Qin Shi Huang – first emperor. Fiction and Fact.

· China First Empire


Qin Shi Huang, peace-maker, nation builder – China’s first emperor

A Story of Fiction and Fabrication


Today we have little in the way of objective history of the king – later emperor – who ended the Middle Kingdom’s 200 year-long “Warring States period,” and soon afterwards brought China into being. There is a good reason for that. The first emperor disenfranchised the Confucian literati, nobles and bureaucracy who had had things their way for many centuries. Thus, they despised him and all he stood for. And that distaste was more than shared by the military – which he put out of work. The two conspired to bring his dynasty to a speedy conclusion. They succeeded, ushering in the Han dynasty of 400 years – an era characterized by a frenzied drive to rid the historical record of the nature and achievements of the first emperor. Ironically, the second empire retained all that was sound and beneficial of the Qin dynasty – which was most of it. The Han even challenged Qin Shi Huang’s role in establishing the empire – declaring his dynasty to be nothing more than an evil interregnum that was best forgot. How successful were they? To this day the Chinese people refer to themselves as “Han.” Sadly, to this day historians perpetuate these myths, and that while many of today’s Chinese may suspect that their great nation was founded by a man of true genius and foresight, there is no official or academic support for that view.

My research was published as The School of Sun Tzu: Winning Empires without War. Initially my focus was on one key question: how did the Middle Kingdom state of Qin end 200 years of war in just a decade? The mainstream histories are unanimous in their agreement that Qin did it by raising an army of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and – essentially – demolishing all resistance. The defeated states were then annexed into the emerging empire. Though these assertions have not been proven, that has not held back the historians, who cannot conceive that events could have varied from that model. They find comfort and reassurance in their absolute certainty that in all of human history, tyrants conquer. States are not won over by olive branches but swords and cannon.

These historians then, deny themselves the opportunity to view events from a fresh perspective – a perspective that could shed light on the past, and provide guidance for the future. Historians are notoriously deterministic – in their view wars are inevitable, being an element of what they refer to as “human nature.” If communities and countries are “lucky,” sooner or later peace finally “breaks out” when one or more of the combatants is destroyed or gives up. A calcified world view prevents history dilettantes from seeing, assessing and integrating evidence that counters their expectations. And in this way we do not learn we simply accumulate.  Such is exactly the case regarding China’s first empire, Qin Shi Huang, and the unseen significance of the terra cotta “army.” My discoveries suggest that China was “won” through diplomacy, intrigue and persuasion – and there are reams of evidence backing this up. One wonders how many fringe researchers and students were ridiculed and discredited because they dared – over the centuries – to challenge China’s conventional history and wisdom.

When I had examined how Qin ended the Warring States period, concluding that war could not have won that war, I then studied how the empire had been constructed, wondering what was the first emperor’s motivation, nature and dreams. In my view Qin Shi Huang was driven. He knew exactly what he wanted in an empire, and he knew how to go about it. He may have not seen or even grasped the details of either peace-making or nation-building, but he was smart enough to engage the very best to fill in those blanks. That is why Qin established a suite of academies of learning to study, and teach the arts of peace, persuasion and governance.

From my research I was able to find answers to many mysteries. But the road to those answers required that I confront accepted history, which I discovered came primarily from one source – a source that some analysts do not deem entirely trustworthy. I am one of them.

For the benefit of today’s fringe researchers and students, I offer a useful list of fiction and fabrications concerning the first emperor of China. Each of the detailed items is drawn from the work of competent historians, archaeologists and analysts. They are not in any way a reflection of the views of the majority. Many would argue passionately against most of these statements, perhaps even striking them off as nonsense. They are nevertheless sourced by the facts of history and taken as a collective whole, present a very different picture of how China’s – the empire – came into being. Imagine a day when visitors to Xi’an are challenged to envision a new world, a new way of life and new fundamental assumptions about “human nature” – instead of being lectured on the foolishness and waste of the evil tyrant, Qin Shi Huang.

Feel free to incorporate any and all of what follows in your papers and presentations. Let’s work together to clear the name and record of the great Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of China.


