Episode Seven – Qin Shi Huangdi versus Charles V

Today’s scrum is from the bottom of the Leaders bracket, and it pits the founder of the Qin dynasty of China, Shi Huangdi against the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

Qin Shi Huangdi
Qin Shi Huangdi

Zhao Zheng, better known as Qin Shi Huangdi or Shi Huangdi, was the founder of the Qin dynasty. He is also credited with being the first Emperor of a unified China. I will use both names in the podcast where appropriate. 

Many people today known him for two projects, the creation of a unified Great Wall of China and, found in 1974, the Terracotta Army, guarding his tomb.

Born in 259 BCE, Zhao was the son of a prince who would shortly become King Zhuangxaing of Qin. It is here that we come across our first bit of controversy regarding Zhao. Much of the history of Shi Huangdi comes from a Han dynasty historian, Sima Quan. The Han’s had a very dim view of Zhao, for reasons that will become apparent later.

The controversy over who his real father was comes from here. Han historians claimed that his father was a wealthy benefactor of Zhao’s father who helped him gain the throne, Lu Buwei, who would become chancellor to the king, then regent to his son when he ascended to the throne.

To hint at Zhao being illegitimate would harm his reputation for future generations, something they often did when writing about him. Lu Buwei was a merchant, which in that era, regardless of your wealth, was considered a low-class occupation. This in and of itself makes it highly unlikely that he would be the biological father. The king would view a son with questionable fatherhood with great disdain which was not the case. Later historians concurred that it is hard to believe that Zhangxiang would make a bastard son his successor.

Zhao’s father died when he was only 13 which is why Lu Buwei became regent and prime minister. Again, we face controversy as the Han historian claimed that Lu Buwei had an affair with the Dowager Queen but fearing he’d be found out, placed a fake eunuch named Lao Ai in with the dowager. The eunuch attempted a coup against the young king but failed miserably. Lao Ai was captured and executed with Lu Buwei committing suicide.

In 235 BCE, Zhao assumed the full role as king. He then began to attack and conquer the six other states of China starting with one of the weaker ones the Yan. This period of conquest came at the end of what is known as the Warring States Period which began around 475 BCE.

The king was faced with continued strife within his growing kingdom with two assassination attempts early on. Both were dealt with brutally which set him up for his campaign to unite all of China. He overtook the Han state in 230 which is one of the main reasons their future historians were so cynical about Zhao. Following the Han, they defeated the Zhao in 228, Wei in 225 and then the big fish of the time, the Chu in 223.

The Yan, despite their weakness, was not subdued until 222 and in 221 the armies of the Qin took the Qi. For the first time in China’s history, they were a united people under one king. It is here we change names of the ruler from Zhao Zheng to Qin Shi Huangdi. Shi Huangdi roughly translates to First Sovereign Emperor.

He began major administrative reforms, especially getting rid of the feudalistic aristocratic family system by forcing the privileged class to move to the capital of Xiangyang, which is similar to what Louis XIV did in France centuries later when he had all of the aristocrats stay in Versailles.

Another significant reform was to standardize measurements all the way down to the axle lengths of carriages as well as standardizing laws and rules of language.

From 220 until his death, Qin Shi Huangdi began his inspection of the country he united. In 213 BCE, one of his most controversial orders was given, the famous burning of the books. Supposedly, most books on Philosophy, especially those of Confucius, which did not fit the emperor’s way of thinking were burned. Why do I say supposedly? Because our sole source is Sima Qin, the Han dynasty author of the Records of the Grand Historian. Most present-day historians think that a book burning did occur, but it was nowhere near what was claimed.

Qin Shi Huangdi pushed for three major public works, the first two have been known to us for centuries; the Great Wall and the Lingqu Canal.

The last major work was discovered by farmers in 1974, the guardians of the tomb of the emperor, the Terra Cotta Army. 

Zhao Zheng died on September 10, 210 BCE, likely from mercury poisoning, from pills he was taking to achieve, quite ironically, immortality. Now is the time for our “Putting it into Perspective” segment.

