Childhood & Early Life
He was born as Ying Zheng on 7 February 260 BC to the Qin prince Yiren and Lady Zhao. However, some historians believe that he was not the biological son of Yiren, but of a shrewd merchant called Lü Buwei who once had Lady Zhao as his concubine.
The merchant Lü Buwei was very close to Yiren, and through his political cunning helped Yiren become King Zhuangxiang of Qin and served as his Prime Minister.
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Ascension & Reign
King Zhuangxiang of Qin died after a short reign of just three years in 246 BC and being his eldest son 13-year-old Ying Zheng was crowned the king. He was now called Qin Wang Zheng (King Zheng of Qin).
Since the king was still very young, his father’s Prime Minister Lü Buwei continued to hold his position and acted as the king’s regent for the next eight years. King Zheng attained the age of 22—the legal age to rule the kingdom by himself—in 238 BC.
Meanwhile, his mother, Lady Zhao had taken up a lover called Lao Ai with whom she had two sons secretly. Now Lao Ai attempted a coup d'etat to usurp the young king but the king learned of his conspiracy and had him executed. The king also learned that the Prime Minister Lü Buwei was involved in the conspiracy and banished him to Shu. Lü Buwei then committed suicide.
Finally Ying Zheng assumed full power as the King of the Qin state in 235 BC. He then chose Li Si as the new chancellor.
The king now embarked on several campaigns to expand his empire. At that time, seven warring states constituted China and each one was vying for control of the land. Qin was one of the states, the others being Qi, Yan, Zhao, Han, Wei, and Chu.
Among the six other states, Han, Zhao, and Wei were the three kingdoms directly to the east of Qin. On the advice of Li Si, the king launched frontal attacks upon Han, Zhao, and Wei. He conquered Han in 230 BC, the state of Zhao in 228 BC, the northern country of Yan in 226 BC, the small state of Wei in 225 BC. Chu, which was the largest state and greatest challenge, was captured in 223 BC.
By now he had annexed five of the other six states and only one independent kingdom, the state of Qi, in the far east, was left. The king of Qi sent 200,000 troops to defend his territory but they were no match for King Zheng’s armies. The Qin armies conquered Qi in 221 BC and captured the king.
It was a historic event as for the first time in history all of China was unified under a single ruler. The same year, i.e. 221 BC, King Zheng proclaimed himself the "First Emperor" Qin Shi Huang. He then made the He Shi Bi into the Imperial Seal, known as the "Heirloom Seal of the Realm”.
Eventually he divided the empire into more than 40 commanderies. These commanderies were further divided into districts, counties, and hundred-family units.
Along with his able minister Li Si, the emperor standardized the Chinese units of measurements such as weights and measures, the currency, and the length of the axles of carts to facilitate transport on the road system. During his reign the Chinese script also was unified. Now Appointments were based on merit instead of hereditary rights
The Qin were involved in fights with the Xiongnu tribe from a long time but the tribe could not be defeated. Thus Qin Shi Huang ordered the construction of an enormous defensive wall in order to fend off the tribes. The work on the wall was carried out by hundreds of thousands of slaves and criminals between 220 and 206 BC. A part of this wall formed the first section of what would become the Great Wall of China.
Personal Life & Legacy
Qin Shi Huang had several concubines and numerous children through them. It is believed that he fathered around 50 children of whom about 30 were sons. His 17th son, Fusu, was the Crown Prince.
He feared death greatly and despised even talking about it. Thus he made no will. He wanted to live forever and searched far and wide for the medicine for immortality.
He died on September 10, 210 BC during one of his tours of Eastern China. In an ironic twist of fate, his death occurred after he ingested mercury pills, made by his alchemists and court physicians in an attempt to make him immortal.
His son Fusu was supposed to succeed him but he was eliminated by his political rivals who forced him to commit suicide. The emperor’s 18th son, Huhai, succeeded him to the throne.