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Qin Shi Huangdi (259-210 BCE) is the founder of the Qin Dynasty, first Emperor of China, and one of the most ruthless despots in history.

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.


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