Emperor Qin Shi Huang died of illness in the sandy hills-始皇帝病死沙丘

In 210 BC, Emperor Qin Shi Huang planned to travel south to inspect the situation in the southeast, marking his fifth inspection tour. Accompanied by Prime Minister Li Si, Prefect Zhao Gao, and his beloved youngest son Hu Hai, the entourage departed from Xianyang in October. They first arrived at Yunmeng (located near Xiaogan in central-eastern Hubei Province), where Emperor Qin Shi Huang offered sacrifices to Emperor Shun from afar, then proceeded from Danyang into the territory of Zhejiang, crossing the Qiantang River, and reaching Kuaiji Commandery (in present-day Suzhou, Jiangsu Province). On Mount Kuaiji, he worshipped Great Yu and had his achievements inscribed on a large stone. Subsequently, they traveled north from Kuaiji Commandery to Langya (present-day Langya, Shandong), and then continued northward to Rongcheng Mountain (within present-day Weihai, Shandong), and finally arrived at Zhifu (northern part of the Shandong Peninsula). From there, the touring party turned westward to return to Xianyang. However, when they reached Pingyuan Crossing (south of present-day Pingyuan, Shandong), Emperor Qin Shi Huang collapsed due to overwork and the strain of the long journey. Despite repeated diagnoses and treatments by the imperial physicians, his condition did not improve. Concerned, they arranged for Emperor Qin Shi Huang to recuperate at the Sand Dune Palace (northwest of present-day Guangzong, Hebei).

Aware of the severity of his illness, Emperor Qin Shi Huang hastily summoned Zhao Gao to his side and instructed him to write a letter to Crown Prince Fusu. At that time, Fusu was stationed with General Meng Tian in Shangjun. Emperor Qin Shi Huang intended to pass the throne to Fusu and requested his immediate return to Xianyang. However, Emperor Qin Shi Huang did not live to see this letter delivered to Fusu.

Zhao Gao was skilled in calligraphy and legal codes, and Emperor Qin Shi Huang valued him highly. He appointed Zhao Gao as Prefect of the Central Chariot Bureau and entrusted him with the education of Prince Hu Hai. Therefore, Zhao Gao and Hu Hai had a close relationship, and Hu Hai sought Zhao Gao’s advice in all matters.

After Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s death, Zhao Gao held the posthumous edict in his hands, feeling both excited and anxious. With ambitious plans, he sought to find a candidate whom he could control as the new emperor. Fusu was not a suitable candidate as he had a strained relationship with Zhao Gao, and there was animosity between him and Meng Tian. Zhao Gao believed that if Fusu ascended the throne, his own fate would be uncertain. Therefore, Hu Hai was the best choice. With Hu Hai’s reliance on him and Zhao Gao’s persuasive words, Hu Hai quickly agreed to the plan. Zhao Gao then approached Prime Minister Li Si. Initially, Li Si disagreed, but under Zhao Gao’s coercion and inducement, he acquiesced.

Zhao Gao and Li Si secretly altered the posthumous edict, appointing Hu Hai as the heir apparent, and sent a letter to Fusu, purportedly written in Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s name, requesting Fusu and Meng Tian to commit suicide. Subsequently, they falsely claimed that Emperor Qin Shi Huang was too weak to appear in public, and all matters would be handled through them. They returned to Xianyang in a covert manner.

Shortly thereafter, news of Fusu and Meng Tian’s deaths spread. The trio then announced Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s death to the world and supported Hu Hai as the Second Emperor of Qin. The ministers were kept in the dark, and no one suspected anything amiss. After Hu Hai ascended the throne, Li Si remained as Prime Minister, and Zhao Gao did not receive a promotion. However, Zhao Gao effectively held the power in the court. Those who had previously accused Zhao Gao were falsely accused by him and reported to Hu Hai, who, without hesitation, ordered the execution of these senior officials. Hu Hai, fearing exposure of his usurpation, even executed his own siblings. Li Si, unable to tolerate such atrocities, voiced his dissent and was sentenced to death by Hu Hai, meeting a cruel fate of being executed by waist chopping, along with his entire family. Finally, Zhao Gao smoothly ascended to the position of Prime Minister.


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