Useful Notes: Qin Shihuangdi

aka: Qin Shi Huangdi
All Under Heaven

Qin Shi Huangdi (259-210 BC) is the founder of the Qin Dynasty, first Emperor of China, and depending on who you ask, either one of the most ruthless despots in history, or the exemplary Emperor who united the fractured, warring states and brought a standardized system of letters, measurement and language, amongst other sweeping reforms, and lay the groundwork of the millenia of stability and prosperity that brought China to the forefront of world powers. The very poster boy of Alternative Character Interpretation, as it were.

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 BC 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 BC, 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. While certainly ruthless, however, it should be noted that Ying Zheng was not corrupt or inept: A workaholic, he implemented a series of policies standardizing currency, language, weights and measures, and even the width of carriage axles, and in so doing created 'China' as we would hence know it. He was also responsible for the Qin Empire abolishing feudalism and adopting a state bureaucracy based on law more than a thousand years before the first European kingdom ever did so. 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 informationnote , and then ordered a mass execution of scholars for good measure.

Traditionally told in children's tales as an extreme caricature of a corrupt tyrant, it is only until recently that history has approached a fair perspective of his rule. Since then, he is now a walking Base Breaker, ranging from The Caligula who is Drunk On Power and obsessed with immortal life, to the paragon of a ruler who, albeit grandiose and extravagant, nonetheless created China out of a bunch of squabbling, fractured states, and whose staggering casualty rate is but the natural result of sweeping reforms that ended up benefiting thousands of generations after at the cost of the current one.

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. Since Confucianism and Legalism were polar opposites(the former declares that education and cultural immersion should be the way to achieve state order and prosperity, while the latter emphasizes that the law should be upheld in absolute terms for the same thing to happen) and thus political rivals, as one of Legalism's greatest champions Qin Shihuangdi was essentially subject to a massive Historical Villain Upgrade. 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.

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 Assassin's 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 & 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. This version of Qin (usually rendered as Ch'in) is the subject of Deliberate Values Dissonance, both to potential readers and, ultimately, to Bao. While he genuinely desires to restore China to order and harmony, he is devoted to this purpose above all moral constraints, ultimately abandoning the protagonist when he cannot become as ruthless as the First Emperor.
  • 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.
  • The manga Kingdom starred him in his endeavor to unify China with the help of Xin, a Qin General.

Alternative Title(s):

Qin Shi Huangdi