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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 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. Some people say that many sources written about him were made decades to centuries after the fact and by the descendants of his enemies; At the same time, his descendants, his supporters, and those who wish to emphasize his political ideology (unifying a different political body, culture, language, and ideas, or build a larger eastern country) are also covering up his problems and shaping a brilliant image for him. These certainly muddied the waters.

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 surnamed Zhao 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 note , 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 another; in 221 BC, Ying Zheng declared himself First August Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (Qin Shi Huangdi).

One aspect of his reign which was relatively less talked about was his regency period. Ying Zheng ascended the throne at age 12 and did not rule until 21. For close to a decade, three factions of waiqi (consort-kin) struggled with each other to influence state affairsnote :

  • The Chu faction, led by Lady Huayang (Queen of Qin and King Xiaowen's wife), which remained the strongest as its members did not commit major mistakes. Members of this faction include Lord Changping. The faction finally died along with Lady Huayang in 230 BCE. It is likely that Ying Zheng's unknown main wife (and mother of Fusu) was a native of Chu due to Lady Huayang's influence.
  • The Han faction, led by Lady Xia (Zichu's birth mother and concubine of King Xiaowen). The faction died when Lady Xia passed away in 240 BCE and Chengjiao (Zichu's son and Yingzheng's half brother) rebelled. This faction was suspected of facilitating Han's plot to weaken Qin via a massive construction project (the Zheng Guo Canal, named after its designer)note .
  • The Zhao faction led by Lady Zhao, Ying Zheng's mother. This faction was the quickest to fall, when Ying Zheng discovered Lao Ai's affair with his mother. Lao Ai and his children were put to death and Lyu Buwei was forced to commit suicide. Ironically, historians have speculated that Lao Ai launched his rebellion in an attempt to remove the Chu faction.

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 axlesnote , 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. note  To abolish history, he had all books burnt save those containing useful technical information note , and then ordered a mass execution of "scholars" for good measure. note  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 Shi Huangdi is therefore more or less one of the two men 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.) note 

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 onenote . In fact, the reforms implemented by him were so lasting and effective at topping the old order of things, when the Qin dynasty was overthrown soon after his death, it was just plain impossible to go back to the previous order or try any sort of return to status quo - even the provinces were reorganised and redrawn to break old power structures, making it simply impractical at any attempt of restoration.note 

Just a small caveat: most of 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 Shi Huangdi 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 Shi Huangdi'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 Shi Huangdi'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 tastynote ), many such treatments involved mercury compounds. You read that correctly; ancient alchemists thought that a heavy metal that drives you insane before killing you was part of the recipe for eternal life. To be fair to Qin Shi Huangdi and the alchemists at the time, humanity had known of mercury for thousands of years prior and it took thousands of years after the Qin Dynasty for people to figure out it was toxic. Mercury remained a common ingredient in both Eastern and Western medicine until the 1800s.

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 Shi Huangdi 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 (as the Emperor would punish such an act very harshly) 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 due to the heat, despite it being autumn.note ) The shade was also pulled down, so that no one could see his face; servants continued to change his clothes daily, and bring food.

Trivia: He and his son are the only emperors in Chinese history who do not have posthumous names; Ying Zheng had objected to the idea as he felt that having a posthumous name is "sons discussing about their fathers, (and) officials discussing about their rulers" (Original: 子议父,臣议君). This abolition was reversed during the Han dynasty.

Tropes as portrayed in fiction:

  • Big Bad: He is often portrayed as this in stories set in the Warring States Period up until recently.
  • Big Good: Historic re-evaluation has led to retellings of the Warring States Period as a chaotic time and backs Qin Shi Huangdi as an ultimately needed, if ruthless, force of order.
  • Historical Domain Character: Have a story with famous persons across Chinese history mentioned or used? Chances are he shows up as one of the most infamous emperors.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: More dramatic uses of him often uses the accusation that Lü Buwei and not Prince Zichu was Qin Shi Huangdi's biological father.

Qin Shi Huangdi appears in the following works:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • The manga Kingdom starred him in his endeavor to unify China with the help of Xin, a Qin General.
  • He is one of the fighters chosen to represent humanity in Record of Ragnarok. He is the seventh to fight, going against Hades. His special power is Aura Vision, although for much of his life it manifested as "mirror synesthesia," causing him to literally manifest the wounds of others on himself when he saw them with his eyes and causing him to usually wear a blindfold to protect himself. A great deal of focus is actually placed on his childhood, growing up as a hostage in Zhou territory where he was despised and mistreated by a people who had lost family in barbaric wars with the Qin.

    Comic Books 
  • 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.
  • Blake and Mortimer recount how Qin Shi Huangdi won the war with the help of a merchant, named Gong Shou, who introduce the western crossbow to Chinese warfare. As part of the deal, the merchant was set to become the heir of the new empire, only to be backstabbed by Qin Shi Huangdi. During the Chinese Civil War, warlord Xi-Li claims he's a descendant of Gong Shou, and therefore should rule over China, even it means going to war with the Communists and the Nationalists. Qin Shi Huangdi's fate is also revealed. He realized his dream of becoming immortal thanks to a pact with a witch. However, as part of the deal, he was imprisoned in the Valley of Immortals with nothing to do for centuries.

  • Mentioned in Big Trouble in Little China as the "First Sovereign Emperor of China," whose forces defeated the evil sorcerer Lo Pan and punished him with the Curse of No-Flesh.
  • The Emperor and the Assassin does the classic take on him, as villainous figure that keeps Jumping Off the Slippery Slope any given chance. By the end of the film, everyone hates him and has a reason to plot against him. Not just named characters - everyone.
  • Hero (2002) is probably the biggest reconstructionnote  in media that ever happened, portraying him as a strongman needed to unify the fragmented nation and the assassination attempt on him ends with the assassin admitting he can't kill a man who finally brought peace and stability, as his death would lead to nothing but despair. The film is often commented as being a praise to Mao Zedong, too. Jet Li plays the titular hero, being granted an audience by the emperor (portrayed by character actor Chen Daoming).
  • The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor uses him as a Card-Carrying Villain with magical powers, who is released by a rogue KMT general during the final phase of the Chinese Civil War. He chews scenery like you wouldn't believe. Jet Li is Shi Huangdi himself this time around.

  • 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 Shi Huangdi.
  • 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.
  • 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. The said relic turns out to be a crossbow he allegedly used to kill a sea god with, and the crossbow is later passed down to Sigma by the spirit that was just barely summoned by the crossbow.
  • Iron Widow: In this sci-fi fantasy rendition of Chinese mythology and history, he is a pilot of the Yellow Dragon and the former emperor of Huaxia. He appears near the end of the novel after Zetian wakes him up. He is set to be a major character in the sequel, Heavenly Tyrant.
  • Zachary Ying And The Dragon Emperor: From the same author as Iron Widow, offers a very balanced portrayal. He shows up as a spirit who possesses the titular protagonist though he's quickly exorcised and put inside Zach's AR Headset instead. Regardless, he informs Zach that the spirits of the underworld are about to enter the mortal world, causing chaos if they are not sent back before Ghost Month ends. So, it's up to them to stop it before it happens. His many sins and failings as a person are made light of and not at all excused, but it is pointed out by both his spirit and others that many of his actions weren't atypically villainous for the time and he also brought a lot of stability and lasting impacts to the region.

