Emperor Ch'in

Terracotta warrior statue replica in Xiao Yanta

Philippe LEJEANVRE / Getty Images


Emperor Ch'in shih huang-ti was the first Ch'in (Qin) Dynasty emperor for which reason people call him simply "the First Emperor." Appraisals of this 3rd century B.C. emperor vary. Some consider his government unprincipled, and him, a violent, superstitious ruler who ordered a bibliocaust. He condemned Confucianism and other schools of thought, save Legalism, which supported his imperial position. They say he buried alive Confucian scholars and artisans working on his funeral complex. Others praise him as a peace-bringing political and legal unifier, who built roads to handle the standard distance between carriage wheels, and started the Great Wall; a reformer, who standardized coinage, weights and measures, and the written language. Like the early Egyptian pharaohs, the first Chinese emperor expended prodigious resources provisioning the afterlife, including a subterranean palace and an enormous terra cotta army complete with life size, realistic, painted warriors, chariots and horses. Even the treadmarking on shoe bottoms was fastidiously individualized. A docent at the 2012 exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (China's Terracotta Warriors - The First Emperor's Legacy) says the warriors are about six feet tall, which might seem tall as an average for the modern Chinese male, but is considered to be life size for these descendants of Steppe denizens. [See: What Armor Did the Qin Dynasty Warriors Wear?]


Originally called Ying Zheng, Emperor Ch'in was born in 260 B.C. and died in 210. His reign as king of the more than 500-year old state of Qin had started when he was only 13. Having unified the warring states, Chin became emperor of a unified China in 221 B.C. His rule as emperor had lasted for 12 years when he died at the age of 49. When he died, his body was covered by fish to disguise the odor and to delay news until his body arrived back home -- according to legend. Rebellion followed soon after. Weak successors followed, so his dynasty lasted only another three years.

Warring States

Emperor Ch'in put an end to the Warring States period in ancient Chinese history, which ran from about 475-221 B.C. It was a period of violence and chaos during which the philosopher Sun-Tzu -- called the author of "The Art of War" -- is said to have lived. Culture flourished.

There were seven states of China during the Warring States period (Ch'in Qi Ch'u Yan, Han, Zhao, and Wei). Two of these states, the Ch'in and Ch'u (which had, incidentally, incorporated Confucius' home state of Lu, in 249), came to dominate, and in 223, the Ch'in defeated the Ch'u, establishing the first unified Chinese state two years later, in the 26th year of King Cheng's reign. (As first emperor of all China, King Cheng became known as Emperor Ch'in.)

Historical and Archaeological Sources on Emperor Ch'in

In 213 B.C., three years before Emperor Ch'in died, Ch'in ordered a book burning (bibliocaust) that was to destroy much of the historical record of earlier periods. Ch'in documents were probably destroyed in a palace complex-burning, by Hsiang Yu, in 208, two years after the first emperor's death. Archaeological remains of the tomb of the first emperor, including the famous terra cotta army of more than 7000 men, and legal documents were found in the 1970s when farmers dug up unexpected quantities of pottery. Another source of information on Emperor Ch'in is the Shih chi (Historical Records), written by Han dynasty historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien in around 100 B.C. This same historian and storyteller, also called Sima Qian, wrote a biography of the sage Confucius (Kongzi)

Periods of Ancient China

Also Known As: Ch'in shih huang-ti, Qin or Qin Shihuangdi, Cheng

Alternate Spellings: Chin Shih Huang, Qin Shi Huangdi, Qin Shih Huang-ti, Qin Shihuang

Examples: Chairman Mao, the famous leader of the Communist Party in China, who was in power when farmers unearthed the artifacts of the Emperor Ch'in in 1974, is credited with the following words or sentiments:

" What can Emperor Qin Shi Huang brag about? He only killed 460 Confucian scholars, but we killed 46,000 intellectuals. In our suppression of counter-revolutionaries, didn't we kill some counter-revolutionary intellectuals as well? I argued with the pro-democratic people who accused us of acting like Emperor Qin Shi Huang. I said they were wrong. We surpassed him by a hundred times."
The Epoch Times' Commentaries on the Communist Party


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Gill, N.S. "Emperor Ch'in." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/emperor-chin-117669. Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). Emperor Ch'in. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/emperor-chin-117669 Gill, N.S. "Emperor Ch'in." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/emperor-chin-117669 (accessed June 6, 2023).