King Zheng of Qin (259-210 BC)

Ying Zheng became Qin king in 246 BC, when he was only 13 years old. During the early years of his reign, skilful advisers took care of the kingdom, which grew in prosperity and military strength.

Ying Zheng inherited a modest sized kingdom but one that was regarded as progressive, in that it already had in place developed ideas of a central administration and uniform rules and regulations – those concepts for which the First Emperor was to be remembered.

The capital region of Qin was the Wei Valley. This area was easily defended, as access to it from the rest of China was limited to the narrow strip of land between the river and hills at the great bend of the Yellow River (Fairbank, Reischauer & Craig, 1973, p. 55). The Wei Valley was also a marginal area where there was room for growth at the expense of the nomads on the northwest and the less advanced agricultural peoples to the southwest.

From their contact with the “barbarians”, the Qin maintained their martial arts, developing a cavalry in the fourth century BC. They also built an irrigation and transport canal in the third century BC, that greatly increased the productivity and population in the Wei Valley.

King Zheng becomes Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor of China

After unifying the warring states under Qin rule, King Zheng announced himself as the first emperor of China. He coined the name huangdi (emperor), by combining two words for ‘august’ and ‘lord’, words that until then had been used for the legendary sage rulers of China’s distant past.

Qin Shi Huangdi adopted the ‘Five Powers’ theory of the Warring States dynasty thinker Zhou Yan as a powerful theoretical basis for legitimising his political conquest of other states. According to Zhou Yan, conquest occurred in a cycle based on the Five Powers – earth, wood, metal, fire and water – each overcome and replaced by the other in turn. The rise and fall of a given dynasty is therefore explained in terms of its affinity with the prevailing power in a specific historical time. At the beginning of his regime, Qin Shi Huangdi declared the supremacy of the power of water, thus his conquest of Zhou (ruled by the power of fire) was inevitable.

Because, in the complex yin-yang and wu-xing (Five Phases) correlation, water is associated with the colour black and the seasons of autumn and winter, the First Emperor selected black as his royal colour, and his imperial robes, ceremonial flags and banners were all fashioned in black. Also, because water, the yin power, is associated with the number six. Six was taken as a number of special importance.

Unification & End of Feudalism

The events of 221 BC formed the culmination of a process which had been set in motion long before. For a number of centuries Qin had been established as one of the major kingdoms of the Warring States period. The transformation of this kingdom into an empire did not occur quickly. It happened after a long period of preparation, in which the people had been trained to shoulder the burdens of the state. Backed by efficient military force, the Qin government was able to expand its territory at the cost of its neighbours, and incorporate all their lands within its own realm. The First Emperor founded his new capital city at Xianyang on the Wei River, about 35 km from the site of the modern city of Xian.

In order to create this empire, Qin needed to take over six states, which already existed as fully formed political units. Due to this reason, Qin Shi Huangdi was able to plan and exercise a unified control from Qin’s own centre, over areas already accustomed to some political organisation. From this point forward, the theory of government was based on the general recognition that a single imperial authority possessed the right to delegate authority for administration, to direct the efforts of China’s manpower and to co-ordinate the exploitation of her resources.

In unifying China, Qin put an end to the feudalism that had governed the warring states for centuries. He forced the survivors of the royal houses to live in the imperial capital on stipends he provided. Sima Qian says that he brought 120000 of these families to Xianyang. He abolished feudal tenure of land and made it freehold, so that it could be rented out to tenants. Over time, this created a new upper class – the landed gentry, who were educated and produced a new wave of scholars.