Qin Dynasty

The First Emperor. Builder of the Great Wall, seeker of immortality. Under his rule China was united for the first time. He simplified the language and promulgated a legal code. He burned books, especially when still in the hands of burning scholars. A hero of unification, or oppresive tyrant and dictator? Or both?

The Rise and Fall of the Qin Dynasty

The first Emperor was born Zhao Zheng, to young Prince Zichu (soon to be King Zhuangxiang), in 259 BC. These were the closing years of the Zhou Dynasty, when the states were constantly at war against one another, and the Qin state was gathering in power and importance. The young Prince would eventually be seen as the founder of modern China.

Originally a small, backwater state which bordered on the barbarian lands to the west, the state of Qin expanded its territory, first to the west, conquering the Rong barbarians, then east, to the Yellow river. At the same time, the old Zhou Dynasty was fragmenting further and further, as lords and generals who ruled their own fiefdoms broke from the Zhou and formed their own states. The larger states proceeded to swallow up the smaller, and by the reign of Duke Xiao of Qin (361 BC), there were only a half dozen powerful states left: the Chu, Jin, Yan, Han, Qi, Zhao, and Zhou. The state of Qin was mostly ignored by the others, and was treated as if it was a barbarian country. But they would not ignore it for long. Under Duke Xiao, the Qin began a slow process which is referred to in Chinese as canshi, or 'like a silkworm devouring a mulberry leaf,' conquering by taking one territory at a time, one city at a time, one state at a time. The policies of Duke Xiao continued under Duke (later, King) Huiwen, King Wu, and King Zhaoxiang.

When King Zhaoxiang died, after reigning for fifty-three years over near constant military campaigns, he was succeeded in short order by his son, King Xiaowen, who lasted only a year, and Xiaowen's son, King Zhuangxiang, father of the First Emperor, who ruled for a scant three years before passing away. And so Zhao Zheng, then only thirteen years of age, became King Zheng of Qin, and continued the policy of conquest set by his ancestors so effectively that, in the twenty-sixth year of his rule (221 BC), King Zheng had succeeded in uniting the empire, and took the title of Shi Huangdi -- the First Emperor.

from King Zheng to Shi Huangdi

At first, since he was so young, affairs of the state were handled by his chief ministers. The main power of the state resided in Lu Buwei, the prime minister, and the armies were in the hands of Generals Meng Ao, Wang Ji, and Lord Biao. The generals continued to take cities from the other states. In the sixth year (241 BC) of his reign, five of the states joined together in attacking Qin, but were defeated. The greatest threat to his power in these early years came in his eighth (239 BC), when his younger brother, Lord Chang'an, revolted after leading his troops on an attack on Zhao. When he was killed that same year, vengeance was terrible: all of his officers were killed, and when the people of a town revolted in support, they were all killed as well. The following year, King Zheng went through a ceremonial transition to manhood and, now a man, assumed control of the state.

Not long thereafter, Lu Buwei lost his post as prime minister, and retired in disgrace. In his place, Li Si, the Legalist, became the King's most trusted advisor. According to the Records of the Grand Historian, or Shiji by Sima Qian, Li Si said:

...an accomplisher of great deeds in one who takes advantage of the cracks and openings and can bear to do what has to be done...With the power that Qin possesses and Your Majesty's worth, it would be easy to wipe out the feudal lords, found an imperial dynasty, and unite the whole world under one rule as it would be to dust off the top of an oven!

The King must have taken Li Si's words to heart, because the next dozen years reads like an aquisition list for the state of Qin:

233 BC:The King of Han surrenders.
228 BC:Zhao territory is conquered, the King of Zhao is captured.
227 BC:The Yan capital is seized, the Crown Prince of Yan is decapitated, but the Yan King escapes and sets up camp elsewhere.
225 BC:The King of Wei surrenders, all his territory is seized.
223 BC:The Kingdom of Chu is taken, its King killed, its General commits suicide.
222 BC:The Yan King is seized, and as an afterthought, the small state of Dai is taken and its King taken prisoner.
221 BC:The Qi army is routed, the King of Qi seized.

King Zheng then issued this decree:

Insignificant person that I am, I have called troops to punish violence and rebellion. Thanks to the help of the ancestral spirits, these six kings have all acknowledged their guilt and the world is in profound order...Let the deliberations be held on an imperial title.

