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Thank you for listening to the rest is history. For bonus episodes, early access ad free listening and access to our chat community, sign up at restish That's restish I have a very big and exciting announcement. Tom and I will be following in the footsteps of Adele, Jimi Hendrix and Jay Z, or JZ as I call them, to name but a few, because we will be performing at the Royal Albert hall. It's on Friday the 18 October. We will be accompanied by a live orchestra. Don't worry, Tom will not be singing, because what we will be doing is we will be diving into the lives of Mozart and Beethoven, arguably the two greatest composers in history, if you discount Bach. And we will be exploring their music, their lives, how the French Revolution overshadowed Mozart's final years, and how the napoleonic wars played their part in the making of Beta Urban's greatest symphonies. So you've got all that to look forward to.


Tickets are on sale now and you can of course get and on that bombshell, on with the show.


I read a few days ago that the man who ordered the building of the almost infinite wall of China was that first emperor, Xi Huangdi, who also decreed the burning of all the books that had been written before his time, that these two vast undertakings, the five or 600 leagues of stone against the barbarians, and the rigorous abolition of history, that is of the past, were the work of the same person and were in a sense, his attributes, inexplicably satisfied and at the same time disturbed me. So that was Jorge Luis Borges the wall in the book sla maria ilos libros, an essay published in 1950 Tom Ni Hao huan ying, li dao sheng, jia de Jo Xilishi. What do you have to say to that?


I completely agree, I think. I cant believe you ambushed me with that. What a rotten thing to do.


It was terrible. And what was worse was that we were faffing around before recording this. I know, for exactly 1 hour and six minutes. And in all that time I never thought to mention that I had some chinese up my sleeve to ambush you.


With, even when I was practicing my chinese accent.


No, I just said nothing.


Yeah, it's terrible behavior.


I smiled weakly.


But what did you say? You can't leave us all hanging. For those of us who don't, I.


Said, hello Tom, and welcome to the rest is history.


Oh, thanks. And to everyone else, yeah.


Huang Li, Li Dao Xiangxia, to Zhou Xi Luxi, to everybody else, as well, so Tom Borges, that essay published in 1950, he's talking about the first emperor of China, and he says he built.


The great Wall, but he also abolished.


History by destroying all the books. And very attentive listeners may remember that back in the mists of time, when we record an episode about the Aztecs, the Mexica. That's what they did as well. They destroyed the books of their enemies, the histories of their enemies. But the emperor of China does it about China's own stuff.


Yeah, he does.


And the story is that not only does he burn the books, but he actually buries alive a whole array of scholars. And that sense of the first emperor of China, Xi Huangdi, as a kind of menacing tyrant. But I think you get the sense from that reading from Borges, he loves this kind of stuff that it shades into the mythic, doesn't it?




Borges loves figures who are playing tricks with time or.




Constructing massive walls, all that kind of stuff.


Labyrinths. Yeah, all that.


And there is the sense, I think, that Shi hung Di is. I mean, he's building walls, he's burning scholars and books, and he kind of goes mad towards the end of his life trying to discover a cure for immortality, which, again, is like something from a borgesque story.




The elixir of life. I mean, this is an unbelievable story.




So he is a really, really fascinating figure. And I would say most people probably in the west, are not familiar with ancient chinese history. I mean, much less so than with roman or egyptian or even assyrian history. But probably there are kind of visual markers for the reign of the first chinese emperor because in 1974, which is obviously a couple of decades or so after Burgess wrote that story, an incredible discovery was made in a village outside Chiang in central China, where the first emperor had his capital. And this, of course, was the terracotta soldiers of the buried army, which was part of the first emperor's tomb. And probably most people listening will have a sense of what they look like. I mean, it's probably the, would you say the most celebrated archeological discovery since Tutankhamen? I guess. Yeah, I think so.


I think if you said to people, pre modern China, you know, ancient medieval China, do you know anything about it? They would say, is that the terracotta army? Is it the great Wall?




I mean, Borges talks about the wall, but he doesn't talk about the army.




The army was at the British Museum, wasn't it, 15 years ago? And I went to see it, I think three.


There were three of the figures.


Yeah, there is something weird and haunting because there's an argument that's the first kind of mass produced, because they're kind of these identical looking figures. We'll come to this because we'll come to his legacy. But we need to talk about the character himself, don't we? And also his place in chinese history, which is obviously colossal.




Because I think that he is a figure. His story, the role that he plays, has echoes of the role played by emperors and pharaohs and kings that are more familiar to us. So whether the history of Egypt or Rome or whatever. But hes obviously also a very, very representative figure of chinese history, and I think particularly of the ambivalences that you get in chinese history. So on the one hand, he has always served the Chinese as the kind of the archetype of a bad emperor, of a tyrant, of a totalitarian figure. Yeah, he embodies totalitarian trends, as we will see. But on the other hand, there is also a sense that he is the first emperor. He is the first person who constitutes the imperial state of China. And he does this by redeeming what had previously been fractured kingdoms from chaos. You have seven kingdoms who are all fighting among themselves. It's very kind of westeros, very Game of Thrones.




And by forging them into a single imperial order, he is establishing a template that will endure right the way up into the 20th century.


So more successful even than Augustus Tum, who would be an obvious comparator.


Hugely more successful in that sense, because, as we will see, there are continuities that actually run not just up to the end of the chinese empire, but right the way up into the present day, because there is a sense in which, in contemporary China, communist though it is, the first emperor is seen as a kind of a hero. So there's an incredible film. I know you haven't seen it because we were talking about it earlier. It's one of my absolute favorite films called hero. It's stunningly beautiful. And it's set in this period of the wars between the seven Kingdoms. And it has at its heart an attempt by assassins to kill the king of Qin, who will go on to become the first emperor. Yeah, and you're siding with the assassins. But the twist is that ultimately you end up rooting for the king of Qin because he is going to go on and create modern China, and therefore, without him, there will be no China. And this sense of the first emperor as someone who, I mean, weirdly so in 1973. So this is towards the end of Maos life. Chairman Maos life. There was an editorial published in the maoist journal the Red Flag, which described the first emperor burning books and burying confucian scholars alive as progressive measures, which is amazing.




