Qin Er Shi (230/222 – 207 BC[2]), given name Ying Huhai, was the second emperor of the Qin dynasty from 210 to 207 BC. The son of Qin Shi Huang, he was put on the throne by Li Si and Zhao Gao, circumventing his brother Fusu, who had been the designated heir. Upon Ying's ascension, both Fusu and the popular general Meng Tian were killed on the orders of Li and Zhao, with Qin Er Shi's role in the assassinations remaining uncertain and controversial. A weak ruler, Qin Er Shi's reign was completely dominated by Zhao Gao, who eventually forced him to commit suicide.[3][4] By the time of his death, the Qin Empire's power had lessened so much that his successor Ziying ruled as a king, not emperor.[5]

Qin Er Shi
Emperor of the Qin dynasty
Reign210 – October 207 BC
PredecessorQin Shi Huang
Born230/222 BC[1]
DiedOctober 207 BC (aged 21–22)
Full name
Regnal name
Er Shi Huangdi (二世皇帝)
FatherQin Shi Huang
Qin Er Shi
Literal meaningQin second generation

Early life


Huhai (Chinese: 胡亥) was the personal name of the Second Emperor. Its Old Chinese pronunciation has been reconstructed as Ga-gə′.[6] Although his parentage was questioned by many historians including Sima Qian,[7] they accepted Qin Er Shi as a member of the state 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 most likely she was "The Hu (barbarian) princess" Hu Ji (胡姬). 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.[8][9] From an early age, Huhai was apprenticed to the minister Zhao Gao to learn Legalism, by the decree of Qin Shi Huang. There is a possibility that Hu Ji was a princess from the Greco-Bactrian Euthydemid dynasty offered to Ying Zheng as an alliance gift from neighboring Gansu in 230 BC.[10]

Ascension to throne


Qin Shi Huang died during one of his tours of eastern China in the summer of 210 BC at the palace in Shaqiu.[11][12] 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.[11] 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.[13] However, Li Si and the chief eunuch Zhao Gao conspired to kill Fusu to get rid of Meng Tian, Fusu's favourite general and their court rival.[13] They were afraid that if Fusu were enthroned, they would lose their power.[13] Li Si and Zhao Gao forged a fake edict by Qin Shi Huang ordering both Fusu and Meng to commit suicide.[13] Their plan worked, and the younger son, Huhai, acceded the throne to become the second emperor, later known as Qin Er Shi.[11] However, recent findings of bamboo strips dating from the time of the intrigue note that Huhai was elected and killed his brother.[14] That would indicate that the fake edict, in the case of Fusu, was an imperial cover story.

Second Emperor of Qin

An edict in bronze from the reign of the second Qin Emperor

In the first year of his reign in 210 BC, Huhai was made the second emperor of Qin at the age of 19.[15] His regnal name Qin Er Shi means 'second generation of the Qin', and is a contraction of Qin Er Shi Huangdi (秦二世皇帝). 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, when the Qin dynasty was overturned by Chu and Han.

Qin Er Shi depended on the eunuch Zhao Gao so much so that he acted as a puppet emperor, with the eunuch as puppeteer.[16] Zhao Gao was made the Qin prime minister during Qin Er Shi's reign, which was cruel and brought much suffering to the people[tone]. From his reign onwards, the Qin dynasty declined.

After one of the tours, Zhao Gao suggested for him to examine the governors and military commandants and to punish those guilty of some crime. That way, he could do away with those who disapprove of the emperor's actions.[7] Six imperial princes were killed at Tu (杜).[7] The emperor then further punished 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.[7][8] All three brothers cried and drew their own swords to commit suicide.[7] Zhao Gao said that the second emperor was young and that 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. Therefore, the high ministers rarely had the opportunity to see the emperor in court.[7]



