Qin Shĭ Huángdi (ca. 259-210 B.C.)Qin Shĭ Huángdi (ca. 259-210 B.C.) - Considered the first true emperor of a unified China, Ying Zheng (his personal name) is one of the most famous figures in Chinese history. Before Zheng, Chinese rulers were called Wang, which literally meant "big man", but came to mean "chief" or "king". Once in power, however, Zheng adopted a new title: "Qin Shĭ Huángdi", or First Sovereign Emperor of Qin. Out of the Warring States Period and the end of the Zhou Dynasty, there emerged the short-lived, but very influential dynasty of Qin. Qin was the western most state competing for supremacy of China. Zheng was ruler for the entire period of Qin, his dynasty died with him. Like much of ancient Chinese history, most of our knowledge of Zheng comes from Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian. He was born into a royal family, the son of Zichi, king of the state of Qin. At the age of only 13, on his father's death, he became ruler; however, a man named Lű Buwei served as regent while he was a child. It didn't take long for Zheng to become an ambitious and, ultimately, heavy-handed tyrant. Upon reaching ruling age, he eliminated Lű Buwei as a potential rival. He also sought to prevent any possibility of dissent in his kingdom by suppressing intellectual discourse. This was accomplished by burning bamboo scrolls and executing scholars. Zheng was a fierce anti-Confucian and outlawed its teachings throughout China.


Many later historians attribute the rapid downfall of the Qin Dynasty to these measures. At the same time, there were notable accomplishments under his reign. The end of the civil wars brought economic prosperity, and he contributed by standardizing weights, measures and currency; as well as constructing the first road system in the land. He built the famous Terracotta Army (see Terracotta Army) to protect him in the afterlife, and the even more famous Great Wall (see Great Wall) was begun during his rule. This dichotomy has produced a mixed legacy for the First Sovereign Emperor. Zheng was famous for one other thing, his obsession with finding the secret to immortality. He had his alchemists concoct numerous potions in the hope of finding the one that would keep him alive forever. Ironically, several of these mixtures contained mercury and probably contributed to his premature death.