Robust measures for a happier China.


Exactly. And even now, it's not only films, there's been four tv series about the first emperor. So, William Hann, you remember who I met in, when we were in Auckland?


I do, yeah.


Chinese New Zealander, wrote a brilliant travelog about his travels across from China to the Middle east. But he said about this, Caesar would love this kind of attention.




And I guess the parallels between China and Rome are why I'm interested in it.




And the communist stuff is fascinating. We'll come to that towards the end of the program. The way in which in Maos China.




The reputation of the first emperor changed. But let's start, Tom, where are we? We are 300 years or so, 250 years before the birth of Christ.


We are.


So Rome is a republic at this point and China doesn't exist. What is now China is a series of warring states. Is that right?




So there are seven warring states. As we said, the man who becomes the first emperor is the king of Qin. Under his rule, Qin conquers the other six states. And it is seen by the other six states as pretty barbaric.




The story goes that the founder of the kingdom was a chieftain who was expert in horse breeding, which is a kind of very barbarian thing to do, who gets given this tranche of land and then chin grows and grows and ends up swallowing all the other kingdoms. And you mentioned Rome.




I mean, there is a slight sense there of how the Greeks, for instance, will see the expansion of Rome. So Rome at this period is busy fighting against Carthage. But also Macedon is the other parallel.


I was about to say Macedon. So Macedon, which is on the northern fringe of the kind of hellenic world, the greek world, and then ends up dominating. Chin is the same. Right. It's more warlike, it's more rugged.




And the others regard it as perhaps a bit backward, a bit uncouth, but there's martial virtues what make it successful.


Yes. And so this may well be why, once the king of Qin has conquered the other six kingdoms, I mean, he's not reticent in proclaiming the scale of what he's achieved. So on his inscriptions, he boasts that he brought peace to all under the heavens and that he has humbled the mighty and rebellious and brought stability to the four ends of the earth. There's a sense in which he's actually, his dynasty only lasts another four years after his death. But as we say, there is another sense in which what he has established will last until 1911, when the last chinese emperor is deposed.


Yeah, Puyi.


And I think that it is really right to focus in on how unusual this sense of continuity is, because obviously the Roman Empire vanishes. There is no trace of it. The caliphate fragments and fractures. India is never a coherent whole until the british period. But in China, even though the empire may implode, may fragment, may fracture, it always kind of comes back together again. And I think you have this sense that from this period on, a unified empire is seen by the Chinese as really the only legitimate form of rule. And so that, in turn, kind of raises two really, really interesting questions. And the first is, how did the first emperor do this? How did he succeed in establishing such a kind of enduring model of imperial rule, a model that would last for not just centuries, but millennia, but also that question that is focused by the passage from Borges that you read at the beginning. Has he abolished history? Is it year zero, or is he drawing on traditions that are much older than him?




So Borges was obviously fascinated by this idea that it was a year zero, that the emperor was starting again. And, you know, that's one that's very seductive. Chinese history obviously predates that first emperor. So am I right in thinking the chinese chronology that goes back thousands of years before this guy?


Yeah, it's all before him. So Borgess in his essay points this out. I mean, this is why he finds it so unsettling. The idea of abolishing history is because Borgess recognizes that for the Chinese, in a sense, history is more important to the Chinese. Tradition is more important to the Chinese than to any comparable civilization. And so he writes in that essay, chinese chronology was already 3000 years long and included the yellow emperor, Changzu, Confucius, Lao Tzu, when Shi Huangdi ordered that history would begin with him. And so what he's doing there, he's citing an emperor and three sages, all of whom obviously had preceded the first emperor. So the yellow emperor is a kind of legendary culture hero who is basically a kind of divine figure like, you know, Osiris ruling Egypt at the beginning of the line of the pharaohs.




Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu. They were both alive during the warring States period before the first emperor ends. That, and they are exemplars of Taoism, or Taoism. They follow the Tao, the Wei. The aim of this is to bring heavens and the earth and everything in it into harmony. And it has to be said that they are not obvious guides to a stable world empire. So there's a famous story that's told of Trangzhou that I'm sure lots of people will have heard of, that he falls asleep one day and dreams that he's a butterfly. And then when he wakes up, he doesn't know whether he's a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, whether he was a butterfly now dreaming he was a man.


That's very balkisian.


So this is not the spirit that will enable you to go and conquer six kingdoms and during the lifetime of the first emperor. The Taoists aren't really a philosophical school to the degree that they will become. They're kind of. I think they're more like yogis in India. They're kind of into breathing techniques and Gwyneth Paltrow, very austere diets and things.


Yeah, they're posting pictures of, like, pathetic looking salads on instagram.


Exactly. So the first emperor, very contemptuous of that. But having said that, the Taoists do recognize that their teachings, obviously, this idea that you want to bring the heavens and earth into harmony, obviously that has implications for politics. And so Lao Tzu says, the Tao is great, heaven is great, earth is great, and the king is great. There are four greats in the state, and the king is one of these. So there's this idea that you actually need one king to establish harmony.


Well, that idea of harmony, Tom, is obviously absolutely central to Confucianism, isn't it? So Confucius lived about a century or so earlier, before the guy we're talking about and his model, his dream, is a world of balance and stability where the earthly world achieves the same level of harmony that the cosmos has.


That's right.


And that would imply a single political order.


Well, really, what he's on about is being kind. Dominican.


Oh, Tom, that's nice, because we're all about kindness on the rest of history, aren't we?


So when I say being kind, I mean he has this idea that if everyone knows their rightful place, if everyone behaves well according to their roles, then the perfect state will emerge. So he sums this up in a famous phrase, let the ruler be a ruler. The subject a subject, the father a father and the son a son. And essentially what he's doing is he's equating the relationship between the father and a son. And he barely talks about women, it has to be said, to a ruler. And a subject. And if everyone does what they should, so whether that is performing the right rituals or, I don't know, wearing the right kind of clothes, right hat.




