Qin Shi Huang
Qin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BC), founder of the imperial Qin Dynasty, was king of the Chinese state of Qin during the Warring States Period. Ascending the throne as a child, when he reached his teens he wrested power from the regents who had governed during his minority, and consolidated his power by massacring palace plotters who sought to usurp his prerogatives. He then went on the warpath, pushed back the northern barbarians, conquered all neighboring Chinese states and consolidated them under his rule, and declared himself the first emperor of a united China.
A capable ruler, Qin Shi Huang set out to unify his newly conquered empire, standardizing currency, weights and measuring, and introducing a system of government known as Legalism, based on strict laws and harsh punishments. He ended the feudalism which had led to the centuries of warfare that gave the Warring States Period its name, and replaced it with a centralized bureaucratic government in which advancement was based on merit. To keep the nobility in check, he kept those he favored in the capital, and controlling them with pensions and fancy titles, transformed them from an uncontrollable warrior class into dependents and tame courtiers. Then, abolishing all aristocratic titles and ranks, except for those created and bestowed by him, he had the rest of the nobility killed or put to work.
And he had everybody working. With unchecked power and the resources of an entire empire to draw upon, Qin Shi Huang grew megalomaniacal. He launched huge projects with massive amounts of forced labor, such as 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 which 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 Chinese seeking to flee Qin Shi Huang’s heavy taxation and oppressive rule, in.
Another manifestation of his megalomania, which caused his bizarre death, was his pursuit of immortality drugs. He lavishly funded searches for a “Life Elixir” that would keep him alive forever, including an expedition with hundreds of ships that sailed off into the Pacific in search of a mythical “Land of the Immortals”, and was never heard from again. He also patronized alchemists who claimed that they were close to inventing the Life Elixir, but their R&D was hobbled by a lack of funding – a problem which Qin Shi Huang generously put to rights.
One of those charlatans gave the emperor daily mercury pills, which he claimed were a life-prolonging intermediate step in his research for immortality drugs, which should tidy Qin Shi Huang over until the Life Elixir was ready. Swallowing mercury every day, the emperor gradually poisoned himself and gradually grew insane, turning into a recluse who concealed himself from all but his closest courtiers, listened constantly to songs about “Pure Beings”, ordered 400 scholars buried alive, and had his son and heir banished. Rather than prolong his life, Qin Shi Huang shortened it in his pursuit of immortality and died of mercury poisoning at the relatively young age of 49.