A few years ago, David Frum wrote on his blog (I think he deleted that post or closed his Blog since then) about China’s Early Empires referring to Belknap’s six-volume history of Imperial China. Frum said, “There is no Chinese equivalent of the Parthenon or the Roman Forum, no Pantheon or Coliseum. For all its overpowering continuity, China does not preserve physical remains of the past… He offhandedly mentioned at one point that there remained not a single surviving house or palace from Han China. There are not even ruins.”
David Frum—who was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush—was wrong.
I wrote a three-part series about the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.) tombs discovered in Xuzhou, which was the location of the capital of the Han Dynasty. The tombs, which have not been destroyed or looted, are now tourist attractions. A museum was built to house artifacts that were discovered. One tomb has a living room and a bedroom before the coffin chamber. Since the tomb was built inside a hollowed-out rock mountain, it survived more than two millennia with evidence of how the Han Dynasty lived more than 2,000 years ago.
And I’ve toured the Ming tombs, and seen the graves of heroes from the Song Dynasty near the West Lake in Hangzhou, south of Shanghai. Also, let’s not forget that the Grand Canal, which was started five centuries before the birth of Christ, is still in use today.
Then, if you visit Tibet, there’s the Potala Palace, which was first built in 637 AD and is still lived in. Although much of ancient China has vanished, there are still vestiges that equal or surpass what the Roman and Greek civilizations left behind.
Though the beginning of the Great Wall of China can be traced to the third century B.C., many of the fortifications included in the wall date from hundreds of years earlier, when China was divided into a number of individual kingdoms during the so-called Warring States Period (Beginning between 481 – 403 BC) .
Professor Jeffrey Riegel, of the University of California, Berkeley traveled to China to unlock the truth behind one of the earth’s greatest legends, a man larger than life, the first emperor of China, Shi Huangdi (259-210 BC). This post comes from the documentary film of China’s first emperor.
The first time we visited his tomb was December 1999.
Shi Huangdi was barely thirteen when his father died (246 BC) after being king of Qin for three years. The legends say Shi Huangdi was a tyrant driven mad by power.
He had a tomb built the likes of which humanity has never seen. When the first emperor died, he was the most powerful man on earth. He created an empire that outlasted Rome by a thousand years, he ruled ten times the population of ancient Egypt, and today’s China owes its existence to this man.
Months after becoming king at thirteen, Shi Huangdi overcomes his mother’s desire to rule in his name and took his nation to war. He was the youngest king to wage war and soon proved he was also the greatest warrior.
He soon becomes known as the Tiger of Qin.
Shi Huangdi wages war against his enemies for ten years. At the time, there were seven countries in China besides Qin. The seven countries in what we know as China today were Zhao, Yen, Wei, Han, Chi, Chu and Qin.
During the war to conquer Zhao, Shi Huangdi’s army took ten thousand prisoners. The rules of war say these prisoners must be fed and sheltered. However, Shi Huangdi changed the rules.
He shows his troops what to do by beheading an enemy troop and calls on his army to do the same.
He says, “There is only one way to treat weakness and that is to exploit it. There is only one way for Qin to survive, and that is to conquer.”
All 10,000 Zhao prisoners were beheaded.
By the time Qin Shi Huangdi turns twenty, he had captured thirteen cities from the state of Han and twenty from the other states. Huangdi’s rival countries send a combined army to stop him but they are repelled.
Some of Huangdi’s success is because of the precision weapons Qin craftsmen make for his loyal, highly trained army. Discover more of China’s Warrior King
However, while the king of Qin is conquering China, there is an enemy scheming to replace him.
His mother, the dowager queen, has taken a lover, who masquerades as a eunuch. The queen has had two illegitimate sons with this lover, who steals two royal seals that gives him authority to mobilize troops in an attempt to replace Shi Huandgi with one of the king’s half brothers.
Qin’s prime minister discovers the plot and a trap is set to destroy the rebel army. The dowager queen’s lover is captured, tortured and his mangled body pulled apart by four horses while the queen mother is forced to watch.
While the death sentence is being carried out, Huandgi has his two half brothers strangled to remove this threat to his throne.
With this challenge to the throne removed, Shi Huangdi has learned a lesson. He is ruthless and rids himself of his mother and his prime minister.
There is a dramatic scene where the prime minister asks for forgiveness for letting the queen mother do what she did.
The prime minister is exiled and not allowed to see the queen mother again. Within a year, the disgraced prime minister kills himself.