Bowing in the right kind, that everything will follow. And when everyone knows his or her place, then Harmony will be universal. You know, there'll be one king, everyone will know his or her place. It'll all be great.


That sounds very sound, I think. Very sound.


Well, so we will see whether the first emperor agrees with you. But this sort of confucian ideal, that China is something more than just a political entity, that it is an expression of the order of the cosmos, this is something that absolutely runs right the way through chinese imperial history. And I think is why, in due course, the unification of China comes to seem something inevitable.


Well, I wanted to ask you about that because there is a sense, isn't there, that all chinese history is progressing towards a single goal, which is the unity and strength and triumph of China. And precisely because chinese history has this extraordinary continuity, and because the unit of China has existed for so long, we assume that it's inevitable that there was always going to be a country called China and not a series of warring states. But obviously there isn't a country called Europe, or at least not yet.


Or Romania.




Well, there is a country called Romania, but you know what I mean.




There's no Roman.




The roman empire doesn't still exist.




So when we look at this guy, I suppose that's the shadow that hangs over this or the question, isn't it? Is he single handedly responsible for the most extraordinary geopolitical achievement in world history? Or are there other factors at play? And actually, is his individual importance less significant than we might tend to think?


That question raises kind of the deep ambivalence that hangs over the ancient history of China. So definitely, say, by the early modern period, chinese historians are looking back and they're saying it's an inevitable progress towards unity. So, you know, they'll say that 2000 years before the first emperor, there were 10,000 states, and then, you know, the age of the warring states, there are seven. And then with the first emperor, there's only one. And this is great. This is something that was inevitably going to happen.




But at the same time, there is also a sense, definitely during the age of the warring states itself, that sages are not just looking forwards, but they're looking specifically backwards to a golden age of unity that's been lost. And specifically, they're looking back to the heyday of a particular dynasty, the Chu. And people love my pronunciation of foreign. Well, Dominic, you're the master of tongues. You're master of Chinese.


The Zhou dynasty. Tung. The Zhou. I mean, I'm not a specialist in chinese linguistics by any means, but I'm happy to dabble.




Okay. This is the dynasty that rules for the longest in the whole of chinese history. 789 years.


789 years. Wow. Amazing.




And they had overthrown the previous dynasty, the Shang, around 1050 bc. So this is kind of, you know, in Europe, it's the Bronze Age collapse, it's the aftermath of the trojan war. It's that kind of period. And the Jew justify their rule with reference to concepts that, again, will endure throughout the entire sweep of history. And the most famous of these is the idea of the mandate of heaven. That a dynasty that cannot maintain order and harmony is condemned by the heaven, overthrown and to be replaced by a new dynasty, and therefore history. A sense of the past is incredibly important because it's what enables a dynasty to prove its fitness to rule. And in turn, that means that an ability to control what is written, to control what is propagated, to control what people read, is really, really important. I mean, fundamental to the stability of the dynasty and therefore to the stability of the state. But what happens under the zhou is that power starts to drain from the dynasty, from, I don't know, about 750 bc, and you pass into a period that's called by the Chinese the spring and autumn period, which derives from the name of the spring and autumn annals, which I think is a kind of wonderful name.


And in that period, you see, I suppose it's a bit like the process by which the Holy Roman emperor in medieval Europe loses control over the kind of the totality of his empire, but essentially the figure of the king, he becomes a kind of spectral figure without real authority.




And this is the process which results in the fragmentation.


But, tom, can I just ask a question before you get to the warring period, when this all falls apart at that point. So under the Zhou dynasty, is there what we would recognize as a unified China? Are they ruling a sort of pre classical precursor to the emperor of the empire? The first emperor?


Yeah, I think so. I mean, it's no way as large as, say, the republic of China today is. It's much smaller. It's concentrated kind of in the heartlands. But, yeah, I think there is a sense of a common identity, and it's really that common identity that people are nostalgic for. They feel that there is something waiting, that the empire that existed has broken and it should be reconstituted. And so that explains the ambivalent role that the first emperor will come to play, that he is someone who is starting something afresh, but he is also kind of looking backwards. But he wants to disguise that.


Yeah, but just not common identity. Very quickly, common identity based on not just political reality, but on shared language, religion, customs, those kinds of things.


No, I think it's probably closer to pre roman Italy than it is to classical Greece.


Okay. Right.


So actually, that identity is quite fragile is what you're saying, for sure, yes.




But I think equally, there is a sense that is shared across these seven kingdoms, that a harmony between all of them would be better than just allowing them to continue to fight and to fragment. And that really is the ideal that is associated with Confucius, who is looking back for inspiration, but also looking forwards and saying, look, if we just behave well, if we just sons behave dutifully to their fathers and subjects behave dutifully to the king, then the spirit of benevolence and kindness will flow out across the land and the empire will just kind of cohere as a result of it. And so basically, this is what Confucius and confucian scholars who follow him are teaching the rulers of these various kingdoms, is that if you do this, then harmony will prevail. But, of course, the problem with that is that Confucius is saying you can't reconstitute the unity through violence. But of course, I mean, that's a nonsense. That's the only way you can do it is through violence.




So Confucius Tom is living, what is he, 550 to kind of 480 or thereabouts BC. So he is 200 years before the first emperor. And that period is one of chaos, anarchy, constant war between the successor states to the Zhou dynasty. And as you say, the only way they can be welded together is through force.


Right. Right.


I mean, this is a very violent, aggressive world.




Because which of these seven kings is going to say, yeah, all right, let's have a philosopher, sage. We'll all stand down. It's just not going to happen.




So this is where the man who will become the first emperor steps in, because, as we will see, he is very much not a Confucian. He subscribes to a very different ideology, a very different approach to rulership. And I think we should take a break at this point. And when we come back, we'll look and see what he did.




And it's all quite brutal.


