Ch'in Shih-huang-ti

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Ch'in Shih-huang-ti

259-210 b.c.

Chinese Emperor

Ch'in Shih-huang-ti was a formidable figure in ancient Chinese history. As the emperor of the Ch'in Dynasty he established the parameters of dynastic rule that all others would follow for the next 2,000 years. During his rule, he unified much of China with his aggressive government, which was based on the teachings of Legalism. In fact, the name for China derives from the Ch'in dynasty. It was under Ch'in Shih-huang-ti that much of the Great Wall of China was built, as well as a huge burial compound now known as the Ch'in tomb.

Between 771 and 221 b.c., China consisted of numerous independent states found mostly in the north. Each state was fighting for control of land, in what was known as the "Warring States Period." The Ch'in, a small state in the northern regions of the Wei River Valley, gained power in the wake of this period. Ch'in Shih-huang-ti, who was first known as Ch'eng, was made king of the Ch'in state in 246 b.c. at the age of 13 while his father was held hostage in the state of Chao. Not originally intended for the throne, his mother, guided by financial motives, worked to put him there. Until Ch'in Shih-huang-ti came of age in 238 b.c., the government was run by his mother. Upon taking control of the throne he executed his mother's lover, who had joined the opposition, and exiled his mother for her role in the disobedience.

The Ch'in dynasty began in 256 b.c., but it was not to achieve its greatest power until years later, when under the advice of Li Ssu and Chao Kao, his advisors, Ch'in Shih-huang-ti began a mission to unify all the northern states under his rule. It was then that he took the title "Ch'in Shih-huang-ti," or "The First Sovereign Emperor of the Ch'in." Ch'in Shih-huang-ti then formed a government that was based on the ideals and principles of Legalism, as taught to him by his advisors. Legalism held that people were essentially selfish and base and needed a strong central government with strict rules and harsh punishments in order to function as a society. At the center of the new government were the emperor and his ministers. A harsh, sometimes cruel, autocratic rule was the result, replacing the old feudal system of aristocracy and nobility. Other schools of thought and philosophy were outlawed, especially Confucianism. Many of its teachers were executed and their books burned. By 221 b.c. Ch'in Shih-huang-ti had conquered his rival states and unified China. In an effort to reinforce the idea of a unified China, Ch'in Shih-huang-ti instituted a program to standardize the Chinese language, as well as measurements for width and length, and a series of roads and canals were built to converge on the capital city of Xianyang.

To protect his state from a Hunnish tribe of people to the north known as the Hsiung Nu, Ch'in Shih-huang-ti embarked on an amazing effort to connect the walls and fortresses, created during the Warring States Period, to protect his kingdom. The result was the Great Wall of China. It spanned, not including its many branches, 4,160 miles (6,700 km), and is one of the largest manmade features on Earth. Construction started under General Meng T'ien in 214 b.c., and lasted 10 years. Another structure of astounding proportions built under Ch'in Shih-huang-ti was a massive burial compound, known as the Ch'in Tomb. It was discovered by archaeologists in 1974, near the present-day city of Xiam. The tomb, encompassing 20 square miles (50 sq km), was a huge subterranean complex, landscaped to resemble a low, wooded mountain. In the chamber, 6,000 life-sized terracotta soldiers were found in battle formation, and in adjoining chambers thousands of smaller figurines were found. A stable of skeletonized horses was discovered and the remains of bronze gilded chariots accompanied them. Valuable gems, jade carving of trees and animals, as well as silks were also unearthed. The emperor's actual burial tomb has yet to be excavated. It was purported that it took 700,000 men more than 36 years to complete.

In the later years of his life, Ch'in Shih-huang-ti survived three assassination attempts and weathered the constant threat of revolt. When he came to power, Ch'in Shih-huang-ti claimed his government would last 10,000 years, but in fact it collapsed only four years after his death in 210 b.c., and was replaced by the Han Dynasty. Ch'in Shih-huang-ti and the Ch'in dynasty were regarded as evil aberrations, but the fact remains that the Ch'in dynasty served as the basis for all subsequent dynasties. The power achieved by the Ch'in in such a short time continues to stupefy historians. The Great Wall and Ch'in Tomb stand as testament to that great power.