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The First Emperor’s Reputation: The Man Who Unified China

Excavation photo: Underground Army of the First Emperor.

Excavation photo: Underground Army of the First Emperor. Litong, Shaanxi Province. Courtesy Hamilton Photography, Seattle.

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Behind all the accomplishments, ambitions, and conflict, who was this leader who unified China? With so little available evidence, mystery surrounds the First Emperor’s life, and his legacy is the subject of controversy. His reputation has been cast in various ways, as hero and as tyrant, but it is clear that he was full of ambition and drive. Today, debate persists about this man who unified what is now China, a word derived from the name Qin (pronounced “chin”).

In his early twenties, the eventual emperor, then King of the Qin state, suppressed a series of domestic revolts to solidify his power. With the Qin state under his control, the king next turned his attention to an ancestral ambition—the conquest of rival kingdoms that lay to the east. In eighteen ensuing years of war, the king subdued all of China’s established states to unify the country. In 221 BCE the king proclaimed himself the First Emperor of China. But, while the Qin dynasty lasted for thirty-six years under his rule, it survived less than four years after his death.

Several stories have taken hold in popular imagination, even as evidence is reevaluated. Among these is the assertion that the First Emperor took extraordinary measures in pursuit of immortality:

  • According to the Grand Historian Sima Qian, the emperor burned books and killed scholars whose criticism he felt threatened his authority.
  • To make contact with immortals, the First Emperor is said to have ordered the live sacrifice of various people as divine offerings and demonstrations of power.
  • To be safe from threats, the emperor is said to have constructed a vast network of tunnels for movement in secrecy.

The accuracy of these stories invites scrutiny. For all the ruthlessness of his reputation, by some accounts the First Emperor was also brilliant at political strategy and the consolidation of power. While his methods included massacre, some have argued that his success at unifying the states justified the violence, which was a necessary cost of nation building. For others, however, his accomplishments are stained by suffering, and his legacy tainted by excessive bloodshed.

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