Qin Shi Huang () (259 BC 210 BC), personal name Ying Zheng ( ), was king of the Chinese State of Qin from 246 BC to 221 BC during the Warring States Period. He became the first emperor of a unified China in 221 BC. He ruled until his death in 210 BC at the age of 49.
Calling himself the First Emperor ( ) after China's unification, Qin Shi Huang is a pivotal figure in Chinese history, ushering nearly two millennia of imperial rule. After unifying China, he and his chief advisor Li Si passed a series of major economic and political reforms. He undertook gigantic projects, including building and unifying various sections of the Great Wall of China, the now famous city-sized mausoleum guarded by a life-sized Terracotta Army, and a massive national road system, all at the expense of numerous lives. To ensure stability, Qin Shi Huang outlawed and burned many books and buried some scholars alive.
Name of Shi Huangdi
During the preceding Zhou Dynasty (700 BCE-221 BCE), later rulers of the independent states of China by convention used the title King (). Following his defeat of the last of the Warring States in 221 BC, King Zheng of Qin became de facto ruler of all China. To celebrate this achievement and consolidate his power base, King Zheng created a new title calling himself the First Sovereign Qin Emperor (), often shortened to Qin Shi Huang ().
- The character ( ) means first . The first emperor's heirs would then be successively called "Second Emperor", "Third Emperor" and so on down the generations.
- The characters " " () come from the mythical Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors Era () (3rd century BC), from which the two characters ( ) are extracted. By adding such a title, Q n Sh Hu ngd hoped to appropriate some of the previous Yellow Emperor's ( ) divine status and prestige.
- Additionally, the character "Hu ng" ( ) literally means "shining" or "splendid" and was "most frequently used as an epithet of Heaven."
Both names, "Qin Shi Huangdi" ( ) and "Qin Shi Huang" ( ), appear in the Records of the Grand Historian written by Sima Qian. The longer name "Qin Shi Huangdi" ( ) appears first in chapter 5, though the shorter name "Qin Shi Huang" ( ) was the name of chapter 6 ( ). However, the name Qin Shi Huangdi is believed to be the correct one since Ying Zheng joined together the words Huang (Imperial) and Di (ruler), to create Huangdi (emperor).
Family history and birth
A rich merchant in the State of Han, named L Buwei, met Master Yiren ( ). L Buwei's manipulation helped Yiren become King Zhuangxiang of Qin. At the time, King Zhuangxiang of Qin was a prince of Qin blood, who took residence at the court of the State of Zhao as a hostage to guarantee an armistice between the two states.
According to the Records of the Grand Historian, the first emperor was born in 259 BC as the eldest son of King Zhuangxiang of Qin. King Zhuangxiang of Qin saw a concubine belonging to L Buwei, and she bore the first emperor. At birth, he was given the personal name Zheng ( ). Because Zheng was born in Handan, capital of the enemy state of Zhao ( ), he thus had the name Zhao Zheng. Zhao Zheng's ancestors are said to have come from Gansu.
According to the Records of the Grand Historian, written by Sima Qian during the next dynasty and avowedly hostile to Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor was not the actual son of King Zhuangxiang of Qin. By the time L Buwei introduced the dancing girl Zhao Ji ( , or the Concubine from Zhao) to the future King Zhuangxiang of Qin, she was allegedly L Buwei's concubine and had already become pregnant by him. According to translations of the Annals of L Buwei the woman gave birth to the future emperor in the city of Handan in 259 BC, the first month of the 48th year of King Zhaoxiang of Qin. The idea that the emperor was an illegitimate child added to the negative view of him for most of the next 2000 years after his death. Today there is skepticism amongst some scholars about this claim as recorded by Sima Qian. There is some inconsistency between the date of birth and the theory of L Buwei being the real father of the first emperor. In the view of some scholars, the length of the pregnancy, lasting a full year if the accusation is true, is impossible according to modern medicine. Professors John Knoblock and Jeffrey Riegel, in their translation of L Buwei's Spring and Autumn Annals, call the story "patently false, meant both to libel L and to cast aspersions on the First Emperor."