A number of suggestions were made for a title, including "Greatly August." The King said, "We will drop the Greatly, keep the August, calling ourselves Huangdi, or August Emperor." And it was so. After all, who was going to argue with him?

The First Emperor

Now that he was Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi went about securing his country, unifying it, in a grand scheme unlike any that had ever been proposed before. Under the advice of Li Si, he declined to parcel out pieces of land to his sons, as history had shown how, under the Zhou Dynasty, these individual fiefdoms eventually become states in and of themselves and the country fragments. Instead, the country was divided into thirty-six provinces, each with a governor, but with only one central government and only one leader, an organizing scheme which has held the same, with only minor modifications, up until the present day. He standardized the weights and measurements systems, no minor feat when one considers how, in modern times, attempts to move everyone to the metric system have failed so spectacularly in the United States. He standardized the gauge of wheeled vehicles, which is another issue the planet today has struggled with, as far as railroad gauge is concerned (in case you've ever wondered why you often have to switch trains at the borders of many countries instead of being able to travel right through). The writing system was also standardized, and a standard coin also began circulating at this time, the ban liang, a round coin with a square hole. As with many of his other changes, this type of coin would continue long after his death, staying in circulation until the 20th Century.

And if he left it at that, well, he might be remembered as one of the greatest rulers China has ever known. But two factors transpire against that legacy: one is that the histories we have were written by the succeeding Han Dynasty, who had a vested interest in making him look bad. The second is that Qin Shi Huangdi made it very easy to make him look bad, as he started doing all kinds of crazy things.

To begin with, he hated if anyone mentioned anything about death. He became obsessed with it. He wanted his Dynasty to last forever, preferrably with himself at the head of it. He sent his ministers to the four corners of the empire to discover the secrets of immortality.

He also began several monumental architectural projects, which required hundreds of thousands of workers, many of whom died due to the harsh labour. He constructed the Great Wall, to keep out the northern barbarians. He ordered a new palace to be built at Epang. And he had a huge masoleum constructed for himself at Mt. Li.

After being told by Master Lu, a native of Yan whom the Emperor had sent on a quest of the secret of immortality, that "When you are in the palace, do not let others know where you are. Once that is done, I believe the herbs of immortality can be obtained." Heeding his advice, Shi Huangdi turned his various palaces into mazes of secret corridors, walkways, and towers. If someone revealed where he was at any time they were put to death.

Yet there is one act committed by the First Emperor for which he is reviled more than any other. Li Si proposes it to him, in the Shiji:

I therefore request that all the records of the historians other than those of the state of Qin be burned. With the exception of the academicians whose duty it is to possess them, if there are persons anywhere in the empire who have in their possession copies of the Odes, the Documents, or the writings...they shall in all cases deliver them to the governor or his commandant for burning. Anyone who ventures to discuss the Odes or Documents shall be executed in the marketplace...

The histories, songs, philosophical texts, and histories of the other states were burned. Enough copies of the Confucian classics survived and continue to be read to this day, but any histories written by states other than Qin are lost to us forever, so even today the world lacks knowledge it otherwise could have had, because of the cruel acts of an Emperor, 2000 years ago.

But then, in 210 BC, his reign abruptly came to an end. He died during a hunting expedition on which he hoped to kill a gigantic fish with a repeating crossbow. Try explaining that one to the kids ("How did Daddy die?", "Well, it's like this...er,..."). The hunting party kept his death a secret for a little while while they plotted. Li Si and the court eunuch Zhao Gao determined that the rightful heir, Prince Fusu, would not be pliable to their commands whereas the younger son, Prince Huhai, was just the right sort of idiot boy for the job. So they headed back to the capitol without telling anyone the Emperor was dead, which was tricky, since it was so hot the corpse started to reek, and they had to stuff a bunch of carriages nearby with dried fish to disguise the odor, and in the meantime hastily dispatched Prince Fusu, and forged an edict which proclaimed Huhai the Second Emperor of the Qin Dynasty.

The Second Emperor

Young Huhai was to all accounts completely irresponsible, idiotic, and totally controlled by Zhao Gao, the eunuch. It is the story which will be told again and again throughout Chinese history, of the waning, corrupt days of a dynasty, when the Emperor retreats from the people and no one can see him except the court eunuchs. Pick a dynasty, any dynasty, it seems to always end up this way. With the Qin, it just took a lot less time.

