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The Role of Emperor Qin Shi Huang in China’s Unification Research Paper

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Updated: May 16th, 2020


China was initially made up of segregated territories, which had different leaders until 260 BC when the country was united and brought under a single Emperor. Before then, recurrent wars characterized the country due to the rivalry that existed amongst the various power units that defined the governance system. During the warring periods, China was at its initial stages of civilization. Unfortunately, civilization was not realized until the country’s unification.

China is credited for hosting the earliest Neolithic people in the world following the discovery of the Peking man in 1927 (Portal 137). China achieved civilization with the rise of the Shang rule that introduced some form of writing, thus transforming the country from the Neolithic culture to civilization. Various leaders contributed towards China’s unification and civilization, but the most notable leader in the process was Qin Shi Huang. He united all the warring power units and established the first unified country before becoming the first emperor (Vickers 367). His achievements dominate the world literature due to the undivided devotion to transforming the country from a decentralized form of governance to a centralized one. This paper explores the role of Qin Shi Huang in China’s unification by highlighting his major achievements and faults. The paper will analyze the background of the Chinese politics and power before and after its unification.

The Shang China

Before China could achieve a centralized form of government, the country was a monarchy characterized by various patrimonial kingdoms where kings would inaugurate their favorite sons to take over power after retirement (Lewis 72). The country did not have a centralized form of government and various points of power existed, thus causing wars across the nation for a number of years before the unification and the establishment of an Empire (Portal 46).

Spiritual interventions were a common phenomenon in China’s leadership as kings sought divine powers to conquer oppositions from the “Council of the Great and Small”, which acted as a watchdog for the ruling kings (Brooks 112). The Shang China was the centerpiece of civilization. This assertion holds because during this period, China made major steps towards civilization. During the period of Shang leadership, writing was developed, thus marking a big turnaround to China’s civilization. Shang kings resided in luxurious buildings, and they went to battles using horse-drawn chariots that were the best war machinery at the time (Lewis 90).

Qin Shi regime

The self-proclaimed Qin Shi Huang was “born in 259 BC as a son of the ruling King of the Qin State at the time” (Portal 77). Given the hereditary kingship system at the time, he took over power at the age of 13 following the demise of his father. However, his dream to unify the country at the time was limited by his age as he was considered a minor. Therefore, he could not make independent decisions without consulting his father’s former confidantes.

Lu Buwei had originally been chosen by the King to act as a trustee of his son, Shi, until he attained the majority age. Consequently, Shi assumed full power upon the attainment of 22 years after which he led his army aggressively in conquering other states in the quest for unified China under centralized leadership. The King benefited from the economic strength of the kingdom and his well-trained army in his push for unified China (Lewis 95). The King unified the country successfully in 221 BC and declared himself the first Emperor before changing his name from Ying Zheng to Qin Shi Huang, which means the first emperor of an amalgamated China (Brooks 79).

Major steps towards unifying the country

The King’s achievement in consolidating the rebellious China was facilitated by the economic, cultural, and political transformation strategies that he adopted (Portal 118). One of the political reforms enforced by the King was the abolition of the hereditary system of governance that characterized the country’s leadership at the time. He replaced the various kingdoms that existed especially in the northern China with prefectures and counties that were under direct control of the emperor. Additionally, in consultation with leaders from other kingdoms, he introduced universal laws across China based on the original laws of the Qin State.

The King supported agricultural activities and encouraged farmers to embrace better farming practices to achieve food security in the land (Lewis 84). In addition, he invested heavily in commerce and implemented a tax system that was applicable in all the established counties. The King also reformed the traditional culture of the Chinese by introducing a unified form of writing that further shaped the country’s civilization. In a bid to achieve his desire of unifying the country’s writing, he suppressed writers who did not comply with his ruling to have the Chinese states harmonized.

Major achievements

The most notable achievement of Qin Shi Huang was seen in his efforts to unify the ever-warring factions by conquering all the other states and putting them under his control (Portal 91). He abolished the hereditary kingship system and replaced it with a centralized form of government where leadership was based on meritocracy. The King not only focused on unifying the northern China, which was the most troublesome, but also he extended his conquest to the southern parts up to Vietnam (Portal 101). The unification brought to an end the warring nature of the states, which was caused by rivalry among the various kings that sought to conquer each other in a bid to maximize their power. The King introduced legalism in the country’s administrative system along with strict laws that applied to all the kingdoms of the unified China.

The legalism system assumes that every person is immoral and that behavior can only be monitored through the implementation and reinforcement of strict legislations. Critics viewed the legalism system as a way of introducing an authoritative form of governance, and the King was heavily criticized for going against the provisions of the Confucianism culture, which advocated self-rule (Portal 119). The system saw many people suffer huge punishments for petty unlawful acts.