King of the Qin state
In 246 BC, when King Zhuangxiang died after a short reign of just three years, he was succeeded to the throne by his 13-year-old son. At the time, Zhao Zheng was still young, so L Buwei acted as the regent prime minister of the State of Qin, which was still waging war against the other six states.
Lao Ai's attempted coup
As King Zheng grew older, L Buwei became fearful that the boy king would discover his liaison with his mother Zhao Ji ( ). He decided to distance himself and look for a replacement for the queen dowager. He found a man named Lao Ai ( ). According to the Record of Grand Historian, Lao Ai was disguised as a eunuch by plucking his beard. Later Lao Ai and queen Zhao Ji got along so well they secretly had two sons together. Lao Ai then became ennobled as Marquis Lao Ai, and was showered with riches. L Buwei's plot was supposed to replace King Zheng with one of the hidden sons. But during a dinner party drunken Lao Ai was heard bragging about being the young king's step father. In 238 BC the king was traveling to the ancient capital of Yong ( ). Lao Ai seized the queen mother's seal and mobilized an army in an attempt to start a coup and rebel.
A price of 1 million copper coins was placed on Lao Ai's head if he was taken alive or half a million if dead. Lao Ai's supporters were captured and beheaded; then Lao Ai was tied up and torn to five pieces by horse carriages, while his entire family was executed to the third degree. The two hidden sons were also killed, while mother Zhao Ji was placed under house arrest until her death many years later. L Buwei drank a cup of poison wine and committed suicide in 235 BC. Ying Zheng then assumed full power as the King of the Qin state. Replacing L Buwei, Li Si was also now the new chancellor.
Jing Ke's assassination mission
King Zheng and his troops continued to take over different states. The state of Yan was small, weak and frequently harassed by soldiers. It was no match for the Qin state. So Crown Prince Dan of Yan plotted an assassination attempt to get rid of King Zheng, begging Jing Ke to go on the mission in 227 BC. Jing Ke was accompanied by Qin Wuyang in the plot. Each was supposed to present a gift to King Zheng, a map of Dukang and the decapitated head of Fan Wuji.
Qin Wuyang first tried to present the map case gift, but trembled in fear and moved no further towards the king. Jing Ke continued to advance toward the king, while explaining that his partner "has never set eyes on the Son of Heaven", which is why he is trembling. Jing Ke had to present both gifts by himself. While unrolling the map, a dagger was revealed. The king drew back, stood on his feet, but struggled to draw the sword to defend himself. At the time, other palace officials were not allowed to carry weapons. Jing Ke pursued the king, attempting to stab him, but missed. King Zheng drew out his sword and cut Jing Ke's thigh. Jing Ke then threw the dagger, but missed again. Suffering eight wounds from the king's sword, Jing Ke realised his attempt had failed. Both Jing Ke and Qin Wuyang would be killed afterwards. The Yan state was conquered by the Qin state five years later.
Gao Jianli's assassination mission
Gao Jianli was a close friend of Jing Ke, who wanted to avenge his death. As a famous lute player, one day he was summoned by King Zheng to play the instrument. Someone in the palace who had known him in the past exclaimed, "This is Gao Jianli". Unable to bring himself to kill such a skilled musician, the emperor ordered his eyes put out. But the king allowed Gao Jianli to play in his presence. He praised the playing and even allowed Gao Jianli to get closer. As part of the plot, the lute was fastened with a heavy piece of lead. He raised the lute and struck at the king. He missed, and his assassination attempt failed. Gao Jianli was later executed.
First unification of China
In 230 BC, King Zheng unleashed the final campaigns of the Warring States Period, setting out to conquer the remaining independent kingdoms, one by one.
Imperial tours of Qin Shi Huang
The first state to fall was Han ( ; sometimes called Hann to distinguish it from the Han of Han dynasty), in 230 BC. Then Qin took advantage of a natural disaster, the 229 BC Zhao state earthquake, to invade and conquer Zhao where Qin Shi Huang had been born. He now avenged his poor treatment as a child hostage there, seeking out and killing his enemies.