A scholar, who believes in harsh laws, becomes Huangdi’s closest advisor.
By 227 BC, the Qin state has conquered the states of Han, Wei and Zhao.
The state of Yen knows it is next and sends professional assassins disguised as peace emissaries to kill Shi Huangdi. The emissaries arrive in Xian with gifts and an assassin strikes.
Since no weapons are allowed in the throne room, there are no armed guards to protect the king. Only the king has a weapon and only the king can call the troops to save him.
By 223 BC, Shi Huangdi is ready to unify China. Only the states of Chi and Chu are left, but the Chu army destroys his first invasion force.
Shi Huangdi raises another army and invades again. A million troops face each other and it becomes a standoff. To win, Shi Huangdi tricks the Chu generals to make a mistake, and the last great obstacle to the unification of China falls.
Chi is the last country that has not been defeated. To avoid the slaughter, Chi joins Shi Huangdi without a fight.
Qin is now China.
At the age of 34, Qin Shi Huangdi was crowned with a veil of stars as the first god emperor of the Qin people and China.
The system of governance put into place will long outlast the emperor.
Qin Shi Huangdi commissions a Terra Cotta army that will guard him in death, and the troops are larger than life. In one pit, more than two hundred sets of armor made of stone have been found with no bodies to wear them.
It is believed that the armor may have been made for the spirits of dead soldiers who suffered violent deaths in combat so the dead would not become vengeful spirits.
The totalitarian philosophy in the new Chinese empire was called legalism.
Rules govern every part of every citizen’s daily life with the punishment spelled out. Physical punishment could mean mutilation.
For example, if two are caught having sex, they will be beheaded. Every aspect of private life is part of Qin law.
In 220 BC, Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi goes on an inspection tour of his empire. With the major wars over, millions of troops are put to work finishing the Great Wall of China, which was designed to stop the nomadic tribes to the north from raiding into China, which they have done for centuries.
The Great Wall is the greatest engineering project of the ancient world. It is thirty feet high and more than three thousand miles long. At one point, over a million people worked on the wall and about a quarter died.
The emperor makes more demands. He sends hundreds of thousands to build a tomb that fits his rank as the first divine emperor of China.
The burial mound, larger than the largest pyramid in Egypt, is at the center of an above ground and underground city. His tomb is made of bronze surrounded by
mercury rivers and oceans.
Recently, using ground penetrating radar and other instruments, a three dimensional model is built of this underground complex.
By 215 BC, Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi’s tomb is almost finished. The chamber where his body will rest is the size of a football field and will be hermitically sealed.
Then the tomb will be covered with a million tons of earth creating the hill we see today.
However, the Emperor doesn’t plan to die. Seeking advice from his doctor, he is given mercury capsules. At the time, it was believed that mercury would increase longevity.
Having lots of sex with multiple partners was also considered another way to increase life. The emperor follows the doctor’s advice and sends his doctor on an expedition to find an elixir for immortality.
The emperor isolates himself and delegates the power to rule the empire to those he trusts most. These men suppress free thought.
Entire libraries are burned. Those who try to hide documents are branded on the face and sentenced to a life of force labor — mostly on The Great Wall. Anyone who resists is buried alive.
Professor Jeffrey Riegel, of the University of California, Berkeley, says that Chinese archeologists have no immediate plans to unearth the tomb, because there is no way to safeguard the contents from decay.
Chinese alchemists knew liquid mercury as the only substance that could dissolve gold. To the ancient mind, that meant mercury had power that might prolong life.
However, the human body cannot absorb pure mercury so the Chinese alchemists made a compound the emperor could digest.
As the mercury is absorbed, it slowly destroyed his nervous system and brain.
Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi becomes aggressive, argumentative and paranoid. He goes into hiding. Anyone revealing his location is killed. His kidneys’ are failing and he starts talking to the gods.
Thirty-five years after becoming the king of Qin at thirteen, he goes on another Imperial tour. But this time, he is blind to a nation that is bankrupt and near famine.
All the emperor can think about is living forever.
He’s told that giant fish guards the island of the immortals. The emperor dreams that he is a sea god who will kill the giant fish.
Near the end of 210 BC, he visits the ocean hunting the giant fish with a crossbow while wading in the surf.
His advisors plan what to do with China once the emperor dies. On the return to the capital, the emperor falls ill and the Imperial convoy stops.
In the seventh month of 2010 BC, the first emperor’s search for immortality ends. At the age of fifty, Qin Shi Huangdi is dead.