Li Si was the first victim of Zhao Gao, subsequently everyone felt fear at reporting any bad news to the Emperor. As a result, even when the Qin armies started to lose battles against rebels springing up all over the country, the Emperor remained ignorant of the news. When things started going very poorly for the Qin army, Zhao Gao feared Huhai would blame him, and so conspired to have him killed, and set up the more compliant Prince Ziying in his place, in 207 BC. But Ziying ruled for only fourty five days before being forced to surrender to the generals who, five years later, founded the Han Dynasty. The judgement of the Han Dynasty scholar Jia Yi is, simply, "If the Second Emperor had acted in the manner of even a mediocre ruler...Then within the four seas all would have been perfectly content, each enjoying and finding security in his own station." And so the First Emperor, who so craved immortality, instead leaves behind a Dynasty which only barely outlasted him. But his legacy endures, many of his works survive. He will not be forgotten.

Principal Players of the Qin

The Qin Dynasty rose and fell on the backs of just a few powerful men and women. Here then, are the supporting characters, without whom the First Emperor may never have succeeded, and the Qin Dynasty may never have been defeated.

Lu Buwei
Lu Buwei was the man largely responsible for bringing the First Emperor to the throne. His machinations began in the fourtieth year of King Zhaoxiang (267 BC), when the crown prince died, and his second son, Lord Anguo, became the new crown prince. He had over twenty sons, but his favorite concubine had bore him none. Lu Buwei smelled opportunity. He picked one of the younger sons, Zichu, and convinced the concubine to adopt him as his own, to ensure her place as Queen and her choice of children as successor. And so Zichu became the favored son of Lord Anguo. Zichu, needless to say, felt indebted to Lu Buwei. "When the day comes," he says, "I hope you will allow me to divide the state of Qin and share it with you!"

Now here comes the good part. Lu Buwei and Zichu would often drink together, and one day Zichu sees Lu Buwei's favorite concubine, and asks for her as a wife. Lu Buwei agrees, even though she is already pregnant by him. They conceal the pregnancy, and when she bore a son, Zichu believed it was his and named him Zhao Zheng -- the boy who grew up to become Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor. In due time, Lord Anguo became King Xiaowen, and died, Zichu became King Zhuangxiang, and died. And so Zheng, Lu Buwei's child, became King of Qin. Lu Buwei was in the meantime being treated quite well, becoming a marquis, and being given the revenue of 100,000 houses.

Once King Zhuangxiang (Zichu) died, the old concubine reverted back to her original love, Lu Buwei, and had a clandestine affair with him. This lasted for some time, while the new King was growing up. She was becoming more and more public about the affair, and Lu Buwei feared that, if he did nothing, he would be exposed and ruined. And so he found a man named Lao Ai.

Lao Ai
Lao Ai was hired by Lu Buwei because, and I'm sorry, but there's no way around it, he had a really large penis. And you thought history was boring? The Shiji continues the story:

...When an occasion arose, he had suggestive music performed and, instructing Lao Ai to stick his penis through the centre of a wheel...had him walk about with it, making certain that the report of this reached the ears of the queen dowager so as to excite her interest.

Excite her it did, so Lu Buwei arranged to have the man accused of a crime which calls for the punishment of castration, then faked the deed and let him be hired into the Queen Dowager's service. The fake eunuch then proceeded to 'service' the queen faithfully, and she fell in love with him and bore him two sons. He was made a marquis. But eventually King Zheng heard he was not a eunuch, and Lao Ai plotted revolt. The revolt was crushed, and according to the Shiji, "Lao Ai was torn in two by carriages to serve as a warning and his clan was wiped out."

Lu Buwei was implicated in the matter, and was stripped of his titles, and, fearing further insult, committed suicide.

Jing Ke
There's just no way around it, Jing Ke is a complete loser. But it doesn't matter -- he's a hero anyway, just because he tried. How many heroes to we celebrate, who tried but ultimately failed in their task? Not too many, let me tell you. Remember, The Little Engine that Could actually does. Not Jing Ke, the assassin.

