China's First Emperor and His Terracotta Warriors / Edition 1

China's First Emperor and His Terracotta Warriors / Edition 1

by Frances Wood
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St. Martin's Press


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China's First Emperor and His Terracotta Warriors / Edition 1

Unifier or destroyer, law-maker or tyrant? China’s First Emperor (258-210 BC) has been the subject of debate for over 2,000 years. He gave us the name by which China is known in the West and, by his unification or elimination of six states, he created imperial China. He stressed the rule of law but suppressed all opposition, burning books and burying scholars alive. His military achievements are reflected in the astonishing terracotta soldiers—a veritable buried army—that surround his tomb, and his Great Wall still fascinates the world.

Despite his achievements, however, the First Emperor has been vilified since his death. This book describes his life and times and reflects the historical arguments over the real founder of China and one of the most important men in Chinese history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312381127
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 06/10/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.86(w) x 8.48(h) x 0.81(d)

About the Author

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.

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China's First Emperor and His Terracotta Warriors


The Heart of a Tiger or Wolf

Born 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.1

The 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.2

On 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!'7

7. The First Emperor, depicted 1,500 years later

Thus, 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'.11

Despite 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.13

After 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.'14

At 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.15

The 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, 'Huangdi', who was said to have invented cooking and medicine.

The King of Qin was not the first mortal to consider the title of 'di', but his predecessors had failed in their attempts at self-elevation. 16 The successfully self-proclaimed First Emperor assumed a title that was retained by Chinese rulers until AD 1911. Moreover, it is probable that the state of Qin, which he ruled before the conquest and unification of the Warring States, provided the name by which China is still known throughout much of the world. Greek and Roman texts of the first and second centuries AD use the terms 'Thinai' and 'Sinai' respectively, and an Indian treatise of c. AD 150uses the term 'Cina'.17 The Chinese themselves never applied this name to their land. To them the whole empire was always known as the 'Middle or Central Kingdom' or Zhongguo, and the name persists to this day in Chinese.

After choosing his title, the First Emperor addressed the symbolism of the state according to the School of the Five Elements. The idea that five elements-earth, wood, metal, fire and water-each in turn dominated different periods of history was systematized in the third century BC. Each of the Five Elements had associated attributes of colour, cardinal direction and number. It was believed that the royal house of Zhou (1122-256 BC) had ruled through the power of fire18. Thus the new Qin dynasty must be ruled by water, the next element in the list. Red was the colour associated with fire and black the colour associated with water. The number associated with water was six. For the First Emperor 'black became the paramount colour for garments, flags and pennants, and six the paramount number. Tallies and official hats were six inches long, carriages six feet wide, one "pace" was six feet, and the imperial carriage had six horses.'19 The dramatic picture of an imperial progress with its wide black chariots bearing black banners and flags, and carrying officials in their six-inch hats and black robes, passing farmers in neutrally coloured homespun jackets and trousers has been challenged by a spoilsport Japanese academic who thinks the whole passage was a later invention.20

One of the most significant innovations of Qin rule came after these decisions on symbols. This was a reversal of the system by which the Zhou had divided their realms, entrusting them to princes and nobles who had eventually set themselves up as kings, threatening the Zhou and creating the 'Warring States'. The First Emperor'sCouncillor, Li Si, suggested that, since 'all lands within the Four Seas have become your provinces and counties', rather than 'setting up princes', the First Emperor should 'give the princes and men who served you well public revenues and rich rewards'. Abolishing the feudal system, for the purpose of administration, the Qin territory was divided into thirty-six provinces, 'each with a governor, an army commander and an inspector'.21 The establishment of a civil administration, which was to be consolidated by succeeding dynasties, was one of the most significant contributions of the First Emperor to Chinese history.

