The first Emperor: Tyrant who unified China


Aug 25, 2007

The terracotta army that guards his tomb is world famous. But what about Qin Shi Huangdi himself? Clifford Coonan investigates the legend of one of the most extraordinary men who ever lived

His ruthlessness was legendary. His armies went in fast on horseback, running rings around their cumbersome opponents, firing arrows from the saddle and causing deadly mayhem. Then, when the defeated enemy was still trying to work out what had happened, the infantry moved in and slaughtered the survivors in their thousands.

It was barbaric but effective. In this way, Qin Shi Huangdi brought to an end the bloody chapter of Chinese history known as the Warring Period - which started around 475 BCE - defeating seven other provincial warlords and installing himself in 221BCE as emperor of a unified China.

The ruthlessness continued throughout his remarkable 11-year reign. He mobilised a million men to build the Great Wall, and laid the legal foundations of a nation that has survived and prospered for more than 2,000 years. Few other men in history have done so much to shape the world.

Today, however, Qin Shi Huangdi is known in the West chiefly for the trappings of his death - the stunning army of 8,099 clay soldiers, horses and war machines buried with the emperor in a vast underground necropolis below the city of Xi'an in China's Shaanxi province, some of which will go on display in the British Museum next month.

Our fascination with the army is understandable. Fearsome sentinels line up in rows according to their rank, the archers kneeling, the incredibly life-like quadriga war chariots behind them. They are a stirring sight and have taught us much about life in ancient China. Each warrior's face is different and many believe they were modelled on real people. The soldiers carried real weapons and real armour was used in their construction, although most of this has been stolen by tomb robbers.

The discovery of the terracotta warriors and their horses was one of the most important archeological finds of all time - and only around 1,000 have been excavated so far. Thousands more are believed to be still below the earth, guarding the enigmatic emperor. But our wonder at the warriors should not blind us to the extraordinary story of the emperor himself.

Born in 259BCE as Ying Zheng, he was officially the son of Zhuang Xiang, the future king of Qin (one of China's seven feudal states). Rumour had it that he was the offspring of his mother's relationship with a wealthy merchant, Lu Buwei.

He was crowned when not yet a teenager and set about building the enormous structures and fighting the epic battles which characterised the reign of this fierce warrior. His ruthlessness was legendary - after one battle, he had all 10,000 prisoners executed. By the age of 40 Shi Huangdi had united the seven warring states by force to create one China.

The megalomaniac ruler gave himself the title Qin (pronounced "chin") Shi Huangdi, which means first emperor of the Qin to reflect his new status as "ruler of all under heaven". The Qin state has since given its name to the whole country of China.

Among his many achievements, the emperor gave the unified empire a single currency, a standardised system of weights and measures and a legal system and introduced a common written language. He also introduced a standardised axle length so that carts could travel on the ruts in the road system that he built.

But he was also a harsh leader, who sought to control how people thought. He outlawed the teachings of Confucius and buried many Confucian scholars alive. In his own imperial version of the Cultural Revolution, he killed many intellectuals and burnt nearly all the books in China. His army boasted upwards of 1,000 chariots, which would often have three men in them - one holding the reins and two soldiers armed with spears or axes. But chariots were bulky and increasingly outdated in military terms and the real key to

Qin Shi Huangdi's success during the Warring States Period was his cavalry. His horseback soldiers were famed for their ability to fight on horseback and particularly for their skills with a bow and arrow while in the saddle. The Qin originally hailed from the west of China, and they had picked up horse tactics from the different groups they fought there.

Their generals controlled their troops on the battlefield by ringing bells mounted on their chariots. Their archers could fire three arrows at a time. They were lined up in rows to ensure a constant downpour of arrows on their opponents. In short, as a military force, Qin Shi Huangdi was irresistible.

His court - whose official colour was black - was filled with intrigue, subterfuge and sex scandals. Lu Buwei, the emperor's rumoured father and his mother's lover, became prime minister. His mother also supposedly had two children by a false eunuch. Lu Buwei became involved in a plot and later committed suicide.

Other historians doubt the story that he was Lu Buwei's son as it would have been difficult for an illegitimate ruler to press his claim and it is certainly true that Qin Huang Shi was an extremely effective ruler, if not a much loved one.

He hoped his dynasty would last for 10,000 years, but perhaps that was too much to expect. His constant wars against neighbours, his heavy taxes and his incessant demands for labourers to build his huge public construction projects - including the tomb which houses the terracotta army - meant he was not a popular ruler.

