Shih Huang Ti was the first, and arguably the greatest of all Chinese emperors. In his reign, he unified China under one Emperor and created a new dynasty.
At the time he was born, with the name Cheng about 259 B.C., the Chou dynasty (founded around 1100 B.C.) was waning. The Chou emperors no longer held much power, and China consisted of various feudal states all vying for power. Huang Ti's father was the ruler of one of these states, Ch'in, in the northwestern part of China.
The Ch'in philosophy was against that of Confucius. They were for a set of firm rules impartially enforced rather than believing that ruler who ruled by example could be successful, as Confucius did. Luckily for Cheng, Ch'in was currently the most powerful state in China when his father died. At 13, Cheng became the ruler of Ch'in, but did not take power for eight years, in between which a regency ruled. As soon as he took power, he executed his mother's lover and exiled the regent. He replaced the regent with his new chief advisor, Li Ssu.
By 221 B.C., Cheng conquered all of northern China. After that he took a new title, Ch'in Shih Huang Ti, "The first Emperor of Ch'in. He claimed the new dynasty would last 10,000 generations. Huang Ti quickly instituted his plan to make his dynasty last forever. He destroyed the former feudal system, and made China into 36 provinces, all tightly under central rule. The old lords were brought to the capital to make sure they didn't cause too much trouble. They were replaced with a governor and a general in each province, the governor in charge of civil affairs, and the general in charge of the military, so no one could gain too much power.
Huang Ti continued his conquering, taking portions of South China, which had never been held under the Chou Dynasty, including Canton. Now Huang Ti's empire stretched down to the South China Sea. To support his now huge empire, he constructed roads in a fashion similar to the Roman Empire, which allowed his armies quick movement from place to place. Also, and most importantly, to contain the barbarians to the north, who would later become the Mongols, he began to combine the local walls into one, which later become the Great Wall of China. In addition, he created a standard measurements, currency, language, and laws that would spread throughout China. However, his zeal for standardization became out of control. He had all the books in China burned except for Legalist philosophy and histories in 213. This would later make him considered an arch-villain, once Confucianism took power. Also, all the reforms and wars he was carrying out led to high taxes, which led to unhappy people. Several times attempts on his life were made. However, he lived to age 49, when he died of natural causes.
Huang Ti was buried in the most luxurious tomb ever built, which took up twenty square miles. He was buried with an army of 6,000 terra-cotta life size dolls.
After his death, the Ch'in dynasty fell apart. His son was overthrown within four years. Within a few years, the Han dynasty was established, and Confucianism was reestablished. However, the Han dynasty continued many of the policies Huang Ti had established.