Sima Qian on Qin Shihuang

About the Document
Sima Qian (145-86 B.C.E.) was the son of the Grand Historian of China and assumed that title himself in the imperial court of the Han Dynasty in 107 C.E. He is most famous for writing a monumental work on Chinese history known as Shi Ji, The Records of the Grand Historian. Shi Ji consists of 130 chapters in five volumes. In it, Sima Qian presents biographies of the Chinese rulers from the first legendary Yellow Emperor to the emperor of his time, as well as well-known feudal families and famous men. He also treats various subjects such as ritual practice, music, and general history. Shi Ji is considered to be the greatest history writing of Classical China, and Sima Qian the greatest historian of all time. Sima Qian's portrait of the Qin Shihuang was the most vivid and truthful record in understanding both the Qin Dynasty and its ruler.

The document below includes excerpts from Sima Qian's Biography of Qin Shihuang on two major events: the First Emperor's ascension of China's sacred mountains and his erecting of stone monuments. Erecting stones was a common imperial practice in order to record a ruler's accomplishments with the blessing of heaven. On Mount Tai, according to Sima Qian, the inscribed stone monument praises the greatness, virtue, and hard work of the First Emperor. In the second inscription, Sima Qian gives a long list of the First Emperor's accomplishments in bringing unification and peace to the country. As a court historian, Sima Qian's major task was to eulogize the rulers and record historical events according to the best interests of the government.

Qin Shihuang, however, remains a controversial figure in Chinese history. Most contemporary Chinese historians would disagree with Sima Qian's assessment of him. They saw the First Emperor as a merciless ruler with few credited achievements. Yes, Qin Shihuang unified China; but he also sent millions of forced laborers to their deaths during the construction of the Great Wall. Yes, Qin Shihuang standardized language, weight, and measures; but he also buried alive hundreds of Confucian scholars who disagreed with his Legalist rule. Although biased, the selections below give us important insight into the role and achievements of the First Emperor.

Background and Context
Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.E.), was the first ruler in Chinese history to take the title of emperor. Hence, he is best known as the First Emperor of China. The rule of the First Emperor was a critical historical period that transformed both China's politics and its society.

Born Zhao Cheng, the First Emperor was raised in a time of political chaos following the fall of the Zhou Dynasty (770-256 B.C.E.), when numerous warring states fought for central leadership. Qin Shihuang’s father was the king of Qin state. While a hostage in Zhao state, the Qin king fell for a concubine who later gave birth to a son to be named Zhao Cheng. When Zhao Cheng was thirteen, the Qin king died and the son succeeded the throne. War among states went on for another thirty-six years until the new Qin king was able to defeat all other rivals and unify the country in 210 B.C.E.

In defining his title, the new king decided to adopt a new appellation: Huangdi, or the Emperor, a title implying supremacy over the previous kings. He also took the title Yingzheng, meaning winning the throne. The emperor issued an edict that read: "We are Shi Huangdi, the First Sovereign Emperor, and our successors shall be known as the Second Emperor, Third Emperor and so on for generations without end." Having done this, the new ruler of a unified China ascended the imperial throne with a new name, Qin Shihuang. While Qin represents the original name of state, Shi means the first or number one.

Qin Shihuang is remembered for many deeds, both great and terrible, during his rather short rule of only eleven years. He unified a once war-torn China. He standardized the Chinese writing system as well as the monetary system and weights and measures. He consolidated his rule by enforcing Legalism, which emphasized strong government control and severe punishment to those who disobeyed. To achieve that goal, he not only forbade Confucian teaching, which promoted the good nature of human beings and a benevolent ruler, but also persecuted Confucius scholars by burying many alive. He established a formidable army to defend an expanding empire. For over two millennia, his name has been closely associated with another marvelous human accomplishment: the Great Wall of China. In order to establish a stronger fortress against the increasing barbarian threat from the north, Qin ordered his minions to connect many sections of existing walls, and added an extension along China’s northern border. He built a majestic mausoleum and buried a grand terra cotta army with him upon his death. The excavation of his underground palace has become one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of our time. Today, Qin Shihuang’s tomb is still standing, sealed, five miles west of the terra cotta army pits.

