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The 1974 discovery of buried vaults at Xi'an filled with thousands of terra cotta warriors stunned the world. (O. Louis Mazzatenta / NGS Image Collection)

Terra Cotta Soldiers on the March

A traveling exhibition of China's terra cotta warriors sheds new light on the ruler whose tomb they guarded

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The first emperor's capital, Xianyang, was a large metropolis, where he reportedly erected more than 270 palaces, of which only a single foundation is known to survive. Each time Qin Shi Huangdi conquered a rival state, he is said to have transported its ruling families to Xianyang, housing the vanquished in replicas of palaces they had left behind. At the same time, the emperor directed construction of his tomb complex; some 720,000 workers reportedly labored on these vast projects.

Upon the death of his father, Yiren, in 246 B.C., the future Qin Shi Huangdi—then a prince named Ying Zheng who was around age 13—ascended the throne. The kingdom, celebrated for its horsemen, sat on the margin of civilization, regarded by its easterly rivals as a semi-savage wasteland. Its governing philosophy was as harsh as its terrain. Elsewhere in China, Confucianism held that a well-run state should be administered by the same precepts governing a family: mutual obligation and respect. Qin rulers, however, subscribed to a doctrine known as legalism, which rested on the administration of punitive laws.

In his early 20s, Ying Zheng turned for guidance to a visionary statesman, Li Si, who likely initiated many of his sovereign's accomplishments. Under Li's tutelage, Ying Zheng introduced a uniform script (thereby enabling subjects of vastly different dialects to communicate). Standardization, a hallmark of the Qin state, was applied to weaponry as well: should an arrow shaft snap, or the trigger on a repeating crossbow malfunction, the component could be easily replaced. The young ruler also presided over creation of an advanced agricultural infrastructure that incorporated irrigation canals and storage granaries.

With methodical zeal, Ying Zheng set about conquering the warring states that surrounded him in the late third century B.C. As his armies advanced, principalities fell. No one could thwart consolidation of an empire that eventually stretched from parts of present-day Sichuan in the west to coastal regions along the East China Sea. Having unified the entire civilized world as he knew it, Ying Zheng in 221 B.C. renamed himself Qin Shi Huangdi, translated as First Emperor of Qin.

He then invested in infrastructure and built massive fortifications. His road network likely exceeded 4,000 miles, including 40-foot-wide speedways with a central lane reserved for the imperial family. On the northern frontier, the emperor dispatched his most trusted general to reinforce and connect existing border barriers, creating a bulwark against nomadic marauders. Made of rammed earth and rubble, these fortifications became the basis for the Great Wall, most of which would be rebuilt in stone and brick during the 15th century A.D. under the Ming dynasty.

As the grandeur of his tomb complex suggests, Qin Shi Huangdi kept an eye on posterity. But he also longed to extend his life on earth—perhaps indefinitely. Alchemists informed the emperor that magical herbs were to be found on what they claimed were three Islands of the Immortals in the East China Sea. The emissaries most likely to gain entry to this mystical realm, they asserted, were uncorrupted children; in 219 B.C., Qin Shi Huangdi reportedly dispatched several thousand youngsters to search for the islands. They never returned. Four years later, the emperor sent three alchemists to retrieve the herbs. One of them made it back, recounting a tale of a giant fish guarding the islands. Legend has it that the first emperor resolved to lead the next search party himself; on the expedition, the story goes, he used a repeating crossbow to kill a huge fish. But instead of discovering life-preserving elixirs, the emperor contracted a fatal illness.

As he lay dying in 210 B.C., 49-year-old Qin Shi Huangdi decreed that his estranged eldest son, Ying Fusu, should inherit the empire. The choice undercut the ambitions of a powerful royal counselor, Zhao Gao, who believed he could govern the country behind the scenes if a more malleable successor were installed. To conceal Qin Shi Huangdi's death—and disguise the stench of a decomposing corpse—until the travelers returned to the capital, Zhao Gao took on a cargo of salted fish. The delaying tactic worked. Once Zhao Gao managed to return to Xianyang, he was able to operate on his home turf. He managed to transfer power to Ying Huhai, a younger, weaker son.

Ultimately, however, the scheme failed. Zhao Gao could not maintain order and the country descended into civil war. The Qin dynasty outlived Qin Shi Huangdi by only four years. The second emperor committed suicide; Zhao Gao eventually was killed. Various rebel forces coalesced into a new dynasty, the Western Han.

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