China's First Emperor - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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China's First Emperor January 23, 2006
by Lawrence R. Sullivan

Archaeology, history, and legend combine with re-enactments and graphics to tell of the life and legacy of Qin Shi Huangdi


Actor James Pax portrays the first emperor. (Courtesy Discovery Channel) [LARGER IMAGE]

"I never expected to find rats in the royal palace. But why not? Drawn by the chance of an easy meal, conditioned by fear; control the food and the fear and you control the rats." So said Li Si, the Machiavellian advisor to Ying Zheng the king of the western state of Qin. It was Ying Zheng who, through military prowess and a vision of a united empire, would destroy the feudal state system of the Zhou Dynasty (1027-221 B.C.) and replace it with a highly centralized, proto-totalitarian police state. Today, Ying Zheng is better known as Qin Shi Huangdi--the "first august god of the Qin"--the creator and initiator of a highly sophisticated government structure that would outlast the short-lived Qin Dynasty (221-204 B.C.) for two millennia.

With reenactments, expert commentary, and impressive graphic re-creations, Discovery Channel's The First Emperor: The Man who made China traces the rise of the young king, who, an ingenious and often brutal ruler, transformed seven warring states into a single, united empire ten times the size of the Egyptian pharaohs' domain.

Drawing on the mystical legends surrounding the emperor as told by the famous late second-century B.C. historian Sima Qian, the story line describes Qin's brilliant military strategy that defeated his powerful rivals and put the entire population under the command of a single ruler. The empire was administered by a bureaucracy that was recruited by merit instead of family ties and based its authority on a rigid control of intellectual life, which was secured by the burning of Confucian texts.

Triumph in his military conquests relied on a sophisticated mode of attack: shock troops, followed by heavy infantry and backed by cavalry. But the emperor was increasingly haunted by the images of death of vengeful soldiers whose souls would fill the spiritual world. This impelled him to construct the world's largest mausoleum complete with a 7,000-strong terra-cotta army to protect him in the eternal transition between life and death.

The famed terra-cotta soldiers provided details used in re-creating period costumes. (Courtesy Discovery Channel)

Qin destroyed forever China's feudal order that had led to endless warfare and chaos replacing it with a system of government of six governors and six commanderies, reflecting his personal attraction to the number six, and creating a new world order that was, at the time, beyond fantasy. The ultimate rationalist in administrative structure and organizational theory that led to the standardization of the Chinese script, the Qin emperor would in his later years degenerate into madness pursuing giant fish and dispatching 3,000 prisoners to deforest a mountain after he was told that the goddess in control of the area had been responsible for the strong wind that had impeded his river crossing. After years of consuming mercury-laden pills, Qin died an early death but achieved immortality in his vision of a united China of one people.

For this reviewer, the reenactments in the program devoted excessive attention to the interminable court intrigue entangling the emperor, his prime minister and father Lü Buwei, and his mother and her various lovers that at times give it the air of a Hong Kong-style family soap opera. The use of spoken English instead of Chinese with subtitles deprives the dialogue of authenticity as does the rendering of Chinese script in the outmoded Wade-Giles System of Romanization in which "Qin" is spelled "Chin" leading the narrator to the false conclusion that it is the root of the word "China."

[image] Model waterfowl are among recent discoveries at the first emperor's mausoleum. (Courtesy Discovery Channel) [LARGER IMAGE]

But once the narrative turns to the famous terra-cotta army and the still unexcavated imperial tomb it improves dramatically. Rivaling the Egyptian pyramids at Giza, Qin's mausoleum is said by legend to contain rivers and seas of mercury surrounding his bronze crypt, all forming a model of the empire. The vast army of individually sculptured terra-cotta soldiers is laid out in the military formations that proved so successful in battle. More recent excavations have unearthed re-creations of the dancers, musicians, and acrobats who provided the otherwise militaristic veneer of the Qin regime with a cultural refinement that would increasingly dominate succeeding dynasties.

Illuminating descriptions by on-site Western and Chinese archaeologists, accompanied by exceptional graphic reproductions of the tomb, describe an enormous necropolis with embedded jewels in its ceiling, a water clock, and the flowing mercury that recent archaeological probes into the structure have detected in large concentrations. Exquisite weaponry--exceptionally long bronze swords and halberds with personal engravings by Lü Buwei--excavated intact from the burial site undoubtedly contributed to Qin's military conquests along with the kind of intense loyalty to the emperor that the Year of the Dog beginning on January 29 venerates.

The First Emperor: The Man who made China, which fittingly premieres on January 29 (9-11 P.M. EST), is recommended viewing.

Lawrence R. Sullivan is associate professor of Chinese Studies at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America