Another change that came along with the described reforms was the abolition of the aristocratic form of governance that was evident in various kingdoms that existed before the unification (Lewis 88). Meritocracy replaced aristocracy whereby public servants were selected randomly from the public in line with the skills and expertise that one possessed. This move was a significant change since such selections were initially based on inheritance, thus introducing unsuitable persons in power (Portal 108). Following the change, many people not associated with the King’s family found their way to the public sector, which was initially dominated by persons from one clan.

The construction of the famous Great Wall in the country is another achievement attributed to the King. Currently, the wall is a monumental construction, which stands as one of the largest world’s tourist attractions. The wall was constructed in response to the increasing raids executed by the rebellious North (Brooks 113).Even though the wall had not been completed by the time the King faced his death, he is credited with being the mastermind of the project and for the initial investment towards the construction process. The project took a period of about 2000 years before completion (Portal 85).

Shi is also credited with “constructing the historical Terracotta Army with about 8,000 figures, each personalized with facial details holding actual weapons” (Brooks 118). The monument was indicative of the King’s commitment to enhancing law and order in the newly established dynasty. However, the projects were criticized for the heavy consumption of taxpayer’s money. Therefore, rebellious groups questioned the project’s importance to the state. However, the King introduced an authoritarian style of leadership to overcome the rebellion that was emerging among the community and thus he went on with the construction of the monument (Lewis 95).

Major faults

Despite Qin Shi Huang being credited for unifying China and consequently ending the ever-rising conflicts in the country, he indulged in activities that painted him as an unreliable and unethical leader. Unfortunately, his achievements came at the cost of human lives since rebellious persons were subjected to death to eliminate any form of insurrection (Lewis 138).

The critics of King Shi’s leadership cite the aristocracy form of headship that was characterized by harshness and disregard of the rights of his subjects (Portal 67). He imposed strict laws and expected everyone in the country to abide by them unquestionably. However, he justified the strict rules citing the fact that the country was in its initial stages towards unification and rebellion would divert the intentions of achieving the set goals. He subjected many people to death due to their disloyalty to his leadership especially in his attempt to harmonize the country’s writing system. During his reign, Shi is said to have killed 400-700 writers on accounts of Confucianism-related writings (Brooks 129).

Given that the country’s culture borrows heavily from the concepts of Confucianism, his attempt to introduce an authoritative form of governance was highly criticized (Portal 95). Confucianism advocates self-rule by arguing that people can govern themselves independently without the imposition of strict rules. Therefore, Shi’s justification of the legalism system and strict laws did not comply with the Confucianism provisions of individual self-rule. The King suppressed the Confucianism ideas by burning books about the theory and burying writers that advocated that school of thought. His ruthless approach is evidenced by his decision to send his son to jail after confronting him for suppressing the Confucianism philosophy that was well established among the citizens (Vickers 373). The burning of books coupled with the execution of writers was harmful to the young nation since the move instilled fear among the people and limited the intellectual property rights instead of protecting them.

Finally, the leadership suppressed many people for being rebellious to the King’s development projects. During the construction of the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Army, many people perished and others were punished unreasonably for objecting the King’s ideas. In building these projects, people were relocated unlawfully, which increased resentment amongst the citizens (Portal 80). In addition, the projects were costly and given that they were funded through the taxpayers’ money, they increased the cost of living for the people of China.

The strict laws in place at the time of the execution of such projects allowed the King to dislocate those living in areas of construction without proper procedures. The King also used this opportunity to punish those opposed such projects (Lewis 96). Consequently, most people lost their lives while others suffered severe punishments, which only lifted the people’s resentment towards the leadership. The listed shortcomings subsequently led to the fall of the dynasty.


Even though Qin Shi Huang is criticized for the inhumane treatment of his subjects, his achievements outnumber his faults. Firstly, he is credited for his inexorable efforts to create unified state to avert the recurrent wars that characterized the traditional decentralized China. He also managed to construct the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Army, which today serve as historical sites. He established the foundation of governance for the successive dynasties against the backdrop of rebellion and numerous raids from the North. Some of the faults attributed to the King were the numerous killings that characterized his reign and the inhumane treatment of his subjects.

In addition, he used the taxpayers’ money on projects that did not benefit his subjects directly. On the contrary, such projects were seen to be beneficial to him and his immediate family. Therefore, inasmuch as the King stands out as one of the most savage leaders in the Chinese history, his achievements are outstanding. The King contributed to the shaping of governance in the contemporary China. Some of the policies introduced by him are still applicable in the modern Chinese governance. Therefore, his contributions to the current governance cannot be underrated.

Works Cited

Brooks, Timothy. The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (History of Imperial China), Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2013. Print.

Lewis, Mark. The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (History of Imperial China), Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2010. Print.

Portal, Jane. The first emperor: China’s Terracotta army, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. Print.

Vickers, Edward. “Museums and nationalism in contemporary China.” Compare 37.3 (2007): 365-382.Print.

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