Chinese history

The First Qin Emperor

Chinese history

Rob Stallard delves into the myths and legends surrounding China's most important Emperor, the article first appeared in SACU's China Eye magazine in 2007.

The Chinese film 'Hero' has recently been voted into the top 30 of 'must see' films of all time. The cinematography is truly breathtaking, and I found the historical setting fascinating too. It is set at the time of the First Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi and I wanted to know more about him. I looked in vain for an article through an archive of thirty years of SACU magazines. I knew he was associated with the Great Wall; the Terracotta Warriors and an awful lot else. So I thought it long overdue to right this deficiency.

Whole books have been written about him and this short piece seeks to create a view of him different what you might find in an encyclopaedia.

King of the Qin

First the basic facts. In 246BCE Zheng, then only 13 years old came to throne of the kingdom of Qin. Qin occupied a similar area to the modern province of Shaanxi, bestride the Wei River. It was sandwiched between the nomadic peoples to the northwest and rich farmland to the east. China had been divided for hundreds of years into a number of 'Warring States' and each kingdom seemed to be incessant war with its neighbours (compare this to Europe at the time of the Middle Ages). The capital city was Xianyang just to the Northwest of modern day Xi'an. Confucius (Kong Fuzi) had been dead for over two hundred years. The Iron Age had begun; iron was replacing bronze as the metal of choice for weapons and utensils. Illiterate Celtic tribes inhabited Britain. Rome had a period of peace between the First and Second Punic Wars (the time of Hannibal crossing the Alps).

Warring States

King Zheng founded the empire by the military conquest of all these 'warring' neighbouring states : Han in 230 BCE; Zhao 228 BCE; Wei 225 BCE; Chu 223 BCE; Yan 222 BCE and finally Qi 221 BCE. Scholars dispute as to what gave the Qin the winning edge in battle; some say it was the purely down to numerical superiority of solders others to the fierce nomadic blood that had mingled with the native Chinese of the Qin kingdom and yet others attribute it to the use of iron weapons rather than bronze.

It is during this period of war that the film 'Hero' is set. The main character 'Nameless' of the film, played by Jet Li, meets King Zheng. Three martial arts masters from the neighbouring state of Zhao are embroiled in a complex plot to assassinate the Qin leader. One assassin is a Chinese chess master and one a master calligrapher. One of the first scenes features a blind master musician playing a qin (or its more ancient equivalent, see this site for all about the qin musical instrument ). The film certainly draws heavily on cultural heritage.

First Emperor

Qin Shihuangdi

When Zheng became Emperor, the reforms started. He did not behave like any of the leaders who had ruled before him. It is the depth and rigour of the reforms that define his accomplishment of creating the Chinese nation. Everything was different. The language, the systems of weights and measures were all changed to the Qin model. The aristocracies from the conquered kingdoms were forcible resettled at the Imperial City of Xianyang so he could keep an eye on them. Complex taxation systems were introduced. History was restarted, all historical writings from more ancient times were deemed illegal and were burnt if discovered. It was even illegal just to mention historical events in everyday conversation.

To break up the feudal system he introduced a centralised system dividing military and civilian responsibilities. A province was no longer under the control of one man. To signal the start of a new dynasty he changed the official colour from red to black and the official number changed to six. So the Mandarin's hats, for instance, now had to measure six by six. The ruling element changed from Fire used by the Zhou dynasty to Water (the next in the control cycle of elements as water controls fire).

He brought an end to war, all the weapons were taken, melted down and cast into huge statues (some say commemorative bells) that stood before the Imperial Palace as a symbol of the commitment to a new and lasting peace.

Behind the throne was a figure of equal importance, his chief Minister Li Si. It is likely that many of the reforms were really his idea. He was of the 'Legalist' school of philosophy, which in broad terms stated that the people needed strong governance otherwise chaos would reign. A police state was introduced together with conscription into the army and all manner of regulations. Everyone was put into productive work - excluding any form of scholarship. Large scale 'public' projects were carried out including the construction of a road network; the Great Wall and his own, vast mausoleum.

