Qin Shi Huangdi
The Sunday Times
August 26, 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
Huangdi needed a terracotta army of life-size warriors to guard him in the
afterlife. And the British Museum is looking forward to its most dazzling
exhibition since Tutankhamun 40 years ago.
Among the unprecedented
120 treasures the Chinese have permitted to be exhibited in London from
September 13 are a dozen warriors, a musician, an acrobat, a strongman, a
chariot with horses and bronze birds to serenade the emperor in the
netherworld. The show is already setting new records: almost 60,000 advance
tickets have been sold.
Scholars debate whether Shi Huangdi was a
unifier or a destroyer during his brief reign 2,200 years ago. But in China
he has been rehabilitated as a colossus equivalent to Alfred the Great and
Napoleon rolled into one. His very title, Qin, pronounced "chin", is the
origin of China’s name. He pulled together a bunch of warring states and
knit them into a centralised system.
His most abiding legacy,
according to Frances Wood in her recent book The First Emperor of China, was
the survival for more than 2,000 years of China’s bureaucracy, "the largest
in the world, staffed by educated men and reaching to the lowest peasant in
After his death the emperor's character was assassinated
by revisionist historians in the succeeding Han dynasty. There was much to
besmirch – such as the story of him ordering more than 460 scholars to be
buried alive and then beheaded. This persecution of intellectuals later
endeared him to Mao Tse-tung, founder of the People's Republic of China, who
rejoiced: "He buried 460 scholars alive; we have buried 46,000 scholars
Besides outlawing Confucianism and burning classic texts that
offended him, the first emperor became known for the ruthless elimination of
defeated armies, estimated at hundreds of thousands. Countless more went to
their deaths, conscripted into labouring on the Great Wall.
significant reforms were to standardise Chinese script, weights and measures
and even the length of cart axles so that every cart could run smoothly in
the ruts. An extensive new network of roads and canals improved trade and
the movement of troops between provinces.
Reviled for so long as a
mass murderer and the burner of books, the first emperor has at least one
solace. His travelling army of clay warriors are now ambassadors for an
ascendant China, providing a thrilling fanfare for the Beijing Olympics.