Oh, I look forward to it. Come back after the break for some brutality. Cracking his long whip, he drove the universe before him. He ascended to the summit of power and ruled the six directions. Scourging the world with his rod and his might shook the four seas. In the south, he seized the land and the lords there bowed their heads, hung halters from their necks and pleaded for their lives. Then he caused General Meng to build the great wall and defend the borders, so that the barbarians no longer dared to come south to pasture their horses, and their men dared not take up arms to avenge their hatred. Thereupon, he discarded the ways of the former kings and burned the writings of the hundred schools in order to make the people ignorant. He collected all the arms of the empire and had them brought to his capital, where the spears and arrowheads were melted down. He garrisoned the strategic points with skilled generals and expert bowmen, and stationed trusted ministers and well trained soldiers to guard the land with arms and questioned all who passed back and forth. Now, that was Jieyi in the faults of Qin.


So this is discussing the first emperor of China and actually makes him sound, Tom, like a pretty terrifying figure. So sounds like a bit of a police state there, doesn't it, that everybody's been questioned? Yes, there are soldiers at every crossing. The people have been plunged into ignorance because of the destruction of their old books. And that was written about 50 years after his death.




And J Yi is a bird lover, so he writes a treatise on the owl. Right, the beauties of the owl, which I think is great.


Love an owl. Yeah.


But he's also a confucian, and the hostility that he's displaying to the emperor there, he's drawing on kind of confucian ideals and finding the first emperor wanting. Although I think, I mean, I think there is a measure of kind of grudging respect there as well, don't you think?




I mean, it stresses his omnipotence effectively, doesn't it?


Yeah, but I think it's the earliest articulation of what will become a kind of prime confucian theme running throughout chinese history, that the first emperor had established his supremacy by consciously trampling on confucian ideals. And because the history tends to be written by Confucians, it's quite difficult, I think, to have a sense of the first emperor himself that isn't clouded by that criticism. So it's, again, looking at the kind of roman parallel, it's like senators writing about the early caesars.




It's. The hostility is baked in.




So that's our sense of this guy. Now, interestingly, throughout this podcast, we've called him this bloke or the first emperor, but we haven't really used his name very much. And that's partly because his name changes, doesn't it? Over time it does.


So you compared him to Augustus, and Augustus was a great one for changing his name. And the first emperor is very similar. His birth name seems to have been the Zhong, which Dominic, as you'll know, of course, means kind of upright or proper, correct, yeah.


Righteous or implication of rectitude there, Tom, for people who are real linguistic scholars, I think.


Yes, exactly. So, and he is the son of the king of Qin and a concubine. And within decades of his death, you're starting to get hostile confucian traditions that says that his father had been a hostage, which I guess is entirely plausible, you know, when he was a young man and that while he was hostage, he had befriended a merchant. And Confucians regard merchants with the utmost contempt.




So this is a terrible thing.


They're in trade. Common.


They're in trade. And this merchant had given one of his concubines to the future king of Chin, and this concubine will be his mother, although there are much later, again, very hostile confucian traditions, to go a step further and say that actually the king of Qin was the son of this merchant and his concubine and therefore was entirely legitimate. So you can see there a kind of deliberate attempt to try and blacken him. So he becomes king of Qin in 246 BC. He's only 13, so still very young, and he is heir to this very, very kind of formidable state. We compared it earlier to Rome or to the Macedon of Philip II and Alexander that conquers the greek states. They have a very, very militaristic cast of mind, almost kind of spartan level of toughness, very advanced technologically. So they've developed particularly lethal brand of crossbow. They have these huge, well trained armies. Anyone who has seen hero will remember the incredible scene where the earth shakes as the, the army of the Qin approaches. And so already only four years after Zhang has been born, in 255, the Qin have embarked on their process of conquest.


And specifically they have targeted what remains of the patrimony of the Zhu dynasty. So this very, very ancient, highly respected dynasty that had existed for centuries and centuries before, and the Qin have marched in and have extinguished them. And so they're very menacing from a kind of military point of view, but they are also very menacing if you are a Confucian from an ideological point of view, because they have a prospectus for rule that deliberately contradicts the assumptions of Confucius. And this idea that beneficence and just performing the correct rituals and so on will be enough to generate harmony. And it's basically a totalitarian understanding of how states should be organized. And it's been propagated in the fourth century. So the century before, the future first emperor is born by a guy called Shang. Lord Shang, yeah. And he explicitly condemns confucian virtues as being parasitical. So the things that he condemns are rites and music, odes and history, moral culture and virtue, filial piety and brotherly love, sincerity and faith, benevolence and righteousness, criticism of the army and being ashamed of fighting. All of these are condemned as weaknesses.


So very spartan. Yeah, it is very spartan. And actually, Owen, Tom, it reminds me, you did that wonderful episode at the beginning of the year, chilling episode about the ideology of Nazism and the Nazis sense of right and wrong and, you know, the contempt for being ashamed of fighting, for being weak, for being soft, all of that kind of stuff. I mean, there are some pretty chilling 20th century parallels there.




And of course, the Nazis were inspired by the Spartans, and I think that people may recognize the extent to which there are parallels between the current chinese state and this kind of ideal that is being spelt out by Lord Shang in the fourth century BC. So essentially, the tendrils of the state, Shang thinks, should reach into kind of every household. So every household has to be registered, which in turn makes it easy to get taxes from them, to oblige people, to do military service, to do forced labor. And you have these kind of pyramidal structure of magistrates who are responsible for communities and then higher magistrates and so on, right the way up to the figure of the king himself. And this structure, Shang says, is to be enforced with very, very brutal laws. And that essentially, he says, a king who is not brutal in maintaining the law is letting his people down. A king who is kind is letting the state go to waste. And this feeds into, on the military level, a sense that, say, head harvesting is the measure of a man. The more heads that a soldier can collect, the higher he will be promoted.


