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He was born Ying Zheng, the son of a young concubine given as a present to the king of Qin by the scheming merchant Lü Buwei (who may have been his biological father). China was at the time in the throes of the Warring States era, when the impotent Zhou Dynasty had disintegrated into several rival kingdoms, and the state of Qin had emerged as a power to be reckoned with. He became king in 247 BCE and, advised by Legalist philosopher Li Si, he turned Qin into a quasi-totalitarian military powerhouse and embarked on a campaign of conquest to reunify all of China under his rule. He annexed other kingdoms one after the other and, in 221 BCE, Ying Zheng declared himself First August Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (Qin Shi Huangdi).
He ruled China with an iron fist and ruthlessly crushed any opposition, applying the precepts of Legalism, which holds that a monarch must reign through fear and that the law must be enforced without pity in order to scare the populace into submission. A series of policies standardized currency, language, weights and measures, and even the width of carriage axles. He ordered the construction of the Great Wall to protect the empire's northern frontiers against barbarian attacks. To abolish history, he had all books burnt save those containing useful technical information, and then ordered a mass execution of scholars for good measure.
Just a small caveat: the so-called "Confucians" that were buried alive, grisly as that act was, were actually wizards (fangshi) who were put in charge of concocting an elixir of immortality, according to some other sources. Needless to say, such an endeavour was doomed from the start, but it would remain a fascination for many emperors and occultists to come. Official Chinese historiography always tended to sing the praises of the predecessor dynasty's early rulers, while then painting the later ones in the darkest colours possible. This was used to justify the incumbent dynasty's rule or ownership of the Mandate of Heaven; as the Qin was so short-lived and set a precedent, later historians would vilify its founder right away. New archeological findings (such as legal codes) show the Qin dynasty to be much more "mainstream" than the crypto-totalitarian legalistic dystopia it has been depicted as.
In the last years of his reign, he oversaw the construction of his future mausoleum, which according to historian Sima Qian required drafting a slave workforce of 700,000 people. This mausoleum was erected in a secret location and was only discovered in 1976. Within three years of his death, the Han Dynasty had deposed the Qin.
- Ancient Tomb: The famous terra-cotta warriors were only the guardians stationed outside it. His tomb itself has never been excavated because of concerns over preserving the contents against oxidization -- and not a little concern over the potential hazardous materials threat if the legends of "rivers of quicksilver" as part of its construction are as accurate as probes into it seem to indicate.
- Despotism Justifies the Means
- Evil Overlord: The Trope Codifier for all of East Asia.
- Hobbes Was Right: The basis of Legalism.
- Properly Paranoid
- Take Over the World: From his perspective, he succeeded, as he ruled Tian Xia, "All under Heaven".
- The Emperor and the Assassin
- The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
- The History Bites episode "The Not-So-Great Wall of China"
- In the Bridge of Birds, although as the novel uses an older transliteration for stylistic effect, he's called the Duke of Ch'in.
- The Chinese Emperor by Jean Levi is a fictionalized biography of Qin Shihuangdi.
- Wraith: The Oblivion has its so that Qin Shi Huang made good use of those terracotta soldiers and took over the Dark Kingdom of Jade, the Chinese quarter of the Shadowlands. And then it turns out he was destroyed some time ago, and something else has been ruling with his face.
- One of the two possible leaders of the Chinese in Civilization IV (alongside Mao Zedong).