Home Chinese Culture China History The Qin Dynasty Qin Shihuang - Owner of The Terracotta Army

Qin Shihuang - Owner of The Terracotta Army


Qin Shihaung Di (the first emperor) reigned for eleven years over the first large empire in the region. He was born the son of a king in a kingdom that already had plans for the conquest of every other Warring State and had been preparing for conquest for years by mobilizing the masses for massive construction projects, conscripting the people for the army, and producing the most advanced weaponry that they could. Military might and conquest was their major goal aside from the continued rule of their king. The State of Qin rulers believed in a political philosophy called Legalism that justified strict centralized control and using the people to strengthen Qin. Qin Shihuang and his top officials followed the dictates of this philosophy by first conquering the region and then conscripting everyone for their projects of construction and foreign conquests. They believed that part of strengthening his rule was to force everyone to simply obey and not speak out against him and by decreeing even how people could write, what they could believe, and what they should do. He succeeded in molding the people to become more similar, to build massively, and to conquer more territory, but people grew to hate him and he became paranoid about assassination and death, and his family and court ended in killings and death.

The First Emperor was born in 259. His name when he was a child was Ying Zheng. When he was 13 in the year 246, his father died. He was too young to rule himself, so officials and his mother and others ruled in his place. His family and the royal court were having a bunch of plots and secret sex and children, and there was a plot to replace him with another child. A prime official named Buwei and others were involved in plots and cover-ups. Eventually, the plot was uncovered and people were tortured and killed. King Zheng then took power and Li Si became the head official.

The Qin rulers conquered every other region of the former Zhou Empire and some surrounding peoples as well. The society was centralized to the point that every dissenter against the rule of the court was destroyed or sent for forced labor, and most literature was destroyed. The society was enslaved for the use of the rulers in their wars and great construction projects. Even Qin Shihuang's own son was demoted and sent to construct the Great Wall because he dissented against him. The absolute power that they wanted for themselves corrupted them, and the dynasty quickly ended in foolish policies and the people rebelled.

xianthe terra-cotta warriors and horsesThe Terracotta Army

During their rule, they made the first Great Wall on their northern borders that was a high wall and a fortification to keep out northern tribes like the Xiongnu. They built many roads and some canals for transporting troops and supplies. They also built a huge tomb called the Qin Mausoleum for Emperor Qin Shihuang and the Terracotta Army and many other big projects, including the Ling Canal in Guilin, Guangxi Province, and Dujiangyan Irrigation Project in Doujiangyan, close to Chengdu, Sichuan Province. The Qin court succeeded in unifying the empire and retaining control for 15 years; they standardized the writing system, money, and measurements and built a lot of infrastructure that helped the big region prosper later; and by destroying the ideas and teachers who they were against, they established the dominant philosophies of their big region.


There are written accounts about the ancient history of Qin, but it isn't known if the accounts are accurate. It is said that Fei Zi was appointed rule over the city of Qin in the northwest. In 672, Qin rulers tried to expand eastward. Mostly, the Qin didn't attempt conquests of other states because they feared that tribes around them would attack them if a large army left on a campaign.

Historical Trajectory

Then about 61 years before Qin Shihuang was born, Shang Yang came to power as a court official in 361. During the two decades that he ruled, he made big political changes that took hold. He espoused and ruled according to a defined set of strict rules and a clear political philosophy. People eventually killed him, but his philosophy that was called Legalism was adopted by the ruling courts of latter generations of Qin rulers. Shang Yang introduced a lot of major governmental and political reforms that were revolutionary for his time, and set the course for Qin to become militarily more powerful and ruthless than the other states.

There was a generally known protocol for warfare in the whole Zhou region until he came to power that was somewhat similar to European ideas of chivalry in combat. Generals should allow the opposing generals to set up battle formations before beginning battle and other ideas like that. There were also generally accepted family ties and responsibilities such as those espoused by Confucians. Shang Yang did away with the protocols and morals. He wanted subservience to the ruling court to be the foremost responsibility and to destroy enemies ruthlessly. He also wanted everyone to be treated equally under a clearly fixed law. In a way, this legal system was actually fairer because it was less arbitrary. He thought that everyone should be ruled by the same laws whether they were from a ruling clan or a peasant clan. Under Legalism, political opposition can not be tolerated. So, one of the strengths of Qin was the tight central control and the abolition of much of the nobility's power.

To encourage production, Yang Shang privatized land, rewarded farmers who exceeded harvest quotas, and enslaved farmers who failed to meet their quotas. To strengthen his kingdom, he used slaves for his major construction projects to create better infrastructure. He wanted to improve the transportation system so that the armies could move more easily and to enhance internal trade. He also emphasized the creation of large armies for military offense. He emphasized the production of the best armaments. Their technology advanced so that iron tools and weapons became common. To replace chariots, the Qin organized mounted soldiers with masses of infantry. In the end, the Qin could muster armies of hundreds of thousands.

In the year 269, a general of Zhao defeated two Qin armies. After this, Fan Sui became the chief adviser to the emperor. He instituted Legalism-type policies and advocated attacking the other states and killing off the people in them and subjugating them. They started preparing for major conquests. Qin rulers had an advantage in that the territory was in the far west of the Warring States region sheltered behind mountains that could be defended. So for a period of time, they focused on building up their army and settling the land to provide food for their expeditions and to create wealth. They forced the people to build the Wei River Canal, roads and other projects, and to serve in the army.

