Today on February 18, 259 BCE, Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China, was born.
Qin Shi Huang, also known as Shi Huangdi, found the Qin Dynasty after becoming the 1st emperor of a unified China. Originally named Ying Zheng, he later changed to Qin Shi Huang, which literally translates to ‘first emperor.’ At the young age of 13, he was crowned king of the Qin state. Widely suspected of being his actual father, Lu Buwei served as his regent and first prime minister. Qin Shi Huang increasingly grew paranoid after multiple assassination attempts and was known for conducting random executions or banishing people from his court.
By the third century BCE, seven warring states were vying for total control of China. The period was marked by political instability and constant warfare. Books such as Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ were written during this tumultuous era. Qin was primarily regarded as the most powerful state and likely to unite the disparate nations. Many of the neighboring Chinese countries considered Qin to be barbarous and unworthy. These factors perhaps explain why Qin Shi Huang adopted such an autocratic and draconian leadership style.
During his early reign, the young emperor obsessed with expanding and enhancing the capabilities of his army. Within a few years, he assembled the strongest force ever seen in mainland China. In 230 BCE, the Han Kingdom became the first to fall to the mighty Qin Shi Huang. Nine years later, the emperor’s armies had conquered the last independent Kingdom of Qi. All of northern China was now under the command of one man. The seemingly invincible king continued conquering territory as far south as Vietnam. Qin Shi Huang boldly proclaimed that his dynasty would last 10,000 generations.
While the emperor spent most of his 35-year reign on military campaigns, he did initiate several critical public works projects. Most notably, he commissioned the construction of the Great Wall and the Ling Canal. The newly formed empire was connected by a vast network of roads, bridges, and canals. The emperor selected Xianyang to be the capital city. Qin Shi Huang later instituted sweeping reforms to the Chinese bureaucracy. After completely expelling the old nobility, he replaced them with his appointed officials. The empire was divided into 36 individual military districts, each with its own army and administrative centers.
Towards the end of his life, Qin Shi Huang’ grew increasingly fixated on his immortality. He commissioned an elaborate funerary complex that included more than 8,000 terracotta statues. The army was meant to accompany and protect the emperor in the afterlife. On March 29, 1974, Chinese farmers discovered the now world-famous necropolis filled with thousands of terracotta warriors. While Qin Shi Huang is ultimately remembered for his tyrannical rule, he’s undoubtedly one of China’s most important and influential leaders. Despite his unification efforts, the first unified Chinese empire collapsed less than four years after his death.