Published to coincide with a traveling exhibition in the U.S., a historical account of vilified emperor Qin Shihuangdi of the third century B.C.E. offers insight into his military leadership and influential legacy, a reign that saw the introduction of coinage, standardized measures, and the written word. 20,000 first printing.
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FRANCES WOOD is head of the Chinese department at the British Library. She is also the author of multiple books, including, Did Marco Polo Go to China?, No Dogs and Not Many Chinese: A History of the Treaty Ports, and The Silk Road.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
China's First Emperor and His Terracotta Warriors
1The Heart of a Tiger or WolfBorn in 259 BC, the son of the King of Qin and a concubine, the First Emperor was given the name Zheng, which means 'upright' or 'correct', although since he was born in the first month of the Chinese year, a month which bears the same name, he may have been named for the month as well as for the significance of the word.1The state of Qin had, for over a century before his birth, been promoting new ideas of centralized bureaucracy (instead of the feudal rule of local aristocrats) and of law, with rules and regulations publicly posted on great pillars set up at the gates of the king's palace. Despite these progressive measures, Qin, on the western borders of the federation of Warring States that was then China, was regarded as 'barbarian', and has been ever since. Even in 1985, the great archaeologist and historian of early China, Li Xueqin, prefaced his account of the state of Qin by saying, 'The ancestors of the state of Qin were a tribe established by the Ying clan which lived among the Western Rong groups.' For Ying clan and Western Rong groups, read barbarians. Others would suggest that this ancestry was extremely distant and probably very mixed, particularly as a result of intermarriage and the mingling of cultures, and that it was largely asa result of later political interactions that the far north-west (where the state of Qin lay) became characterized as barbarian.2On the death of his father in 247, when he was thirteen, Zheng became King of Qin, and his reign is traditionally described as beginning in 246 BC. Over the next two and a half decades, the armies of Qin defeated all the other Warring States and in 221 BC, the King of Qin took control of the whole of China and proclaimed himself the First Emperor. He died in 210 BC and the dynasty he had founded only outlasted him by four years.Apart from this bare outline, the life of the First Emperor is difficult to trace without prejudice.3 The main source is a history of China from the earliest beginnings to 100 BC, The Grand Scribe's Records, compiled by a court astrologer who died in about 85 BC, over a century after the First Emperor's death. The fall of a dynasty was traditionally regarded as being almost self-inflicted, corruption and weakness incurring the disapproval of Heaven and so bringing about the withdrawal of the Mandate of Heaven which legitimized 'good' rulers.4 Inevitably, therefore, a new dynasty tended to be critical of the regime it had overthrown.Writing as a court employee serving the Han dynasty, which had overthrown the Qin, the Grand Scribe would not have been expected to praise the First Emperor. His account, however, provides virtually all that is known about the man apart from stone inscriptions set up by the Emperor himself and the archaeological discoveries of his tomb and the remains of his palaces whose extent and elaboration fuelled traditional stories of excess and extravagance.Blackening the name of the First Emperor began with stories about his birth. Before he became King of Qin in 249, the First Emperor's father was sent to another state as a hostage. This was arecognized form of diplomacy at the time by which young princes were sent to rival states as a guarantee against attack. There, the young prince was befriended by a merchant who was later to become Prime Minister of Qin.5 That his friend was described as a merchant was probably also a subtle slander: merchants were not held in high esteem in Chinese society, though in this early period they could achieve considerable power through their wealth.6 The friend was not only a merchant but also, apparently, an ambitious schemer. On reportedly asking what sort of profit might be made from 'peddling pearls and jewellery', he was told a hundred per cent. 'How much then by helping a prince ascend the throne?' 