And this is obviously anathema to everything that confucian philosophy embodies. But it's obviously brilliant for the young Zheng, who, even though he's a teenager, shows himself brilliant at utilizing both the war machine and this kind of ideology that he's been bequeathed. And so the wars carry on, and the six kingdoms are swallowed up one by one. And as this process is happening, obviously all the other kings are terrified. The stories that are told of the king of Qin is that he's a kind of almost bestial figure. So there's a description of him that is quoted by a later historian, coming from one of his own generals, that he's a man with a prominent nose, large eyes, a chest like a bird of prey, and the voice of a jackal, a man of little kindness with the heart of a tiger, of that of a wolf.




So not the kind of person that you'd want coming for you. And so, unsurprisingly, they sponsor assassins to go and kill him. And this is the historical reality that lies behind the plot of hero.


Oh, yes.


But it doesn't work.


They all fail.


Yes. And so by 221 BC, all the other six kingdoms have been conquered. And the estimate is. And again, it's quite a round figure. People may remember, I've mentioned before that Caesar is said to have killed a million gauls. When conquering gauls, the same is said of the king of Qin, that he slaughters a million and more people in the process of conquering.


That's a classical history million, isn't it, Tom?




I mean, who's counting?


Right, right.


But so he is now. So he's conquered all the kingdoms.




And he makes himself more than a king. So that's why we call him the first emperor. He's different from the Zhou dynasty or previous dynasties because he is something else. He's a paramount ruler par excellence. He is an emperor. Is that right?




Well, so members of our beloved chat community will know that the Chinese for king, of course, is Wang.


General Gordon, of course, had his wangs, didn't he?


Had his wangs. His kings, yeah, but, yeah. So the king of Qin no longer wants to be a king. He no longer wants to be a Wang, and so he declares himself to be Qin Shi Huangdi. And Qin is obviously his homeland. Qin is the name from which China will come.




So his homeland comes to be acquainted with the entire empire that he's conquered. Xi means first. And this I find fascinating. I mean, this is why I find this subject so interesting, coming from the kind of the roman perspective.


Go on.


So Huang basically means August.


Oh, very good.




And Di is a divine figure. So the yellow emperor was a di. The yellow emperor called himself Hoang Di. And so if you wanted to translate Huang Di into Latin.


Very good.


You translate it as Augustus, Divus, both of which were names used by Augustus because he wanted a new title for.


Himself, the divine Augustus.


So that, I think, is why the translation for Huang Di into English, appropriately, is emperor. It's a kind of implicit comparison between Augustus and Huang Di.


And what makes it different, I suppose, is that in his name, there's that link to the gods, to the realm of the divine right, because of the dee. So he's more than just an earthly monarch. He is the incarnation of cosmic order. Is that fair?


I think, absolutely, yes. And we have inscriptions that he put up himself, inscriptions incised onto great stone monuments. And so in that sense, a sense of himself has survived the criticism and the obloquy of later historians. And he describes himself as ruling over a land in which all men under the sky toil with a single purpose. And he is praised for having regulated local custom, made waterways and divided up the land, cared for the common people, working day and night without rest, defining the laws, leaving nothing in doubt, making known what is forbidden. So he's casting himself as a kind of godlike figure whose supervision is for the good of everyone beneath his rule.


And, Tom, you've compared him with roman emperors, but is there also a comparison, just thinking about the stone monument with the inscription saying, he did this, he did that, the other all men worked under his rule, you know, waterways, blah, blah, blah. What strikes me is pharaohs. Is there a comparison to be made with pharaohs?




And I think, obviously, we are living as we do in the west, are much more familiar with the kind of the great kings and emperors of the ancient civilizations of the Near east or the Mediterranean. But I think that there is a sense in which Xi, Wang Di, the first emperor, is the equivalent of those figures. But, of course, he is also very, very distinctively chinese.




And I think that he embodies a totalitarianism beyond even that that was dreamed of, say, back in. Who is the kind of classic totalitarian figure in egyptian history? Because unlike Akhenaten, who essentially has to kind of invent a justification for totalitarianism, the first emperor, he has it in the form of this ideology that's been divided by Lord Shang. And essentially what he does once he's conquered these six kingdoms is he extends that totalitarian control across everything that he's conquered. So the identity of the kingdoms gets kind of dissolved by the division of the first emperor's conquests into 36 provinces. And within those, again, you get all these kind of subdivisions and subdivisions and subdivisions. So again, you have this sense that his agents are everywhere, keeping watch, controlling people. This is what enables him to raise armies and to impose forced labor and so on. And also he does something that may remind people of what the Assyrians or the Babylonians did when they abducted the Israelites or the people of Judah to their capitals after conquering them. The first emperor does something very similar. He orders 120,000 of the wealthiest families from across all the various kingdoms that he's conquered to come to his capital near present day Tian and to bring all their weapons with them.


So that was mentioned in the passage that you read. And these weapons are melted down and they're converted into bells and into twelve bronze giant statues that are kind of erected as markers of his triumph and his process.


So symbols of his power. Yeah, and his triumph over these other rival families.


And so the passage that you read as criticism and the passage that, you know, the inscriptions that the first emperor himself puts up as a marker of praise, is this idea that he standardizes everything. So he standardizes coinage, he standardizes weights and measurements, imposes it across what will become China. He standardizes the size of chariot axles.


Yeah, well, you need to do that for roads if you're on a road system.




You do need it for roads. And so, again, like the Romans, the first emperor is a great, great road builder.


Yeah, or the Persians.


Yeah, all the Persians. But he has access to all this forced labor. You know, he can get kind of contingents of people to labor on the roads, kind of, you know, preparing the rubble, patting it down, lining it with ditches and trees and everything. And in the middle of these great highways, there is a kind of separate lane, which is only for the first emperor himself. And there's a story told of a nobleman who accidentally strays into it, who immediately gets executed. So very stern traffic laws. And it's very clear, I think, when he travels, who is the first emperor? Because he's dressed all in black. This is his signature color. When you have this great kind of. You know, he's going down the central lane of these highways. He's got his huge, wide, black chariots with their perfectly matching wheel gages, black banners, fluttering flags, officials, great tall conical hats, black robes. I mean, unbelievably impressive and overwhelming. And this sense that a new age has dawned in which everything is joined and supervised and everything has its place.


So, on the face of it, Tom, you could argue that this is precisely the kind of balance and order that a few centuries earlier, Confucius and then his acolytes, his successors, had called for. So why do they end up hating.


This first emperor, because they see it as being upheld by one of the confucian scholars, says it's mutilations and punishments, right? So rather than everyone knowing their place, the laborer being happy to labor, you know, the householder being happy to hold the house, whatever, it's dependent on forced labor, on conscription, on people being criminalized, if they object to this, and the punishments are incredibly brutal, and they kind of rise from having your beard shaved off.




So this was the penalty for beating your wife, and then you might have your head shaved.




Then you might be tattooed, which is a kind of marker of criminality. Then you might be castrated, and then you might have limbs amputated.


Okay, that's pretty strict.


Yeah, it is strictly. And it's expressive of this determination to control everything. The eye of the emperor is everywhere, and his reach extends into the humblest nook and cranny across all these lands that he's conquered. And I think that that is why you get these stories of him burning books and burying confucian scholars alive. I mean, it may have happened. I think the consensus is probably that he did burn books, but that he didn't bury confucian scholars alive. But the fact that they are told and believed is expressive of things that the confucian scholars feel are terrible, because obviously their objections to what the first emperor is doing is couched in terms of appeals to the past. They're drawing on Confucius, but they're also drawing on the kind of ideals of what previous rulers had done. And so this is what the first emperor is objecting to. He doesn't want that. And so he's advised in 213 by his leading advisor, who says, in order to prevent dissent through endless harking, back to the supposed glories of the past, books containing such information must be destroyed. So again, a kind of very totalitarian instinct. I mean, this is George Orwell, isn't it?




No other sources of information, no other sources of wisdom but me, effectively.


Exactly. And the only manuals that are specified as being saved, they will save books of divination, because the first emperor is obsessed by the occult and by looking into the future.




Books on medicine and books on agriculture. And people who listen to our episode on Carthage may remember that we talked about how the Romans only allow agricultural manuals to be spared. Everything else is destroyed. And even though the scholars probably aren't buried alive, there's no question that Confucianism and Taoism, the first emperor, is not in favor of them at all. So in the passage that you read, they talk about the hundred schools being banned. These are all the sages who are essentially being told, you have no role to play in this new order.


And against that background, one of regulation and control, building the great Wall, which supposedly started in 214 BC, and the reading that we began the second half with said, is General Meng who does it. So the greatest general of the first emperor. So against that background, it's a bit like Hadrian's wall, isn't it? Is it keeping the barbarians out, or is it more simply just a demonstration of power and regulation and your ability to shape the landscape and, you know, to place a marker on the earth and say, here I am, I can do whatever I like, I control this world?


Well, that's why Borges is fascinated by it, isn't it? It's this sense that it's expressive of a will, of a purpose that is more than merely geopolitical. Yeah, I mean, I think clearly it is the idea of keeping barbarians out who were much more dangerous to the chinese emperor than the Caledonians were to the Romans.




So it has a much more serious defensive purpose than Hadrian's war did.


I think so. But I think it is also expressive of an ambition to regulate and control everything, and that which cannot be regulated, therefore, shouldn't be tolerated and is to be kept out. And so in that sense, again, a bit like Hadrian's wall, the Great Wall is a marker of contempt for everything that lies beyond it. So the Great Wall is not what immediately comes into mind when you think about it, which is much later, the kind of stretches beyond Beijing.


Richard Nixon, this is a great wall.




Richard Nixon. It's a great wall, actually. These are not built out of stone, probably. They're made out of earth. So there's a phrase for it, the earth dragon, kind of snaking across the landscape for thousands of miles and probably not a coherent line. So Julia Lovell, in her brilliant book on the Great Wall of China, she says that wall building was more a case of joining ravines and precipices with stretches of wall or with fortresses than of erecting a brand new continuous line of defense. But even so, it is clearly an absolutely massive project, and you get testimony to this. So there's a very haunting contemporary poem. If you have a son, don't raise him. If you have a girl, feed her dried meat. Can't you see the long wall is propped up on skeletons? So very eerie.


So a little bit like the pyramids or something.




Slave labor, huge armies for this grandiose, hubristic statement of supreme power.




And there's a very haunting story that kind of makes explicit this idea that actually the great wall has been made out of skeletons. And the story is that there is this woman. She's got married, and on the very day of her marriage, the first emperor's agents come to seize him for his spell of duty, doing forced labor on the great wall, right the way up on the kind of the northeastern side, where the great wall meets with the ocean, and the poor man goes off, and then winter comes. And so the wife prepares him warm clothes. She travels all the way up, and when she gets there, she discovers that her husband has already died of exhaustion and the bitter cold. And she sobs and she sobs and sobs and her tears dissolve the earth of the wall, and it all crumbles away and melts away. And there are the bones of her husband, along with those of thousands of other people who have also died. These skeletons are kind of tumbling out. And she hurls herself into the sea. And her death, too, is expressive of the tyranny of the first emperor. And I think that this desire to control everything is also what explains the stories that are told about his quest for immortality, because if you can control everything in life, you also want to keep death at bay.


And so this is why he allows kind of necromantic manuals to tease, is written by magicians to be spared and not be burned. And he goes to these magicians and he says, you know, how can I stay alive? I don't want to. I don't want to die again. It kind of echoes of Gilgamesh in mesopotamian culture. And the magicians tell him that out in the ocean, there are three islands, and this is where people who are immortal live. And we would love to go and look for them for you. And to do that, we will require thousands of young girls and boys to go with us. And first emperor says, brilliant, off you go. And so they all set off and they never come back. And so a few years pass, and so some more magicians come and they say the same. And so the first emperor rounds up more girls and boys, and they all head off, and again, nothing happens.


