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Qin Shi Huang: Madman or Great Leader?


We have all heard stories of the mad kings of China who tormented their subjects for their own pleasure. But Qin Shi Huang was not a king. He was the first Emperor of China and the sovereign ruler of the empire he had conquered in order to unify the lands (“The Qin Dynasty”, pg. 26). “Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China”, China's terracotta army and the First Emperor's mausoleum: the art and culture of Qin Shihuang's underground palace @ Paramus, New Jersey: Homa & Sekey Books, 2010, pg. 184, CC-PD-Mark

Nor was he a leader who tortured his subjects for fun. So what was his mission?

Created by Faith T., 2016, via

Created by Faith T., 2016, via

But he employed questionable means: conquering the Warring States, building the Great Wall and introducing lifestyle-altering reforms.

“Qin Shi Huang was a madman! He was a dictator!” academics have argued (“The Democracy Forerunners”, pg. 84-85). In unifying China, he potentially sacrificed thousands ("Qin's Changes", pg. 561), lit books on fire and had more than 460 scholars executed -- all who went against his vision and political ideals (China's Imperial Past, pg. 44-45).

“Killing the Scholars and Burning the Books”, 18th century Chinese painted album leaf @ Anonymous, c. 1701-1800, PD

He also wanted to be immortal, going as far as to search for the legendary Mount Penglai, and ingest mercury. Disclaimer: He did not find it, his attempts indirectly causing his death (“Losing It All”, paragraph 16-21).

“Xu Fu expedition's for the elixir of life”, a 19th century ukiyo-e depicting the ships of the great sea expedition sent around 219 BC by the first Chinese Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, to find the legendary home of the immortals, Mount Penglai, and retrieve the elixir of immortality @ Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c. 1839-1841, PD-Art

But wait! Qin Shi Huang was a STILL great leader, despite his “madness” and seemingly extreme antics. His efforts were to unify and reinforce a country that would go down in history as one of the world’s largest empires, comparable to the whole Roman Empire.  And he only reigned for eleven years, leaving behind a legacy that is woven into the very fabric of China today.

"CMOC Treasures of Ancient China exhibit - stone slab with twelve small seal characters, The 12 characters on this slab of floor brick affirm that it is an auspicious moment for the First Emperor to ascend the throne, as the country is united and no men will be dying along the road @ Ayelie, 2007, CC-BY-SA-2.5

一 )Unification

Before Qin Shi Huang came to the rescue, the divided nations were trapped in the horror cycle of territory invasion -- the Warring States Period.

"Seven Warring States late in the period Qin has expanded southwest, Chu north and Zhao northwest @ @ Phlig88, 2010, CC BY-SA 3.0

Amidst never-ending wars, he had a larger  vision -- only by unifying the nations can China achieve peace and stability. By c. 221 BCE, Qin Shi Huang successfully conquered and merged the seven nations (Qin, Han, Zhao Wei, Chu, Yan, Qi) into one cohesive State of Qin.

“Qin empire c. 210 BCE”, the first unifying Imperial dynasty of China -- the coloured territories show the approximate extent of Qin political control at the death of Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 210 BCE @ KongMing, 1982, CC-BY-SA-3.0

One ruling government meant no more primary catalyst for war -- divided ideologies. So goodbye war! Hello food and manpower for areas other than war! Borders between nations were also constructed so cross-border transportation could facilitate trade activities, eventually leading to more trade and therefore economic success! (“The Qin Dynasty”, paragraph 2).

It was Qin Shi Huang’s foresight and intelligence that allowed him to devise a plan that would end the Warring States Period. Hence he was able to unify a previously war-torn China, paving the way for the country’s social and economical development. Qin Shi Huang was a great leader to have achieved this near-impossible task in perilous times.

But did he stop there? Nooo! He was like:

Created by Faith T., 2016, via

二)The Great Wall 

“The Great Wall in 1907” @ Herbert Pontin, 1907, CC-PD-Mark

You might not have known this, but the Great Wall of China was originally divided into segments constructed individually by the warring states. (“Ancient China”, pg. 115). In ce. 221 BCE, after unifying China, Qin Shi Huang ordered the joining of pre-existing Walls in order to secure the northern border and protect China from the Mongolian barbarians.

