Reign of the First Emperor

Stele of Mountain Yi

Rubbing of a stele commemorating Qin    Shi Huangdi, originally written by Li Si

     The man who would later become known as the first emperor, began his rule in in 247 as King Cheng. At only thirteen years of age, he ascended to the throne alongside Lü Buwei, a powerful Qin merchant who served as regent to the young heir. Lü quickly began to take power but was eventually sent away from the capital once King Cheng began to rule on his own. The king’s new advisor was Li Si, a devoted legalist; the Qin state could assimilate each new territory conquered through his advising. By 221 B.C.E., King Cheng ruled over all of China Proper.

     At the end of his conquest of China Proper, King Cheng invented the title of “emperor”, or huangdi, to legitimize his rule by using words linking him to the legendary Yellow Emperor. Additionally, he called himself the “First Emperor” due to his expectancy for a long imperial lineage in the future of China. The First Emperor established a strong centralized authority in China Proper, an idea originating from the legalist ideals that he himself identified with. First, the nobility of conquered territories was ordered to withdraw from their home states and to reside within the capital. Next, he organized an administrative structure in which he controlled officials assigned in conquered territories through strict regulations, reporting requirements, and penalties applied to administrative incompetence. The First Emperor therefore held complete control over the officials, for which there was no lasting rights to their position.

Killing the Scholars and Burning the Books

Anonymous 18th century Chinese painted album leaf

The accurate and thorough administration of China Proper requires the uniform rule of all the territories under Qin control. To this end, the First Emperor standardized the writing systems, weights, measurements, and currencies. Furthermore, infrastructure was improved to facilitate administration, trade, travel, and military movement; thousands of miles of roads were constructed and canals between rivers were developed, which made long distance travel by boat possible. Negatively, the First Emperor also ordered the accumulation and destruction of all books that were deemed “useless writings”, or more plainly, books that could be used to criticize or delegitimize the ruler of the emperor as determined by Li Si. However,  literature with a practical use, such as for farming or artisanship, was saved from this destruction.

Reign of the First Emperor