Useful Notes: Qin Shihuangdi

aka: Qin Shi Huangdi
All Under Heaven

Qin Shi Huangdi (259-210 BCE) is the founder of the Qin Dynasty, first Emperor of China, and one of the most ruthless despots in history.

He was born Ying Zheng, the son of a young concubine given as a present to the king of Qin by the scheming merchant Lü Buwei (who may have been his biological father, at least according to Han Dynasty propaganda). China was at the time in the throes of the Warring States era, when the impotent Zhou Dynasty had disintegrated into several rival kingdoms, and the state of Qin had emerged as a power to be reckoned with. He became king in 247 BCE and, advised by Legalist philosopher Li Si, he turned Qin into a quasi-totalitarian military powerhouse and embarked on a campaign of conquest to reunify all of China under his rule. He annexed other kingdoms one after the other and, in 221 BCE, Ying Zheng declared himself First August Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (Qin Shi Huangdi).

He ruled China with an iron fist and ruthlessly crushed any opposition, applying the precepts of Legalism, which holds that a monarch must reign through fear and that the law must be enforced without pity in order to scare the populace into submission. A series of policies standardized currency, language, weights and measures, and even the width of carriage axles. He ordered the construction of the Great Wall to protect the empire's northern frontiers against barbarian attacks. To abolish history, he had all books burnt save those containing useful technical information, and then ordered a mass execution of scholars for good measure.

Just a small caveat: the so-called "Confucians" that were buried alive, grisly as that act was, were actually wizards (fangshi) who were put in charge of concocting an elixir of immortality, according to some other sources. Needless to say, such an endeavour was doomed from the start, but it would remain a fascination for many emperors and occultists to come. Official Chinese historiography always tended to sing the praises of the predecessor dynasty's early rulers, while then painting the later ones in the darkest colours possible. This was used to justify the incumbent dynasty's rule or ownership of the Mandate of Heaven; as the Qin was so short-lived and set a precedent, later historians would vilify its founder right away. New archeological findings (such as legal codes) show the Qin dynasty to be much more "mainstream" than the crypto-totalitarian legalistic dystopia it has been depicted as. In more recent years, Shi Huangdi has been increasingly depicted as the founding father of China who forged an orderly unified state out of chaos through force and foresight by the official state propaganda in both the KMT state of the Republic of China and the CCP-ruled People's Republic.

In the last years of his reign, he oversaw the construction of his future mausoleum, which according to historian Sima Qian required drafting a slave workforce of 700,000 people. This mausoleum was erected in a secret location and was only discovered in 1976. Within three years of his death, the Han Dynasty had deposed the Qin.

Tropes associated with Qin Shi Huangdi:

  • Ancient Tomb: The famous terra-cotta warriors were only the guardians stationed outside it. His tomb itself has never been excavated because of concerns over preserving the contents against oxidization.
  • Badass Army: The Qin armies that conquered the lands that would become China were larger, better trained, and better equipped than any of its rivals.
  • The Caligula
  • A Child Shall Lead Them: He was only 13 when he became the King of Qin.
  • The Conqueror: He conquered all rival states in the region and created a brand new empire—China.
  • Despotism Justifies the Means
  • The Emperor: Literally.
  • The Empire: He founded it.
  • Evil Overlord: The Trope Codifier for all of East Asia.
  • Founder of the Kingdom: He was the first de facto ruler of a unified Chinese state, the rulers of all China before him being, at best, nominal suzerains with little or no effective control—assuming they actually existed. This was downplayed for much of Chinese imperial history because of his reputation as a tyrant, but Chinese governments of 20th and 21st centuries are playing this up more and more.
  • Hobbes Was Right: The basis of Legalism.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Mercury was believed to be a key ingredient in the immortality elixir by Chinese alchemists. The Emperor of All Under Heaven was dead before he was 50 of mercury poisoning.
  • Properly Paranoid
  • Take Over the World: From his perspective, he succeeded, as he ruled Tian Xia, "All under Heaven".

Qin Shi Huangdi appears in the following works:

  • The Emperor and the Assassin
  • Hero
  • The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
  • The History Bites episode "The Not-So-Great Wall of China"
  • Bridge of Birds, although as the novel uses an older transliteration for stylistic effect, he's called the Duke of Ch'in.
  • The Chinese Emperor by Jean Levi is a fictionalized biography of Qin Shihuangdi.
  • Wraith The Oblivion has it so that Qin Shi Huang made good use of those terracotta soldiers and took over the Dark Kingdom of Jade, the Chinese quarter of the Shadowlands. And then it turns out he was destroyed some time ago, and something else has been ruling with his face.
  • Scion: The Celestial Bureaucracy were not pleased by what Qinshihuang did to China, or his attempts to achieve immortality, so they consigned him to an Ironic Hell: ruler and sole inhabitant of an Underworld replica of China.
  • One of the two possible leaders of the Chinese in Civilization IV (alongside Mao Zedong). Amusingly for a leader famous for conquering, he's actually rather easier to get along with than Mao (although truth be told, both Chinese leaders are fairly easygoing) and is no more likely to attack you than the average leader.
  • A No Celebrities Were Harmed version of him, One Sun Mirror, features as the first emperor of the Agatean Empire in the Discworld novel Interesting Times. Here, his terracotta warriors were basically terracotta automatons, which could be controlled by someone with the appropriate equipment.
  • In Assassins Creed II, it's stated that Qin Shi Huang was killed by a member of the Assassins.
  • Will of Heaven
  • In World of Warcraft, Lei Shen, the Big Bad of Mist of Pandaria, whose backstory is inspired on Qin Shihuang Di.
  • In A Step Into The Past, with a major twist in which Chien Poon, a member of the Zhao royal family becomes Ying Ching, because of several entanglements.
  • Doesn't appear on page, but is namedropped in The Unwritten during a sequence that shows Time Abyss and Professional Killer Pullman carrying out his edicts to destroy all knowledge not approved by him and kill the scholars.
  • In Boxers section of Boxers And Saints, the Boxer Rebellion is powered by members of The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists channeling Chinese spirits and legends to go into Super Mode. The main character of that section, Little Bao, is eventually revealed to be channeling Qin himself. The more he interacts with the spirit of Qin, the worse Qin comes off, ultimately seemingly like a xenophobic, misogynistic, petty and cruel being who is hinted to ultimately be using Bao and the Boxers as some sort of UnWitting Pawns, as he abandons them just before they are wiped out.
  • Indiana Jones is tasked with helping uncover his tomb in Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb. Legend has it that a black pearl with mystical powers, the Heart of the Dragon, is buried with him.

Alternative Title(s):

Qin Shi Huangdi