Qin armies conquered the state of Zhao in 228 BC, the northern country of Yan in 226 BC, the small state of Wei in 225 BC, and the largest state and greatest challenge, Chu, in 223 BC.
In 222 BC, the last remnants of Yan and the royal family were captured in Liaodong in the northeast. The only independent country left was now state of Qi, in the far east, what is now the Shandong peninsula. Terrified, the young king of Qi sent 300,000 people to defend his western borders. In 221 BC, the Qin armies invaded from the north, captured the king, and annexed Qi.
For the first time, all of China was unified under one powerful ruler. In that same year, King Zheng proclaimed himself the "First Emperor" ( ), no longer a king in the old sense and now far surpassing the achievements of the old Zhou Dynasty rulers.
In the South, military expansion continued during his reign, with various regions being annexed to what is now Guangdong province and part of today's Vietnam.
First emperor of the Qin dynasty
Division and politics
In an attempt to avoid a recurrence of the political chaos of early imperial China, the conquered states were not allowed to be referred to as independent nations. The empire was then divided into 36 commanderies ( ), later more than 40 commanderies. The whole of China was now divided into administrative units: first commanderies, then districts ( ), counties ( ) and hundred-family units ( ). This system was different from the previous dynasties, which had loose alliances and federations. People could no longer be identified by their native region or former feudal state, as when a person from Chu was called "Chu person" ( ). Appointments were now based on merit instead of hereditary rights.
A 5-catty weight inscribed with a description of Qin Shi Huang's edict to standardize weights and measures, 221 BC Qin Shi Huang and Li Si unified China economically by standardizing the Chinese units of measurements such as weights and measures, the currency, the length of the axles of carts to facilitate transport on the road system. The emperor also developed an extensive network of roads and canals connecting the provinces to improve trade between them. The currency of the different states were also standardized to the Ban liang coin ( ). Perhaps most importantly, the Chinese script was unified. Under Li Si, the seal script of the state of Qin was standardized through removal of variant forms within the Qin script itself. This newly standardized script was then made official throughout all the conquered regions, thus doing away with all the regional scripts to form one language, one communication system for all of China.
Qin Shi Huang also followed the school of the five elements, earth, wood, metal, fire and water. It was believed that the royal house of the previous dynasty Zhou had ruled by the power of fire, which was the color red. The new Qin dynasty must be ruled by the next element on the list, which is water, represented by the color black. Black became the color for garments, flags, pennants. Other associations include north as the cardinal direction, winter season and the number six. Tallies and official hats were six inches long, carriages six feet wide, one pace ( ) was 6 ft (1.8 m).
Zhang Liang's assassination attempt
In 230 BC, the state of Qin had defeated the state of Han. A Han aristocrat named Zhang Liang swore revenge on the Qin emperor. He sold all his valuables and in 218 BC, he hired a strongman assassin and built him a heavy metal cone weighing 120 jin (roughly 160 lb or 97 kg). The two men hid among the bushes along the emperor's route over a mountain. At a signal, the muscular assassin hurled the cone at the first carriage and shattered it. However, the emperor was actually in the second carriage, as he was traveling with two identical carriages for this very reason. Thus the attempt failed. Both men were able to escape in spite of a huge manhunt.
North: Great wall
The Qin fought nomadic tribes to the north and northwest. The Xiongnu tribes were not defeated and subdued, thus the campaign was tiring and unsuccessful, and to prevent the Xiongnu from encroaching on the northern frontier any longer, the emperor ordered the construction of an immense defensive wall. This wall, for whose construction hundreds of thousands of men were mobilized, and an unknown number died, is a precursor to the current Great Wall of China. It connected numerous state walls which had been built during the previous four centuries, a network of small walls linking river defenses to impassable cliffs. A great monument of China to this day, the Great Wall still stands, open to the public to challenge its million steps.