This is very dodgy behavior from the magicians, Tom, I think.


And then finally, one survivor comes back, one of the boys, right? And he says, you know, we just can't get there. It's impossible. The ocean is full of monsters, and the islands are guarded by giant sea monsters. How are we going to get there? And this is a very awkward question for the first emperor to answer.


Yeah, it's a bablon for his ambitions.


And his anxiety to answer. It is sharpened for him by the fact that in 211, a meteor crashes down, lands on the earth, and someone writes on it. The first emperor will die and his lands will be divided up.


A chilling prophecy.


And obviously the emperor is not pleased about this, and so he has the stone crushed and everyone around wiped out. But it incentivises him to go in person in quest for immortality in these islands. And so he heads off to the coast with a massive great train in his wake. And because he's been told that there are sea monsters out there, he has batteries and batteries of crossbows. He arrives on the coast. The story is that he sees some of the sea monsters, successfully shoots them, but then he dies. And because they are so far from the capital, and because his aides and his followers are so nervous about what will happen if the news gets out that he's dead, they put him inside a covered kind of chariot and veil it so that no one can see him. And they pretend that he's still alive and they kind of bring him papers and so on, and they then start heading back to the capital. But because obviously his body is starting to rot, what they do is they pile great wagons full of fish to go in front and behind so that no one can smell the rotting of the human corpse.


I like that story. But, Tom, it occurs to me that it probably isn't true. No, I mean, so that story has the absolute. I mean, that clearly seems to be a kind of folktale stroke parable about his hubris.


Yeah, it's kind of arabian nights quality, isn't there?


Arabian nights quality, exactly. So that probably. I mean, I'm such a stuck record on this whenever we do ancient history, but that probably didn't happen, am I right?


I mean, I think that there are elements of what we've been talking about that are clearly true. There are contemporary inscriptions, there are intellectual trends that you can trace and map.


So we know he lived, we know he was the first emperor, but the fish business completely.


But I agree that there is around him the quality of myth. And I think that that's what appealed to book s. I think that's why he's such a resonant figure still in contemporary chinese culture.




That he is a kind of intersection point where myth and history kind of meet and merge. And part of the reason for the mythic quality is that so much of what he labored has survived but also quite a lot of the stuff that would have enabled him to be portrayed as he would have wanted to be portrayed collapses, because, as we said, his regime goes within four years. He succeeded by the second emperor, but then that's it. And so emperors throughout chinese history, you don't have the 43rd emperor or whatever. That tradition fades with the first and second emperor. And so in that sense, the portrait that we have of him is not one that he would have wanted. And that's why throughout the span of chinese history, he's cast as a tyrant.


Yeah, because Confucians dominate the scholarship.






And they say bad guy, tyrant, totalitarian. I mean, that guy you quoted, jia Hee, his thing is called the faults of Chin. And he says, you know, chin became a great power, but the ruler lacked humaneness and rightness. Preserving power differs fundamentally from seizing power.




In other words, this is a warlord, a jumped up warlord who didn't know how to rule in a benevolent way.


Yes, exactly. And so that's the tradition that the communists obviously inherit. The communists are not in favor of autocratic emperors.




And so in the kind of early decades of the communist state, again, the first emperor is absolutely condemned, along with all the other emperors. But I think two things then change to present the first emperor in a kind of brighter light. And the first, of course, is the discovery of the terracotta army, which is just, you said about seeing those three statues in the british museum when they came over. I mean, there are thousands and thousands of them. You have archers, crossbowmen, foot soldiers in armor, officers, people on horses, people riding chariots. Absolutely stupefying. And it has been suggested that they reflect a kind of very distant hellenic influence, because, of course, this is the age of Alexander's conquests, hellenistic kingdoms in the east, that craftsmen in this period possibly are available. But to quote Francis Wood, who wrote a brilliant book on the first emperor of China, she says that the assembly of the buried army was an industrial rather than an artistic project. And what she means by that is that it's all mass produced. So you have eight different types of head, but only two types of legs, of armor, of feet.


But Francis Wood is brilliant on how, despite this, when you look at the ranks of the terracotta army, you have this sense of incredible variety. So she says, there are only two types of hand forms found amongst the 16,000 hands of the terracotta warriors. Yet their use, their precise placing in the long sleeves of gown or tunic and the angles used help create an illusion of individuality. I'm sure she's right. I mean, I can't think of another one. She says it is the most extraordinary example of creative mass production in the world.


And the fact that the state can do that, the fact that the authorities have the power to order, that is a sign of their muscle, isn't it? And of their bureaucracy and their administrative clout.


I guess he builds on an enormous scale. So the terracotta army is only a part of the huge tomb complex, which.


Hasn'T fully been excavated.




So the tomb itself has never been excavated.


Well, so there's an account of it that it contains flowing rivers of mercury. There's an attempt to create an image of the world within the tomb, and they've kind of done geo scans, and apparently there is a very high mercury level in it.




So people are kind of nervous of exploring it.


Do you know why they haven't opened it up fully?


I think that it's kind of polluted.




I think it's felt to be dangerous to excavate because of all this mercury.




And the story is that when his palace burns in the wake of his death, it takes five days to burn. His buildings are obviously on an enormous scale. So I think that the terracotta army give a face to what would otherwise be a figure without features, perhaps you might say, because all the images of him are much later, but because it's like with tutankhamen, the moment you see something brought from the earth, redeemed from obscurity, that is vivid and personal, it kind of brings that figure alive.


Yes, it does.


So I think that that's one aspect, but the other, amazingly, as we talked at the beginning of this episode, is that over the recent decades, the first emperor has come to be promoted by the communist party in China. And it all originates in a story that we talked about, Dominic, in an episode that we did with Rana Mitter on the final days of Mao and then the emergence of modern China, which is this figure, Lin Bao. He had a key role in the civil war, kind of very committed communist at one point, Maos heir apparent, and he is the guy who compiles the little red book. So the collection of Mao sayings that then everyone kind of waves and brandishes. But by the early seventies, Mao is starting to feel that perhaps he's too much of an heir apparent. He's obviously a very dangerous role to play and starts thinking, well, I don't know, maybe I should get rid of him. And accusations start to float around that Lin Bao is preparing a coup. And whether he is or not, he gets sufficiently alarmed by this that on the 13 September 1971, he gets on a plane to try and get to the Soviet Union to escape Mao, and it crashes in Mongolia.