Fiction, Fabrication and Facts


  1. Qin Shi Huang (QSH) was a tyrant, despot, and dictator. In point of fact he developed a sound body of law for the empire and governed according to those laws. He ended feudalism (long before Europe did) and prohibited nepotism and favoritism – even preventing his royal family from gaining high rank and privilege – unless they earned it.
  2. QSH was the bastard son of a courtesan. This is second dynasty propaganda. He was born into the royal family, but was low in succession. Living in exile, he had the good luck and good judgment to come into association with a brilliant strategist when a young man. He learned from him, among other things, that competent rulers have competent advisors.
  3. QSH conscripted millions of men for military service and public works. There was no military service in his kingdom, and what “conscription” occurred was employment for public works and in the diplomatic arts. Major works included a canal and irrigation system that made Qin the richest state in the Middle Kingdom. QSH did have an army – it was an army trained in the diplomatic art of “persuasion.” They travelled, often in disguise, to markets and courts to spread the messages of peace and empire. They were trained in Qin’s academies – institutions that had written many great works on diplomacy, strategy and empire building including the Tao Te Ching and Ping-fa.
  4. QSH taxed his people into poverty and ruin. No facts support this assertion. A similar allegation is made regarding the emperor’s tomb – which is usually described as extravagant, wasteful and the cause of massive loss of life by the thousands “conscripted” to work on it. This was a normal public work, and its builders were most likely honored to be part of it. The actual tomb component of the Xi’an site is only a small part of a very large memorial to the end of war and the foundation of the empire.
  5. QSH built the Great Wall. He did not. He merely added to an existing series of walls that long after his death became a continuous string known by that name.
  6. QSH buried scholars and burned books. He did not. These notions were generated by the Han’s “historian” and refer either to fictional events or misunderstanding. Sima Qian’s “official history” of Qin Shi Huang that describes these alleged events was written long after his death.
  7. QSH assembled a massive terra cotta army to “protect him in the afterlife.” Terra cotta soldiers protect nobody – in life, or afterlife. While it may have been the practice in antiquity and later to bury attendants with a deceased noble to “serve” that noble in death, the very idea that clay staff would be made “live” in the “afterlife” is sheer nonsense. QSH’s terra cotta array was meant to be visited, and to astound those visitors with the magnitude and cost of armies, and war.
  8. QSH was fanatical about his own immortality. There is no reason to suspect that QSH did not want to live a long and healthy life – most people do. And his surviving writings suggest that he had great dreams for the future of China and the Chinese people – dreams that he understood would take time to realize. But to argue that he took mercury to prolong his life is both a personal and cultural insult. The level of general and medical knowledge in China at that time – as now – was profound. And while the deleterious effects of ingesting mercury may not have been known, the medical personnel of the day would have had no evidence that mercury ingestion would facilitate longevity or immortality. A more likely scenario is that the Confucians who still had a presence at court and who despised him, fed him mercury to end his life as early as possible. In other words, QSH could well have been assassinated by Confucians.
  9. The Qin dynasty was ended by a peasant revolt. First, there was absolutely no reason why the peasantry would want to end the dynasty. There was widespread prosperity. Farm productivity and profits were high and people had food on the table. There was education, transport, freedom of movement, rule by law and peace. After 200 years of war, families could see an even brighter future ahead. They had an emperor who made several major excursions into the country to meet his people, see their work, and gather reactions to his government. Secondly, a “revolt” in the empire would require only a small number of court assassinations. There was no standing army, and no evidence of even a significant palace guard. Transition to a new dynasty would involve only replacing key officials. The transition – years in planning – probably happened in a matter of days. The “peasant uprising” was simply another Han propaganda device to help sell the idea that the people hated Qin Shi Huang.

A Note to Challengers: I welcome challenge. I welcome dialogue. If, however, you are going to challenge any of the statements in this report, please do not expect that statements from China’s so-called “Grand Historian” Sima Qian will suffice, unless those statement have corroboration. I do not consider Sima Qian a competent reporter for the first empire or an unbiased Qin Shi Huang reference. If you have evidence to the contrary, kindly post it as a comment on WordPress.


Alternate Format Available: This report is also in presentation format (powerpoint) and it is available by download from slideshare.net


For the full story of Qin Shi Huang, and the role played in helping build the empire by the Schools of Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu, see my work on the subject. (Please buy my book and help me to continue my research.)

The School of Sun Tzu: Winning Empires without War is available from iuniverse.com


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