To prevent further warfare, it was recorded that 'All the weapons were brought to the capital, where they were melted down to make bronze bells and twelve bronze statues of giants ... and these were placed in the courts and palaces. All weights and measures were standardized; all carriages had gauges of the same size. The script was also standardized.'22

In another move to prevent rebellion, the First Emperor insisted that the nobility move to his capital where he could keep an eye on them: 'One hundred and twenty thousand wealthy families were brought from all over the empire'23 and forced to live in the capital at Xianyang, near present-day Xi'an, where massive construction work began on palaces, gardens and the imperial ancestral temple on the south bank of the Wei River. Nearby, musical instruments and beautiful women captured during the conquest were kept in specially constructed pavilions and courtyards.

The First Emperor also directed other massive moves of population. Some of these were of convicts, sent both north and south in 214 BC to subdue and colonize border areas, but others involved free families who were directed to colonize and farm underpopulatedareas on the east coast in 219 BC, in return for twelve years' exemption from forced labour service.24

The forced colonization of the sparsely populated east coast was the result of one of the First Emperor's many tours of inspection or progresses through his new realms. These journeys were probably the result of a desire to familiarize himself with his massive empire and also to set his mark on it through the performance of ritual sacrifices at sacred spots and the erection of commemorative stelae on mountains. They were also another innovation of the First Emperor that became part of the imperial ritual in succeeding centuries. The most enthusiastic imperial travellers were the eighteenth-century Kangxi and Qianlong emperors whose progresses were recorded in elaborately detailed paintings.25

Mountains, long believed to be places where man and the gods could meet, became increasingly important later on in Chinese history, but when the First Emperor went to Mount Tai in Shandong province, there were arguments amongst the local scholars as to exactly what sort of ceremony should take place. For the mountain was regarded not just as a sacred place but as a sacred intermediary. Impatient with the dithering scholars, the First Emperor is said to have sacrificed in secret, before setting up a stone stele bearing an inscription proclaiming the greatness of his rule.26 He also ennobled a tree under which he sheltered from a storm, making it a Minister of the Fifth Rank.27 Though only parts of two of his stone inscriptions survive, the text of six is given in The Grand Scribe's Records. That from Mount Langya, on the coast in Shandong province, provides an account of the achievements of his reign, his policy of standardization, the imposition of the rule of law, the establishment of a civil administration and the initiation of greatwaterworks. It also sets out his view of the duties his citizens owe to him as a just ruler:

By the twenty-eighth year of his reign A new age is inaugurated by the Emperor; Rules and measures are rectified, The myriad things set in order, Human affairs are made clear. And there is harmony between fathers and sons. The Emperor in his sagacity, benevolence and justice Has made all laws and principles manifest. He set forth to pacify the east, To inspect officers and men; This great task accomplished He visited the coast. Great are the Emperor's achievements, Men diligently attend to basic tasks, Farming is encouraged, secondary pursuits discouraged, All the common people prosper; All men under the sky Toil with a single purpose; Tools and measures are made uniform, The written script is standardized; Wherever the sun and moon shine, Wherever one can go by boat or by carriage, Men carry out his orders And satisfy their desires; For our Emperor in accordance with the time Has regulated local customs, Made waterways and divided up the land. Caring for the common people, He works day and night without rest; He defines the laws, leaving nothing in doubt, Making known what is forbidden. The local officials carry out their duties, Administration is smoothly carried out, All is done correctly, all according to plan, The Emperor in his wisdom Inspects all four quarters of his realm; High and low, noble and humble, None dare overshoot the mark; No evil or impropriety is allowed, All strive to be good men and true, And exert themselves in tasks great and small; None dares to idle or ignore his duties, But in far-off remote places Serious and decorous administrators Work steadily, just and loyal. Great is the virtue of our Emperor Who pacifies all four corners of the earth, Who punishes traitors, roots out evil men, And with profitable measures brings prosperity. Tasks are done at the proper season, All things flourish and grow; The common people know peace And have laid aside weapons and armour; Kinsmen care for each other, There are no robbers or thieves; Men delight in his rule, All understanding the law and discipline. The universe entire is our Emperor's realm ... Wherever human life is found, All acknowledge his suzerainty, His achievements surpass those of the Five Emperors, His kindness reaches even the beasts of the field; All creatures benefit from his virtue, All live in peace at home.28