South: Lingqu canal
A famous South China quotation was "In the North there is the Great wall, in the South there is the Lingqu canal" ( ). In 214 BC the Emperor began the project of a major canal to transport supplies to the army. The canal allows water transport between north and south China. The canal, 34 kilometers in length, links the Xiang River which flows into the Yangtze and the Li Jiang, which flows into the Pearl River. The canal connected two of China's major waterways and aided Qin's expansion into the southwest. The construction is considered one of the three great feats of Ancient Chinese engineering, the others being the Great Wall and the Sichuan Dujiangyan Irrigation System.
End of hundred schools of thought
While the previous Warring States era was one of constant warfare, it was also considered the golden age of free thought. Qin Shi Huang eliminated the Hundred Schools of Thought which incorporated Confucianism and other philosophies. After the unification of China, with all other schools of thought banned, legalism became the endorsed ideology of the Qin dynasty. Legalism was basically a system that required the people to follow the laws or be punished accordingly.
Book burning period
Beginning in 213 BC, at the instigation of Li Si and to avoid scholars' comparisons of his reign with the past, Qin Shi Huang ordered most existing books to be burned with the exception of those on astrology, agriculture, medicine, divination, and the history of the State of Qin. This would also serve the purpose of furthering the ongoing reformation of the writing system by removing examples of obsolete scripts. Owning the Book of Songs or the Classic of History was to be punished especially severely. According to the later Records of the Grand Historian, the following year Qin Shi Huang had some 460 scholars buried alive for owning the forbidden books. The emperor's oldest son Fusu criticised him for this act. The emperor's own library still had copies of the forbidden books but most of these were destroyed later when Xiang Yu burned the palaces of Xianyang in 206 BC.
Portrait of Epang palace
After the unification, Qin Shi Huang moved out of Xianyang palace ( ), and began building the gigantic Epang palace ( ) south of the Wei river, Epang is the most loved concubine of Qin Shi Huang. Other achievements such as the 12 bronze colossi were also made from the melted-down collected weapons.
Death and aftermath
Elixir of life
Later in his life, Qin Shi Huang feared death and desperately sought the fabled elixir of life, which would supposedly allow him to live forever. He was obsessed with acquiring immortality and fell prey to many who offered him supposed elixirs. He visited Zhifu Island three times in order to achieve immortality.
Xu Fu's ships set sail in 219 BC in search of the medicine for immortality.
In one case he sent Xu Fu, a Zhifu islander, with ships carrying hundreds of young men and women in search of the mystical Penglai mountain. They were sent to find Anqi Sheng, a 1,000-year-old magician whom Qin Shi Huang had supposedly met in his travels and who had invited him to seek him there. These people never returned, perhaps because they knew that if they returned without the promised elixir, they would surely be executed. Legends claim that they reached Japan and colonized it. It is also possible that the book burning, a purge on what could be seen as wasteful and useless literature, was, in part, an attempt to focus the minds of the Emperor's best scholars on the alchemical quest. Some of the executed scholars were those who had been unable to offer any evidence of their supernatural schemes. This may have been the ultimate means of testing their abilities: if any of them had magic powers, then they would surely come back to life when they were let out again. Since the great emperor was afraid of death and, "evil spirits", he had workers build a series of tunnels and passage ways to each of his palaces (over 200 were owned by him), because these would keep him safe from the evil spirits, as he traveled unseen.
In 211 BC a large meteor is said to have fallen in Dongjun ( ) in the lower reaches of the Yellow River. On it, an unknown person inscribed the words "The First Emperor will die and his land will be divided." When the emperor heard of this, he sent an imperial secretary to investigate this prophecy. No one would confess to the deed, so all the people living nearby were put to death. The stone was then burned and pulverized.
The emperor died during one of his tours of Eastern China, on September 10, 210 BC (Julian Calendar) at the palace in Shaqiu prefecture ( ), about two months away by road from the capital Xianyang. Reportedly, he died due to ingesting mercury pills, made by his court scientists and doctors. Ironically, these pills were meant to make Qin Shi Huang immortal.
