CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 11, September 2007


Hu's First Emperor | China Heritage Quarterly

Hu's First Emperor

Frances Wood, The First Emperor of China, Profile Books, London, 2007, reviewed by Geremie R. Barmé.

Since his demise in 210 BCE, the First Emperor of China has always had something of a reputation. A ruthless unifier who forged an empire that would be the basis for dynastic rule until early last century, Qin Shihuang as he is called in Chinese, was often criticized for having done the right things for the wrong reasons.

The short-lived Qin empire (221-207BCE) imposed unified standards in transportation, coinage, weights and measures as well as language. For this and the extraordinary reach of his military might the First Emperor bequested a legacy for which generations of autocrats would be grateful. These are also the things for which he continues to be celebrated in China today. But unity and standardization exacted a heavy price on the rich cultural and linguistic diversity of his territory. As the last great dynastic empire of China, that of the Manchu-Qing (1644-1911), fell into chaos in the early 20th century bringing an end to over two millennia of dynastic rule, thinkers and social activists would question the toll that centuries of unanimity had taken.

Frances Wood has something of a history herself, one based on her attempt to debunk Marco Polo's account of his years in China. Her book, Did Marco Polo Go to China?, was an imaginative romp. While not on the same audacious scale of Gavin Menzies' risible fiction, 1421: the Year that China discovered the World, Wood's work did, however, elicit a similarly scarifying response from scholars.

The First Emperor of China is a slight volume that is nonetheless written with Wood's usual chatty flare. It reads as though it was rushed into publication to coincide with the British Museum's ambitions exhibition, 'The First Emperor, China's Terracotta Army'. While not as rigorous as the show's sumptuous catalogue this book still offers a timely digest of some of the English-language scholarship on the subject. Sadly, its lack of original research or consideration of recent Chinese work on a vast and fascinating subject leave one disappointed. There has also been a great deal published in recent years on Qin Shihuang's Great Wall a consideration of which would have enriched the book.

It is also unfortunate that Wood chooses to end her account with Mao Zedong. She claims that with the demise of the man some called 'a modern-day Qin Shihuang' interest in the First Emperor of China shifted to and has remained focussed on the extraordinary archaeological finds at his tomb site outside Xi'an in Shaanxi province. If the author had taken the story past her days as a student in 1970s China she would have found a rich field of cultural grist for her mill.

Despite the international hype surrounding the 2005 'Mao as Monster' biography by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, like the First Emperor the long-dead Chairman has enjoyed a fascinating and deeply disturbing posthumous career in China. Mao is lauded for unifying the nation and imposing an era of strict but incorruptible government in the kind of language still used to extol the achievement of the Qin ruler. The First Emperor enjoys an equally unsettling purchase on the mass imagination, and works like director Zhang Yimou's successful 2002 film Hero have given an ancient tyrant a new lease on life. In that film the steely emperor ensconced in his dark keep stares down his would-be assassin and overcomes all opponents in the name of the unity and harmony of 'all under heaven' (tianxia).

Zhang Yimou was born and raised not far from Qin Shihuang and his entombed warriors. He looks so much like one of those terracotta guardians that he played one in a film about a Qin warrior come to life in the modern world. It is perhaps appropriate then that Zhang Yimou is leading the design team for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It will be a games trumpeting in front of a world audience China's hard-won, and ruthlessly policed, unity and harmony. Yet China remains what one of its critics called a 'party-empire' (dang tianxia). It is something worth contemplating as you marvel at the exhibition that inspired this book.

Originally published under the title 'The First Emperor of China' in The Times, 8 September 2007.