Culture & Exploration

Who was the Chinese emperor behind the terracotta warriors?

Qin Shi Huangdi, the first Qin Emperor, was a brutal ruler who unified ancient China and laid the foundation for the Great Wall. Tuesday, 4 June 2019

By Kristin Baird Rattini

China already had a long history by the time its states were unified under its first emperor. Settlements in the Yellow and Yangtze River Valleys had grown into an agricultural civilisation. Between the fifth and third centuries B.C., a time known as the Warring States period, at least seven kingdoms battled for supremacy in east-central China. The state of Qin, based in the Sichuan plains, eventually won out in 221 B.C. under the leadership of the ruthless King Zheng. The victorious monarch gave himself the title Qin Shi Huangdi (259–210 B.C.), First Qin Emperor.

With ferocious force of character, Shi Huangdi began to mould his diverse territories into a single Chinese empire obedient to his will. He divided the lands into 36 command areas, each supervised by a governor, a military commander, and an imperial inspector, all of whom reported to him. He relocated hundreds of thousands of influential families from their home provinces to the capital, Xianyang, where he could keep a close eye on them.

Weapons were confiscated and melted down. A new imperial currency was issued. Weights and measures were standardised. Even wagon axles were built according to a certain measure, so they could fit within the ruts in China’s roads. The emperor ordered that Chinese writing be made uniform, such that all words with the same meaning in the country’s varied languages would be represented by the same characters.

Shi Huangdi brutally suppressed dissent. Some accounts say that 460 scholars were rounded up and executed, and the texts they had used to criticise the government were confiscated or burned. Citizens of all ranks were encouraged to inform on one another; those convicted of crimes were executed, mutilated, or put to hard labour. 

Hundreds of thousands of men served in Qin armies, mobilised to defend against Xiongnu nomads in the north and other tribes in the south. Hundreds of thousands more toiled to build palaces, canals, and roads. According to Han historian Sima Qian, they also built “border defenses along the [Yellow] river, constructing 44 walled district cities overlooking the river and manning them with convict laborers ... The whole line of defenses stretched over 10,000 li [more than 3,000 miles].” That project, during which countless workers died, marked the beginning of the Great Wall. (Did the Great Wall of China work?)

Quest for immortality

Not surprisingly, the autocratic emperor was the target of several assassination attempts. Perhaps in response, Shi Huangdi became obsessed with the idea of immortality. As Sima Qian records, his advisers counseled him that the herbs of immortality would not work until he could move about unobserved. Accordingly, he built walkways and passages connecting his palaces so that he could move about in seeming invisibility.

Doubtless the most megalomaniacal of his projects was his enormous tomb and buried terracotta horde, constructed at tremendous cost by 700,000 forced-labour conscripts. The thousands of life-size figures included infantrymen, archers, chariots with horses, officials, servants, and even entertainers, such as musicians and a strongman.

Arrayed in military formation, the soldiers bore traces of the bright paint that must have once enlivened them. Although formed from standardised pieces—with solid legs and hollow torsos—they were evidently finished by hand so that no two figures looked exactly alike. The ancient army was stationed just east of a necropolis surrounding the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi and was meant to stand guard during the emperor’s afterlife. Figures of acrobats and musicians would entertain the emperor through eternity. 

The tomb and statues were still in progress at the time of the emperor’s death in 210 B.C. Today the vast terra-cotta host serves as a perfect symbol of the scale and ferocity of Shi Huangdi’s reign and his efforts to forge a single Chinese empire.

This text is an excerpt from the National Geographic special issue The Most Influential Figures of Ancient History.