8. A Qin inscription in 'small seal' script

Setting up such inscriptions recording his benevolence took place every time he ascended a significant mountain. In the thirtieth yearof his reign (216 BC), 'nothing of moment occurred', but in the next year he is recorded as walking through the capital dressed as a commoner and being set upon by bandits who were beaten off by his bodyguards. In 215 BC, he ordered General Meng north with 300,000 men and in 213 he decreed that all legal officials who had failed to deliver justice should go north to build the Great Wall or be exiled to the south. In the same year, perhaps under pressure from his Councillor, he ordered the destruction of all books excluding those on divination, medicine and agriculture, one of the most criticized actions of his rule. He attracted further criticism for embarking on massive building projects near the capital, creating a grandiose palace and gardens and beginning work on his extravagant tomb nearby.

As he approached middle age, the First Emperor became increasingly interested in the pursuit of immortality and susceptible to charlatans. He also became increasingly secretive and suspicious. His eldest son, who dared to criticize him, was sent off to join General Meng on the northern frontier. In 219 he had sent an expedition, including several thousand young boys and girls, to search for the fabled Island of the Immortals, supposed to be off the eastern coast of China. The expedition never returned, and in 215 he sent another, this time consisting of only three men, to search for the island and for the herbs and drugs conferring immortality that would surely be found there. He was informed that they failed to reach the island because they were frightened by an enormous fish. In 210, when he set off again on his travels, taking one of his youngest sons with him, he sailed down the Yangtze and then up the eastern coast, in search of the giant fish. He spent some time on the shore, waiting with a repeating crossbow, and eventually shot a large fish. But whenhe turned inland, he fell ill. Before he died, he managed to write a message, impressed with the imperial seal, to his eldest son, still in the far north with General Meng. It was clear that the First Emperor intended that his eldest son should succeed him, but his Councillor had other ideas.

The First Emperor's corpse decomposed rapidly. To disguise the smell, a cart of rotting fish accompanied the imperial carriage on the long journey back to the capital. There, the Councillor forged a letter for the First Emperor's eldest son, accusing him of being unfilial and ordering him to commit suicide, which he did. The same order was given to General Meng who, however, refused to succumb until 207 when he took poison. The First Emperor was succeeded by the son who had travelled with him on his last journey. So little is known about the family life of the First Emperor that we do not know if the Second Emperor was his youngest son or number eighteen out of about twenty sons.29

CHINA'S FIRST EMPEROR AND HIS TERRACOTTA WARRIORS. Copyright © 2007 by Frances Wood. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
INTRODUCTION - Elephants, Steamed Duck and Warring States,
1 - The Heart of a Tiger or Wolf,
2 - The Grand Scribe's Records and the Place of the Sleeping Tiger,
3 - The Cunning Councillor,
4 - Cowboys and Indians or Confucianism and Legalism,
5 - The Height of Legal Responsibility,
6 - This Species of Fortification: The Great Wall,
7 - The Burning of the Books,
8 - Making Everything the Same,
9 - The Supreme Forest and the Hall of 10,000 Guests,
10 - The Drugs of Immortality,
11 - Seas of Mercury, Pearl Stars and an Army of 8,000 Men,
12 - The First Emperor and the Great Helmsman,
Also by,
Copyright Page,

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China's First Emperor and His Terracotta Warriors 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Even though the writing was a little dry, the historical details were excellent. I had visited Xi'an and wanted more indepth information as well as archaeological evidence of facts. Ms. Wood does a great job in dispelling myths and incorrect information commonly written and promoted by historians and the Chinese government.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago