The first emperor of China

Ch’in Shi Huang Di unified China and is the country's namesake Photo: Public Domain

WASHINGTON, July 10, 2013 — Zheng, Ch’in Shi Huang Di (259–210 BC), the first Emperor of China, was maligned by many Confucian scholars as a despotic tyrant. In reality, he was the most important figure in Chinese history. If San Yang was the architect, Bai Chi the bulldozer then Ch’in Shi Huang Di would be the engineer that built China.

He was an able administrator, forceful reformer, brilliant strategist and, most importantly, a visionary achiever. He completed the generational mission initiated by his ancestors, which was the unification of China. China, which bore the name of his dynasty, is his legacy to the world. Modern scholars interpreted the name of his dynasty as Qin. If that was the accepted spelling then Qina should be the proper way to spell China in the modern vernacular, since the name of the country derived from the Imperial Ch’in Empire.

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A man of foresight and incredible will, Zheng allowed nothing to deter him from the achieving his goals. He abolished the ancient feudal system that had existed since the beginning of time and installed a Mandarin bureaucracy that ruled the realm for the next two thousand plus years.

He standardized the written language, created a national currency, implemented a single system of weights and measurements, and set a single axle width (of vehicles) for the entire realm. These consolidation measures became the foundation on which a single powerful nation rose from a multitude of conquered kingdoms.

He built the famous Great Wall, and his powerful army kept the nomadic tribes at bay, facilitating the creation of the Silk Road. In time, trade caravans brought the fame of the Imperial Ch’in Empire to western lands; whereupon it acquired the occidental name of China. However, despite all his planning and foresight, the First Emperor’s Imperial Ch’in Dynasty lasted only 14 years.

Ch’in Shi Huang Di’s drastic revolutionary measures caused him to become estranged from his son, the crown prince. The emperor burned written records of contentious contending historical records from the conquered kingdoms. When outraged scholars protested the burning of the books too vehemently, he ordered over four hundred of them buried alive. His son, the Crown Prince, objected to the killings; for his opposition, the Emperor banished the prince to supervise the construction of the Great Wall.

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In 210 BC, Zheng died while traveling on an inspection of the realm.  The Prime Minister Li Shi and the Chief Eunuch Tsao Gao feared the crown prince. They conspired to hide the demise of the emperor then wrote a fake imperial edict to the crown prince; it ordered the Crown Prince and General Meng Tian to commit suicide. The crown prince obeyed the edict, which left his younger brother Hu Hai to ascend to the throne.

A power struggle between the prime minister and the chief eunuch ensued, with Tsao Gao emerging as the winner due to his personal close relationship with the new emperor. By then, revolution had broken out and spread across the realm. Within four years, the Ch’in dynasty collapsed, followed by ten years of civil war which ended with the creation of the Han dynasty (206 BC and 220 AD).

During his reign, Zheng sought to obtain the elixir of life, so that he could live forever. He sent Hsu Fu on an expedition with artisans and three thousand boys and girls to seek the elixir from the gods of eastern ocean. The expedition landed in Japan, and brought Chinese culture and technology to that island kingdom. Today, a statue of Hsu Fu stood in Japan to mark his landing.

Zheng also had Taoist alchemists to develop the elixir of life, their efforts of course did not succeed; however, they accidentally discovered the formula for gunpowder. Ironically, an effort to seek eternal life resulted in the development of the prime ingredient for killing machines.

Most people today remembered the First Emperor for his unification of China; his famous terracotta army; his construction of the Great Wall. But, buried deep in the annals of history is a little known fact – that the First Emperor of China began life as nothing more than the bastard child of a commoner; but, that’s another story for another time.  


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Tang Long

William Tang is a research analyst. Born in Taiwan, he is fluent in three dialects of Chinese and Spanish, plus survival level German and Japanese. He is a graduate of the Officers Advance Course at the General Political Warfare College, Taipei, Taiwan.

He lectures on Chinese history and culture and has two books in publication: “Tales of the Dragon – The Book of Lore,” an anthology of Chinese legends, fables, and historical anecdotes; and “Pets Only,” which recounts a pets operated eating establishment in northern Virginia. He lives with Shadow (Lab), Taz (Boxer) and Foxy Lady (Japanese Shiba Inu) in Fredericksburg, VA. He writes under the penname of TANG Long.

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