While China’s first emperor is being buried according to his wishes, a power struggle rages outside the tomb.
By tradition, the oldest son should have become the emperor but several ministers want a younger son on the throne. The others are assassinated and there is a slaughter.
The emperor will also not go alone to the afterlife.
While his chosen successors are being assassinated, hundreds of his favorite concubines will stay with their master and die with him.
The tomb’s designers and builders will be sealed in the tomb too. Everyone who knows the way dies.
Qin Shi Huangdi left a legacy—a unified nation with a single written language and a system of administration that is still in use today.
We discovered China’s music, art and opera while meeting one of China’s national treasures, Mao Wei-Tao.
Learning about the 19th century Opium Wars started by the British and French opened my eyes to evils I had not known of.
What shocked me most was how the West forced China to allow Christian missionaries into China along with opium.
One reader challenged me in a comment saying that couldn’t be true then didn’t respond when I provided links to the evidence that missionaries and opium were included in the same treaty, which forced the emperor to accept against his will.
Then I sat spellbound as I joined Mao and the Communists on the Long March where more than 80,000 started out and about 6,000 survived — the only choice was to fight or die.
Along the way, I learned that Sun Yat-sen was the father of China’s republic and how Chiang Kai-shek started the Civil War in 1925 when he ordered his army to slaughter the Chinese Communists.
I didn’t know that the Communist and Nationalist Parties were the two political parties of China’s first republic and how it was the US supported Nationalists that fired the first shot that shattered Sun Yat-sen’s dream for China.
After the Communists won the Civil War in 1949, I saw the suffering and death from Mao’s mistakes during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution that ended in 1976.
China’s longest lasting dynasties survived due to one or more great emperors.
After China was unified by Qin Shi Huangdi (221 – 207 BC), there were only five dynasties that survived for long periods — the Han, Tang, Sung, Ming, and Qing Dynasties.
Although China’s civilization survived, the country’s history is rampant with rebellions, palace coups, corruption among palace officials, and insurrections. Between the five longest dynasties, the country usually fell apart into warring states as it did after 1911.
The most successful emperors managed to stabilize the country while managing wisely as the Communist Party has done since 1976.
EmperorHan Wudi (ruled 141 – 87 B.C.) of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 219 A.D.) was fifteen when he first sat on the throne.
Wudi is considered one of the greatest emperors in China’s history. He expanded the borders, opened the early Silk Road, developed the economy, and established state monopolies on salt, liquor and rice.
After the Han Dynasty collapsed, China fell apart for almost 400 years before the Tang Dynasty was established (618 -906). The Tang Dynasty was blessed with several powerful emperors.
The first was Emperor Tang Taizong (ruled 627-649).
According to historical records, Wu Zetain, China’s only woman emperor also ruled wisely.
Emperor Tang Zuanzong , Zetain’s grandson, ruled longer than any Tang emperor and the dynasty prospered while he sat on the throne.
After the dynasty fell, there would be short period of about 60 years before the Sung Dynasty reestablished order and unified the country again.
The second emperor of the Sung Dynasty, Sung Taizong (ruled 976 – 997) unified China after defeating the Northern Han Dynasty. The third emperor, Sung Zhenzong (ruled 997-1022) also deserves credit for maintaining stability.
The Sung Dynasty then declined until a revival by Sung Ningzong (ruled 1194 – 1224) After he died, the dynasty limped along until Kublai Khan defeated the last emperor in 1279.
After conquering all of China, Kublai Khan founded the Mongol, Yuan Dynasty (1277-1367). Not long after Kublai died, the dynasty was swept away.
In 1368, a peasant rebellion defeated the Yuan Dynasty and drove the Mongols from China.
The Ming Dynasty (1271 – 1368) is known for rebuilding, strengthening and extending the Great Wall among a list of other accomplishments.
Historical records show that the rule of the third Ming Emperor, Ming Chengzu (ruled 1403 – 1424), was the most prosperous period.
After Chengzu, the dynasty would decline until 1567 when Emperor Ming Muzong reversed the decline.
His son, Emperor Ming Shenzong, also ruled wisely from 1573 to 1620.
After Shenzong’s death, the Ming Dynasty quickly declined and was replaced by the Qing Dynasty in 1644.
The Opium Wars started by England and France and the Taiping Rebellion led by a Christian convert in the 19th century would contribute to the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.
The Qing Dynasty was fortunate to have three powerful, consecutive emperors: Emperor Kangxi (1661 – 1722), Yongzhen (1722-1735) and Qianlong (1735-1796). For one-hundred-and-thirty-five years, China remained strong and prosperous.