Qin Shihuang's espousal of Legalist policies in governing his empire led to civil revolt and probably the fall of his short-lived dynasty. Ironically, the failure of Legalism in Qin Shihuang’s government and society eventually gave rise to the dominant position of Confucianism in Chinese civilization thereafter. Qin Shihuang left behind him a growing empire, soon to be both powerful and expansive.

The Document

…The emperor ascended Mount Tai, erected a stone monument and offered sacrifice to Heaven…The sacrifice to the Earth was offered at Mount Liangfu. And a stone monument was erected with this inscription:

The Sovereign Emperor came to the throne, made decrees and laws which
     all his subjects heeded;
In his twenty-sixth year the land was unified, all obeyed his rule;
He inspected the black-headed people in distant parts, ascended Mount
     Tai and viewed the eastern extremity;
His obedient subjects remember his achievements, trace them from the
     start and celebrate his virtue.
Beneath his wide sway all things find their place, all is decreed by law;
Great and manifest, his virtue is handed down to ages yet to come, to be
     followed without change.
The sage emperor who has pacified all under heaven is tireless in his rule;
He rises early, goes to sleep late, makes lasting benefits and offers wise
Wide spread his teachings, all far and near is well ordered according to his
High and low are set apart, men and women observe the proprieties, fulfill
     their different tasks;
Public and private affairs are clearly distinguished; peace reigned and will
     endure till a future age;
His influence knows no end, his will obeyed and his orders will remain
     through eternity.


The emperor had a tower built on Mount Langya and a stone inscription set up to praise the power of Qin and make clear his will. The inscription read:

A new age is inaugurated by the Emperor;
Rules and measures are rectified,
The myriad things set in order,
Human affairs are made clear
And there is harmony between fathers and sons.
The Emperor in his sagacity, benevolence and justice
Has made all laws and principles manifest.
He set forth to pacify the east,
To inspect officers and men;
This great task accomplished
He visited the coast.
Great are the Emperor's achievements,
Men attend diligently to basic tasks,
Farming is encouraged, secondary pursuit discouraged,
All the common people prosper;
All men under the sky
Toil with a single purpose;
Tools and measures are made uniform,
The written script is standardized;
Wherever the sun and moon shine,
Wherever one can go by boat or by carriage,
Men carry out their orders
And satisfy their desires;
For our Emperor in accordance with the time
Has regulated local customs,
Made waterways and divided up the land.
Caring for the common people,
He works day and night without rest;
He defines the laws, leaving nothing in doubt,
Making known what is forbidden.
The local officials have their duties,
Administration is smoothly carried out,
All is done correctly, all according to plan.
The Emperor in his wisdom
Inspects all four quarters of his realm;
High and low, noble and humble,
None dare overshoot the mark;
No evil or impropriety is allowed,
All strive to be good men and true,
And exert themselves in tasks great and small;
None dares to idle or ignore his duties,
But in far-off, remote places
Serious and decorous administrators
Work steadily, just and loyal.
Great is the virtue of our Emperor
Who pacifies all four corners of the earth,
Who punishes traitors, roots out evil men,
And with profitable measures brings prosperity.
Tasks are done at the proper season,
All things flourish and grow;
The common people know peace
And have laid aside weapons and armor;
Kinsmen care for each other,
There are no robbers or thieves;
Men delight in his rule,
All understanding the law and discipline.
The universe entire
Is our Emperor's realm,
Extending west to the Desert,
South to where the houses face north,
East to the East Ocean,
North to beyond Dahsia;
Wherever human life is found,
All acknowledge his suzerainty,
His achievements surpass those of the Five Emperors,
His kindness reaches even the beasts of the field;
All creatures benefit from his virtue,
All live in peace at home.

Source: Sima Qian, The Records of the Grand Historian, trans. Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang (Beijing, China: Foreign Language Press, 1979), pp. 169-72.


Mount Tai

One of three major holy mountains in China, it represents the power of heaven and earth, according to Chinese mythology.

The position or power of a suzerain (sovereign).

Analysis Questions

  1. According to Sima Qian, what are the major achievements of the First Emperor?
  2. In your view, how important are the achievements of the First Emperor to the development of Chinese civilization? How important are they to the development of other civilizations?
  3. What are the similarities between the rules of China's First Emperor and those of the Roman Emperor Augustus?
  4. What kind of ruler was the First Emperor in Sima Qian's opinion?
  5. What was the Chinese view of an empire?

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