They say the Wall’s length is like a dragon’s, spanning from the East to West borders of China (approximately 13,170 miles) with a towering height of 15-20 feet. The Wall cost numerous lives, people remember. But it also SAVED lives, defending China against many raids.

“The Dragon Head of Great Wall” @ 颐园新居, 2009, CC-BY-SA-3.0

The connected Walls also protected the soldiers within, allowing them to safely pew pew crossbows against invaders from a vantage point and communicate strategically by using smoke, fire and drumbeats to send messages (“Defending the Great Wall”, pg. 36).

Today, looooong after Qin Shi Huang’s death in 210 BCE, the Wall is a testament to his achievements and a symbol of China’s enduring strength. It is one of the Wonders of the World, drawing tourists from all over the globe.

"Olympic torch relay, Great Wall of China" @ Edwin Lee, 2008, CC BY-ND 2.0

Many credit Qin Shi Huang for the Wall’s existence  even though he did not singlehandedly build it, indicating how significant his contribution was (“The Ancient Great Wall of a New Era”, pg. 107). Ultimately, it was his efforts that continued the Wall’s legacy. His great leadership accounted for part of China’s safety, hence focus could be redirected to making it stronger.

But did he stop there? Noo! He went: 

Created by Faith T., 2016, via

三) Reforms

Shortly after naming himself ‘huangdi’ a.k.a. Emperor, Qin Shi Huang initiated a series of reforms to rejuvenate the recovering country, beginning with its political system.

He converted the country’s formal feudalism system to legalism (Reynolds, G. 2014, p.1), which strictly controlled citizens’ rights. But everyone was treated fairly under fixed laws (Ouellette, P., 2010, p.5-8); anyone based on merit could take on imperial positions instead of someone inheriting it from his family  (“The Threat from the United Nomad Country and the start of the United Chinese Empire”, pg. 39). Under Qin Shi Huang’s legalism, China produced a strong army and superior central government.

"Terracotta Army”, a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China @ Julie Laurent, 2011, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Socially, China then had communication problems due to different writing systems, making it difficult for trade and to translate laws, but Qin Shi Huang saved the day again by standardizing written ideograms so that China could have a common language.

"Obverse and reverse of a Ban Liang coin from the Western Han Dynasty" @ CZDK, 2009, CC BY-SA 3.0

Finally, to boost the economy, Qin Shi Huang installed routes between provinces and enforced the nationwide use of the ‘Qin currency system’, thus expediting trade. These uniquely shaped coins were used until the early Republic of China.

These Legalist-driven reforms (Ouellette, P., 2010, p.5-8) were necessary for a war-weakened country, and Qin Shi Huang realized that. His reforms were lasting too, providing basis for how characters are used in modern China (“Codification of the script under the Qin Dynasty”, p.63). Through these developments, his great leadership unified China more than ever and RESTORED ITS GLORY!!!!!!!!!

"Qin region", at the Terracotta Soldiers Exhibit Asian Arts Museum @ Julie Pimentel, 2013, CC BY-NC 2.0

The Verdict

Qin Shi Huang was a great leader, his achievements outweighing his faults. He systematically unified China, protected it by extending the Wall and through his reforms, started a period that brought about two millennials of internal stability and external influence (“Imperial Unification: The Qin and Former Han Emperors”, pg. 91).

Some might call him “mad”, but it was this “mad” ambitious ruthlessness that allowed sacrifices to be made in order for China to progress. For legalism to be smoothly installed, opposing ideas like Confucianism had to be doused, hence the book burning and mass executions (Ouellette, P., 2010, p19). Subsequently, China’s revolutionary success shows that he was clear about its direction and his commands to eradicate rebels were deliberate, not “mad”.

Curiously, the country fell apart four years after Qin Shi Huang’s death, indicating that his great leadership likely had an impact on the country’s ability to stick together. Fundamentally, without his extraordinary and perhaps even “mad” leadership, the China we know today might still be scattered and imprisoned in warfare.  

Just food for thought… What would China be like today if Qin Shi Huang had found the immortality pill and continued building upon his successes?

“Statue of emperor Qin, China” @ Prosopee, 2009, CC-BY-SA-3.0