After the emperor's death Prime Minister Li Si, who accompanied him, became extremely worried that the news of his death could trigger a general uprising in the empire. It would take two months for the government to reach the capital, and it would not be possible to stop the uprising. Li Si decided to hide the death of the emperor, and return to Xianyang. Most of the imperial entourage accompanying the emperor was left ignorant of the emperor's death; only a younger son, Ying Huhai, who was traveling with his father, the eunuch Zhao Gao, Li Si, and five or six favorite eunuchs knew of the death. Li Si also ordered that two carts containing rotten fish be carried immediately before and after the wagon of the emperor. The idea behind this was to prevent people from noticing the foul smell emanating from the wagon of the emperor, where his body was starting to decompose severely as it was summertime. They also pulled down the shade so no one could see his face, changed his clothes daily, brought food and when he had to have important conversations they would act as if he wanted to send them a message.
Second emperor conspiracy
Eventually, after about two months, Li Si and the imperial court reached Xianyang, where the news of the death of the emperor was announced. Qin Shi Huang did not like to talk about his own death and he had never written a will. After his death, the eldest son Fusu would normally become the next emperor.
Li Si and the chief eunuch Zhao Gao conspired to kill Fusu because Fusu's favorite general was Meng Tian, whom they disliked and feared; Meng Tian's brother, a senior minister, had once punished Zhao Gao. They believed that if Fusu was enthroned, they would lose their power. Li Si and Zhao Gao forged a letter from Qin Shi Huang saying that both Fusu and General Meng must commit suicide. The plan worked, and the younger son Huhai became the Second Emperor, later known as Qin Er Shi or "Second Generation Qin."
Qin Er Shi, however, was not as capable as his father. Revolts quickly erupted. His reign was a time of extreme civil unrest, and everything built by the First Emperor crumbled away within a short period. One of the immediate revolt attempts was the 209 BC Daze Village Uprising led by Chen Sheng and Wu Guang.
Mausoleum of the first emperor
The Chinese historian Sima Qian, writing a century after the First emperor's death, wrote that it took 700,000 men to construct it. The British historian John Man points out that this figure is larger than any city of the world at that time and calculates that the foundations could have been built by 16,000 men in two years. While Sima Qian never mentioned the terracotta army, the statues were discovered by a group of farmers digging wells on March 29, 1974. The soldiers were created with a series of mix-and-match clay molds and then further individualized by the artists' hand. Han Purple was also used on some of the warriors.
Qin Shi Huang's tomb
One of the first projects the young king accomplished while he was alive was the construction of his own tomb. In 215 BC Qin Shi Huang ordered General Meng Tian with 300,000 men to begin construction. Other sources suggested he ordered 720,000 unpaid laborers to build his tomb to specification. Again, given John Man's observation regarding populations of the time (see paragraph above), these historical estimates are debatable. The main tomb (located at ) containing the emperor has yet to be opened and there is evidence suggesting that it remains relatively intact. Sima Qian's description of the tomb includes replicas of palaces and scenic towers, "rare utensils and wonderful objects", 100 rivers made with mercury, representations of "the heavenly bodies", and crossbows rigged to shoot anyone who tried to break in. The tomb was built on Li Mountain, which is only 30 kilometers away from Xi'an. Modern archaeologists have located the tomb, and have inserted probes deep into it. The probes revealed abnormally high quantities of mercury, some 100 times the naturally occurring rate, suggesting that some parts of the legend are credible. Secrets were maintained, as most of the workmen who built the tomb were killed.
Family of Qin Shi Huang
The following are some family members of Qin Shi Huang:
- Half siblings:
- Chengjiao, Lord of Chang'an
- Two half-brothers born to Lady Zhao and Lao Ai
Qin Shi Huang had about 28 children, but most of their names are unknown. He had numerous concubines.
Historiography of Qin Shi Huang
In traditional Chinese historiography, the First Emperor of the Chinese unified states was almost always portrayed as a brutal tyrant who had obsessive fear of assassination. Ideological antipathy towards the Legalist State of Qin was established as early as 266 BC, when Confucian philosopher Xun Zi disparaged it. Later Confucian historians condemned the emperor who had burned the classics and buried Confucian scholars alive. They eventually compiled a list of the Ten Crimes of Qin to highlight his tyrannical actions.
