Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Seventy-Two

First Emperor, Second Dynasty

Between 286 and 202 BCthe Ch’in extinguish the Zhou, become the first rulers of unified China, and are extinguished in turn

BACK IN CHINA, where all the dukes had become kings by fiat (not unlike the satraps of Alexander’s old empire), the time of the Warring States dragged on. After the rapid rise of the Ch’in state and Shang Yang’s dismemberment at the hands of the new Ch’in king, the Ch’in army went on fighting. So did everyone else. Qi defeated Wei soundly, after which Wei diminished in power; Chu, which had finally absorbed Wu and Yueh for good, took Wei’s place as one of the Big Three.1 Now Ch’in, Qi, and Chu seemed certain to divide the rest of China among themselves.

For some years, none of them had a clear road to the very top. But the Ch’in army, conditioned by Shang Yang, was the most ruthless of the three. In 260, the Ch’in overran the new kingdom of Chao (one of the three states formed by the Jin breakup), which had shown unwelcome signs of ambition. On the wide plains of China, numbers could clash that would not fit into the mountainous passes of Greece or the Italian peninsula. Tens of thousands died in the battle between the two states. When the Chao army surrendered, the captives were massacred in huge numbers.2

Four years later, the Ch’in invaded the Zhou territory and put an end to centuries of sacred Zhou rule. “Ch’in exterminated Zhou,” Sima Qian says, baldly, “and Zhou’s sacrifices ceased.”3 It is a measure of the total lapse into irrelevance by the Zhou that no one really noticed. Like Alexander IV, the Zhou king had been merely a name for years.

In the invasion, a catastrophe took place. The Nine Tripods, removed by the Ch’in from their sacred site, were paraded in triumph along the river, but one of the tripods fell into the water and all attempts to get it back out again failed. Only eight tripods remained. The sign of the king’s divinely bestowed power was marred, forever incomplete.4

IN 247, A NEW KING came to the Ch’in throne: the young Cheng. His father Chuang-hsiang had died before his time, after a two-year reign, and Cheng was only thirteen years old. His country was run for him by commanders, a chancellor, a magistrate, and various generals.

He was more fortunate in his guardians than other young kings had been. These officials took their task seriously; on Cheng’s behalf, they beat off attacks from Ch’in’s neighbors, including an attempt by a five-state coalition to wipe out Ch’in before Cheng could reach his majority.

At twenty-two, Cheng took full control of Ch’in.5 He was planning the conquest not just of his neighbors, but of all China. By 232 he was raising an army larger than ever seen before; by 231, he was, as Sima Qian says, ordering “the ages of boys recorded” for the first time, which more than likely indicates a draft. And in 230, the other states of China began to fall, one by one. Han surrendered in 230; Chao, two years later. The crown prince of Yen, worried about the swelling size of Ch’in, sent an assassin, disguised as an ambassador, to Cheng’s court, hoping to get rid of the western menace before it reached his borders. Cheng discovered the false ambassador’s real purpose and had the man dismembered. The following year he marched into Yen, captured the crown prince, and beheaded him.

This ruthlessness would characterize the rest of Cheng’s reign. It also led him to a peak of power which no other king of China had ever climbed. The states continued to fall to him: Wei in 225, Chu in 223, Qi, reluctantly, in 221. By the end of 221, a quarter-century after his father’s death, Cheng was lord of the entire country. “Twenty-six years after Cheng, the King of Ch’in, was enthroned,” writes Sima Qian, “he unified the world for the first time.”6

Cheng was now more than a king; he was an emperor. He changed his name to Shi Huang-ti, “First Emperor.” From this date we can actually speak of China, a country which draws its name from this first unification by the Ch’in.

This new country had never before been a single state, which mean that Shi Huang-ti had to create a single government, not from scratch (which would have been relatively easy), but instead from an unwieldy mass of existing customs and bureaucracies, laid at cross-purposes against each other.

Remodelling an old and crumbling house is a nightmare compared with the ease of laying out new foundations on a virgin site. It is a task that requires relentless efficiency, which is exactly what Shi Huang-ti displayed. He broke down old lines of family influence, inherited wealth, and clan loyalties by dividing his empire into easily run sections: thirty-six jun (areas of command), with each jun divided into xian (roughly equivalent to the American system of states, divided into counties). A paired military commander and civilian administrator governed each jun, and a government inspector (which is to say, a spy) kept tabs on each pair.7 No relatives of officials were handed plum positions; the First Emperor did not even give state jobs to his sons, in a return to the very old idea that hereditary kingship was bad for a country’s health. In addition, he ordered the former noblemen of every state brought to the capital city and settled in new homes. Here they lived very comfortably—and very close to his watchful eye.8


72.1 Ch’in China

Other reforms followed. He built roads out to every edge of China; he built canals for transportation and for irrigation; he restarted the calendar, so that everyone in his domain would follow the same system. “Exalting agriculture and suppressing the non-essential,” reads a celebratory inscription, made two years into his emperorship, “he enriches the [people]…. With regard to implements, measurements have been unified, in writings, characters have been standardized. Wherever the sun and moon shine, wherever boat and cart can reach, people all live out their allotted span, and each is satisfied.”9 These reforms were more than efficient. They were messianic, the path to a newly happy life for Shi Huang-ti’s subjects.

