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As the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi was determined that his absolute rule would create lasting changes in China. He has been praised for several accomplishments, such as unifying China for the first time, developing a network of roads and canals to improve trade, and standardizing measurement, language, and writing so that China’s different languages could be understood everywhere. However, despite these accomplishments, Qin Shi Huangdi was also known for being a brutal and controlling ruler that people feared. Greatness should be judged not only on what you achieve but on how you achieve it. The ways that Qin Shi Huangdi achieved his accomplishments were unfair, destructive, and violent. He used harsh punishments, cruelty, and executions of people who challenged his views, he destroyed important family structures of Chinese society, and he burdened the people of China by using their labor and money for his own selfish and self-centered purpose. For these reasons, Qin Shi Huangdi’s absolute rule was damaging to the people of China and some of his key goals ultimately failed.

Qin Shi Huangdi was so determined to enforce Legalism in China that he frequently used violent tactics if his citizens opposed him or his ideas. He required obedience to his philosophy, and people who opposed his policies were severely punished or executed. In addition, any books that contained ideas that opposed Legalism and Qin’s views were burned. For example, according to some historians, more than 450 scholars were executed and the books that they used to criticize his approaches were burned. Li Su (Qin’s chief minister) helped put these violent practices into action recommending that “Those who dare to talk to each other about the Book of Odes and the Book of History should be executed… Anyone referring to the past to criticize the present should, together with all members of his family, be put to death”. These were unfair and harsh ways to control what people think and to censor what they can say or do, resulting in many deaths of innocent people.

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Qin Shi Huangdi’s attempts to have strict control also negatively impacted the family structure in China during his rule. For example, a stable family system of obedient and hardworking family members played an important role in Chinese society. However, Qin felt threatened by this because he felt people were more loyal to their families rather than being loyal to him. In response, Qin tried to destroy this family system by putting high taxes on families with two or more adult sons, to try to break the importance of the family structure. He also combined multiple families and forced them to live in larger groups where there was mutual control. In addition, another way he disrupted the family structure was to reduce the power of aristocrats by requiring families to relocate to the capital city where they could be watched and monitored by Qin’s advisors. In China, the family was such an important economic and social unit that Qin’s attempts ultimately failed, and after Qin was succeeded in 202 BCE the importance of the family system was reinstated.

Ultimately, Qin Shi Huangdi cared more about himself than anyone else, which negatively affected the people of China. He viewed his own selfish interests as more important than his citizens. For example, Qin’s goal for control was not to improve the country but to establish power for his sons for many years to come. This approach did not work because he alienated, censored, and punished his citizens. His self-centered personality was also shown in his quest for immortality. He believed that special herbs of immortality would not work unless he could be ‘invisible’ to others, so he required people to build passageways connecting his palaces so that he could move throughout them without being seen. He feared death so much that he put thousands of people to work to find him a way to stay alive forever, and he also spent one-third of the national income on preparing an elaborate tomb for his afterlife. This shows how he unfairly burdened the people of China and the national economy simply for his own selfish reasons.

Greatness should be judged by how you achieve it, not just on what you achieve. Qin Shi Huangdi achieved his accomplishments through unfair, destructive, and violent tactics that harmed and burdened the people of China. Therefore, although his absolute rule resulted in the unification of China and several other achievements, these benefits did not outweigh the destruction and death that he caused to many people. Moreover, if Qin Shi Huangdi’s policies and approaches were so effective then they would have been continued after his death. But they were not. Instead, after Qin Shi Huangdi’s death in 210 BCE, his dynasty weakened and was overthrown four years later. In addition, the importance of the family system that Qin Shi Huangdi tried to weaken was reinstated after his death and viewed to be a central part of Chinese culture. Furthermore, after he died, his approach of absolute rule ended, and historians later viewed his rule as a ‘betrayal of humanistic Confucian principles’. Much of what Qin Shi Huangdi stood for and tried to achieve was ultimately undone because it was harmful rather than beneficial to China. This is why I think that Shi Huangdi did not improve China with his policies, but instead brought a lot of harm to the people.

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