When he was barely 13 years old, the future emperor of China – Ying Zheng (260-210 BC) – became king of the western state of Qin (pronounced ‘Chin’) on the death of his father in 247 BC. His mother, now the queen dowager, had a long-time lover: Lu Buwei, adviser to the deceased king. For Lu, this was the perfect opportunity finally to get his hands on the reins of government.
‘A Machiavellian figure’
States such as Qin had always been run as feudal family businesses by men like Lu Buwei. But a revolution was coming that would change all that – first, in Qin, and ultimately, in the whole of China. That revolution would be led by the young scholar Li Si.
Just months after Ying Zheng became king, Li Si arrived at court, looking for a job. The man responsible for hiring and firing was Lu Buwei, now prime minister. Impressed by Li Si’s obvious keenness, he was quick to take him on to his staff – an impulsive decision that he would come to regret.
‘Sima Qian describes him as a poor young man with extraordinary ambition,’ says Professor Robin Yates, ‘a Machiavellian figure who, he implies, is the person who wants to run the entire country and will stop at nothing to get to that position.’
Prime Minister Lu Buwei allowed Li Si to meet with the young king in private. Through Li, Ying Zheng realised that real power was his, that if he took advantage of Qin’s strengths and the weaknesses of its enemies it could become the strongest state on the continent. In addition, with the power that he had at his disposal, he could, Li said, completely wipe out the feudal lords, uniting the world under one rule.
The Seven Warring States
At that time, what would become China consisted of the ‘Seven Warring States’: Qin, Chu, Han, Wei, Qi, Zhao and Yan. Six of the seven had been weakened by endless warfare, while one continued to grow at the others’ expense – the state of Qin.
In a predatory move against the state of Zhao, a decade after Ying had come to the throne, the Qin army took more than 10,000 prisoners. The rules of war then were explicit: prisoners must be cared for. But that would have slowed down Ying Zheng’s campaign, so all the Zhao prisoners were executed. By this act, the young king defined his quest for empire – bloody, utterly ruthless and totally dependent on the army. The well-trained, highly motivated Qin army, equipped with precision weapons and led from the front by a ruthlessly ambitious king, created the perfect conquest machine. Within seven years, Ying Zheng had captured 13 cities from the state of Han and a further 20 from other states, and had repelled a combined force intent on stopping him in his tracks.
The queen dowager and the eunuch
While foreign enemies were easily brushed aside, inside Ying’s own court, unseen enemies conspired to destroy him. The official history records his coming of age as the defining moment.
To celebrate the event, the entire court had assembled at the royal palace at Xianyang. However, the queen dowager’s attention was directed not towards her son but towards her favourite: Marquis Lao Ai.
Most of the court was under the impression that Lao Ai was a eunuch, which made him an odd choice of companion for a woman with a history of important lovers. But he was no eunuch. He had already fathered two sons by the queen dowager, which they were raising in secret, and he intended to place one of them on the throne. But for now, he was biding his time, waiting for an opportunity to get rid of Ying Zheng.
The queen dowager, having received a secret message that her younger sons were ill, abruptly left her eldest son’s birthday celebrations and hurried back to her own palace. Without thinking, Lao Ai followed her. The palace was well outside the royal court but within range of its many ears. Ying Zheng’s spies were expected to pass back every crumb of information, from every source ...
The plot to seize the throne
As the queen dowager told Lao Ai that their sons were actually fine, it dawned on the illicit couple that they had been set up, that Lao Ai’s precipitate rush to follow her to their sons had given the game away. She had kept her boys secret for years, in the care of eunuchs whom she believed were loyal to her. But loyalties can change quickly and it was now extremely likely that the king knew of his younger brothers’ existence – and what that could mean to his own safety.
Lao Ai made his move. Realising that it was only a matter of time before he was arrested, he stole royal seals that gave him the authority to mobilise troops. Now district forces under his command approached the palace. His only chance was to catch the king unprepared, with the palace lightly guarded, and seize the throne.
The prime minister Lu Buwei, responsible for palace security, had discovered Lao Ai’s real intentions and informed the king. Lao’s forces met no resistance as they approached the palace, but when it was too late to withdraw, they advanced straight into a trap and were annihilated. Lao Ai was taken prisoner.
Lao Ai’s subsequent execution sent a very clear and deliberate message, soon to be reinforced by the killing of every member of his family, starting with the most dangerous: Ying Zheng’s two half-brothers.
Ying Zheng was about to add his prime minister to his long list of victims. Despite having warned the king of Lao Ai’s intentions, Lu Buwei was under sentence of death for failing to protect him – a sentence that was all the more painful because Lu was actually Ying’s father. However, Ying relented and – after Lu Buwei pleaded the cause of the queen dowager, his former lover – spared the lives of both his parents. However, within a year Lu Buwei, disgraced and broken, committed suicide.