Autocratic and ruthless, Ying Zheng may have been just what China needed to end the period of the Warring States and unify the realm. Known for the burning of books and the execution of recalcitrant scholars, he also laid the foundation of the Great Wall, created a national system of roads and canals, and sought the elixir of immortality. When he unified China, he considered his achievement so great that he took for himself a great name: Qin (his people) Shi (first) Huang (emperor). Due to his greatness, the title 'Huangdi' would be used by Chinese rulers for the next two millennia. And civilization would be rewarded with the Terracotta Army as a window on that greatness.
According to the monumental 'Records of the Grand Historian,' the babe Zheng was born to Prince Yiren of Qin and the concubine Zhao Ji in the city of Handan in 259 BC. When Zheng’s father died after a short three-year reign as king, the 13-year-old succeeded to the regality. Since the boy was deemed too young to lead Qin – which was already at war with all the others of the “seven warring states” (Qi, Yan, Han, Wei, Chu and Zhao) – power rested in the hands of the manipulative Prime Minister Lü Buwei.
Soon enough, Lu was plotting against the young king. A really long-term plot. The prime minister had earlier located and promoted one Lao Ai to the court, who soon enough seduced the queen mother Lady Zhao and had two sons by her. In 238 BC King Zheng set out in procession to the great city of Yong. Lao Ai, with Lu’s connivance, seized the queen mother’s great seal, raised an army, and rebelled. Zheng ordered his greatest general Lord Changping to attack; in the ensuing battle hundreds of the rebels were killed and Lao Ai fled. A price of one million copper coins was offered for Lao Ai. Who could resist so much copper? Soon the great fugitive was in custody. Most of his supporters were beheaded, and Lao was torn into five pieces while his entire family (including his sons) was executed to the “third degree.” Lady Zhao was placed under house arrest until her death years later. Lü Buwei committed suicide with poison before he could be taken. By 235 BC it was all over.
Save for surviving a couple of assassination attempts, Ying Zheng could now turn his attention to beating down the other warring states. First to fall was Han, which was overrun around 230. The Qin were blessed with a plethora of able commanders, including the king himself. And was it mentioned that he was ruthless? When Zhao was struck by a natural disaster (unspecified in the histories) in 229, Zheng turned his general Wang Jian loose, who promptly overran the kingdom within a year. By 223, Yan, Wei and Chu had all been defeated and absorbed. No fool, the Tian king of Qi sent 200 thousand of his people, mostly peasants, armed as best he could, to defend his western borders that abutted Qin territory. Unfortunately for him, Zheng invaded from the north, captured the royal family, and annexed Qi. And then proclaimed himself Qin Shi Huang.
With his immediate ambition to rule all China satisfied, the emperor set about reforming it as he wished. First he abolished the hereditary vassal system and established Jun (commanderies), Xian (districts) and Xiang (counties), all sensibly ruled directly by the emperor of course. He standardized Chinese weights, measures, currency – creating the banliang coin around 210 to make taxation much easier to track – and damn near everything else, including the length of cart axles. The latter so that these carts would easily traverse the new road network across his empire. Under his minister Li Si, the Chinese script was standardized, doing away with the variations across the conquered states, thus creating one great language that would stand the test of time.
But his greatest effort was saved for stamping out all that “fuzzy” thinking that prevailed across China. While the Warring States period was one of blood and fire, it was also one of free thinking and liberal philosophy, giving rise to some of civilization's greatest insights into the human condition. Across the kingdoms, the Hundred Schools of Thought, incorporating Confucian and Taoist teachings with other philosophies, sparked a great golden age. The writings of the School of Mohism (“everyone is equal before heaven”), the School of Yin-Yang (naturalism and the Five Elements), the agriculturalists and syncretists and the logicians, and so forth, profoundly influenced Chinese lifestyles and social consciousness. Since all this thinking and debate among the commoners wasn’t great for an autocrat, Qin Shi Huang decreed that all other schools of thought were banned and that henceforth only “legalism” (follow the law and live a just life) acceptable.
Commencing in 213 BC, at the instigation of his new, even-more-manipulative Prime Minister Li Si, the emperor ordered that all books – save those on astrology, divination, medicine, agriculture and histories of his great empire – be collected and burned. Those owning prohibited texts, especially the Shi Jing (“Book of Songs”) and the Shangshu (“Classic of History”), were to be punished. According to the Records of the Grand Historian (which must have been an acceptable text), Qin Shi Huang had some 460 scholars buried alive for hiding the banned books. While modern Chinese historians claim that this is but a Confucian myth, it makes a great story. Whatever the truth, it is a fact that the empire sought to control scholarship and thought across its expanse and eliminate intellectual challenges to the emperor’s rule.
Despite all this right thinking, in his twilight years Qin Shi Huang set out – or, rather, sent his minions – to find the elixir of life, a potion which would grant him immortality so he could keep enjoying his greatness. Expeditions were sent by sea (most didn’t return, perhaps wisely given how he reacted to failure), and thrice he himself visited Zhifu Island seeking a rumored “Mountain of Immortality.” But he never found the elixir nor the mountain, and died in September 210 BC during a tour of his eastern territories. So fearful of an uprising if word leaked out was Li Si that he concealed the emperor’s death until the caravan finally returned to the capital Xianyang, where Hoang’s second son Huhai (Li Si tricked the elder one into committing suicide) was proclaimed the new emperor.