The First Emperor of China by Frances Wood; The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army by Jane Portal (ed) - review by Jonathan Mirsky

Jonathan Mirsky

The Mighty Qin

The First Emperor of China


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The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army


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‘Short-lived as it was, Qin bequeathed a heritage that has informed every type of government in China thereafter, be it imperial, republican, Maoist, or post-Maoist’, writes Frances Wood. As the Qin, China's first dynasty, lasted only from 221 to 206 BC, that sentence may strike you as reckless hyperbole. Mao certainly didn't think so. In May 1958, having silenced most of China's intellectuals, the Great Teacher, referring to Qin's founding emperor, Shihuangdi, boasted: ‘He buried 460 scholars alive; we have buried 460,000 scholars … We have surpassed the [First Emperor] a hundredfold.’ Continuing Mao's praise of the First Emperor, in 1974 the Party's leading journal, Red Flag, proclaimed that ‘book burning was a necessary measure during the process of the dictatorship of one exploiting class replacing another’. Mao never buried hundreds of thousands of intellectuals – except metaphorically – and there is little evidence that Qin Shihuangdi did either, nor did he order the burning of many books. But Mao was speaking against the 2,200-year-old tradition of Chinese historians, most of whom blackened the name of the First Emperor, and making clear that the Qin dynasty laid the framework by which China was governed in the succeeding dynasties.

Is that more hyperbole? No. Consider the entire area of Qin at full stretch: from around Beijing, down to near Canton, and from the East Coast out to Sichuan. Except for the extensive Mongol (1279–1368) and Manchu (1644–1911) dynasties, neither of them ethnically Chinese, that still constitutes pretty much China

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