King Zheng (260-210) started to rule in 246 BC when he was 13. During a short period of time, his ruling court mobilized Qin for conquests and then started invading the other states. Several of the states surrendered instead of fighting. They started the campaign for conquest in the year 230. In 230, Han that was their eastern neighbor surrendered to Qin. They defeated Wei in 225. In 223, they succeeded in conquering Chu after their first attack was defeated. Chu also had a large army and a lot of territory, but they were surprised by a sudden attack in the second campaign. In 222 BC, Qin conquered Yan and Zhao. In 221 BC, Qin conquered the last state called Qi.

Emperor Qin Shihuang's Reign (221-210)

the great wallGreat Wall of China

In this way, the Qin court gained the empire. King Zheng named himself Qin Shihuang Di. Centralization of power and standardization of the different peoples they conquered was their priority. The Legalism philosophy of Qin Shihuang justified strict rule to increase the empire's strength and the dominance of the emperor and his top rulers. They wanted to standardize even the people's thought, thinking that standardization and the squelching of any dissent against the rule of the court would promote their power. One of the first decrees of the Qin Empire was that all weapons had to be surrendered to them. The ordered that every man had to serve for a year in the army. He ordered the destruction of defensive walls of the former states, but ordered the construction of a great wall across the north to fend off the Xiongnu. Weights, measurements, and coinage were standardized. Under Li Si, the writing system was standardized by ordering everyone to write in the script used in Qin. The rulers wanted everyone to be able to understand their orders and for the officials to communicate with each other. Officials were chosen based on their merit and their ability to serve Emperor Qin Shihuang and obey him. Even his own son who dissented against him by warning him not to kill scholars was demoted and sent to the north to help build the Great Wall.

In 214, he secured his northern frontier. He appointed Meng Tian to lead an army of about 100,000 to drive away the nomadic Xiongnu. As part of the defensive strategy against them, Meng Tian surveyed the geography, and oversaw the construction of a Great Wall and forts along the border. He used hundreds of thousands of laborers. The boundary they choose for the Great Wall that demarcated the land of the empire and the northern nomads was often the boundary of successive empires and kingdoms. The defensive works were said to extend over 10,000 li or more than 4,000 kilometers. In this way, the southeastern areas were added to the empire.

There were assassination attempts on his life. By killing many scholars and officials and imposing his harsh rule, many people hated him. He wanted to live forever, and he may have taken poisonous substances from Daoists to try to gain immortality. He also ordered construction of the Qin Mausoleum where he could rule in case he died. He had a great army of Terracotta Warriors built to guard him. He died in 210, and Li Si and Zhao Gao hid the news of his death.

Li Si and Zhao Gao were his highest officials. Zhao Gao was a eunuch, and Li Si is famous for his Legalism philosophy writings and for propagating Legalism in the empire. These two had his son named Huhai who they thought was pliable put up as the second emperor. He was called Qin Er Shi. In their drive for power, Zhao Gao killed Li Si. Qin Er Shi killed off his family members and numerous officials in his attempt to strengthen his control. He ordered foolish construction projects and policies and forced the people to obey him. Zhao Gao forced Qin Er Shi to commit suicide. He also put a general named Meng Tian in prison where he committed suicide.

Qin Er Shi's nephew named Ziying became the third emperor. There were revolts all over the empire, and many local officials were declaring themselves to be kings of their areas at this time. He tried to maintain his power and survive in the territory he still controlled by recognizng the rule of the regional kings. Revolts against him started, and the new regional kings started battling. Rebels from Chu under Liu Bang attacked him. Liu Bang defeated Ziying, and he was executed in 207. In 206, the Qin capital city was destroyed. This was the end of the Qin Empire. Liu Bang defeated his main rivals in war to become emperor of a new empire called the Han Empire.

Qin Shihuang's Legacy

The Qin Dynasty reigned for only 15 years and ended in suicide and death. But during their short reign starting from their wars for conquests, they destroyed more than half of the population and much of the culture, literature and scholarship of the Zhou era. It is thought that the population dropped from about 40 million at the end of the Zhou Dynasty era to about 18 million around the end of their reign. In carrying out their plans, they caused enormous misery and destruction, but they built up a lot of infrastructure such as roads, canals, and the Great Wall that benefited later people. There was a standardized written language for the whole empire that was promulgated by Li Si. This writing system became the common literary language for the whole region afterwards until the modern era. By standardizing even the writing and the ideas and customs and religion, they laid the foundation for later empires.

Philosophy and Religion

Legalism became prominent, but Moism and probably dozens of other philosophies and schools of thought were destroyed as well as numerous scholars and philosophers. It was thought that Moism was a popular philosophical school of the Warring States, but they were particularly attacked. An early form of Buddhism was destroyed. Out of this time of destruction and the laying of an empire, only Confucianism, Legalism and Daoism emerged as the region's main religions and philosophies. The Confucianism that was adopted in the Han era was one somewhat mixed with Legalism. Scholars taught that a strong emperor was necessary. Mencius' philosophy became the standard Confucianism of the rulers of the Han Empire.

Among the peasants and other common people, what would be called necromancy and mediumship for contact with dead people's souls was a dominant religious belief. People led by a shaman would perform rituals and ceremonies at altars and shrines. People wanted to make sure that dead souls went to the other realm and also wanted to receive blessings from them. Divination was popular too.