From boyhood, China's first emperor led a truly operatic life. Qin Shi Huang lived during the third century B.C.E., during his country's bloody Warring States Period, when China's Middle Kingdom was made up of an unruly collection of principalities. In 247 B.C.E., he was still Prince Zheng, but that year, the 12-year-old boy inherited the powerful northwestern state of Qin. And at 21, the headstrong and precocious prince eliminated his regent, assumed full power as king, and set about consolidating his realm.
To do so, he quickly established what might today be called a totalitarian state, putting in place a system of rewards (mainly for battlefield valor) and punishments (amputations and executions, for almost any infraction). He abolished aristocratic ranks and hereditary offices, replacing them with a bureaucracy under central control. He built a wall (the first of several ancestral incarnations of the 15th-century Great Wall we visit today) to defend the northern frontier. Able-bodied men not in the army raised grain to support the troops and built vast irrigation works to increase agricultural production. Within a few years the king had created a deadly machine dedicated to military conquest.
And the conquests came swiftly. Qin's armies of chariots, spearmen, and crossbowmen swept aside the armies of state after state, and the king coined a new title — huangdi ("emperor") — to suit his status as China's unifier. He predicted that his dynasty would endure for a thousand generations.
He was off by 998 generations, but not for want of trying. Using often ruthless means to achieve his ends, Qin Shi Huang built public works, palaces, and his own tomb on a gargantuan scale. He standardized weights and measures, coinage, the writing system, and even the width of roads. He escaped assassination and sought advice from alchemists about how to become immortal. He executed scholars whose theories displeased him.
But the policies that had created a military machine and secured Qin Shi Huang's power were ill-suited to a peaceful empire. Taxes, forced labor, and ferocious punishments enraged the peasants; book-burnings alienated the literate upper class. The first emperor's power was total, but unrest lurked under the surface.
And then, suddenly, it was over. In 210 B.C.E., the emperor fell ill and died. Some suspected poison; the mystery was never solved. Rebellions broke out, and rival officials slaughtered each other. The second emperor committed suicide, leaving no successor. Qin Shi Huang's empire collapsed.
Its legacy, however, would endure. Today, the first emperor is perhaps best known for the enormous larger-than-life-sized terra-cotta warriors (discovered in 1974) guarding his tomb, which officials have decreed must be undisturbed until scientists are sure its contents can be preserved properly. Archaeologists await the signal from China's government to begin excavating what promises to be one of the richest sites ever uncovered.
Qin Shi Huang died at just 49. The swift collapse of his dynasty mirrored the scale of his ambitions. What better material for an opera than a life crowded with ambition, glory, and ruin?
Renowned sinologist John S. Major is a former professor of Chinese history at Dartmouth College.