Qin Shihuangdi: “Magnificent” or “Bloody” Emperor?

Qin Shi Huangdi (259 B.C. – 210 B.C.) is the first emperor of Qin Dynasty who unified the country. However, he is mostly mentioned with adjectives like “cruel, arbitrary, impetuous, suspicious, and superstitious megalomaniac” by later Chinese historians. (Ebrey, 1996, p. 61) Nevertheless, like one of my history professors told that to remain his authority every ruler has to legitimize himself; even one of the most notorious ones. It must be pondered how he did hold the power despite his cruel implementations.

My first argument is that what we see as cruel and unacceptable today might not be that important back at that time. Burying alive 460 scholars, sounds horrible today; however, people did not have today’s modern, humanist, democratic perspective.

Another point is that before Qin Dynasty, there was a constant warfare until 221 B.C. (Biography, 2004, p. 515) which is very overwhelming for people by considering agriculture was the main mean of living. Needless to say back at that time, man power was crucial for agriculture and wars were aggravated the production. People maybe did not see the unification as institutionally important; however, it provided more stable conditions and end of the constant warfare. From this point of view, sovereignty was probably very important and suppressive implementations might be condonable for them.

Reforms for political administrations were also important. Shihuangdi thought that the fief system was the source of endless wars before unification. (Cao Dawel, 2010, pp. 52,53) Feudalism was ended and the officials were appointed by the emperor to the rural administrative units with fixed salaries and nonhereditary positions. (Biography, 2004, p. 516) Moreover they could be recalled or removed by the emperor. This system is better for peasants than feudalism because fixed salaries instead of share from the product prevent overtime work of peasants.

Establishment of new, standardized, and simplified script helped different ethnic groups to have a sense of belonging to Chinese culture. (Cao Dawel, 2010, pp. 55,56) Reforming and unifying measurement system and currency, and building of major imperial highways provided that the unification was not only political but also physical, economic and cultural. These reforms upgraded the communication between regions which were fighting before.

Empire building process and suppressive implementations cost people to suffer from high taxes and rigid penalties. Building of palaces and tombs was a huge economic burden to empire. After he died in 210 B.C. a large scale peasant uprising held (209 B.C.) and in 207 B.C. Qin Dynasty ended. After his death, empire could remain only few years. This is also showing that he had a special kind of authority over his subjects. And fear of him was not enough to make people to obey him in my opinion.

During his rule, distinction between civil and military administration was abolished. (Eberhard, 1977, p. 62) This caused to wu (military) to become superior to wen (literary class). Moreover, execution of scholars and burning of the books consolidated this.

Even though the new systems of Shihuangdi have an important role in development of Chinese history, burning books and burying scholars caused a huge loss to Chinese culture. And nontraditional place choice for his tomb should also be considered. These were all about to show that what makes an emperor a real emperor is not the past or ancestors but the qualities and talents of the emperor’s himself to administrate.

The political scientist Toktamış Ateş has a saying; “Three things can never occur bloodless; nuptial night, beef and revolution.” Beyond the sexism and the anti-vegan attitude in the sentence we can say the empire building process of Shihuangdi was quite revolutionary and bloody. Does it make his actions condonable? I think this is the another discussion.

When I was reading about Shihuangdi, it attracted my attention that in most of the books and articles author has strong positive or negative judgements about him. It reminded me one of professors saying about the Sultan Abdülhamid who created serious controversies among scholars. He said us to have a broader view than labelling him as “Great Leader” or the “Bloody Sultan”. To really understand the people and social, economic and political conditions of the time we should try to purify ourselves from our prejudices and modern way of thinking.

Beyond all the adjectives; cruel, arbitrary, impetuous, suspicious, superstitious megalomaniac, (Ebrey, 1996, p. 61) extravagant, self-willed (Wenli, 1993, p. 1) there was a long process of empire building, progress and struggles which deserves to be analyzed properly.




Biography, E. o. W., 2004. Quin Shi Huang-Di. Encyclopedia of World Biography, Volume 12, pp. 515-518.
Cao Dawel, S. Y., 2010. China’s History. s.l.:China Intercontinantal Press.
Eberhard, W., 1977. A History of China. s.l.:Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Ebrey, P. B., 1996. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. s.l.:Cambridge University Press.
Wenli, Z., 1993. Terracotta Figures and Horses of Qin Shihuang. s.l.:Northwest University Press.

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