    Live Action Television 
  • The Legend of Hao Lan: The title character is his mother. Qin Shi Huangdi himself is a minor character.
  • The Myth: He's a minor character (and the husband of the protagonist's love interest).
  • The King's Woman: Ying Zheng, a young Qin Shi Huang, is one of the main characters.
  • The History Bites episode "The Not-So-Great Wall of China"
  • In King's War (which depicts the Chu-Han Contention)
  • 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.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Wraith: The Oblivion has it so that Qin Shi Huangdi 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.
  • Rifts: Turns out that one of the "Chinese Hells" of Rifts China is actually ruled by Qin Shi Huangdi rather than one of the Yama Kings, who freed himself from their grasp when they transposed their domains to Earth; of course, he's got himself one hell of a Historical Villain Upgrade, as his fief is a totalitarian Legalist dystopia as horrific for the common people (i.e. mortals) to live in as one of Yama Kings' actual hells, with the peasantry and craftsmen worked to the bone, and anyone deemed useless or worse, an enemy of the State, has their soul ripped out (effectively killing them) to serve as the power source for one of his greatly expanded army of Golem-like terracotta warriors.
  • Scion: The Celestial Bureaucracy were not pleased by what Qin Shi Huangdi 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.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh!: The card Mausoleum of the Emperor is based on Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum.

    Video Games 
  • In Assassin's Creed II, it's stated that Qin Shi Huangdi was killed by a member of the Assassins.
  • 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. (Also, in a famous and very embarrassing incident for the developers, they confused the leader art for Qin Shi Huangdi in vanilla Civ IV with the leader art for Kublai Khan; this was corrected in the first expansion.)
    • 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. The Leaders Pass gave him a Persona based on his unifying of China, where he can convert barbarians using melee units and hates people who clear barbarian camps.
  • The Japan-only sequel of Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce has Qin Shi Huangdi as the Big Bad who is resurrected during the Three Kingdoms era. This version has mystical powers and can revive the old heroes from the Qin Dynasty such as Xiang Yu. He first appears as an old man until he gains his youthful appearance after the heroes of the Three Kingdoms defeated either Xiang Yu and Huang Quan. In the final battle, he turns into a giant dragon-turtle hybrid monster.
  • Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom charges you with building (among others) the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army. The completion message for the latter warns to get the hell out of town before the Emperor has you put to death before you build another, even better monument.
  • Fate/Grand Order:
    • Jing Ke, who historically tried and failed to assassinate Qin Shi Huang, is gender flipped into a girl and is summoned as an Assassin. She occasionally tells stories of her failed assassination and tries to make up for her shame by being a good Assassin.
    • In the third Lostbelt story, "Land of Unified Knowledge, SIN", the protagonists come to an alternate timeline where Qin Shi Huangdi succeeded in achieving immortality via Brain Uploading and rules China and vast amounts of territory all the way to the modern day. Since this is an alternate timeline, he is completely different in both looks and personality from the one Jing Ke knew; however, as he obtained immortality after Jing Ke's attempted assassination he still remembers her with some prompting despite the divergence. When Jing Ke successfully kills his computer body by uploading a virus through a smartphone she tricked him into scanning, he transfers his mind to a backup body with No Biological Sex. After the timeline is brought back to normal, he can be summoned as a Ruler. In the Chaldea Ace magazine, it's revealed that Proper Human History Qin Shi Huangdi mutated into a draconic hulk due to the attempted and failed experiments to achieve immortality, compared to the Bishōnen his Lostbelt self is.
  • Hidden Expedition:The Eternal Emperor starts off with an archaeological expedition venturing into his tomb.
  • He's a playable hero in Honor of Kings, but used his less-used original name, Ying Zheng, as a mage hero. Other figures from his era include Xiang Yu (as a warrior hero), Zhang Liang (as a mage hero) and Jing Ke with a case Gender Flip and named Ah Ke (as an assassin hero). His magic power manifests in summoning lots of swords out of nowhere to be launched and skewered to his enemies, making him a bit more similar to the Type-Moon version of Gilgamesh.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Prince of Qin is set in an Alternate History story where Fu Su and his generals refused to comply with the fabricated order to commit suicide.
  • In World of Warcraft, Lei Shen, the Big Bad of Mist of Pandaria, whose backstory is inspired by Qin Shi Huangdi.

    Western Animation 
  • While Qin Shi Huangdi 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 Huangdi'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.