A modern statue of Qin Shi Huang, located near the site of the Terracotta Army
The famous Han poet and statesman Jia Yi concluded his essay The Faults of Qin ( ) with what was to become the standard Confucian judgment of the reasons for Qin's collapse. Jia Yi's essay, admired as a masterpiece of rhetoric and reasoning, was copied into two great Han histories and has had a far-reaching influence on Chinese political thought as a classic illustration of Confucian theory. He attributed Qin's disintegration to its failure to display humanity and righteousness or to realise that there is a difference between the power to attack and the power to consolidate.
In more modern times, historical assessment of the First Emperor different from traditional Chinese historiography began to emerge. The reassessment was spurred on by weakness of China in the latter half of 19th century and early 20th century, and Confucian traditions at that time began to be seen by some as an impediment to China's entry into the modern world, opening the way for changing perspectives.
At a time when Chinese territory was encroached upon by foreign nations, leading Kuomintang historian Xiao Yishan emphasized the role of Qin Shi Huang in repulsing the northern barbarians, particularly in the construction of the Great Wall.
Another historian, Ma Feibai ( ), published in 1941 a full-length revisionist biography of the First Emperor entitled Qin Shi Huangdi Zhuan ( ), calling him "one of the great heroes of Chinese history". Ma compared him with the contemporary leader Chiang Kai-shek and saw many parallels in the careers and policies of the two men, both of whom he admired. Chiang's Northern Expedition of the late 1920s, which directly preceded the new Nationalist government at Nanjing was compared to the unification brought about by Qin Shi Huang.
A modern statue of the First Emperor and his attendants
With the coming of the Communist Revolution in 1949, new interpretations again surfaced. The establishment of the new, revolutionary regime prompted another re-evaluation of the First Emperor, this time in accordance with Maoist thought. The new interpretation given of Qin Shi Huang was generally a combination of traditional and modern views, but essentially critical. This is exemplified in the Complete History of China, which was compiled in September 1955 as an official survey of Chinese history. The work described the First Emperor's major steps toward unification and standardisation as corresponding to the interests of the ruling group and the merchant class, not the nation or the people, and the subsequent fall of his dynasty as a manifestation of the class struggle. The perennial debate about the fall of the Qin Dynasty was also explained in Marxist terms, the peasant rebellions being a revolt against oppression a revolt which undermined the dynasty, but which was bound to fail because of a compromise with "landlord class elements".
Since 1972, however, a radically different official view of Qin Shi Huang has been given prominence throughout China. The re-evaluation was initiated by Hong Shidi's biography Qin Shi Huang. The work was published by the state press as a mass popular history, and it sold 1.85 million copies within two years. In the new era, Qin Shi Huang was seen as a farsighted ruler who destroyed the forces of division and established the first unified, centralized state in Chinese history by rejecting the past. Personal attributes, such as his quest for immortality, so emphasized in traditional historiography, were scarcely mentioned. The new evaluations described how, in his time (an era of great political and social change), he had no compunctions against using violent methods to crush counter-revolutionaries, such as the "industrial and commercial slave owner" chancellor L Buwei. However, he was criticized for not being as thorough as he should have been, and as a result, after his death, hidden subversives under the leadership of the chief eunuch Zhao Gao was able to seized power and used it to restore the old feudal order.
To round out this re-evaluation, a new interpretation of the precipitous collapse of the Qin Dynasty was put forward in an article entitled "On the Class Struggle During the Period Between Qin and Han" by Luo Siding, in a 1974 issue of Red Flag, to replace the old explanation. The new theory claimed that the cause of the fall of Qin lay in the lack of thoroughness of Qin Shi Huang's "dictatorship over the reactionaries, even to the extent of permitting them to worm their way into organs of political authority and usurp important posts."
