Chinese History - 221-206 BC - Qin / Ch'in Dynasty
As the Contending States in the last years of the Chou battled one another, one western state, the Ch'in, had become a well-ordered state with a large, well-trained army. By 230 BC the other Warring States had worn themselves down to a remaining six. The history of the State of Ch'in slides almost insensibly into that of the Imperial Ch'in Dynasty. Chao Hsiang Wang, who had reigned fifty-two years over the State of Ch'in, died and left the succession to Hiao Wen Wang. After a reign of but three days this ruler (if we venture to give him the title) died, yielding up his scarcely occupied throne to Prince / Jen, who took the name of Chiang Hsiang Wang.
The chief minister of this sovereign was a former traveling merchant of the name of Lii Pu-wei who became known, first as literatus and then as counselor. As literatus he had such confidence in his own ability that he suspended a thousand pieces of gold at the gates of his house as a reward to any person who could better his composition by the addition or omission of a single word. Such a temptation, hardly to be resisted by any modern critic, apparently fell in the way of no literary opponent. As minister Lii Puwei betrayed his master's confidence by an intrigue with the Queen which resulted in the birth of the Prince Cheng, afterwards the famous First Emperor.
Chiang banished his minister but adopted the boy, who was left to fill the throne, made vacant by his adopted father's death, at the age of thirteen. The uncertainty about his birth continued to be a stumbling block to some, and later on became a convenient tool for his enemies and detractors. It makes no difference to the real greatness of "the Napoleon of China."
About a generation before the end of the Chou dynasty a certain politician was advising one of the feudal Kings to make peace with another with whom he was then engaged in hostilities. "I saw this morning," he said, "on the beach a mussel open its shell to sun itself. Immediately an oyster catcher thrust in its bill and as promptly the mussel closed its shell and held the bird fast. 'If it doesn't rain soon,' said the oyster catcher, 'there will be a dead mussel.' 'And,' replied the mussel, 'if you don't get out of this soon there will be a dead oyster catcher.' Meanwhile up came a fisherman and caught them both." "I greatly fear," added the politician, "that the Ch'in state will be our fisherman." The fear proved only too well grounded.
The Ch'in armies moved eastward. Within the decade each of the Warring States was conquered, and China was unified under Ch'in's king. As his first act, he bestowed upon himself the title Shihuangdi, or the "First August Emperor." In this pivotal year of 221 BC, the land took its name from this dynasty, thus the Middle Kingdom became known as China.
The First Emperor's reign was brief but busy. In twelve years he accomplished much, standardizing the Chinese script, width of roads, weights and measures, and metal currency. He undertook monumental building projects including constructing over 4,000 miles of tree-lined imperial highways and over 2,000 miles of the Great Wall. Untold numbers of new palaces were built, including an immense edifice for his primary residence called the Nearby Palace. In the midst of all this, the First Emperor increased the size of his army with which he defended his borders and conquered new lands. With so much toil there was bound to be trouble. These ambitious projects required the service of hundreds of thousands, and the First Emperor compelled service with brutal force, disrupting the commoners' lives. Life at court was no better as scholars and members of court lived under the threat of death if they displeased the Emperor.
In Ch'in Shih Huang Ti China found a ruler who had the Imperial idea beyond any of his predecessors. Beyond the doubt as to the legitimacy of his birth there is something puzzling about his racial affinity. The theory has even been ventured that he was in some way connected with that Mauryan dynasty which at this very time was ruling in India in the person of Acoka. The latter was successfully achieving in India what Shih Huang Ti attempted to accomplish in China, even to the religious revolution which accompanied the consolidation of the Empire. It would be strange indeed could we but accept this theory as proven, but all that can be said here is that the portrait of the first great Chinese Emperor presents some striking contrasts to the usual Chinese type. In any case, as we have said above, his greatness is incontestable, in spite of the fact that the Confucian literati endeavored to do for him by abuse what the Brahmins succeeded in doing for Ashoka by ten centuries of silence.