The story of Jing Ke is all about putting off until tomorrow what you could do today. When the Prince of Yan was looking for someone to assassinate the King of Qin, he met man after man, all of whom referred him to someone else. The last, a friend of Jing Ke named Tian Guang, visited Jing Ke and asked that he meet with the Prince. To underline his request, Tian Guang killed himself on the spot. Jing Ke could hardly do anything else but see the Prince, who proceeded to explain his plan. Jing Ke thought about it, and said, "I am a person of little worth, and I fear I would be unfit for such a mission." After much begging, though, he consented.

Not that his consent meant much. The Shiji explains:

Time passed, but Jing Ke showed no inclination to set out on the mission.

Finally, Jing Ke admitted he doesn't see how he can get close enough to do the job, unless he brings with him the head of the exiled Qin General Fan. The Prince refuses the request, but General Fan decides to go for it. But even after getting an honorable general to decapitate himself for him, Jing Ke still doesn't go:
...preparations for the journey were completed but, though time passed, Jing Ke still did not set off.

Finally, after more begging from the Prince, he goes on his mission, which ends in spectacular failure, not even managing to wound the Emperor. All that for nothing. But still, as Sima Qian, the historian, says, of the assassins he describes:
...some succeeded in carrying out their duty and some did not. But it is perfectly clear that they had all determined upon the deed. They were not false in their intentions. Is it not right, then, that their names should be handed down to later ages?

Although I'm not sure I agree with his logic, what the hell, it makes for a good story, anyway.

Xu Fu and Master Lu
Xu Fu is one of the first scholars mentioned in the history who is assigned the task of uncovering the secret of immortality. Xu Fu suggests to the Emperor that there are islands in the sea with immortals on them. He requests pure young boys and girls to accompany him to seek their secrets. The Emperor agrees to his request, and sends him on his way. He is gone from the narrative for a long time.

In the meantime, Master Lu appears, having also been to sea, with a prophecy that "Qin will be destroyed by Hu." On account of this, the Emperor sends a punative expedition to the Hu barbarians, though the true meaning of this prophecy is said to be that the Qin will be destroyed by Prince Huhai, the Second Emperor, which actually does come to pass. Lu advises Qin Shi Huangdi that he will never become immortal if people know where he is, causing elaborate secret tunnels, ramps, and mazes to be built in the palace. But then, Master Lu becomes frightened of the Emperor, exclaiming, "When he is as greedy for authority and power as this, we can never hope to search out the herbs of immortality!" He flees. The Emperor, in retaliation, kills around 500 scholars (some say he buried them alive).

At last, Xu Fu returns, unsuccessful in his attempt to find the secret herbs of immortality. So he makes up a story to save his skin:

The herbs can surely be obtained. But always there is a large fish that causes difficulty, and therefore we are unable to reach the island. We would like to request that a skilled archer accompany us so that if we sight any fish, he can shoot at them with a repeating crossbow.

The Emperor himself takes up the challenge, imagining himself to be fighting a fierce ocean god, and it is precisely at this time that he drops dead, losing his quest for immortality once and for all.

Li Si
Li Si was the mastermind behind the rise of the First Emperor and his most successful policies. He was an advocate of Legalism, as we shall see in the next section. It was he who pleaded with the Emperor to refuse the other nobles requests for fiefdoms of their own, opting instead for a province system. And not only that, he must have been a blast at parties, with lots of pithy wisdom to dispense, such as:

"To occupy a mean and lowly station and never plan for advancement is to be like a bird or beast who spies something to eat but, because there are people around, forces itself to pass by."

Li Si played an important role in building the Qin Dynasty. But at the First Emperor's death, he was convinced by the eunuch Zhao Gao to conspire against the crown prince, Fusu, and establish Prince Huhai as the Second Emperor instead. He continued to try to affect policy with the new leader, but Zhao Gao controlled the young new emperor like a puppet on strings. He tried to warn Huhai of the eunuch's evil influence, but Huhai would have none of it, and under Zhao Gao's direction had Li Si put into chains. "This is sad work!" he cried. "How can one lay plans for an unprincipled ruler?" And so he was put to death, undergoing the five penalties: tattooing of the face, amputation of the ears, nose, fingers, and feet, flogging, exposure of the head, and finally being cut in half at the waist. A grisly end for a fierce legal reformer.