Bandits and brigands grew in numbers from different directions to attack the Qin. Military leaders such as Chen Sheng delegitimized the rule of Qin Er Shi by claiming Fusu should have been made ruler.[17] One of the immediate revolts was the Dazexiang Uprising in 209.[18] The rebellion occurred in the territory that was formerly Chu state and claimed to be restoring Chu's greatness.[19]

Overall, Qin Er Shi was not able to contend with nationwide rebellions. He was not as capable as his father, and many revolts against him quickly erupted. His reign was a time of extreme civil unrest, and everything that had worked for the First Emperor had crumbled away within a short period.[20] Later, an envoy reported about the rebellion in court. The emperor was enraged, and the envoy was punished.[7] Then, all other envoys reporting about uprisings would say that the bandits were being pursued and captured. Without any need to worry, the emperor was pleased.[7]

Death of allies


The bandits and brigands continued to grow in numbers. The chancellor Feng Quqi, Li Si and the general Feng Jie came forward to complain that the Qin military could not hold off the increasing number of revolts.[7] They suggested for the construction of Epang Palace to be suspended lest the burden of tax should be too heavy.[7] The emperor then questioned their loyalty.[7] 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 to avoid enduring disgrace.[7] Li Si was put in prison, and then killed via The Five Pains punishment.[7][19] Zhao Gao continued to push the emperor to find associates with loyalty and to 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 marketplace in Xianyang. Ten princesses in Du were executed and their bodies were torn apart.[21]

Horse and deer test


On 27 September 207 BC, the eunuch Zhao Gao tested his power against the emperor's. He presented a deer to the Second Emperor but called it a horse.[7][22] The emperor laughed and said, "Is the chancellor perhaps mistaken, calling a deer a horse?"[7] He questioned those around him. Some remained silent, and some aligned with Zhao Gao and called it a horse. Zhao Gao executed every official who had called it a deer.[7] This incident provides the modern Chinese chengyu "point to a deer and call it a horse" (指鹿為馬 zhǐlù wéimǎ);.[23]

Dynastic collapse


Although Qin managed to suppress most of the nationwide rebellions, they still caused serious damage. Qin's manpower and supplies were greatly reduced. Qin was decisively defeated at the Battle of Julu. Court plots led Zhang Han to surrender along with his soldiers, which later led to the live burial of 200,000 Qin troops. In total, Qin lost over 300,000 men. Even then, Qin Er Shi failed to grasp the severity of the defeat, erroneously thinking that Qin had many more spare troops due to courtiers hiding the truth to him in fear of execution. Finally, a daring and loyal eunuch told Qin Er Shi the truth. Shocked, Qin Er Shi tried to capture Zhao Gao and to 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 had not told the truth earlier. The eunuch replied that it was Qin Er Shi himself who had decided to execute anyone who would tell him the truth.

In 207 BC, the Qin dynasty collapsed only fifteen years after it had been established.[16] Allegedly, Ziying of Qin, a son of Fusu—there is no consensus as to his actual relationship to the house of Qin—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

Tomb of Qin Er Shi

Qin Er Shi reigned only for three years and was forced to commit suicide eventually by Zhao Gao at the age of 22. Qin Er Shi was condemned by Zhao Gao after his death and was denied a royal burial. He was buried in modern 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.