Antiochus III assumes the Seleucid throne. Philip IV assumes the throne of Macedon. The Second Punic war begins between Carthage led by Hannibal against Rome. Ptolemy IV of Egypt defeats Antiochus at Raphia. Hannibal crushes Roman forces at Cannae, and Antiochus heads east to Bactria

As you can see, this is a busy time in the ancient Western world as it was in China. Interestingly enough, there is substantial evidence that all of the parties mentioned above were somewhat aware of each other’s issue. An excellent source for this opinion is a book by Michael Scott entitled, Ancient Worlds: A Global History of Antiquity. 

Now we move on to his opponent, born 1710 years after Zhao’s death, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.

Charles V, HRE
Charles V, HRE

Born on February 24, 1500, in Ghent, Flanders, now Belgium, to Philip I of Castile and Joan, who would later be known as Joan the Mad. To say that Charles was born of royal blood may be the understatement of the day. Few could rival his pedigree in all of history. His paternal grandparents were Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I and Mary, Duchess of Burgundy. Charles’s maternal grandparents were Isabella I and Ferdinand II, the king, and queen of Aragon and Castille. Talk about being born into the purple.

He was raised in his early years by his aunt, Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands. Charles’s spiritual guide was another heavyweight, one Adrian of Utrecht who would become Pope Adrian VI.

At this point, I have to say that if Battle Ground History was about who was the most well-connected person in world history, we could stop right here with Charles. Talk about things being laid out for you from birth; this is the guy whose picture is in the dictionary defining the word connected. 

By the age of 15, Charles was already the Duke of Burgundy. Quickly after that, on January 23, 1516, Ferdinand II passed away. After some wrangling and internal squabbling, Charles was proclaimed King of Aragon and Castille as Charles I.

In 1519 he was made King of Germany after the death of his grandfather Maximilian I. When he was recalled to Germany, it caused strife in Spain as the person he left behind, Adrian wasn’t strong enough to hold things together. With his crowning in Germany came the title of Holy Roman Emperor-Elect. If ever you wanted to take this title and avert controversy, this was not the time.

In 1521, a theologian by the name of Martin Luther presented his defense relating to the Protestant Reformation, where he was asked to renounce or reaffirm his views. What followed was the Edict of Worms. Here is part of the decree coming from the newly crowned Charles V. 

“For this reason, we forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favor the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manned of proceeding of said Luther. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.”

This was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and would start the battle between the Catholics and Protestants, some of which continues to this day.

By this time, Charles had to face what was to be the biggest thorn in his side, his arch-rival, the King of France, Francis I who had earlier laid claim as the rightful Holy Roman Emperor. 

During the coming years, Charles would create powerful alliances to counterbalance Francis’s equally potent allies. Charles’s aunt was Catherine of Aragon who persuaded her husband at the time, Henry VIII to join with her nephew against France. Henry was none too happy to make that happen.

The French worked with the Venetians to battle the combined force of Charles, England and Pope Leo X who captured Francis during one of the battles. To gain his freedom, the king of France gave up his rights, for the moment, of Burgundy. This was in 1521 and was to be only the first of many battles between two heavyweights of Europe.

Right after his release, Francis reneged on the Treaty of Madrid claiming coercion. Sides changed with the Pope now leading a league with England and France along with parts of Italy against Charles in 1527. Henry VIII though backed out of the alliance when the Pope refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. 

In 1536, we had the third war with Francis. This was about the succession of the Dukedom of Milan. Which didn’t settle anything but instead brought a new player into the European dynastic mess, namely the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman I also known as Suleiman the Magnificent, who would side with the French. Yes, I can reveal to you that Suleiman is one of the contestants in a future podcast, episode 37.

Charles’s conflict with the Ottoman’s turned out to be expensive and complicated. Charles made overtures to the Persian Safavid Empire, but nothing was to come of it.