Meng Tian
Meng Tian was a noble and honorable General from a well regarded family. He fought a battle against the Qi and was victorious, the Emperor then sent him north to subdue the barbarians. He campaigned there for ten years, at the same time overseeing the construction of the great wall. When Prince Fusu complained to the First Emperor about his harsh policies, advocating Confucianism, he was sent to Meng Tian to oversee the work there, out of sight, out of mind. They were good friends and are viewed kindly by historians, who see them as two traditional Confucianists with the righteous values that that implies. Others view them less positively, after all, they oversaw the construction of the Great Wall, which led to thousands upon thousands of deaths.

When the First Emperor died, he had written a letter making Prince Fusu his heir. If Fusu was indeed to become the next Emperor, Meng Tian would have most certainly been his most trusted advisor. As it was, however, Zhao Gao and Li Si forged a note saying Huhai was heir, and forged an edict from the First Emperor which read:

Fusu and General Meng Tian, commanding an army of several hundred thousand, have garrisoned the border for over ten years now. They have been wholly unable to advance, but have thrown away the lives of numerous of their men without winning so much as a foot of territory. Not only that, but Fusu has several times sent letters openly criticizing me...Fusu has not acted as a filial son. I present him a sword so he may settle the matter for himself. As a subject, [General Meng Tian] has acted disloyally. I present him with the opportunity to take his own life..."

Prince Fusu shrugged and offed himself, but Meng Tian questioned the order and decided against it. Huhai was going to pardon him then, but the eunuch Zhao Gao spent every day talking him down until at last Huhai agreed to get rid of him, as well. Meng Tian, faithful servant he was, was crushed. The Shiji:
What crime have I committed before Heaven that I should die an innocent death?...In fact, I deserve to die for the crime I have committed. From Lintao east to Liaodong I built a wall extending for 10,000 li and more. In the course of it, I could not help but cut through the arteries of the earth. That must be my crime!

And he, too, committed suicide.

Zhao Gao
Zhao Gao is without doubt the biggest bastard of the lot. He is an old standby in Chinese history, the wicked eunuch. His schemes were directly responsible for the deaths of Li Si, Huhai, Prince Fusu, Meng Tian, and countless others. His poison lips destroyed Huhai's chances at being a ruler, poisoned his mind with rotten advice and lies. There was nothing he wasn't capable of doing to retain his power.

He began from humble origins as the chief of the office of palace carriages, and from there became the tutor for young Prince Huhai, instructing him in legal matters. When the first Emperor died, he made his move, convincing Li Si to aide him in putting Huhai on the throne. Zhao Gao proceeded to give Huhai terrible advice, such as, "Make the laws sterner and more severe," and, "Wipe out the chief ministers and sow dissention among kin, enrich those who are poor, elevate those who are humble, rid yourself of old officials appointed by the former Emperor." Huhai did these things, and hundreds were killed, the princes all terrified of what would happen next. Zhao Gao was pleased. "Your subjects are so worried about death they have no time for anything else!"

The Second Emperor was perhaps corrupted under Zhao Gao's influence, perhaps he was already corrupt. Whatever the case, his rule of thumb was simple: "When a man of worth possesses the empire, his sole concern is to use the empire to gratify himself."

When Zhao Gao was promoted to chancellor, after the death of Li Si, he tested his authority with the ministers. He pulled out a dead deer, showed it to the Emperor, and called it a horse. The Emperor disagreed. So he showed it to each minister in attendance. Most of them agreed it was a horse. Those that did not were soon implicated in some kind of crime and put to death.

Zhao Gao's arrogance then knew no bounds. He contrived to have Huhai killed, and rule the Empire himself. But the Shiji explains:

He [Zhao Gao] mounted the throne, but the throne room shook three times as though it would collapse. Zhao Gao realized then that Heaven would not sanction his action and that none of the officials would agree to it, so he summoned Ziying, a grandson of the First Emperor, and turned the imperial seals over to him.

Ziying was not the Third Emperor -- by this time, the Empire had collapsed, leaving a small and weakened Qin, of which he was King. Ziying was no dummy -- he quickly had Zhao Gao killed. But all the court intrigues had taken their toll on the empire, and not three months later, the King of Qin surrendered the imperial seals, and the Dynasty was at its end, brought to its knees by one power-mad eunuch: Zhao Gao.