The King was not your average aristocratic layabout. He made regular trips around the empire, walked the streets of his Capital incognito and set himself a quota of work to do each day - measured by the weight of books to be processed. He is believed to have only needed one hour's sleep each night. He was paranoid, but as he was the subject of assassination attempts, understandably so. Bad tempered and superstitious he had many of the attributes of a megalomaniac autocrat. At least 100,000 people died as a result of his policies, probably many more.

In the film he is portrayed as imperious and wily but by no means a brute - a tough man for tough times but above all, a man of vision.


End of Empire

As with many great reforming leaders, the Emperor believed he was founding a new system that would last forever. He gave himself the title Shi Huangdi Shi Huangdi = 'First August Emperor' in the belief that his son would be the Second and then his son the Third and so on down the centuries. The use of huangdi Huangdi 'august emperor' was probably chosen as a homophone of huangdi Huangdi the name of the mythical Yellow Emperor. And yet on his death in 210BCE (ironically, on yet another trip to seek immortality) it all quickly fell apart. Li Si made sure that a younger brother who he believed he could better control supplanted the heir apparent. This proved a bad misjudgement. Another minister Zhao Gao gained the ascendancy over the new Second Emperor (Er Shi). Li Si was exiled and killed but it was not long before both Er Shi and Zhao Gao were dead too and the Empire broke up and descended into war. The conflicts of the mighty, as ever, reflected the general unrest of the population. After 36 years of rule, taxation had risen out of all proportion to the ability to pay; the all-embracing regulations; the forced conscription for public works and army service disrupted normal family life. The original 'warring' kingdoms sprang back into brief life.

After five years of conflict, a peasant leader, Liu Bang, founded the Han dynasty that reunified the Empire and consolidated the main elements of the Qin reforms. These have now remained intact for two thousand years. However, Confucius and his teaching replaced Legalism as the guiding philosophy.

The Emperor is buried in the immense mausoleum complex at Lintong to the East of Xian. It is the location of the world famous terracotta warriors and took 38 years to build - starting soon after he became Emperor. Most of the huge site has yet to be excavated.

Terracotta army
Terracotta warriors in a massed block, Xian. © Sally & Richard Greenhill Photo Library

Imperial Myths

There are many myths about the First Emperor which have arisen from half-truths.

The First Emperor built the Great Wall of China

He consolidated and linked pre-existing walls. The Great Wall we see today is almost all a Ming dynasty creation of the fifteenth century. The border of China changed over the centuries so the line of the Wall had to change too. Admittedly he did invent the concept of 'A Great Wall' to divide the nomads from the settled farmlands.

The First Emperor devised the Chinese language

All the lands he conquered were forced to adopt the existing language and small seal script of the Qin kingdom, a new language was not devised. In the film great store is placed on the 19 ways that the character for 'sword' could be written. King Zheng sought to rid his new empire of this confusion.

The country is called 'China' after the First Qin Emperor

The origin of names is often impossible to track down precisely but our word 'China' is probably derived from the Sanskrit word 'Chinasthana' (meaning country to the East of India) possibly connected to the Qin kingdom. The name was in use long before the First Qin Emperor. The Chinese have never used 'China' as the name for their own country. There names used include Zhong guo 'Zhongguo' (literally central kingdom) used even before the Qin dynasty; Zhong hua 'Zhonghua' (literally central prosperity) and Han 'Han' (after the Han dynasty).

The First Emperor killed all the scholars

It is not clear how many scholars were killed and it is likely that the Han dynasty will have besmirched his actions to quell any remaining loyalty to the preceding Qin. It is probably that a group of scholars dismayed by the new reforms plotted a revolution and they were put to death for treason.

The First Emperor was the First Chinese Emperor

Strictly speaking he only claimed to be the First Qin Emperor - the first of a new dynasty. He controlled the Empire of the state of Qin not a new nation. Many Chinese may look back into the mists of the preceding Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties for a preceding 'Chinese' Emperor or perhaps choose the mythical Yellow Emperor.

