Zhao Gao pointing at a deer and calling it a horse-赵高指鹿为马

After Emperor Qin II Huai ascended to the throne, his extravagant and cruel nature surpassed even that of his father, Emperor Qin Shi Huang. On one hand, he deployed large numbers of craftsmen to construct the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, while on the other hand, he forced people across the nation to build the magnificent Epang Palace and dispatched numerous men to repair the Great Wall and guard the border passes. The countless millions of people conscripted for labor complained incessantly, causing great suffering, and the state expended significant resources. Although despised by the populace, Qin II Huai saw no fault in his actions. In his view, being an emperor meant indulging in pleasures, asserting dominion over all under heaven, and enjoying everything as one’s own, which he believed constituted the essence of ruling a state.

In 209 BC, immediately after his accession, Qin II Huai eagerly organized a royal tour, seeking to emulate Emperor Qin Shi Huang and display his authority to the people far and wide. Journeying eastward, he reached the vicinity of the sea before heading south to Kuaiji Commandery, then proceeded to the Liaodong Peninsula, indulging in leisurely pursuits before returning to Xianyang. Unsatisfied, he then stationed fifty thousand able-bodied men in Xianyang and commanded the nation to search for rare treasures and exotic animals to present to the palace.

Aside from his inherent cruelty and hedonism, another figure beside him fanned the flames of his actions: Zhao Gao.

Since Zhao Gao became Prime Minister, his word was law in the court. Qin II Huai placed utmost trust in him, willingly delegating all matters to Zhao Gao while he indulged in pleasures in the palace. Encouraged by Qin II Huai’s behavior, Zhao Gao gradually seized the reins of imperial power, using honeyed words to deceive the emperor into entrusting him with the actual governance. He also planted his relatives and trusted confidants in key positions. As Zhao Gao felt the throne drawing nearer, seemingly within his grasp, he pondered daily on how to seize it for himself. However, uncertain of the support he would garner from the courtiers, he conceived an absurd plan.

Bringing a deer into the court one morning, Zhao Gao led it before the throne. Qin II Huai, puzzled, asked, “Why did the Prime Minister bring a deer to court today?” Zhao Gao confidently replied, “Your Majesty, you are mistaken. This is a horse, not a deer.” Startled, Qin II Huai laughed and retorted, “Prime Minister, you are mistaken. This is a deer, not a horse.” Seeing the opportune moment, Zhao Gao smiled and said to Qin II Huai, “If Your Majesty doubts me, why not ask the courtiers? Let them decide whether it is a deer or a horse.” Turning to the courtiers, he wore a smile on his face. Sensing Zhao Gao’s cunning scheme, some timid and sycophantic courtiers immediately declared it to be a horse, while some righteous ministers insisted it was a deer. Qin II Huai, perplexed, looked from one to the other, but his reliance on Zhao Gao was deep-rooted. Thus, hesitantly, he said, “It seems I was mistaken. Indeed, this is a horse.” Zhao Gao chuckled inwardly, knowing full well that Qin II Huai would only heed his words, allowing him to act so audaciously.

Thereafter, Zhao Gao spared no effort in eliminating all courtiers who opposed him, even extending his purge to their families.

Taking advantage of Qin II Huai’s favoritism towards him, Zhao Gao wielded immense influence in the court, sowing chaos and tyranny. In doing so, he hastened the downfall of the Qin Dynasty, though he himself met an ignoble end.


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