The Protestant Reformation was a major event in his reign. It was also to cause splits within his many kingdoms, especially within Germany. Rebellions were happening all over, much to Charles’s chagrin. He was unable to come up with a solution which is no disgrace as no one after did.

One of the most important acts of Charles’s reign was the sanctioning of the conquest of the peoples of South America and the enormous amount of wealth that it brought with it. The massive piles of silver that came into Spain as a result of the work of the conquistadors made Spain the wealthiest nation in the world at the time. It also meant the end of the Aztec and Incan empires along with a devastating loss of life to these advanced peoples. 

The size and diversity of his “empire” took a toll on Charles. Piece by piece he gave up his realms starting with the Duchy of Milan which he gave to his son Philip in 1554. Then he abdicated his throne in Sicily, the Netherlands, Spain in January 1556 then finally in September of that year, the emperorship of the Holy Roman Empire. 

Charles retired to the Monastery of Yuste suffering from gout and other ailments. At the age of 58 in 1558, Charles died of what we believe to be malaria. His years of rule and war had worn him out.

Time for the second “Put it into Perspective” segment of the podcast.

Moctezuma II, the Aztec ruler is deposed due to his captivity by Herman Cortez, Verrazano enters the future New York harbor becoming the first European to see what would become the island of Manhattan, King Henry VIII of England marries Anne Boleyn, Nicholas Copernicus publishes On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres which puts forth the concept of a heliocentric universe instead of the geocentric model and Ivan the Terrible leads his troops to victory during the Siege of Kazan.

Let’s start counting the points for each of these titan’s of history.

When it comes to a positive effect on their country, we have a problem with Charles V, namely, what country do we judge his performance? Spain? The Netherlands? Austria? Holy Roman Empire? My choice is all of them. The one state that he had the most significant effect on was, of course, Spain. They became incredibly wealthy, although they did squander it in the coming decades.

Since the Netherlands was controlled by the Spanish, I don’t see how they benefited. As for the Holy Roman Empire, his support of his brother Ferdinand who was the King of Hungary helped to stem the tide of the expanding Ottoman Empire which was halted at the Siege of Vienna in 1529. For the rest of his time on the throne, he had to send resources and troops to continue the battle against the Ottomans.

All in all, Charles did an admirable job in keeping his vast holdings together and thriving. Considering the enormity of his tasks, I give him 32 points.

Next up we have Qin Shi Huang and his bringing together of all of the lands of China at the time. This was an incredible feat considering the centuries of fighting during the Warring States period of Chinese history that preceded his reign. You cannot minimize this achievement. This part of his country’s history saw the death of an estimated 1.5 million people with some figures being many times greater. 

While his empire crashed and splintered shortly after his death, it showed the future generations of rulers that a unified China was a possibility. For this reason, I give Shi Huangdi the full 40 points.

As for the effect each had on the world’s history in the long run, I had to think about this for quite a while. What I decided was that both men had enormous influences on the world with Charles having an ever so slight edge with his leadership of a diverse number of countries. The Holy Roman Emperor gets the 25 points with Huangdi getting 22.

Next up is the twenty points for their effect on the rest of the world at their time. Here we have hands down, overwhelming winner with Charles V. His vast empire covered South America and most of Europe with Qin only covering China, although the land masses were similar in size. Charles gets 20 points, Shi Huangdi only 10.

Finally, we have to give out fifteen points for the length of their reigns. For the Chinese emperor, I am going to start with his ascension to the throne of the Qin as the starting point in 247 BCE, ending with his death in 220. His time on the throne accounts for a long 27 years. As for Charles V, I’m starting his time with his ascension to the throne of Spain in 1516 ending with his abdication in 1556. This gives him a 40-year reign and the full 15 points. Qin Shi Huang gets 12 points. 

Let’s add things up. Qin received 84 points. Charles V received 87. So, with the narrowest of margins, the winner of today’s battle and moving on to the second round, is the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. He will be facing the winner of Louis XIV of France, the Sun King or US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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