Western Parallels

In the UK we do not have a single figure who has had such influence, no King can claim to have founded the UK or the constituent countries in the same sort of way and we had to wait over a thousand years to achieve the same level of social organisation. There are elements of King Arthur, Alfred and William the Conqueror in the way he united the country but none to the same extent. It was not until the conquest by a foreign culture under William that the feudal kingdoms in England became unified and the Norman (Viking) system was enforced.

The closest parallel, perhaps, in UK history is Oliver Cromwell. He brought in long-lasting reforms but his system of government died with him. Even though the Stuart dynasty was restored Cromwell's reforms have had lasting impact. We have ambivalent views about Cromwell down to the present day just as the Chinese have of Qin Shi Huangdi.

Some other countries have had leaders with similar reforming zeal. Napoleon of France and Peter the Great of Russia are more modern examples.

Hidden Symbolism

Hero's Director Zhang Yimou has followed recent tradition in embedding symbolism into his film. Just like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon there is much more to note than immediately meets the eye. Scenes are beautifully choreographed with a kaleidoscope of colours. Red symbolises passion with the intellect disengaged and so this is used for warrior fighting scenes. Green is an earth colour symbolising youth and innocence and is used for an early flashback scene. White is the Chinese colour of mourning and is heavily used in scenes where death is threatening. Dark blue is used for the Emperor symbolising coolness and intellectual strength. The timing of the filming had to match the seasons. A key scene is shot in autumn and the director had people monitoring woodlands so that it could be filmed when the leaves were just the exact shade of orange and about to fall. At the end of the film the new dynasty is heralded with a dramatic vista of dawn with bright light flooding the screen.

Ambiguity is left unresolved. Who is the true 'Hero' of the film the brave assassin 'Nameless' or the Emperor?

Despicable Despot or Founding Father?

In most Western histories you will read the quote describing him as 'with the eye of a jackal and the heart of a wolf'. The film 'Hero' gives him a much more positive persona. I was as surprised by this as I would have been if Attila was portrayed as a man of great scholarship. With China entering the mainstream World it is interesting to muse as to whether this is an overdue re-evaluation or just a long-held misconception of Chinese attitudes to the man.

Of central importance in the film is the phrase 'our land' which is translated from the Chinese Tian xia tian xia (literally 'under heaven' or the 'whole World'). It is an ambiguous phrase as it has meant both 'the civilised world' and 'the empire'. Some commentators have labelled the film as one of the greatest propaganda films of all time with its gloss of Chinese nationalism. Heroism is not mere personal ambition it is for the greater good of the nation. Certainly the fact that the massed ranks of thousands of Qin soldiers were provided by the Chinese Army indicates a strong level of state support for the film.

Chairman Mao was fond of contradictions and the First Emperor provided the same contradictions that he faced in founding his 'New China' - the modern 'People's Republic of China' out of the ruin of the Japanese and Civil Wars. He too introduced bold reforms that led to the deaths of many thousands of people. His new system has proven short-lived. But it was Mao's attempt to restart history that is the most telling parallel. Mao believed that the Chinese propensity for backward looking was what halted any hopes of development. When Mao attacked the four olds (old customs; old culture; old habits and old ideas) he was following the First Emperor. Mao also broke down the existing social order of landlords and peasants. It's now become plausible to say that he was more a follower of Qin than of Marx.

To quote Philip Short in his book 'Mao: A Life': "Mao knew by heart the lessons of the dynastic histories. It was not chance that led him to choose, among all his imperial predecessors, the First Emperor of Qin - who throughout Chinese history had been feared and reviled as the epitome of harsh rule - as the man against whom he wished to measure himself. 'You accuse us of acting like Qin Shihuangdi,' he once told a group of liberal intellectuals. 'You are wrong. We surpass him a hundred times. When you berate us for imitating his despotism, we are happy to agree! Your mistake was that you did not say so enough.'"

William Blake's proverb “The cut worm forgives the plough” (from ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’) seems an apt aphorism to apply to the attitude of reformers such as Mao and Qin Shi Huangdi.

When you next watch the film 'Hero' perhaps you may also ponder whether the Emperor deserved an assassin's sword or a grateful nation's acclaim.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2007 reprinted from SACU's China Eye magazine Issue 13, 2007

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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