Weaken the People: Li Si and the Legalists

Legalism is not a popular school of philosophy. In fact, it is hardly a school at all, just a set of ideas about how best to run a state, focused on concrete laws for getting a state to prosper rather than philosophical ideas about what constitutes the 'best' state. It came to the fore only once in Chinese history, under the Qin rulers, and was so hated it was afterwards never fully revived again.

Legalism is the polar opposite to Confucianism, the very foundation of Chinese society. Instead of focusing on the virtuous and righteous qualities a leader should possess, Legalism was about putting the state before the people, before morals, before all other concerns. People were important only inasmuch as they serve the state. Drawing inspiration and role models from the past, another Confucian tradition, was also discarded as useless.

Li Si was the last and one of the greatest Legalists of Qin, but he was just one in a long line, leading back to Lord Shang, advisor to Duke Xiao of Qin. His rebuttal of Confucianism was brief, to the point, and when Duke Xiao agreed, forever set the state of Qin on a seperate path from the other states:

Wise men make laws, stupid men are constrained by them. Worthy men change rites, unworthy men merely cling to them.

The Confucian philosophers were increasingly horrified as under Lord Shang and later, Li Si, the Qin State swallowed up the others and unified China. The laws of Qin were, it is said, unusually harsh. In the Book of Lord Shang, laws under Legalism are explained:
In applying punishments, light offenses should be punished heavily; if light offenses do not appear, heavy offenses will not come...Punishments should know no degree or grade, but from ministers of state and generals down to great officers and ordinary folk, whoever does not obey the king's commands, violates the interdicts of the state, or rebels against the statutes fixed by the ruler should be guilty of death and should not be pardoned.

When Lord Shang promulgated the new laws, he put a pole out and announced that anyone who moved it would be given fifty gold pieces. When one man did, he promptly gave him the money. He did this to illustrate that he means what he says, apparently. According to the Shiji, after the laws were in effect for ten years, the people of Qin were overjoyed by the safety and prosperity they brought to the towns and villages.

Legalism seemed to work, for a while. But oppression of opposing schools of thought became more and more severe, until Li Si recommended, in 213 BC, to burn all books. His argument stems directly from the differences of Legalism and Confucianism. When a academician complained to the Emperor that he was not giving out fiefdoms to his brothers and sons, and so not following the tradition of history, and said "I have never heard of any undertaking that failed to imitate the example of antiquity and yet was able to endure for long," the Emperor took it under advisement. Li Si retorted by stating, "...the feudal rulers rose up side by side, all of them declaiming on antiquity in order to disparage the present." And recommended the books be burned. They were. Another Legalist, Han Fei, wrote in his Han Feizi, "...in the state of an enlightened ruler there are no books written on bamboo slips; law supplies the only instruction."

Many of the laws and edicts passed under Legalism were designed to make the common people ignorant and weak. This seems contrary to any kind of logical sense, but it worked for a while. Lord Shang wrote of it in his Book:

A weak people means a strong state and a strong state means a weak people. Therefore, a state that has the right way is concerned with weakening the people.

Also of interest is the Legalist argument against the welfare state, one that I've heard many, many times still today:
When the scholars of today discuss good government, many of them say, "Give land to the poor and the destitute, so that those who have no means of livelihood may be provided for." Now, if men start out with equal opportunities and yet there are few who...are able to keep themselves well supplied, it must be due to either hard work or frugal living. If men start out with equal opportunities and yet there are a few who...still sink into poverty and destitution, it must be due either to laziness or to extravagant living. The lazy and extravagant grow poor, the diligent and frugal get rich. Now if the ruler levies money from the rich in order to give alms to the poor, he is robbing the diligent and frugal and indulging the lazy and extravagant. If he expects by such means to induce the people to work industriously and spend with caution, he will be disappointed...

Although first it seemed a smashing success, the death of Qin Shi Huangdi showed how empty that success was. The Second Emperor, hiding away from the people and even his ministers, was not told the truth of what occured outside for fear of the harsh laws. The people could no longer stand the taxation and oppression and rose up against him. The Qin police state disintigrated. Ironically, both Lord Shang and Li Si were eventually cruelly executed under the Legalist system of their own devising. Ever since the empire's collapse, the Qin Dynasty has been synonymous with tyranny and oppression.

