The first Emperor of China is widely regarded to be Qin Shi Huang (also known as Shi Huangdi), who reigned from 221 to 210 BCE. He was the founder of the Qin dynasty, the first imperial dynasty of unified China.
Qin Shi Huang was born in 259 BCE to a former noble family of the state of Qin. His father, King Ying Zheng, was a powerful warlord and had already conquered many other states in his efforts to unify China. As a young man, Qin Shi Huang continued his father’s work, conquering all other remaining states and bringing them under his rule. In 221 BCE, he declared himself the first emperor of unified China.
Qin Shi Huang was responsible for introducing many reforms and innovations to the newly unified China. He standardized the Chinese script, weights and measures, legal system, and currency. He undertook large-scale building projects, including the Grand Canal, which connected the Yangtze and Yellow rivers and facilitated trade between northern and southern China. He also constructed fortifications, walls, and roads to protect and strengthen his empire.
Perhaps most famously, Qin Shi Huang is credited with the construction of the Terracotta Army. This huge collection of life-size sculptures of soldiers and horses was discovered in 1974. It was part of the emperor’s funerary complex, and likely intended to protect the emperor in the afterlife.
Qin Shi Huang fought against Confucianism and Daoism, striving to create a central authority unencumbered by competing philosophies. He also instituted laws that were famously harsh and punitive. In 213 BCE, he issued the Legalist Code, which prescribed incredibly harsh punishments for those judged guilty of a crime. This led to an era of political repression and terror, ultimately culminating in a peasant rebellion that brought down the Qin dynasty in 207 BCE.
Though his reign was short-lived, perhaps only 37 years, Qin Shi Huang laid the foundation for Chinese civilization. Without his efforts to unify the country and introduce reforms, it is quite likely that the Chinese culture and identity would not be what we know today. For this reason, he remains one of the most influential figures in Chinese history.