Qin Shihuangdi – the rise to power

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Painted clay and wood figure of a horse

Before its unification under Qin Shihuangdi, its First Emperor (259 – 210 BC), China was made up of seven major states which were often at war with each other, vying for power and supremacy. Historians call this time the Warring States period (475 – 221 BC).

The First Emperor’s ancestors were from a small state in the far west of the region called Qin (pronounced chin). The Qin were horse breeders for the ruling Zhou people (pronounced joe). After the Zhou gave them land for the task, they began to organise themselves and develop political skills. They gradually assumed power, giving their leaders the title of ‘Duke of Qin’ and then in 325 BC raising it to ‘King of Qin’.

When they conquered and occupied the lands that belonged to the Zhou, the Kings of Qin also felt they had inherited the right to rule from them. That feeling fuelled the ambition of the 13 year old boy Ying Zheng, who became King of Qin in 246 BC.

In 221 BC the King of Qin defeated the last of the Warring States and gave his state’s name to the unified empire. Historians believe that this is the origin of the western word China.

He chose a new title for himself: Qin Shihuangdi, which means First August and Divine Emperor of Qin:

‘First’ because he planned a long line of successors
‘August and Divine’ as he was now equal to a god
‘Emperor’ to separate himself from his ancestors who were only kings and dukes, and align himself with mythical emperors of the past.


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