The Tomb of the First Emperor

In 1974, some workers from the Yen Tsai commune in Lintong county were digging a well, near the modern day city of Xi'an, when they came across some artifacts. Archeologists came to the scene, and made an astonishing discovery.

A whole army of terra-cotta warriors were buried in the earth. Archers, footsoldiers, horses and war chariots. Test pits were dug to determine the size of the find -- it was vast. Work on the site was begun almost immediately and continued for twenty years. It was found to contain over 6,000 warriors in all. A second pit was discovered in 1976, and excavation began on it in 1994. Now, the terra-cotta army is one of the largest tourist attractions in China, with over two million viewers annually. Just over 1,000 of the warriors have been restored and stand guard again as they were intended two over two thousand years ago.

This is the terra-cotta army of Qin Shi Huangdi. They guard his tomb, a large tumulus just one kilometer away. Interestingly, the histories make no mention of the army of terra-cotta warriors, though the Shiji describes the tomb and its construction in some detail:

When the emperor first came to the throne he began digging and shaping Mr. Li. Later, when he unified the empire, he had over 700,000 men from all over the empire transported to the spot. They dug down to the third layer of underground springs and poured in bronze to make the outer coffin. Replicas of palaces, scenic towers, and the hundred officials, as well as rare utensils and wonderful objects, were brought to fill up the tomb. Craftsmen were ordered to set up crossbows and arrows, rigged so they would immediately shoot down anyone attempting to break in. Mercury was used to fashion imitations of the hundred rivers, the Yellow River and the Yangtze, and the seas, constructed in such a way that they seemed to flow. Above were representations of all the heavenly bodies, below, the features of the earth.

The tomb of the First Emperor can be nothing short of staggering. However, no excavation has yet taken place there, only around the perimiter. Perhaps a dig in the tumulus has been put off out of fear -- fear of finding nothing. After all, the same history later writes, when the Han take over and the Qin fall, that the "palaces and tombs were despoiled." Perhaps there is nothing left, perhaps there is. We have no way of knowing until more work is done.

The warriors, though, are no small treasure. They surely rank as one of the most amazing archeological finds of all time. They give us answers to questions about the Qin Dynasty than a hundred histories could never have solved, filling in the details that no historical narrative would even bother to enter. Each warrior, so incredibly detailed, illustrates facial types, hair styles and binds, beards and mustaches, clothing style and color, and so much else besides.

But though they answer many questions, they raise still more. One question is as to their purpose: why are they there? To 'protect' the Emperor in the afterlife? Are they replacements, as some speculate, of real human sacrifices? It seems so. A variety of minqi, or funerary figures, have been discovered in tombs across China, though none have come near the complexity, size, or quantity of these. The Shiji chronicles seem to support this theory of their use. When Duke Mu died (621 BC), he took 177 people with him, including some of the best ministers, making it very hard for the Qin state to function, for a time. But then Duke Xian (384 BC) prohibited the practice of "following in death." Are the terra-cotta warriors a substitute for this practice? Maybe, but not entirely. On the First Emperor's death, Prince Huhai sent all of his concubines who were without children to "follow him in death," and had all of the workers on the tomb similarly executed, so they would not reveal its secrets. So plenty of people were still put to death. But the replacement theory could also explain the incredibly life-like faces of the warriors, each one unique. When you are posing for a sculpture that will be buried for eternity as a stand-in for yourself, you no doubt become very willing to let the artisan take all the time they need to make it just right.

Qin in the Movies

The films in this section can be divided into two types. The first four are historical biopics, each with massive budgets, casts of thousands, expansive sets, and extended running times. The second four bring the Qin Dynasty to the present, using as their main vehicle the Terracotta Warriors. Time travel or reincarnation also plays a part.