Mao Zedong, chairman of the People's Republic of China, was reviled for his persecution of intellectuals. On being compared to the First Emperor, Mao responded: "He buried 460 scholars alive; we have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive... You [intellectuals] revile us for being Qin Shi Huangs. You are wrong. We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold."
Works of fiction
- During the Korean War, the play Song of the Yi River was produced. The play was based on the attempted assassination of the king by Jing Ke. In the play, Ying Zheng was portrayed as a cruel tyrant and an aggressor and invader of other states. In contrast, Jing Ke was a chivalrous warrior who said that "tens of thousands of injured people are all my comrades." A huge newspaper ad for this play proclaimed: "Invasion will definitely end in defeat; peace must be won at a price." The play portrayed an underdog fighting against a cruel, powerful foreign invader with help from a sympathetic foreign volunteer.
Jorge Luis Borges (1899 1986), the Argentine writer, wrote an acclaimed essay on Qin Shi Huang, "The Wall and the Books" ("") in the 1952 collection Other Inquisitions (). It muses on the opposition between large-scale construction of the Great Wall and destruction book-burning that defined his reign.
- The 1956 book Lord of the East is a historical romance about the favorite daughter of Qin Shi Huang, who runs away with her lover. The story uses Qin Shi Huang to create the barrier for the young couple.
The Chinese Emperor, by Jean Levi, appeared in 1984. This work of historical fiction moves from discussions of politics and law in the Qin state to an exploration of Qin Shi Huang's psychology, in which his terracotta army were actually automata created to replace fallible humans.
- In the 1985 Contact (novel) (by Carl Sagan), the character Xi Qiaomu who had been involved in excavations of the tomb of Emperor Qin during the Cultural Revolution is visited by a personified alien in the form of the Emperor Qin.
- In the Area 51 book series, Qin Shi Huang is revealed to be an alien exile stranded on Earth during an interstellar civil war. The Great Wall is actually designed to display the symbol for 'help' in his language, and he orders it built in the hope that a passing spaceship would notice it and rescue him.
- In Hydra's Ring, the 39th novel in the Outlanders series, Qin Shi Huang is revealed to be still alive in the early 23rd century through extraterrestrial nano-technology that has bestowed a form of immortality.
- In the Magic Tree House book series, one book is titled Day of the Dragon King, named for Qin Shi Huangdi.
Emperor!: A Romance of Ancient China by Lanny Fields centers around Qin Shi Huang and a former Roman soldier named Marcus Lucius Scipio, whom Qin Shi Huang befriends after Marcus Scipio saves his life on multiple occasions. This fictional account is told through the eyes of the historian Sima Qian, who writes about Marcus Scipio after he travels from Rome to China.
- In Terry Pratchett's Interesting Times, the wizard, Rincewind, discovers a suit of armor owned by a previous emperor which gives him control of a terracotta army. As with most of Pratchett's Discworld series, this book is a play on a real-world concept. In this case, the model is Emperor Qin Shi Huang's cultural impact on modern-day China.
The Tiger Warrior by David Gibbins (Bantam; June 2009) weaves in the history of Qin Shi Huang and his quest for immortality with Roman legionnaires, Indian tribes, Victorian-era British soldiers and a modern archaeological-adventure story.
- In the Wraith: the Oblivion roleplaying game books, the ghost of "Qin Shihuang" continues to rule despotically over the afterlife of China to this day, assisted by an army of nigh-invincible ghost soldiers based on the terracotta army.
Shin No Shikoutei (1963) - The film portrays Qin Shi Huang as a battle-hardened emperor with his roots in the military. Despite his rank, Qin Shi Huang is shown lounging around a campfire with common men. A female character, Lady Chu, serves as a foil who questions whether Qin Shi Huang's cause is just. Qin Shi Huang converts her from an enemy to a loyal concubine.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986) - The film mentions Qin Shi Huang's name twice as the person who imposed the curse of no flesh on Lopan in 272 BC.
The Emperor's Shadow (1996) - The film focuses on Qin Shi Huang's relationship with the musician Gao Jianli, a friend of the assassin Jing Ke. Gao played the Song of Yishui for Jing Ke before the latter embarked on his assassination mission.