And everything around the story is incredibly mysterious. But anyway, Lin Bao then has to be purged. His memory has to be eliminated. And one of the accusations that's leveled against him in the wake of his death by Maos propagandists is that he had compared Mao to the first emperor. And so what Maos propagandists do in the wake of this is to say, well, this is outrageous. The first emperor was brilliant. And the reason that the first emperor is framed as being brilliant is, firstly, that he had built a state where there had been chaos, which is what Mao had done. So Mao is to be compared to the first emperor in that sense. But also the claim is that Lin Bao had been a secret enthusiast for Confucius.




And so there is this maxim, criticize Limbaugh, criticize Confucius. And Mao himself says, all reactionary classes venerate Confucianism and oppose the first emperor. And so, therefore, by an amazing process, to criticize the first emperor comes to seem sinister and counter revolutionary. I mean, it's such an extraordinary maneuver.


I looked this up because you told me about it before I recorded. So there was a biography published a couple of years, I think, after the death of Lim Biao by a guy called Hong Shidi. And it was published by the state, you know, state sanctioned effectively, and it was marketed as a popular history, the life of the first emperor. So that we're in the early mid seventies, it sold almost 2 million copies within two years, of course, because China's a big place and it's being pushed by the party. And in this book, the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, he's a far sighted ruler. He establishes China as a modern state. It doesn't mention all the stuff about looking for immortality in the fish, because.


That'S obviously disappointing omission.


It messes up the narrative, but it absolutely presents him as, you know, the founding father of China. And actually, the criticism is that he wasn't tough enough, that he wasn't harsh enough. And there's a quotation supposedly attributed to Mao, who's supposed to have said this in 1969, even before Lin Biao died. But how much this is true, it's hard to say. He says of the first emperor, he buried 460 scholars alive, but we have buried 46,000 scholars alive. This is Mao talking. You revile us for being Qin Shi Huangs. But you're wrong. We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold. And when you berate us for imitating his despotism, we are happy to agree. Now, whether or not Mao really said that, I don't know. But it's an interesting sign of how much the late stage maoist regime was keen to associate itself with that first emperor and the sort of sense of order. And that reminds me, Tom, of Stalin and Ivan the Terrible. Stalin was really keen to associate himself with mythic figures from russian history, to place himself in that continuum. I mean, that's pretty much the position that the Chinese are in now, isn't it?


I think so.


The first emperor scene is somebody to admire.


I mean, I was amazed when I watched hero, because, of course, we come from a tradition where the idea of an absolute emperor establishing a terrifying order isn't something to be celebrated. But in hero, it absolutely is celebrated. And the chinese state wouldn't be allowing endless television series about him to be run unless they were saying there are lessons to be learned here.


Slightly disturbing, I have to say, tom, I like a strong government, but maybe.


Not that strong, but also it is very expressive of how close ancient history is in China, compared, say, to us, when we look back to Rome.




Because there's a sense of unbroken continuity, isn't there? I mean, maybe falsely. But there was an impression of that which obviously we don't have with Rome. We don't regard ourselves. I mean, people sometimes tried, perhaps slightly half heartedly, to present themselves as the heir of Rome, but there's always been a sense of disjunction, partly because of Christianity, because of the Ford of the roman empire and so on. But maybe in China, they don't really have that to the same degree. No, it's the same state, same place.


And clearly the first emperor does play a massive role in that, and that's why I think he's worth having a look at. Yeah.


What a strange and interesting story. That's stuff about the fish, I think. That's my favorite bit.




I mean, imagine how large the cross bay was to deal with a giant fish.




And who knows what happened to those blokes who went off with all the boys and girls.


Yeah, I know. That's left untold.




What happened to those guys? Right. So, Tom, that was brilliant. That was a real tour de force. And later this week, we have a complete change of tone, don't we?


We do, because we'll be back in.


A few days with the history of tailoring and of men's fashion, of suits, ties, you name it, we'll be talking about it. Great, great fun. And then after that, we will be traveling to the United States for the last stand of the Lakota, the life of General Custer, and the story of the ghost dancers. So lots of exciting things to come. And on that bombshell, Tom, thank you very much. I should have, foolishly, I should have looked up how to say goodbye in.


Mandarin, the master of tongues.


But for once, for once, I missed an opportunity to try and score a point. So I just have to say goodbye. Goodbye.


That's a very positive note on which to end.


Bye bye.


Tom. I've just learned some absolutely extraordinary and exciting news. And anybody who's a history lover, anybody who, like me, loves spending their summer at festivals, will delight and rejoice at this news, won't they?


They absolutely will. And the news is that in June, it is the chalk history festival in Broadchalk in the Chalk Valley, the very village in which I grew up. My brother James and I, we talked about this the other day on a rest is history bonus episode. But for all of you who didn't hear that, I can't recommend the festival enough. There's an unbelievable array of talks from top historians and others beside. Plus a mass of other things to see and do. Live music every day, living history performances, and of course, lots of food, drink, camping, all historically themed. And an absolutely stunning setting.


It's an amazing setting, Tom, and it's a real highlight of my year. I've had it inked into my diary for months. Really looking forward to it. And the highlight of the week, I have to say, has to be our special live performance of the rest is history, which we will be doing on the Tuesday, weren't we? Yeah, Tuesday, the 25 June.




So that's the day you'll be there, Dominic, I know you've got to head off after that, but I will be still there doing a host of other things. And basically, I'll be there for most of the week. So please do join us. Tickets are on sale now and you can get and that's c h a l k e. So chalk with an e on it festival. It'll be wonderful to see you there.