Amazingly, the four biopics overlap only slightly. Watching them all, in the right sequence, can give the viewer a nearly complete overview of the Qin Dynasty. The Emperor's Shadow starts earliest, with scenes of the First Emperor's childhood, and goes up through the unification of the states. Jing Ke, the assassin, appears for mere moments in this film, but it is this character which picks up the story in The Emperor and the Assassin. The Emperor and the Assassin covers roughly the same time period as The Emperor's Shadow, but fleshes out entirely different incidents in his life. Having seen these two, the viewer may be ready to see the big picture, the First Emperor's entire reign, from beginning to end, in The Great Wall. Many of the characters are less clear here, and the episodes shorter, but seeing the other two pictures first allows the viewer to appreciate and recognize some characters and subplots which might otherwise have been confusing. Finally, The Great Conqueror's Concubine begins with Qin Shi Huangdi's death and traces the turmoil that erupts afterwards.


A lot of the time, we must rely on secondary sources and research already done by historians and nicely packaged in their own theories and biases. But in this instance, the historian himself wrote a long, long time ago, and is part of history himself. And between us, we have only one translator. Sima Qian has such a narrative talent that one translator is all that is needed.

QIAN, Sima and WATSON, Burton (Trans.) Records of the Grand Historian : Qin Dynasty
This is the book to get to explore the Qin Dynasty further. Almost all of the material in the first two sections of this issue came directly from this text. It's really enjoyable to read, the original text and the translation are both superb. Highly recommended.

QIAN, Sima and WATSON, Burton (Trans.) Records of the Grand Historian : Han Dynasty, Volume 1
The book on the Qin Dynasty doesn't really fully cover everything. This book goes into detail with the history of the Han, some of it overlapping with the Qin chronicles, some of it detailing what happens between the two Dynastys, the rest about setting up the Han Dynasty and its first rulers. A gripping story all the way through. Also followed by Records of the Grand Historian : Han Dynasy, Volume 2. Both are recommended.

de BARY, Theodore and BLOOM, Irene. Sources of Chinese Tradition, Second Edition
I used a number of different Chinese philosophy books for the section on Legalism, this one will do just fine for anyone interested, however. A great improvement over their first edition which was just a couple hundred pages, this book has over a thousand pages of excerpts of the Chinese classics with some brief commentary. Great for anyone who wants to turn to the original sources every now and again.

DEBAINE-FRANCFORT, Corinne. The Search for Ancient China
Finally, how about an intro to early Chinese archeology? A look at some of the more interesting discoveries from the Shang, Zhou, Warring States, Qin, and Han Dynasties, including the terra-cotta army. It also has a brief overview of the state of archeology in China and the principal players. Lots of pictures, too.


I didn't really use the web this time around for research. However, I did do a little surfing and came across a few good sites that pertain to the Qin Dynasty.

The best of the lot is certainly The Qin Dynasty On-Line Source Book a site whose author ('General Meng Tian') has tried to compile articles of interest about the Qin Dynasty, with a focus on the terracotta warriors. He also has a section on films and TV series which feature the Qin Dynasty!

A page of Qin Dynasty links can take you to a number of other interesting sites.

Sony pictures had an official website for The Emperor and the Assassin, but when I tried to find it again recently it seems to have disappeared. Oh well.

Posted by Peter Nepstad on August 01, 2001.


The site's information is very detailed. Best for students who need help in their project work. Keep up the good work! ;)

Posted by: Jeanette at July 19, 2004 04:57 AM

I am of Chinese heritage and have always been intreasted in my culture. This site has furthered my knowledge. I plan to visit China when I come of age. I consider it home even though I have never been there. After seeing 'Hero' my ideas of what Emperor Qin was trying to do were somewhat staggered. I don't believe what he was trying to do was so horrible. In his own mind I don't believe he thought uniting his people was such a bad thing. However he went about it, he united warring states into one...China. He will not be forgotten whether it's for the good he did or the bad. And I can easily say I love where it is I come from. Thank you for putting this site together.

Posted by: Katrina at January 15, 2005 10:21 PM

dis site gives good info on my social studies

Posted by: patrick at February 9, 2005 06:24 PM

Thank you for the information needed for a schoolproject

Posted by: Jonathan Cotten at October 15, 2005 09:23 PM

This is a great site- the best one on Emperor Qin. Gave me all the info I needed for my essay THanks!

Posted by: fiona at August 26, 2007 05:13 PM

Yeah, this website is really good! I couldn't find a good website about the Qin dynasty and Shi Huangdi but when I got to this website, I was like "I'VE HIT JACKPOT!" Thank you so much! Now I can finish my social studies project early!

Posted by: julia at May 21, 2008 09:03 PM
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