'Why the profit would be infinite!'77. The First Emperor, depicted 1,500 years laterThus, with the scheming merchant's encouragement, the young prince fell in love with one of the merchant's concubines and their son, born in 259 BC, was to become the First Emperor. However, it was alleged in The Grand Scribe's Records and elsewhere that the concubine was already pregnant and that the child was not the Prince's heir but the merchant's son.8 Though this doubly slanderous passage is thought by scholars to have been a malicious insertion into the Records, it was nevertheless widely believed and added to the negative image of the First Emperor that persisted in China for over two thousand years.The Prime Minister presided over the state when the First Emperor was young, while Qin armies were still waging war against neighbouring states, but he was accused in the Records of continuing to scheme with his ex-concubine, the mother of the First Emperor. Apparently not a jealous man, the Prime Minister introduced her to a famously well-hung gentleman who soon rebelled against the Qin. There is a complicated story associated with this rebel lover of theFirst Emperor's mother. The Prime Minister is said to have had him condemned to castration but to have advised the Emperor's mother privately to have him pluck his eyebrows and beard. He would then appear to be a eunuch and so would be able to enter the women's quarters freely.9 Whatever the truth of the story, the Prime Minister was condemned in 237 BC for his connection with the rebel and in 235 BC he committed suicide.The Prime Minister may not have been loyal to the First Emperor, but his scholarly activities earned him the regard of future chroniclers. Concerned that the state of Qin did not value scholars as some of the other states did (an attitude that was to persist under the First Emperor), in 239 BC he organized a great gathering of scholars and encouraged them to write on 'all manner of things in heaven and on earth, past and present'. The result was named in his honour as Master Lü's Spring and Autumn Annals.10 For succeeding dynasties, which officially revered scholarship, this was enough to erase, at least in part, his connection with the tyrannical First Emperor.A year before the Prime Minister's disgrace, in 238 BC, as his armies continued to attack rival states, and after the appearance of a comet whose long tail stretched across the entire sky, the First Emperor was acknowledged as an adult in a ceremony in which he donned a cap and buckled on a sword.The following year, the First Emperor received a visit from a man he was to make his Commandant. The Records include the only physical description of him by this visitor, who is supposed to have said, 'The King of Qin has a waspish nose, eyes like slits, a chicken breast and a voice like a jackal.' He continued with an equally damning description of his character: 'He is merciless, with the heart of a tiger or wolf.' Having been treated with apparentcourtesy, sharing 'clothes, food and drink' with the First Emperor, the Commandant acknowledged his cunning: 'When in difficulties he willingly humbles himself, when successful he swallows men up without a scruple. I am a plain citizen in homespun clothes yet he treats me as if I were his superior. Should he succeed in conquering the [world], we shall all become his captives. There is no staying long with this man.'This description was made by a man who had come to Qin with the express purpose of advising the First Emperor that, as well as waging war against rival states, he should consider bribery. 'For three thousand pieces of gold,' he suggested, Qin could 'conquer all the states'.11Despite the continuing success of his armies, the First Emperor was not immune to danger. In 227, one of the northern states dispatched an assassin to make the first of three (unsuccessful) attempts on his life.12 Not only did the First Emperor represent an increasingly alarming threat to rival states but he had also become known for his ruthless elimination of defeated armies. Even those who had surrendered on a promise of safety were often slaughtered regardless, and it was estimated that by 221 BC, over a million men, not counting Qin's own casualties, had been killed or taken prisoner.13After a final push against the coastal state of Qi, the First Emperor was able to proclaim with rhetorical modesty, 'Insignificant as I am, I have raised troops to punish the rebellious princes; and thanks to the sacred power of our ancestors all six kings have been chastised as they deserved, so that at last the empire is pacified.'14At this point, The Grand Scribe's Records offers a breathless summary of many of the major decisions and policies of the First Emperor: hischoice of the title First Emperor as his designation, the adoption of a term equivalent to the 'royal we' to refer to himself in official proclamations, decisions on the symbolic cycle of the Five Elements (see below) and a proposal on how to control the massive empire without falling back into the disunion of the Warring States.15The first decision, on his name, was one of enormous symbolic significance. He now ruled over a vast new territory and clearly wanted a title that went far beyond that of king. He declared himself Qin Shi huangdi. Qin was for his original state, 'Shi' means 'first', and 'huangdi' was a new compound with considerable religious and political significance. 'Huang' means 'august' or 'majestic' but the compound 'huangdi' was created to mean 'emperor'. The 'di' part of the compound was the most resonant. More than a thousand years earlier, the Shang rulers had worshipped 'di' as their supreme god. Several hundred years later, the legendary sages and rulers of antiquity, who were credited with the 'invention' of various fundamental activities such as agriculture, music and sericulture, were also elevated to the status of deities and named 'di'. An example is the legendary Yellow Emperor, '...
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