Qin Er Shi (Chinese: 秦二世; pinyin: Qín Èrshì; literally: 'Second Generation of the Qin'; [tɕʰǐn ɑ̂ɻ ʂɨ̂]; 229 – October 207 BCE) was the son of Qin Shi Huang and the second emperor of China's Qin dynasty. He ruled from 210 to 207 BCE.
Huhai (Chinese: 胡亥) was the personal name of the Second Emperor. Its Old Chinese pronunciation has been reconstructed as *Ga-gə′. Although his parentage was questioned by many historians including Sima Qian, they accepted Qin Er Shi as a member of the Kingdom of Qin's House of Ying. Huhai is the eighteenth son of Qin Shi Huang. As the youngest son, he was doted on by his father. It is not clear who his mother was, although some said that she is Lady Hu (胡姬). The clan name of their branch of the dynasty was Zhao (趙). Although he is sometimes known as "Ying Huhai" according to the practice of modern Chinese names, the ancient custom was not to combine the names in this way: his personal name never appears in combination with Ying, Zhao, or Qin. From an early age, Huhai was apprenticed to the minister Zhao Gao to learn Legalism, by the decree of Qin Shi Huang.
Ascension to throne: Second Emperor conspiracy
The First Emperor Qin Shi Huang died during one of his tours of Eastern China, on September 10, 210 BCE (Julian Calendar) at the palace in Shaqiu prefecture (沙丘平台). The announcement of his death was withheld until the entourage, which was accompanied by Premier Li Si and the imperial court, returned to the capital Xianyang two months later. Nevertheless, Huhai and Zhao Gao were aware of Qin Shi Huang's death and began plotting an internal intrigue.
The eldest son Fusu was supposed to be elected as the next emperor. However, Premier Li Si and the Chief Eunuch Zhao Gao conspired to kill Fusu in order to get rid of Fusu's favourite General Meng Tian, who was their court rival. They were afraid that if Fusu was enthroned, they would lose their power. Li Si and Zhao Gao forged a fake edict by Qin Shi Huang ordering both Fusu and General Meng to commit suicide. Their plan worked, and the younger son Huhai acceded the throne to become the Second Emperor later known as Qin Er Shi (秦二世). Although, recent findings of bamboo strips dating from the time of the intrigue note that Huhai wouldn't wait and killed his brother. This would indicate that the fake edict, in the case of Fusu, was an imperial cover story.
Second Emperor of Qin dynasty
In the first year of reign in 210 BCE, Huhai was made the Second Emperor of Qin at the age of 21 years. His regnal name Qin Er Shi (秦二世) means "Second Generation of the Qin". It is a contraction of Qin Ershi Huangdi (秦二世皇帝), the "Second-Generation Emperor of the Qin". The name followed the nomenclature established by the First Emperor, who envisioned an empire that would last for ten thousand generations and for his successors to bear the aspiration in their reign names. The practice ended abruptly with the third emperor Ziying (子婴), when Qin dynasty was overturned by Chu and Han.
Qin Er Shi depended on eunuch Zhao Gao so much so that he acted as a puppet emperor, with the eunuch as puppeteer. Zhao Gao was made the Prime Minister of the Qin empire during Qin Er Shi's reign. His reign was cruel and brought much suffering to the people. From his reign onwards, the Qin empire slid to a decline.
After one of the tours, Zhao Gao suggested he examine the governors and military commandants and punish those who are guilty of some crime. By doing so he can do away with those who disapprove of the emperor's actions. Six imperial princes were killed at Tu (杜). The emperor then went on further to punish people for petty crimes. The emperor's brother Jianglu (將閭) and two other brothers were imprisoned. A messenger was then sent to read them a death sentence. Jianglu looked to the heavens, and cried out loud three times that he did not commit any crime (天乎！吾無罪！). All three brothers cried and drew their own swords to commit suicide. Zhao Gao said that the Second Emperor was young, and as the Son of Heaven, his own voice must never be heard and his face must never be shown. Accordingly, the emperor remained in the inner palaces, and consulted only with Zhao Gao. Because of this, the high ministers rarely had the opportunity to see the emperor in court.