Like Shang Yang, the First Emperor had no patience with the precepts of Confucius, or with any kind of ambiguity. Efficient top-down rule, not metaphysical musing, was the key to a healthy country. And so he took Shang Yang’s burning of books one step further. His prime minister announced his new regulations:

Now the Emperor, having united and grasped the world, has discriminated between black and white and established a single authority. But [some subjects] are partial to their own learning and join together to criticize the laws and teachings…. In the court, they criticize it in their hearts, and outside, they debate it in the streets. To discredit the ruler is…a means of showing superiority…. If things like this are not banned, then the ruler’s power will be diminished above and factions will form below. To ban them is appropriate. I would ask that you burn all the records in the Scribes’ offices which are not Ch’in’s…. Anyone who ventures to discuss songs and documents will be executed in the marketplace.10

The only books exempted from this sweeping decree were books of medicine, books of divination, and gardening handbooks.

This was a decision which didn’t go over well with later generations (“The First Emperor got rid of the documents in order to make the people stupid,” Sima Qian remarks tartly),11 but made perfect sense for a man creating a new country out of a whole cluster of old ones. The states were filled with old records of how things had once been done; Shi Huang-ti intended to make a new China in which “there [could] be no rejection of the present by using the past.” Alexander had fought, the Greeks had held festivals, Asoka had tried for a shared religious vision; Shi Huang-ti was doing his best to pull his own empire together into one by erasing the proofs that it had once been fatally divided. “In his twenty-eighth year,” reads one of his own inscriptions, “the August Emperor makes a beginning.”12

Perhaps this insistence on new beginnings gave birth to the tradition that Shi Huang-ti built the Great Wall of China. In fact, the Great Wall was not a brand-new barrier; the states of China had been building walls against the barbarians (and each other) for generations. Shi Huang-ti’s innovation was in deciding that they should all be linked together, a project which he turned over to one of his officials, the general Meng T’ien.

Various western kings had built walls, at various times, against approaching invasions. But no one had ever tried to wall in an entire empire.13 Shi Huang-ti’s Great Wall was an earth-and-stone embodiment of his vision of China, a shared civilization held together by bonds stronger than mortar, all those within the Wall belonging to China, and those on the outside simply wandering and rootless barbarians.

But the embodiment cost scores of thousands of Chinese lives. The connecting walls were built with whatever materials lay at hand (stone in the mountains, packed earth in the plains, sand and pebbles in the desert); the builders were peasans, prisoners of war, soldiers, and farmers, all conscripted and sent to labor for the good of the state.14

SHI HUANG-TI had left his mark on China’s land itself during his life; he planned to make a similar mark in death. He built himself a final home, the likes of which had never been seen outside Egypt. Sima Qian gives a description of the tomb, which—according to his account—Shi Huang-ti, with an eye to his lasting fame, began to prepare just as soon as he took imperial power:

After he had united the world, more than seven hundred convict laborers…were sent there. They dug through three springs, poured in liquid bronze, and secured the sarcophagus…. He ordered artisans to make cross-bows triggered by mechanisms. Anyone passing before them would be shot immediately. They used mercury to create rivers…and the great seas, wherein the mercury was circulated mechanically. On the ceiling were celestial bodies and on the ground geographical features. The candles were made of oil of dugong, which was not supposed to burn out for a long time.15

Most startling of all, he filled his grave with life-size pottery soldiers and horses, almost seven thousand of them. They were armed with real bronze weapons, and sculpted from life; in the massive clay army, not a single face is alike.16

Like the first pharaohs of Egypt, the First Emperor was forced to pull together a scattered and separate country into one; like them, he had to impel obedience from a contentious kingdom. But the third millennium was long past. He could no longer express his power by compelling hundreds of courtiers to follow him to his grave. The pottery soldiers fill in instead: a perplexing substitution.

Shi Huang-ti went to this tomb in 210, after thirty-seven years as king of Ch’in and eleven as emperor of China. He was interred with care in his lavish grave; the tomb was covered over with earth, trees were planted above it so that its location would be obscured forever, and the architects who designed it were put to death so that its place would never be found.


72.1. First Emperor’s Army. Life-size pottery soldiers, uncovered in the tomb of the First Emperor in 1974, in Xian, China. Photo credit Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

His dynasty barely lasted past his death. The First Emperor’s heir was his twenty-one-year-old son Hu-hai, the Second Emperor. The Second Emperor’s crown sat uneasily on him; his father’s empire had too recently been separate states to be fully subordinate yet to this central authority. “The great vassals have not submitted,” he complained to his chancellor, “the officials are still mighty, and all the nobles will certainly contend with me.”17

The chancellor suggested that the Second Emperor demonstrate his authority by force, eliminating all jun commanders and ex-nobles who seemed, in any way, to be reluctant to accept his authority. The Second Emperor took this advice with gusto, embarking on the slaughter of all he suspected of disloyalty. The purge, which ended with scores of deaths (and even included women, ten of whom were drawn and quartered in public), shocked the country. The Second Emperor, feeling more insecure than ever, drew up an army of fifty thousand crack soldiers and stationed them around the capital.

