Modern Chinese sources often give the personal name of Qin Shi Huang as Ying Zheng, with Ying (嬴) taken as the surname and Zheng (政) the given name. In ancient China however the naming convention differed, and Zhao (趙) may be used as the surname. Unlike modern Chinese names, the nobles of ancient China had two distinct surnames: the ancestral name (姓) comprised a larger group descended from a prominent ancestor, usually said to have lived during the time of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors of Chinese legend, and the clan name (氏) comprised a smaller group that showed a branch’s current fief or recent title. The ancient practice was to list men’s names separately—in Sima Qian’s “Basic Annals of the First Emperor of Qin” introduces him as “given the name Zheng and the surname Zhao”—or to combine the clan surname with the personal name: Sima’s account of Chu describes the sixteenth year of the reign of King Kaolie as “the time when Zhao Zheng was enthroned as King of Qin”. However, since modern Chinese surnames (despite usually descending from clan names) use the same character as the old ancestral names, it is much more common in modern Chinese sources to see the emperor’s personal name written as Ying Zheng, using the ancestral name of the Ying family.
The rulers of Qin had styled themselves kings from the time of King Huiwen in 325 BC. Upon his ascension, Zheng became known as the King of Qin or King Zheng of Qin. This title made him the nominal equal of the rulers of Shang and of Zhou, the last of whose kings had been deposed by King Zhaoxiang of Qin in 256 BC.
Following the surrender of Qi in 221 BC, King Zheng had reunited all of the lands of the former Kingdom of Zhou. Rather than maintain his rank as king, however, he created a new title of huángdì (emperor) for himself. This new title combined two titles—huáng of the mythical Three Sovereigns (三皇, Sān Huáng) and the dì of the legendary Five Emperors (五帝, Wŭ Dì) of Chinese prehistory.The title was intended to appropriate some of the prestige of the Yellow Emperor, whose cult was popular in the later Warring States period and who was considered to be a founder of the Chinese people. King Zheng chose the new regnal name of First Emperor (Shǐ Huángdì, formerly transcribed as Shih Huang-ti) on the understanding that his successors would be successively titled the “Second Emperor”, “Third Emperor”, and so on through the generations. (In fact, the scheme lasted only as long as his immediate heir, the Second Emperor.) The new title carried religious overtones. For that reason, Sinologists—starting with Peter Boodberg or Edward Schafer—sometimes translate it as “thearch” and the First Emperor as the First Thearch.
The First Emperor intended that his realm would remain intact through the ages but, following its overthrow and replacement by Han after his death, it became customary to prefix his title with Qin. Thus:
- 秦, Qín or Ch‘in, “of Qin”
- 始, Shǐ or Shih, “first”
- 皇帝, Huángdì or Huang-ti, “emperor”, a new term coined from
- 皇, Huáng or Huang, literally “shining” or “splendid” and formerly most usually applied “as an epithet of Heaven”, the high god of the Zhou
- 帝, Dì or Ti, the high god of the Shang, possibly composed of their divine ancestors, and used by the Zhou as a title of the legendary Five Emperors, particularly the Yellow Emperor.
As early as Sima Qian, it was common to shorten the resulting four-character Qin Shi Huangdi to 秦始皇, variously transcribed as Qin Shihuang or Qin Shi Huang.
Following his elevation as emperor, both Zheng’s personal name 政 and possibly its homophone 正 became taboo. The First Emperor also arrogated the first-person Chinese pronoun 朕 (OC *lrəm’, mod. zhèn) for his exclusive use and in 212 BC began calling himself The Immortal (真人, OC *Tin-niŋ, mod. Zhēnrén, lit. ”True Man”). Others were to address him as “Your Majesty” (陛下, mod. Bìxià, lit. ”Beneath the Palace Steps”) in person and “Your Highness” (上) in writing.