Zhao Gao

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Zhao Gao (Chinese: 趙高; died 207 BC) was a close advisor to emperors during the Qin Dynasty of China. Considered as one of the most corrupt, villainous, violent and powerful eunuchs in Chinese history, Gao played an instrumental role in the downfall of the Qin Dynasty.

Early life[edit]

Further information: Eunuch § China

Zhao Gao was distantly related to the ruling house of the state of Zhao. According to the Shiji, Zhao Gao's parents committed crimes and were punished. Zhao Gao's brothers were castrated; it is unclear whether Zhao Gao himself was a eunuch or not.[1][dubious ] However Qin Shi Huang valued Zhao Gao since he was an expert in law and punishment.[clarification needed] This was very useful to Qin Shi Huang since he himself was always looking for ways to control the people by laws and punishments. Zhao Gao enjoyed a steady rise in position.

When Zhao was a minor official, he committed a crime punishable by death. Meng Yi was the official in charge of sentencing and he sentenced Zhao to death and removed him from the officials list as instructed by Qin Shi Huang.[citation needed] Zhao was later pardoned by Qin Shi Huang and returned to his official status.

Coup following Qin Shi Huang's death[edit]

At the end of the reign of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, Zhao was involved in the death of Marshal Meng Tian and his younger brother Meng Yi. Meng Tian, a reputable general and a supporter of the Emperor's oldest son Fusu, was stationed at the northern border, commanding more than 200,000 troops for the inconclusive campaign against the Huns. Following the sudden death of Qin Shi Huang at the Shaqiu prefecture, Zhao and the Imperial Secretariat Li Si persuaded the emperor's youngest son Huhai to falsify the emperor's will. The fake decree forced Fusu to commit suicide and stripped Meng Tian of his command. Harboring hatred for the entire Meng family due to his prior sentencing by Meng Yi, Zhao destroyed the Meng brothers by convincing Huhai to issue a decree that forced Meng Tian to commit suicide and have Meng Yi killed.[citation needed]

Qin Er Shi, who viewed Zhao Gao as his teacher, became the next Qin emperor.

Two years later, Zhao Gao also killed Li Si, ironically executing him via "The Five Pains" method, Li's own invention. The method consisted of having the victim's nose cut off, cutting off a hand and a foot, then the victim was castrated and finally cut in half in line with the waist. He also executed Li Si's family down to the third generation.

In 207 BC, rebellions rose one after another across China. Zhao was afraid that the Second Emperor might make him responsible for the uprisings. To preempt this, Zhao forced the emperor to commit suicide and installed his nephew, Fusu's son Ziying, as the new emperor. (Note: Some scholars pointed out that Fusu's son might be too young to plot the demise of Zhao Gao and Ziying might be a brother of the First Emperor instead.)

Ziying, however, knew that Zhao intended to kill him afterwards to appease the rebels, so he feigned illness on the day of the coronation, which forced Zhao to arrive at his residence to persuade him to attend. The moment Zhao arrived, Ziying, along with his two sons, immediately killed Zhao. Zhao's entire clan was annihilated afterwards on Ziying's orders.

Ziying soon surrendered to Liu Bang, and the Qin Dynasty collapsed, three years after the death of Qin Shi Huang, and less than twenty years after it was founded.

Calling a deer a horse[edit]

One Chinese idiom that is derived from an incident involving Zhao is "calling a deer a horse" (simplified Chinese: 指鹿为马; traditional Chinese: 指鹿為馬; pinyin: zhǐ lù wéi mǎ), meaning "deliberate misrepresentation for ulterior purposes". The Shiji records that Zhao, in an attempt to control the government, devised a loyalty test for court officials using a deer and horse:

Zhao Gao was contemplating treason but was afraid the other officials would not heed his commands, so he decided to test them first. He brought a deer and presented it to the Second Emperor but called it a horse. The Second Emperor laughed and said, "Is the chancellor perhaps mistaken, calling a deer a horse?" Then the emperor questioned those around him. Some remained silent, while some, hoping to ingratiate themselves with Zhao Gao, said it was a horse, and others said it was a deer. Zhao Gao secretly arranged for all those who said it was a deer to be brought before the law and had them executed instantly. Thereafter the officials were all terrified of Zhao Gao. Zhao Gao gained military power as a result of that. (tr. Watson 1993:70)

Alternative viewpoints[edit]

There is a conspiracy theory that Zhao Gao was a descendant of the royal family of the Kingdom of Zhao, which was destroyed by Qin, and Zhao Gao was seeking revenge on Qin. With Zhao Gao in charge of the Qin government, it was natural that the Qin Empire collapsed in such a short time. In fact, Zhao Gao killed all the sons and daughters of Qin Shi Huang, including the Second Emperor, Huhai. In revenge, Ziying killed Zhao Gao and all of his family members. Thus Zhao Gao or his brothers have no known descendants.

Li Kaiyuan (李開元), a historian from China, believes Zhao Gao was not a eunuch at all. He bases this in part on the fact eunuchs were not allowed to serve as prime minister, which Zhao did.


  1. ^ Loewe, Michael (2005). "On the Terms bao zi, yin gong, yin guan, huan, and shou: Was Zhao Gao a Eunuch?". T'oung Pao. Second 91 (4/5): 301–319. doi:10.1163/156853205774910124. JSTOR 4529012. 
Political offices
Preceded by
Li Si
Chancellor of China
208 BC – 207 BC
Succeeded by
Xiao He