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Terracotta Warriors 秦俑

Terracotta Warriors

During the Warring States Period (475 BC to 221 BC) the plain surrounding the Wei River was held by the State of Qin. It was on the far west border of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. The Qin were bordered by the States of Zhao, Wei, Han, and Chu. The States of Yan and Qi were further to the north and east. To the west and northwest of Qin, the lands were ruled by tribes such as the Xiongnu, considered barbarians but highly skilled in warfare. The Qin had constant battles with their western neighbors which is one of the reasons that they were able to finally overcome and defeat their eastern neighbor States. The Qin could never rest, but had to maintain their army and defenses at all periods of their history. That wasn't true of all of the States. Loose alliances, treaties, and shared interests allowed many of the States to relax and focus on civilian affairs.

The history of this period reads like a soap opera of tremendous intrigue and secret conniving. Most of what we know comes from the historian Sima Qian who wrote with gusto about the illicit love affairs of the nobility as well as about battles and successions. Let's keep it simple and start with a young man named Ying Yiren 嬴異人 (Yíng​ Yì​rén, 212 BC - 247 BC) who was a younger son of the Qin king. He was sent to the State of Zhao as a hostage. This was a common practice among the various States to exchange family members as a guarantee against attack; sometimes through marriage and sometimes as "guests." As a younger son, Ying Yiren wasn't wanted around the court anyway, so he was expendable. The Zhao seemed to have shared the opinion because he wasn't treated very well.

Along comes either the hero, or the sinister villain of the plot, depending upon your point of view. Lü Buwei noticed the young Ying Yiren and, either taking pity upon him, or being the master of the long-term plan, befriended the young man and took him into his household and treated him like a king. He introduced him to his future consort, Lady Zhao Ji 趙姬 (Zhào​ Jī​). They were subsequently married and Lady Zhao had a son, Ying Zheng. They were still living in the State of Zhao at the time. To make the story more juicy, there is speculation that Lady Zhao Ji and Lü Buwei had a dalliance and that Ying Zheng might actually have been his son. But that is just rumor.

Eventually, Lü Buwei managed to strike a deal whereby Ying Yiren would be next in succession if he supported the next king. The king assumed the throne but only lasted a year before he died. Suspicious, that. Ying Yiren duly became king and was renamed King Zhuangxiang of Qin 秦庄襄王 (Qín​ Zhuāng​xiāng​ Wáng​). Lü Buwei was just where he wanted to be; in the position of first chancellor with command at his fingertips. King Zhuangxiang does not seem to have been amenable to the idea of rule by proxy. He died three years after assuming the throne and his 13 year-old son, Ying Zheng, became king. Lü Buwei was in an even better spot now, as regent to a minor child, he didn't even have to consult before making decisions. There is no proof that Lü Buwei assassinated two kings, but his actions around the third are more than rumor.

The problem with boys is that they grow up and expect to take control. As young Ying Zheng became a man, Lü Buwei began to look for ways to maintain his position of control. He also seemed to be having an affair with Ying Zheng's mother, which was not going to endear him to the young man. Lü Buwei found a nobody named Lao Ai, had him promoted to the position of Marquis, and began planning the assassination of yet another king. In the meantime, back at the palace, Lao Ai and Zhao Ji got together and had two sons together secretly. How you keep a pregnancy secret, much less two, is left to speculation. Even with flowing robes you would think someone would notice that the widow was gaining weight, but the secret remained safe for a time, anyway.

The plot comes to a head in 238 BC when Lao Ai gets together some troops and trots off to assassinate the king. Drunken sot that he was, he had given away the game during a party, and the young King Ying Zheng put out a contract on him. A million taels is a million taels and there were many takers. Lao Ai was caught, his supporters executed, and Lao Ai was torn asunder by being attached to four horses and pulled apart. This is called being drawn and quartered. By 238 BC, Lady Zhao Ji was under house arrest, her two secret sons dead, and Lü Buwei .had committed suicide.

The young Ying Zheng found a new advisor, Li Si 李斯 (Lǐ Sī ~280 BC – 208 BC), and set about the serious business of conquering the known world. Between 230 BC and 221 BC Ying Zheng moved his armies from State to State conquering each in turn. The last to fall was the State of Qi to the far east in what is today Shandong Province.

Once that victory was under his belt, Ying Zheng declared himself Qin Shi Huangdi 秦始皇帝(Qín Shǐ Huángdì) or the first Emperor of China. He was well versed in the classics and religious beliefs and chose symbols to align himself with the succession from the Zhou Dynasty. The Zhou had used the idea of a "Mandate from Heaven" to cement their rule and the new ruler made sure that he carried that banner. The title Huangdi was drawn from the past and recalled the titles of the mythical first emperors and kings who were said to be the origin of all civilization. The steps he took to ensure legitimacy were necessary. There were repeated rebellions and assassination attempts. Not everyone bought the idea that the game had ended.

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Last update: March 2010
© Marilyn Shea, 2010