The Records of the Grand Historian By Sima Qian records that Zhao Gao, in an attempt to control the Qin government, devised a loyalty test for court officials using a deer and horse:

Zhao Gao was contemplating treason but was afraid the other officials would not heed his commands, so he decided to test them first. He brought a deer and presented it to the Second Emperor but called it a horse. The Second Emperor laughed and said, “Is the chancellor perhaps mistaken, calling a deer a horse?” Then the emperor questioned those around him. Some remained silent, while some, hoping to ingratiate themselves with Zhao Gao, said it was a horse, and others said it was a deer. Zhao Gao secretly arranged for all those who said it was a deer to be brought before the law and had them executed instantly. Thereafter the officials were all terrified of Zhao Gao. Zhao Gao gained military power as a result of that.

Zhao Gao (died 207 BC), allegedly a eunuch, served as a close aide to all three emperors of the Qin dynasty – Qin Shi Huang, Qin Er Shi and Ziying – and was regarded as having played an instrumental role in the downfall of the dynasty.

Zhao Gao started his career under Qin Shi Huang as Prefect of the Office for Imperial Carriages.

When Zhao was a minor official, he committed a crime punishable by death. Meng Yi was the official in charge of sentencing and he sentenced Zhao to death and removed him from the officials list as instructed by Qin Shi Huang. Zhao was later pardoned by Qin Shi Huang and returned to his official status.

At the end of the reign of Qin Shi Huang, Zhao Gao was involved in the death of Meng Tian and his younger brother, Meng Yi. Harbouring hatred for the entire Meng family due to his prior sentencing by Meng Yi, Zhao Gao destroyed the Meng brothers by convincing Huhai to issue a decree that forced Meng Tian to commit suicide and execute Meng Yi.

He also framed Li Si for treason and had Li Si and his entire family executed, after which he replaced Li Si as Chancellor and monopolised state power.

With Zhao Gao in charge of the Qin government, it was natural that the Qin Empire collapsed in such a short time. In fact, Zhao Gao killed all the sons and daughters of Qin Shi Huang, including the Second Emperor, Huhai. In revenge, Ziying killed Zhao Gao and all of his family members.

Edited by staff

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