Qin Shi Huang (260 BC – 210 BC), the first emperor of China and ruler of the Qin dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC), was an ambitious leader who, it could be said, literally “invented” the idea of China. As leader of the Qin state, he was able to annex the six other warring states of Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao and Wei, thus uniting a fragmented territory into the world’s oldest continuous political entity. His role in bringing together several existing state fortifications into a single Great Wall of China is also significant.
In the foreword of the book The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army (2007, edited by Jane Portal), which was produced to accompany an exhibition, Neil MacGregor, former Director of the British Museum, writes that Qin Shi Huang:
imposed standardisation on the written language, currency and measurements and harnessed the skills of talented officials in an early meritocracy to create a highly centralised government more efficient than any previously known. The First Emperor also entertained a grand, new conceptualisation of the universe that mapped a vision of the cosmos onto the landmass. He designated some mountains as sacred and inscribed them to proclaim his accomplishments…In much of what he did the First Emperor established major paradigms followed by subsequent dynasties.
Powerful and industrious, Qin Shi Huang was also a brutal figure intolerant of dissent. He greatly feared death and sent several expeditions to faraway places in search of the fabled elixir of life. In 219 BC, he sent the Taoist alchemist Xu Fu (born 255 BC), along with hundreds of young men and women, on an voyage to the legendary “Penglai island” to retrieve the secret of immortality from Anqi Sheng, a supposedly 1000-year-old wizard. The fleet never returned and may have gone on to Japan.
Qin Shi Huang died a mysterious death at the age of 50 (murder? poisoning? overwork?). Although he couldn’t live on earth indefinitely, the emperor did make arrangements for a grand afterlife. In 1974, local farmers in the city of Xi’an, capital of the Shaanxi province in northwest China, discovered a city-sized mausoleum underground containing life-sized statues of more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses and additional officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians (each uniquely designed) meant to escort the emperor to and protect him in the next realm. This “terracotta army” is one of the most extraordinary examples of funerary art on earth. Scroll down for pictures and short informative videos.
China: A History (2011) by John Keay
China in World History (2010) by Paul S. Ropp
Featured: The Terracotta Army (cropped and enhanced) by User “Richard Fisher”, CC BY 2.0, Flickr