The Emperor and the Assassin (1999) - The film centers on the identity of Qin Shi Huang's father, his supposed heartless treatment of his officials, and a betrayal by his childhood lover, paving the way for Jing Ke's assassination attempt. Director Chen Kaige sought to question whether Qin Shi Huang's motives were meritorious. A major theme in this film is the conflict between Qin Shi Huang's dedication to his vows and to his lover, Lady Zhao.
Hero (2002) - The film starred Jet Li, a nameless assassin who plans an assassination attempt on the King of Qin (Chen Daoming). Both the king and the assassin may be references to Qin Shi Huang and Jing Ke respectively.
The Myth (2005) - The film starred Jackie Chan as Meng Yi, a military general serving under Qin Shi Huang. Meng is reincarnated into the present-day as an archaeologist. Kim Hee-sun co-starred as a Korean princess who was forced to marry the emperor.
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) - The film starred Jet Li, the resurrected mummy called the "Han Emperor" and may be a reference to Qin Shi Huang. The emperor's role is highly fictionalised as he possesses magical powers.
Rise of the Great Wall (1986) - a 63 episode TV series chronicling the events from the emperor's birth until his death. It was produced by Hong Kong's ATV. The lyrics of the opening theme song summarized most of the story: "The land shall be under my foot; nobody shall be equal to me."
Histeria! (1998 1999) - an animated series. Pepper Mills wants Shi Huang Di's autograph, thinking he was Scooby Doo.
My Date with a Vampire II (1999) - a Hong Kong supernatural-fantasy TV series. There is a flashback scene showing Qin Shi Huang being deceived into believing that turning into a vampire is the key to attaining immortality.
Qin Shi Huang (2002) - a mainland Chinese TV series production. It features a semi-fictionalized story of the emperor's life, from his childhood until his death. Zhang Fengyi starred as Qin Shi Huang.
Martin Mystery (2003 2006) - an animated series. The protagonist finds that the Terracotta Army was actually created to keep the First Emperor inside his tomb and not to help him in the spiritual world.
Stargate SG-1 In the TV series, the system Lord Yu Huang Shang Ti is reportedly based on this Emperor.
- Swedish musician Evert Taube explores Qin Shi Huang's actions and motives in his song "Muren Och B ckerna" ("The Wall And The Books").
- In the 2002 computer game Prince Of Qin, the user plays Qin Shi Huang's first son Fusu, who was forced to commit suicide. But in this game, Fusu does not die, he will fight for his birth right to inherit the throne and seek the truth of Qin Shi Huang's death.
- In the 2005 video game Civilization IV, Qin Shi Huang is one of the two playable leaders of China.
- In the computer game Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom, the Qin Dynasty campaign has the player as the head architect of Qin Shi Huang, in charge of overseeing the construction of the capital, the Lingqu canal, the Great Wall, as well as his tomb and the terracotta army, although the game takes liberties with the time frames in which these events actually took place.
- In Rise of Nations, the player (or enemy) can build the "Terracotta Army" as one of the many "wonders of the world" featured in the game.
- Qin Shi Huang is also revealed to be the final boss of the video game Shin Sangoku Musou: Multi Raid 2
- In Assassin's Creed II it is said that an Assassin, Wei Yu, killed Qin Shi Huang with a spear. In the Assassin's Creed Encyclopedia it is said that Qin Shi Huang was aided by the Templars, the series' antagonist organization.
- In Tomb Raider II (1997), adventurer Lara Croft discovers the 'Dagger of Xian' after visiting, among other Chinese sites, the 'Temple of Xian'. This level shows a resemblance with the descriptions of the Tomb of Qin, including a room with a (decorative) terracotta army.
- Qin Shi Huang is one of the 32 historical figures who appear as special characters in the video game Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI by Koei. He is addressed by his personal name "Ying Zheng" in the game. He has higher governance stats than all other characters, except Guan Zhong.
- The popular MMORPG Silkroad Online has a Qin-Shi Tomb area. It is available only to players of level 75 or higher.
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