirits. Figuring that if the bad spirits could not hurt him if they could not see him, he ordered his palaces – over 200 of them – honeycombed with underground tunnels. That way he could travel beneath and between them, out of the evil spirits’ sight.

Chin Shi Huang also patronized alchemists who claimed that they were close to inventing the Life Elixir, but that their R&D was held back by a lack of funding… hint, hint. They kept milking him for more and more funding, stringing him along with promises that success was just around the corner. The emperor responded with generous grants to further their research, although he would grow exasperated from time to time, and order the execution of some of the charlatans.

10 Fascinating Things About China’s First Emperor that Will Leave You Speechless
Portrait of Chin Shi Huang, from an 18th century album of Chinese emperors. Wikimedia

Ironically, Chin Shi Huang’s Quest for Immortality Ended Up Killing Him

In one of history’s more karmic plot twists, with a full measure of poetic justice, Chin Shi Huang Di’s manic quest for immortality backfired, big time. It was not only that all his efforts to find a Life Elixir failed, as they were bound to do. It was that those insane attempts at living forever did the opposite, and actually ended up shortening the life of China’s First Emperor.

Chin Shi Huang had solicited the advice and assistance of numerous philosophers, alchemists, opportunists, sketchy characters, and outright charlatans. One of those charlatans gave the emperor mercury pills, which he claimed were a life-prolonging intermediate step in his research for immortality drugs. Using them every day should tidy Chin Shi Huang over until the Life Elixir was ready.

Swallowing mercury every day, the emperor gradually poisoned himself, and gradually grew insane. He turned into a recluse who concealed himself, Howard Hughes style, from all but his closest courtiers, and spent much of his time listening to songs about “Pure Beings”. Many of his crazier decisions, such as ordering the burial of scholars alive, the book burning, and the banishment of his son and heir, were probably caused by the mercury pills.

Rather than prolong his life, Chin Shi Huang ended up giving himself a nasty dose of mercury poisoning, which drove him insane as a preliminary, en route to finishing him off at the relatively young age of 49. It happened during one of his tours of the provinces, when he dropped dead inside his spacious imperial carriage – a miniature house on wheels – on September 10th, 210 BC.

The emperor’s corpse was discovered by his chief bodyguard, and that worthy immediately informed the emperor’s most trusted adviser, Li Ssu. The duo decided to sit on the information until they returned to the capital. So they put on a show, sending in food and documents to the carriage and its ripening corpse, whose stench they concealed by placing wagons of rotting fish nearby. Then, with the emperor’s second son, they forged an imperial signature on a document ordering the first son and legal heir – who did not get along with Li Ssu – to commit suicide.

It was only two months later, after the heir had complied and killed himself, and the imperial entourage was safely back in the capital, that the conspirators decided it was safe enough to announce the emperor’s demise. The second son who had conspired to remove the crown prince and official heir from the way was crowned as China’s second emperor, Chin Ershi Huangdi.

10 Fascinating Things About China’s First Emperor that Will Leave You Speechless
Part of the First Emperor’s tomb, with thousands of life sized terracotta warriors. New York Times

His Dynasty Collapsed Within Three Years of His Death

Chin Shi Huang was buried in his massive tomb, along with all his wives and concubines who had no sons. His unification of China would prove enduring, but the Chin Dynasty which he founded would not: it lasted for only three years after his death. His second son and successor, who assumed the throne as Chin Ershi Huangdi, whose name means “Second Chin Emperor”, was nowhere near as capable as his father had been. As a result, China went to the dogs during his reign.

Soon after Chin Ershi ascended the throne, China descended into chaos and was engulfed in civil wars, as multiple rebellions erupted throughout the realm. One of them had humble beginnings, but turned into a major uprising that overthrew the Chin dynasty. It began with a platoon of draftees who found themselves stuck in the mud during a rainstorm, prevented from reaching their assigned military station.

One of the recruits asked what the penalty was for being late. Under the Chin’s draconian Legalism decrees, the penalty for being late was death. So he asked what the penalty was for rebellion. He was told that the penalty for rebellion was also death. “Well“, he told his comrades, “we are already late“. So the recruits slew their officers and launched a rebellion.

Faced with such uprisings all across China, the new emperor was indecisive. He turned to a trusted palace eunuch for advice, elevated him to prime minister, then leaned on him so much that he effectively became the eunuch’s puppet emperor. Acting on the eunuch’s advice, the emperor ended up taking measures that resulted in the execution of many of the Chin’s most capable officials, and alienated the rest.

As a result, the Chin government was unable to act effectively to tamp down the various armed bands challenging its authority in the recently unified China. That ineffectiveness was exacerbated by Chin Ershi’s tendency to punish officials who brought him bad news, particularly about the growing rebellions. So wary officials sent him fake news instead, with rosy but fanciful reports, describing made up successes against the various rebel bands.

It all came crashing down in 207 BC, when rebel forces utterly crushed a Chin army at the Battle of Julu, killing over 200,000 of Chin Ershi’s troops. Five months later, rebels captured another 200,000 Chin troops, and executed them by burying them alive. When Chin Ershi finally became aware of the seriousness of the situation, he tried to punish his eunuch prime minister for steering him wrong. The latter, however, beat him to the punch, and engineered a palace coup that ended in the emperor’s death, bringing Chin Shi Huang Di’s Chin Dynasty to an ignominious end. It was succeeded soon thereafter by the Han Dynasty, which ruled China for the next four centuries.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Sources & Further Reading

Ambrose, Tom – The Nature of Despotism: From Caligula to Mugabe, the Making of Tyrants (2010)

Borges, Jorge Luis – The Wall and the Books

Clements, Jonathan – The First Emperor of China (2006)

Smithsonian Channel – The Deadly Attempt to Assassinate Qin Shi Huang

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe, Part II (1994)

Huang, Ray – China: A Macro History, 2nd Edition (1987)

Lewis, Mark – The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (2009)

Listverse – 10 Bizarre Tales of The First Emperor of China’s Quest For Immortality

Neinenger, Ulrich – Burying the Scholars Alive: On the Origin of a Confucian Martyrs’ Legend

Travel China Guide – Emperor Qin Shi Huang, First Emperor of China

Fairbank, John King – The Cambridge History of China: The Chin and Han Empires, 221 BC – AD 220, 3rd Edition (1986)

Wikipedia – Battle of Julu

Wikipedia – Qin Shi Huang