Qin Shi Huang ( 秦始皇; “First Emperor of Qin”; 18 February 259 BC – 10 September 210 BC) was the founder of the Qin dynasty and was the first emperor of a unified China.
Traditional Chinese historiography almost always portrayed the First Emperor of the Chinese unified states as a brutal tyrant who had an obsessive fear of assassination. Ideological antipathy towards the Legalist State of Qin was established as early as 266 BC, when Confucian philosopher Xunzi disparaged it. Later Confucian historians condemned the emperor who had burned the classics and had buried Confucian scholars alive. They eventually compiled a list of the Ten Crimes of Qin to highlight his tyrannical actions.
The famous Han poet and statesman Jia Yi concluded his essay The Faults of Qin (過秦論, Guò Qín Lùn) with what was to become the standard Confucian judgment of the reasons for Qin’s collapse. Jia Yi’s essay, admired as a masterpiece of rhetoric and reasoning, was copied into two great Han histories and has had a far-reaching influence on Chinese political thought as a classic illustration of Confucian theory. He attributed Qin’s disintegration to its internal failures. Jia Yi wrote that: “Qin, from a tiny base, had become a great power, ruling the land and receiving homage from all quarters for a hundred odd years. Yet after they unified the land and secured themselves within the pass, a single common rustic could nevertheless challenge this empire… Why? Because the ruler lacked humaneness and rightness; because preserving power differs fundamentally from seizing power.“
In more modern times, historical assessment of the First Emperor different from traditional Chinese historiography began to emerge. The reassessment was spurred on by the weakness of China in the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century. At that time some began to regard Confucian traditions as an impediment to China’s entry into the modern world, opening the way for changing perspectives.
At a time when foreign nations encroached upon Chinese territory, leading Kuomintang historian Xiao Yishan emphasized the role of Qin Shi Huang in repulsing the northern barbarians, particularly in the construction of the Great Wall.
Another historian, Ma Feibai (馬非百), published in 1941 a full-length revisionist biography of the First Emperor entitled Qín Shǐ Huángdì Zhuàn (秦始皇帝傳), calling him “one of the great heroes of Chinese history”. Ma compared him with the contemporary leader Chiang Kai-shek and saw many parallels in the careers and policies of the two men, both of whom he admired. Chiang’s Northern Expedition of the late 1920s, which directly preceded the new Nationalist government at Nanjing was compared to the unification brought about by Qin Shi Huang.
With the coming of the Communist Revolution and the establishment of a new, revolutionary regime in 1949, another re-evaluation of the First Emperor emerged as a Marxist critique. This new interpretation of Qin Shi Huang was generally a combination of traditional and modern views, but essentially critical. This is exemplified in the Complete History of China, which was compiled in September 1955 as an official survey of Chinese history. The work described the First Emperor’s major steps toward unification and standardisation as corresponding to the interests of the ruling group and the merchant class, not of the nation or the people, and the subsequent fall of his dynasty as a manifestation of the class struggle. The perennial debate about the fall of the Qin Dynasty was also explained in Marxist terms, the peasant rebellions being a revolt against oppression – a revolt which undermined the dynasty, but which was bound to fail because of a compromise with “landlord class elements”.
Since 1972, however, a radically different official view of Qin Shi Huang in accordance with Maoist thought has been given prominence throughout China. Hong Shidi’s biography Qin Shi Huang initiated the re-evaluation. The work was published by the state press as a mass popular history, and it sold 1.85 million copies within two years. In the new era, Qin Shi Huang was seen as a far-sighted ruler who destroyed the forces of division and established the first unified, centralized state in Chinese history by rejecting the past. Personal attributes, such as his quest for immortality, so emphasized in traditional historiography, were scarcely mentioned. The new evaluations described approvingly how, in his time (an era of great political and social change), he had no compunctions against using violent methods to crush counter-revolutionaries, such as the “industrial and commercial slave owner” chancellor Lü Buwei. However, he was criticized for not being as thorough as he should have been, and as a result, after his death, hidden subversives under the leadership of the chief eunuch Zhao Gao were able to seize power and use it to restore the old feudal order.
To round out this re-evaluation, Luo Siding put forward a new interpretation of the precipitous collapse of the Qin Dynasty in an article entitled “On the Class Struggle During the Period Between Qin and Han” in a 1974 issue of Red Flag, to replace the old explanation. The new theory claimed that the cause of the fall of Qin lay in the lack of thoroughness of Qin Shi Huang’s “dictatorship over the reactionaries, even to the extent of permitting them to worm their way into organs of political authority and usurp important posts.”
Mao Zedong, chairman of the People’s Republic of China, was reviled for his persecution of intellectuals. On being compared to the First Emperor, Mao responded: “He buried 460 scholars alive; we have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive… You [intellectuals] revile us for being Qin Shi Huangs. You are wrong. We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold. When you berate us for imitating his despotism, we are happy to agree! Your mistake was that you did not say so enough.”
Tom Ambrose characterises Qin Shi Huang as the founder of “the first police state in history”.