Only seven months later, the army stationed down in the former territory of Chu mutinied. The revolt spread from jun to jun, taken up by all those who had “suffered under Ch’in’s officials,” a number “too many to count.” The Second Emperor’s army could not hold off the rising rebellion. One by one, noble families reemerged from the anonymity of the Ch’in administration to reclaim rule: first a nobleman announcing himself to be king of Chao, then another of Wei, and then a third making himself king of Qi. The old states had begun to re-emerge from the smooth surface of China.

Civil war began, and raged on for the next three years. The Second Emperor grew more and more wild in his fury, until even the chancellor made excuses not to go to court out of fear that the emperor would kill him in a fit of temper. Instead, the chancellor pled sickness and retreated to his private home, from where he planned a palace coup that would be led by his own son-in-law; this coup would remove the Second Emperor and replace him with another royal prince, the Second Emperor’s nephew.

The scene that followed suggests that the chancellor had in fact been counting on the unrest to help him with a takeover. In order to get his sonin-law, Yen Lo, to lead the invasion of the throne room, he had to kidnap Yen Lo’s mother and hold her hostage. Meanwhile, he would stay carefully away, preserving his appearance of loyalty.

Yen Lo, caught in a bind, stormed the palace at the head of a shock troop and broke into the throne room, where he got the Second Emperor’s attention by shooting an arrow into the draperies directly above his head. The Second Emperor, deserted by his palace bodyguard, demanded to see the chancellor; Yen Lo, properly instructed by his puppetmaster, refused. The Second Emperor then began to bargain. He offered to abdicate if he could be the commander of a jun; then he suggested a simple military command; then he offered to become a commoner in exchange for his life. Yen Lo refused and then, breaking his silence, told the Emperor that the chancellor had already decreed his death. His soldiers approached to carry out the sentence, but the Second Emperor killed himself before they could reach him.18

The chancellor then reappeared on the scene and carried out the enthroning of the Second Emperor’s nephew, Tzu Ying; but the new emperor did not trust his kingmaker. Once crowned, he summoned the chancellor to his throne room and killed him with his own hands.199

Tzu Ying, the Third Emperor, held on to power for all of forty-six days before a Chu general, Hsiang Yu, arrived at the palace, at the head of a coalition force formed to wipe out the pretensions of the Ch’in. The troops overran the palace; Hsiang Yu killed Tzu Ying and massacred the court, burned the palace, and handed the royal treasures out to his allies. Three army officers claimed the Ch’in territory, dividing it up into three new kingdoms and declaring themselves king. “Ch’in,” says Sima Qian, “was completely exterminated.”

FOR FIVE YEARS, China returned to its old divided, battling, multi-kingdom ways. Then a new leader appeared, and fought his way to the head of the pack. His name was Liu Pang, and he had benefited from the Ch’in reforms in his own way: he was from a peasant family, and had become a minor official (a military policeman, in charge of a convict force), the sort of position which would not have been available to him in the old order.19

He had joined Hsiang Yu’s army at the beginning of the rebellion. After the wholesale slaughter of the Ch’in court, Hsiang Yu himself claimed a territory in the old Chu and settled down to rule it. He awarded another, more distant territory in Han to Liu Pang, as a reward for his service. And as part of his strategy to assure his own power, Hsiang Yu had the man with the best claim to be the real Duke of Chu murdered.

This provided Liu Pang with his chance. He marched towards Hsiang Yu with an army of his own, announcing his righteous duty to punish the murderer of a king.20 His initial attack on Hsiang Yu was unsuccessful, but he did manage to capture and claim rulership of a city called Hsiang Yang, on the Yellow river. From here, he fought an ongoing battle against other kingly claimants, rewarding his officers with captured land.

By 202 he had managed to fight his way into control of almost every one of the old kingdoms of China; and Hsiang Yu, who had remained his greatest (and now only) enemy, realized that his fight was in vain. He had grown increasingly unpopular thanks to his savagery; his butchery of the entire Ch’in court had not been forgotten, and he had won a reputation for leaving destruction and death behind him wherever he went. Cornered in a final battle, his supporters dwindling, he avoided capture and defeat by killing himself.

Liu Pang claimed the title of emperor, and gave himself the royal name Gao Zu. His dynasty, he decreed, would be named the Han, after that original territory given him by Hsiang Yu, and his capital would be at Chang’an.20021 The Han Dynasty would be the first lasting dynasty of unified China; it would stand for four hundred years, built on the foundation that the Ch’in had laid during its brief and spectacular domination.


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