After the corrupt Qing Dynasty was swept aside in 1911 by a rebellion led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, China fell apart and warlords fought to see who would rule China.
When Sun Yat-sen died, the republic he was building in southern China fell apart when Chiang Kai-shek broke the coalition that Sun Yat-sen had formed between the Nationalist and Communist Parties. Mao’s famous Long March shows how the Communists survived.
Then Japan invaded, and China would be engulfed in war and rebellion until 1945 when World War II ended. After World War II, the rebellion between the Nationalist and Communists ended in victory for the Communists in 1949.
This victory was made possible because the Communists were supported by China’s peasants that hated, despised and distrusted the Nationalist Party, which represented China’s ruling elite.
The Communists gained the support of the peasants by treating the peasants with respect and promising reforms that would end the suffering.
Then Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution extended the peasants suffering.
However, since the early 1980s, the Communist Party has been working to fulfill the promises made during the revolution, and the lifestyles of China’s peasants are slowly improving.
There are many impatient voices in the West and a few in China that are not happy with the speed of China’s reforms or how the Party has handled them.
In fact, China has modernized and improved lifestyles in China since the early 1980s at a pace that has never been seen before in recorded history.
His third book is Crazy is Normal, a classroom exposé, a memoir. “Lofthouse presents us with grungy classrooms, kids who don’t want to be in school, and the consequences of growing up in a hardscrabble world. While some parents support his efforts, many sabotage them—and isolated administrators make the work of Lofthouse and his peers even more difficult.” – Bruce Reeves.
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After Qin Shi Huangdi unified China, he decreed that there would be one language. If he hadn’t done that, the chances are that China would eventually have fractured and stayed many countries similar to Europe, South America and Africa.
After all, China has fifty-six minorities and the Han Chinese are divided between the Cantonese in the south and the Chinese north of the Yangtze river. Even Shanghai speaks a different dialect from Beijing.
Having one written language instead of many helped unify China and kept it that way leading to the most innovative civilization in history.
Anyone who reads iLook China regularly knows how “unique” that Buddhist culture was.
I use past tense hoping that “unique” Buddhist culture never returns to a feudal society ruled by a few landowners and lamas making up one percent of the population.
Before 1950, the other ninety-nine percent were either serfs or mandatory Buddhist monks, who did not know any other way of life.
To understand what life must have been like in Tibet for the majority, here are a few definitions for “serf”.
1. a member of the lowest feudal class, attached to the land owned by a lord and required to perform labor in return for certain legal or customary rights.
2. a person in bondage or servitude.
3. an unfree person, esp one bound to the land. If his lord sold the land, the serf was passed on to the new landlord.
4. a person who is bound to the land and owned by the feudal lord
With a “unique” culture such as that, who needs the old ways?
Besides, it has been sixty years since Mao occupied Tibet for China. If you doubt that China ruled over Tibet before 1950, read the October 1912 issue of National Geographic.
Mao was fourteen when Dr. Shaoching H. Chuan, who wrote the piece in National Geographic, went to Tibet in 1907 with a medical team ordered there by the Qing Emperor to deal with a cholera epidemic in one of China’s vassal states governed by two Chinese political governors assigned by the emperor.
Since the average life expectancy for Tibetans was 35.5 in the 1950s, it should be safe to say that most Tibetans who lived there at the time are as dead as China’s first emperor and Mao.
Today, thanks to a modern lifestyle and better medical care provided by China, life expectancy in Tibet has improved to 67.
In fact, only 10% of the region’s population is over 60.
In the last five decades, Tibet’s population has grown about 140 percent. The reason for that growth is that Tibetan families are not subject to the nation’s one-child policy, which is so unpopular in the West.
Why don’t we ever hear these facts from China’s Western critics?
Last year, Tibet had 2.9 million permanent residents. That means 2.7 million Tibetans never lived in the feudal Buddhist society that existed up to 1950.
When a few hundred ethnic minority university students in Beijing recently protested learning Mandarin, I’m sure they had no idea what life would have been like if Tibet had remained free of China.
These same misguided youths are also lucky that Mao and Qin Shi Huangdi are dead.
The first emperor had the scholars that protested one written language dig their own grave then had his troops set fire to them before burying the charred bodies.
Mao would have just had the students executed with one shot to the back of the head.
However, now Tibetan university students protest in Beijing and nothing happens. That’s progress.
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too.
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