Three special claims to distinction must be conceded to Ch'in Shih Huang Ti. The first of these is in the use of the name China as a designation for the whole country. While not certain, it is in the highest degree probable, that it was on account of the prestige of the first Emperor's name and state that the use of the term China came about. In any case, Ch'in Shih Huang Ti was the country's first real conqueror, going about the matter deliberately and accomplishing his aim thoroughly. The two great generals whose assistance was most helpful were Wang Tsien and Li Sim. The former subdued the state of Chao in BC 229 and was then ordered to proceed to the subjugation, of Ch'u. He demanded an army of 600,000 men for the task, but Li Sin, his rival, offered to do it with only 200,000 and was, consequently, badly defeated. Wang Tsien then gained his point, collected the largest army China had ever seen and, wearing out his adversary through his Fabian tactics, brought the campaign to a successful conclusion in BC 222. By BC 221 the Emperor was master of all China and assumed the title of Shih Huang Ti, or first Emperor, proclaiming that all his successors should date their reigns from his and be known as Second, Third, and so on, " even to the ten thousandth generation." Alas! for the vanity of human pride!
The Great Wall was built, from the Liaotung Gulf to the western extremity of the Province of Shensi, in pursuance of the policy of protecting the northern boundary from the Tatars. The enterprise necessitated the labors of tens of thousands of men for many years, although in some places the work was limited to connecting portions of already existing walls. The general in charge was Meng T'ien who, on the death of his master and the murder of his successor, committed suicide. It is strange that to this famous builder of the Great Wall of China should be also assigned the invention of the hair brush used for writing.
Huge as the work of constructing the Great Wall undoubtedly was, it was only one portion of a general plan for connecting the various parts of the Empire with good roads and so making the defense more practical than it had hitherto been. Indeed, admiration of the Wall is even excelled by the feeling of wonder at the many other great engineering undertakings, the piercing of mountains, the leveling of hills, the bridging of rivers, by means of which the conquests of Ch'in Shih Huang Ti were made secure and the imperial unity consolidated. Other notable works include the erection of the great palace of A-Fong Kung, near Hienyang, on which it is said 700,000 criminals and prisoners were employed at forced labor. The central hall was of such dimensions that ten thousand persons could be assembled within it and banners sixty feet in height might be unfurled below. Another was the building of the many storied tower in the province of Shantung, overtopping the hills and commanding an extensive view of the Eastern Sea.
The real reason for the destruction of the Confucian books and for the persecution of the literati may never be known, as the accounts which have survived contradict one another. Some say that the Confucianists reproved the Emperor for unfilial conduct in the banishment of his mother. Others assert that it was the Emperor's ambition to be known as the originator of all that was great in Chinese history and wanted no prior records in his way. A quite plausible account, given by the historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien relates that a certain Minister of learning reproaching the Emperor for breaking down the feudal sj'stem, Li Ssu (known as the inventor of the Lesser Seal style of writing) sprang to the defense and warmly advocated the destruction of everything which belonged to the past as a policy which would stimulate the progress of the Empire. It may be that the brilliant conqueror found the Confucian system rather too inelastic for his own grandiose and imperial projects and that he was genuinely glad to find an excuse for ridding himself of the "dead hand" of the great Sage and of the precedents furnished by the "Model Emperors." In any event, his procedure was sufficiently sweeping.
The Confucian Classics (with the single exception of the I Ching) and all other literature (with the exception of works on agriculture, medicine and divination) were so thoroughly destroyed that when the Han dynasty assumed the task of reviving the old studies, copies of the classics were with difficulty discovered in the walls of houses, or reintegrated from the memories of men. It is said that K'ung Fu, a descendant of Confucius in the ninth degree, was one who had preserved hidden in the walls of the ancestral house copies of the old books. But it has been possible for 19th Century writers to deny the very existence of the Confucian classics prior to the time of the historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien who is charged with having forged them. The literati shared with the books the wrath of the tyrant and some hundreds of them (four hundred and sixty, to be precise) are said to have been put to death under circumstances of such revolting cruelty that the Emperor's own eldest son felt compelled to protest. For this interposition he was banished and all those who resisted the surrender of their books were branded and forced to work for four years on the Great Wall.
The persecution of Confucianism went hand in hand with an ardent advocacy of Taoism. Shih Huang Ti's belief in this religion was perhaps in large part the result of his desire to obtain the coveted Elixir Vita, but a whole mass of more or less interesting fable has associated itself with the Emperor's devotion to the cult, now far removed from its first purity. It is of this reign that the story is told of the Taoist Rip Van Winkle which bears so close a resemblance to the American version that it may be worth the re-telling. It concerns the patriarch Wang Chih who having wandered in the mountains of Ch'u-chou to gather firewood entered a grotto in which some aged men were seated intent upon a game of chess. He laid down his ax and looked on at their game, in course of which one of the men handed to him a thing in shape and size like a date-stone, telling him to put it in his mouth. No sooner had he tasted it than he became oblivious of hunger and thirst! After some time had elapsed, one of the players said: "It is long since you came here; you should go home now!" Whereupon, Wang Chih, proceeding to pick up his ax, found that its handle had moldered into dust. On repairing to his home he found that centuries had passed since the time when he had left it for the mountains and that no vestige of his kinsfolk remained. Another Taoist patriarch, An Ki-sheng, visited the Emperor BC 221 and conversed with him for three days and three nights. The result of the interview was the sending of the famous expedition to the Eastern seas.
