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 whose name would become a byword for tyranny, the exemplary Emperor who united the fractured Warring States and brought a standardized system of characters, measurements and language, amongst other sweeping reforms, and lay the groundwork of the millennia of stability and prosperity that brought China to the forefront of world powers, both, or anything in between. The very poster boy of Alternative Character Interpretation, as it were. In Chinese historiography, he was commonly mentioned together with Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, "Qin Huang Han Wu" (秦皇汉武). In fact, some historians theorized that Emperor Wu would have led the Han to ruin, if he had not reflected on his mistakes late in his reign.
He was born Ying Zheng （嬴政）, the son of a young concubine given as a present to the then crown prince of Qin, Zichu, by the scheming merchant Lü Buwei (who may have been his biological father, at least according to Han Dynasty propaganda). note 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 after the death of King Zhuangxiang (the above-mentioned Zichu, who reigned for only 3 years). note Advised by Legalist philosopher Li Si, he turned Qin into a quasi-totalitarian military powerhouse and embarked on a campaign of conquest to unify all of China under his rule. note 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. note 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. He did actually keep one copy of each destroyed book in his own library for the ruler's use in case it contained anything useful to him or future monarchs; however, this library was destroyed in the fires that ravaged the imperial capital at Xianyang after Xiang Yu's armies took over from Liu Bang's in 206 BCE. note (Qin Shihuang is therefore more or less singlehandedly responsible for making Chinese works no older than Older Than Feudalism; outside of some tropeless oracle bones and bronzes, everything Older Than Dirt went up in smoke.)
Traditionally featured 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 divisive figure, ranging from a tyrant who is Drunk On Power and obsessed with immortal life, to the paragon of a ruler who, although grandiose and extravagant, nonetheless created the concept of "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. note
Just a small caveat: the so-called "Confucians" that were buried alive, grisly as that act was, were actually wizards (fangshi; 方士) 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, seeking immortality was doomed from the start, but it would remain a fascination for many emperors and occultists to come.
A big part of Qin Shihuangdi's image issues is that 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. However, because the Qin was so short-lived, and yet 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.
One thing that is not in dispute, however, is Qin Shihuang's later-reign obsession with immortality, both literal and figurative. In search of the former, he began taking supposedly life-extending treatments recommended by Imperial alchemists; while some of these, like wood-ear and cloud-ear fungi, are fairly harmless (and tasty), many such treatments involved mercury compounds. You read that correctly; ancient Chinese alchemists thought that a heavy metal that drives you insane before killing you was part of the recipe for eternal life. Perhaps it's no surprise then that the emperor grew gradually more paranoid in his later life (paranoia being a prime symptom of chronic mercury poisoning) and then died after taking a pill containing pure mercury as part of his immortality treatments (death being a prime symptom of acute mercury poisoning). At the time of his death, he was on his fourth tour of Eastern China.
In the figurative department, Qin Shihuang oversaw the construction of his future mausoleum. According to historian Sima Qian, this project required drafting a slave workforce of 700,000 people. The mausoleum was erected in a secret location and was only discovered in 1976. Within three years of his death, the third and last king of Qin was killed by Xiang Yu. Another 4 years of warfare continued, until Liu Bang established the Han Dynasty in 202 B.C..
Another of his mistakes which is not in dispute is his handling of the succession, which can be said to be partly influenced by his obsession with immortality; after all, who needs proper succession when you can be immortal? By not having a crown prince, and a dismissive attitude towards his officials, upon his death, two such officials (Li Si, who was then Prime Minister, and the eunuch Zhao Gao) decided to nominate Ying Zheng's younger son Hu Hai (who was together with them on the tour) as the next emperor instead of his elder son, Fu Su (who was away at the Great Wall with Meng Tian as he had been punished by his father after father and son had some disagreements over state policies). They sent a letter ordering Fu Su to commit suicide, with Ying Zheng's forged signature. Fu Su's allies denounced this as the forgery that it was, but Fu Su himself (unaware that his father was dead) could not believe anyone would dare to forge an imperial decree and thus complied with it. The silent coup also killed the Meng brothers (Meng Tian and Meng Yi), who were allies of Fu Su. The most ghastly details were the methods used by Li and Zhao to conceal the fact that Ying Zheng had died. Firstly, Li Si ordered that two carts containing rotten fish be carried immediately before and after the emperor's wagon. (The idea was to prevent people from noticing the foul smell emanating from the Emperor's wagon, where his body was starting to decompose severely as it was summertime.) The shade was also pulled down, so that no one could see his face; servants continued to change his clothes daily, and bring food.
Qin Shi Huangdi appears in the following works:
- The manga Kingdom starred him in his endeavor to unify China with the help of Xin, a Qin General.
- Fate/strange fake: He's briefly mentioned as the Servant Mr. and Mrs. Kuruoka were planning to summon by using one of his relics as a catalyst, only they get killed before they can attempt the summoning.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Returns as the Chinese leader in the sixth installment. Here, he aggressively builds wonders and hates anyone else that builds wonders, especially ones he was working on. He can use builder charges to build 15% of an early-game wonder, and all of his workers get an extra build charge. The Great Wall is no longer a world wonder, and is now a unique Chinese tile improvement that acts similarly to a fort, and extra gold for adjacent wall segments.
- 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.
- 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.
- Hidden Expedition:The Eternal Emperor starts off with an archaeological expedition venturing into his tomb.
- Jade Empire is set in a vaguely Chinese-flavored fantasy world, so the literal First Emperor does not show up, but the villainous Emperor Sun is obviously inspired by his story.
- While Qin Shi Huang does not physically appear in Jackie Chan Adventures, his "legendary lost treasure" is at some point prior to the series obtained by Big Bad and Fire Demon Sorcerer Shendu, and it's the reward Shendu promises the Dark Hand in return for retrieving the Talismans needed to resurrect him. He denies them the treasure, however, and their attempt to subsequently steal it leads Jackie Chan's niece to Shendu's palace and allows her to interrupt Shendu's victory over Jackie and immediately defeat him, destroying the treasure in the process.
- Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?: One episode had Carmen creating an ultimate chess set by stealing a lot of statues and even four castle turrets for the rooks. She stole sixteen clay soldier statues from Qin Shi Haungdi's tomb for the pawns.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender has an Expy of the First Emperor in Chin the Conqueror, a warrior prince who unites almost the entire Earth Kingdom under his rule, and whose depiction strongly resembles the traditional portraits of Shi Huangdi.