  1. ^ Loewe 2000, p. 652.
  2. ^ Vol.8 of Zizhi Tongjian indicate that Zhao Gao intended to make Ziying of Qin emperor in the 9th month of the 3rd year of Huhai's reign. The month corresponds to 16 Oct to 13 Nov 207 BCE in the proleptic Julian calendar. Since Huhai committed suicide just before this event, his death date should be in c. October 207 BCE.
  3. ^ Loewe 2004, p. 575.
  4. ^ Loewe 2000, pp. 652–653.
  5. ^ Xiong & Hammond 2019, p. 23.
  6. ^ Baxter, William & al. "Baxter–Sagart Old Chinese Reconstruction Archived April 25, 2012, at the Wayback Machine", pp. 49–50. 2011.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty in English translated. [1996] (1996). Sima, Qian. Burton Watson as translator. Edition: 3, reissue, revised. Columbia. University Press. ISBN 0-231-08169-3, ISBN 978-0-231-08169-6. p. 35.
  8. ^ a b Wikisource. Records of the Grand Historian, Chapter 6. (in Chinese)
  9. ^ Wikisource. Records of the Grand Historian, Chapter 7. (in Chinese)
  10. ^ Lucas Christopoulos; Dionysian rituals and the Golden Zeus of China http://www.sino-platonic.org/complete/spp326_dionysian_rituals_china.pdf pp.68-113
  11. ^ a b c Sima Qian. Dawson, Raymond Stanley; Brashier, K. E., eds. (2007). The First Emperor: Selections from the Historical Records. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-922634-4. pp. 81–3. "In the seventh month on bingyin the First Emperor passed away at Pingtai in Shaqiu... Prince Huhai succeeded to the throne and became Second Generation Emperor. In the ninth month the First Emperor was buried at Mount Li."
  12. ^ "中國考古簡訊:秦始皇去世地沙丘平臺遺跡尚存". Xinhua News Agency. Retrieved on 28 January 2009.
  13. ^ a b c d Tung, Douglas S. Tung, Kenneth. [2003] (2003). More Than 36 Stratagems: A Systematic Classification Based On Basic Behaviours. Trafford Publishing. ISBN 1-4120-0674-0, ISBN 978-1-4120-0674-3.
  14. ^ (丞相臣斯、御史臣去疾昧死頓首言曰:「今道遠而詔期羣臣,恐大臣之有謀,請立子胡亥爲代後。」王曰:「可。」王死而胡亥立,即殺其兄扶蘇、中尉恬。) Wikisource. 趙正書
  15. ^ Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty in English translated. [1996] (1996). Ssu-Ma, Ch'ien. Sima, Qian. Burton Watson as translator. Edition: 3, reissue, revised. Columbia. University Press. ISBN 0-231-08169-3, ISBN 978-0-231-08169-6. pp. 64–70.
  16. ^ a b Theodore De Bary, William. Bloom, Irene. Chan, Wing-tsit. Adler, Joseph. Lufrano, John Richard. [2000] (2000). Sources of Chinese Tradition: From Earliest Times to 1600. Edition: 2, illustrated. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-10939-3, ISBN 978-0-231-10939-0.
  17. ^ Liang, Yuansheng. [2007] (2007). The Legitimation of New Orders: Case Studies in World History. Chinese University Press. ISBN 962-996-239-X, 9789629962395. p. 7.
  18. ^ Liang, Yuansheng. [2007] (2007). The Legitimation of New Orders: Case Studies in World History. Chinese University Press. ISBN 962-996-239-X, 9789629962395. p. 5.
  19. ^ a b Sima, Qian. Nienhauser, William H. [1994] (1994). The Grand Scribe's Records. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-34021-7, ISBN 978-0-253-34021-4. pp. 158–160.
  20. ^ Haw, Stephen G. [2007] (2007). Beijing a Concise History. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-39906-7. pp. 22–23.
  21. ^ Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty in English translated. [1996] (1996). Ssu-Ma, Ch'ien. Sima, Qian. Burton Watson as translator. Edition: 3, reissue, revised. Columbia. University Press. ISBN 0-231-08169-3, ISBN 978-0-231-08169-6. p. 192.
  22. ^ Twitchett, Dennis; Loewe, Michael, eds. (1986). The Cambridge History of China, Volume 1: The Ch'in and Han Empires, 221 BC–AD 220. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 84. ISBN 978-0-521-24327-8.
  23. ^ Koon, Wee Kek (4 May 2020). "The Hong Kong government has been accused of 'calling a deer a horse' – but where did the expression originate?". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 5 January 2021.


Qin Er Shi
Born: 229 BC Died: 207 BC
Regnal titles
Preceded by Emperor of China
Qin Dynasty
210–207 BC
Succeeded by