Ch'in Shih Huang Ti "allowed himself to be persuaded into the belief that in the Eastern sea there were golden Islands of the Blest, where dwelt genii, whose business and delight it was to dispense to all visitors to their shores a draught of immortality compounded of the fragrant herbs which grew in profusion around them." Twice over was an expedition dispatched to discover these " Isles of the Blest." Su She and Lu Ngao, Taoist magicians, were put in command and several thousands of girls and young men accompanied the explorers. Both attempts, however, ended in failure. The expeditions were, it is said, driven back by contrary winds, though it is highly probable that Japan benefited by some access of population.
So great a monarch as Shih Huang Ti may well have feared the shadow of death and craved a few more years in which to continue his work, but "le breuvage de l'immortalite" was not for him. On a trip to inspect his kingdom he died, aged forty-nine, in the year 210 BC. Many of his wives and many of his warriors, in accordance with the old Scythian custom, were buried alive near his tomb that he, who had employed so many on earth, might not want his servants in the grave.
Of the Tomb of Shih Huang Ti, excavated in a mountain, it is related that upon the floor, which had a foundation of bronze, was a map of the Empire with rivers of quicksilver; the roof was studded with the constellations. All around were mechanical arrangements for shooting stones and arrows immediately upon the appearance of any intruders; while huge candles of seal's fat, calculated to burn for an indefinite period, threw their light upon the scene. When the passages leading to the chamber had been stopped up, and before the workmen who knew the secrets had come forth, the great outer gate was dropped, and they were all buried alive. The entrance was banked up with earth, and grass and plants were sown to conceal it from view.
The close of the Ch'in dynasty came almost simultaneously with the death of Ch'in Shih Huang Ti. His dynasty would last another four years, but his son and grandson proved unable to hold what the First Emperor had secured. The elder and stronger minded son, Fu Su, had been banished as a result of his protest against the massacre of the literati. The younger son, Hu Hai, was under the influence of an ambitious and masterful eunuch, Chao Kao, who weeded out the more independent and capable advisers by a device suggestive of Polonius. He would present a stag to the Emperor and say, "Here is a horse." If any of the ministers said it was anything but a horse, their disgrace was sealed. "It is certainly a horse," said the weak and complaisant ones, and these remained. It is no wonder that the young Emperor, trained under such auspices as these, proved an easy victim to the wiles of the unscrupulous eunuch. Chao Kao, however, met his own fate soon afterwards and Hu Hai's semblance of power only lasted three years.
Anarchy followed; even the wonderful tomb of the great conqueror was thought to have been desecrated and destroyed. The secret chambers were believed rifled and the fine buildings razed to the ground by the general Hiang Yu. It was said that nothing was left but the coffin and even this was shortly after burned, when a shepherd, seeking a lost sheep, dropped by accident his torch in the cavern and set fire to the dry and crumbling ruins which had been left. "Sic transit gloria mundi." Over time China would substantially enlarge and occasionally fragment, yet what the First Emperor consolidated would serve as the country the world has known for over two thousand years, and his influence would resonate through each of its dynasties.
The discovery of Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Terracotta Army was one of the most significant archaeological finds of the 20th century. The precious relics are among China's most prized cultural icons. The Terracotta Warriors were created under China's First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The Emperor began work on his tomb immediately upon ascending to the throne at the age of 13 in 246 BC. When finished, the tomb was filled with invaluable treasures and sacrificial objects, including roughly 8,000 life-size clay Warriors and Horses. After the Emperor's death in 210 B.C., these Terracotta Warriors stood undisturbed, marshaled in combat formation, for nearly 2,200 years. In 1974, local farmers in Lintong County east of Xi'an city in Shaanxi province unearthed artifacts from underground pits filled with the Emperor's Terracotta Warriors and Horses. Large-scale excavation was undertaken and the soldiers ofthe Terracotta Army were found in full battle dress, assembled according to rank and unit. The figures are life-size and each has a distinctive individual expression, believed to resemble people known by the craftsmen who created them. Now, with more than two million annual visitors to the museum that houses them, these unique treasures are asource of pride in China and around the world.
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