It took 36 years to build the underground complex and at one point there were more than 700,000 workers toiling on its construction. The emperor was a man who believed he really could take it all with him. He was worried that the hordes of people he had slaughtered or intrigued against on this earth would be waiting in the afterlife to have their revenge. Hence the army.

He was obsessed with finding the key to eternal life. His court musicians were told to write songs of immortality; his explorers were sent to find the elixir of eternal life; and alchemists worked in his kitchens on his behalf, trying to crack the mystery of everlasting life.

He sent an expedition to find the mythical Penglai Mountain, which was the fabled home of the immortals, but they failed to return with an elixir and legend has it they stayed on the islands of Japan. (Some people associate Penglai with Mount Fuji.)

Eventually, of course, he did die: in 210 BCE. And, within three years of his death, it seemed as though everything he had built was in ruins, after rebels marched on Xi'an. Yet his legacy has proved resilient.

Sima Qian, writing a century after Shi Huangdi, described in his Records of the Grand Historian how the emperor was buried in a bronze casket surrounded by mercury, dressed in a jade and gold costume, with pearls in his mouth. However, the historian's tales of a vast army made of clay under the ground were considered a myth for 2,000 years until some farmers digging a well near Shi Huangdi's tomb in 1974 made an amazing discovery. They found an entire army of soldiers and horses made of terracotta, all individually crafted, no two alike and each nearly two metres tall, true giants.

Marked by an artificial hill, the burial site also contains a tomb containing a bronze model of his known world, complete with moats filled with liquid mercury, which has never been opened.

As the tomb has remained sealed for more than two millennia, it has left experts with a real puzzle. Now they plan to open it but are still trying to decide what is the best way to preserve the artefacts inside.

Last month, using new technology, a strange, pyramid-shaped chamber was found in the tomb and archaeologists are speculating that it may have been a kind of passageway for his soul to make its way to the afterlife.

The Xinhua news agency reported that, using remote sensing equipment, archaeologists found what appears to be a 30m-high room above the emperor's tomb. Because they were not able to excavate the room itself, they spent five years drawing diagrams of the chamber using radar and other remote sensing technologies. It was, it seems, like no room ever found in an ancient tomb.

"Qin himself was very unusual, so it's not unexpected that his tomb should also be unique," the archaeologist Liu Qingzhu of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said.

The fact that the room was built on top of his mausoleum with ladder-like steps leading up suggests that it was intended as a way for his spirit to ascend. Most historians believe that the vault has been looted, despite anti-tomb raider technology that is straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark - the doors to the 2,200-year-old mausoleum are even booby-trapped with crossbows.

The mausoleum is on four levels and covers an area of more than two kilometres, almost a city in itself, and also contains 600 tombs of people buried alive with the emperor.

Mercury features strongly in Shi Huang Di's story. As well as being buried in a stream of quicksilver, the emperor also took it as medicine. It damaged his nervous system and contributed to his paranoia.

Shi Huangdi lived in a state of constant fear after three attempts on his life. He used two carriages when travelling to confuse would-be assassins and never slept in the same bed two nights in a row, changing palace constantly. Death caught up with him during a trip to the east of the country and mystery surrounds this too. There is speculation that he died from swallowing mercury pills prescribed by his court alchemists to help him with his quest for everlasting life. His death was kept secret for two months until the entourage was safely back in Xi'an and any potential unrest arising from the announcement of his death was easier to contain. During the trip back they used carriages carrying rotten fish to cover the smell of the decomposing ruler.

After his death, his advisers and top eunuchs forced his first son and heir Fusu to commit suicide and installed his 18th son Huhai on the throne, where he became the Second Emperor or Er Shi Huangdi. He was not a capable ruler and the first emperor's work started to unravel. The Han Dynasty was there within four years, in 206BCE, restoring Confucianism.

Qin Shi Huangdi's childless concubines and maids, along with the workers who built the vault, were buried alive with him.

His legend remains strong in China to this day, chiefly for his work in building the Great Wall. Nearly a quarter of the million workers who built it died during the process. Little survives of the sections of the Great Wall built by Qin Shi Huangdi, which was much further north than the current version that hails from the Ming Dynasty. But the very existence of China is testament to his overall effectiveness.

Shi Huangdi was on the big screen in 2005 in Zhang Yimou's martial arts blockbuster Hero, which tells the tale of a nameless assassin who comes to kill the emperor but ultimately decides to bow to his will because of his achievement in unifying the country. The film's message of obedience to an authoritarian government angered some, who felt the former bad boy director had sold out to the Communist Party. But in emphasising the link between China as we know it and the country's first emperor, it was hard to fault.