Bandits and brigands grew in numbers from different directions to attack the Qin. Military leaders such as Chen Sheng de-legitimized the rule of Qin Er Shi by claiming Fusu should have been the one made ruler. One of the immediate revolt attempts was the 209 BCE Dazexiang Uprising. They rebelled in the territory that was formerly Chu state, claiming they were restoring Chu to greatness.
Overall Qin Er Shi was not able to contend with nationwide rebels. He was not as capable as his father. Many revolts against him quickly erupted. His reign was a time of extreme civil unrest, and everything that worked for the First Emperor had crumbled away within a short period. Later an envoy reported about the rebellion in court. The emperor was enraged, and the envoy was punished. After this, all other envoys reporting about uprisings would later say the bandits were being pursued and captured. Without any need to worry, the emperor was pleased.
Death of ministers and generals
The bandits and brigands continued to grow in numbers. Chancellor Feng Quqi, Li Si and general Feng Jie came forward to complain that the Qin military could not hold off the increasing number of revolts. They suggested the construction of Epang palace (阿房宫) be suspended and that the burden of tax was too heavy. The emperor then questioned their loyalty. All three of them were handed to law officials who subjected them to examinations to see if they were guilty of other crimes. Feng Quqi and Feng Jie committed suicide so they would not have to endure the disgrace. Li Si was put in prison, and then killed via the five pains punishment. Zhao Gao continued to push the emperor to find associates with loyalty and punish those who show disloyalty with more severe penalties. Meng Yi and other chief ministers were executed. Twelve of the princes were executed in a market place in Xianyang. Ten princesses in Du were executed and their bodies were torn apart.
Horse and deer test
On 27 September 207 BC, eunuch Zhao Gao tested his power against the emperor's. He presented a deer to the Second Emperor, but called it a horse. The emperor laughed and said "Is the chancellor perhaps mistaken, calling a deer a horse?" Then the emperor questioned those around him. Some remained silent, some aligned with Zhao Gao, and said it was a horse. Zhao Gao executed every official who called the deer a deer. This incident provides the modern Chinese chengyu (idiomatic expression) "point to a deer and call it a horse" (指鹿為馬 zhǐlù-wéimǎ); (see Zhao Gao § Calling a deer a horse).
Qin dynasty collapse
Although Qin was able to suppress most of the nationwide rebellions, they still caused serious damage. Qin's manpower and supplies were greatly reduced. Finally Qin was decisively defeated in the Battle of Julu. Qin Er Shi foolishly tried to have the Qin general responsible Zhang Han killed, which led to the surrender and later live burial of 200,000 Qin troops. In total, Qin lost over 300,000 men. Even then, Qin Er Shi didn't take the defeat seriously, as he thought Qin had many more spare troops. Finally, a daring and loyal eunuch told Qin Er Shi the truth. In shock, Qin Er Shi tried to capture Zhao Gao and hold him responsible.
Zhao Gao however had expected that Qin Er Shi would ask him to take the blame. Therefore, Zhao Gao conspired with his loyal soldiers to force the emperor to commit suicide. Surrounded and with no means of escape, Qin Er Shi asked the loyal eunuch why he didn't speak the truth earlier. The eunuch replied that it was Qin Er Shi himself who decided to execute anyone who would tell him the truth.
In 207 BC, the Qin dynasty collapsed fifteen years after its establishment. A son of Fusu (allegedly; there is no firm consensus on what his relationship to the Qin royal family really is), Ziying (子婴), was made "king of Qin state", a reduced title. Ziying soon killed Zhao Gao and surrendered to Liu Bang one year later.
Death and burial
Qin Er Shi reigned only for three years and was forced to commit suicide eventually by his most trusted minister Zhao Gao at the age of 24. Qin Er Shi was condemned by the Eunuch Chancellor Zhao Gao after his death and was denied a royal burial. He was buried in today's Xi'an, near the Wild Goose Pagoda. Compared to his father, his tomb is much less elaborate and does not have a terracotta army. Qin Er Shi did not have a temple name.
In popular culture
The name of the emperor, Er Shi (二世), is included in the popular Cantonese term, (二世祖). The phrase is a negative term describing spoiled children raised by wealthy parents, growing up with little or no moral values, or any forms of necessary daily life skills.
The incident of the horse-deer has been cited as the etymology of the Japanese word baka, "fool".