page contents

Watch the Throne: The First Emperor of China


With a tag of “oldest living civilization”, the rich culture and history of China places it among the four great ancient civilization of the world which also includes Egypt, India and Babylon. An important reason for this is the system of centralized empire, which formed the bedrock of different iterations of imperialistic rule. With this in mind, this blog post strives to look at the origins of imperial China - which came into being with the ascension to the throne of Ying Zheng (259 BC - 210 BC).

This occurred against the backdrop of the Warring States period (475 – 221 BC), with the concept of Mandate of Heaven (first introduced during the Zhou Dynasty) often cited by leaders of the various states as a reason for the many bloodsheds. Imbued within this period were Qin’s wars of unification, which were a set of strategic military conquests to be carried out against the other six major states seen as a threat towards total unification: Qi, Zhao, Chu, Wei, Yan and Han. With the fall of the last state of Qi, the Qin dynasty was finally established with Ying Zheng conferring himself the title of “Shi Huang Di”, which translates as the First Emperor of China.

Ruling Style

Emperor Qin ruled through an iron fist as seen by the brutality and tough laws common to the era. Such harsh rules were based on the philosophy of Legalism, which calls for total adherence to the laws without exception. The theory called for group responsibility instead of individual discipline, as committing of a crime by an individual would mean the punishments of all members of a family. Another impact of Legalism would be the suppression of Confucian scholars and literacy which resulted in execution of scholars and destroying of books on a massive scale respectively. These measures were all seen to be essential towards building of a system of central bureaucracy which was in turn divided into 3 ministries: a civil authority, a military authority and a censorate.

To further consolidate his position as the sole ruler of China, Emperor Qin also carried out much standardization such as that of the metric systems, written Chinese characters, and currency. For example, the banliang coin was used as a single currency and is a symbol of Emperor Qin’s political influence and authority. Its design of a circular shape with a square within it has its roots in early Chinese cosmology and signified the auspicious meeting of heaven (domed-shaped) and earth (square-shaped).


One great achievement associated with Emperor Qin would be the building of his burial complex. Its construction began almost as soon as Emperor Qin ascended the throne, and involved hundreds of thousands of personnel, ranging from labourers to artisans. Specifically, the Terracotta Army and the many treasures situated within it have led to the burial complex to be touted as one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world. The Terracotta Army were built with the main purpose of serving as an after-life death army for Emperor Qin which would serve him all through eternity. Furthermore, each Terracotta Warrior has a unique life size and facial features, indicating a high level of craftsmanship. During the construction, there were scant regards for the builders as many were killed and some were silenced in order to preserve the secrecy of the burial ground.

Another achievement of Emperor Qin would be the extension of the pre-existing pieces of the Great Wall, starting from Liaodong Bay in the east and ending in Lintao of Gansu Province in the west. Such a project was precipitated by the seeing of the northern nomadic tribe of the Huns as a serious threat, as they would advance to the Yellow River Basin and strangle land off people in the Hetao Area. All in all, to the extent that the Great Wall of China was built during the Qin Dynasty, it strengthened the state of unity and the economy in the whole of the country.

forever young

With the stabilizing of the empire, Emperor Qin's focus soon shifted to the quest for immortality. Historic records by Sima Qian revealed a number of detailed and extravagant attempts to get hold of sources of eternal life but to no avail. The determination to achieve immortality went to the extent of Emperor Qin living in isolation with the hope of getting hold of magical herbs. Eventually, the consumption of mercury which was wrongly thought to have life sustaining properties turned out to be the demise of Emperor Qin as he died during a tour of his empire.


From a neutral vantage point, it would be fair to say that Emperor Qin is a polarizing figure. While he attained some achievements and laid the imperialistic foundations for many generations to come, such instances were made possible due to atrocities committed against his own people. Furthermore, the reign of the Qin Dynasty lasted only a short 15 years (221 – 206 BCE). With reference to the in-class lesson on Alexander the Great, we need to ask ourselves once again: “What makes a ruler great?” Should we just look at a ruler's military prowess or should we also look at the ruling style and/ or the longevity of the rule? Hopefully, this question will serve us well by provoking our thoughts as we continue to explore various figures of power throughout history in the course (up till c. 1500 CE).