Qin Shi Huang: The Ruthless Emperor Who Burned Books
There are two Chinese leaders whose final resting place is thronged by tourists - Mao Zedong and Qin Shi Huang, the emperor of terracotta soldier fame. But they also have another thing in common - Qin taught Mao a lesson in how to persecute intellectuals.
Chairman Mao Zedong has been dead for nearly 40 years but his body is still preserved in a mausoleum in Tiananmen Square.
The square is the symbolic heart of Chinese politics - red flags and lanterns flank the portrait of Mao on Tiananmen Gate where he proclaimed the People’s Republic in 1949.
But the red emperor owed the idea of this vast country to an empire builder who lived 2,000 years earlier.
“We wouldn’t have a China without Qin Shi Huang,” says Harvard University’s Peter Bol. “I think it’s that simple.”
In many ways - climate, lifestyle, diet - someone from northern Scotland and southern Spain have as much in common as someone from China’s frozen north and the tropical south.
Before Qin, China’s multiple states were diverging, rather than converging, says Bol.
“They have different calendars, their writing was starting to vary… the road widths were different, so the axle width is different in different places.”
He was king of the small state of Qin by the age of 13, and started as he meant to go on - removing one possible threat to his throne by having his mother’s lover executed, along with his entire clan.
A hundred years later the famous historian Sima Qian said of the young king:
“With his puffed-out chest like a hawk and voice of a jackal, Qin is a man of scant mercy who has the heart of a wolf. When he is in difficulty he readily humbles himself before others, but when he has got his way, then he thinks nothing of eating others alive.
“If the Qin should ever get his way with the world, then the whole world will end up his prisoner.”
Qin Shi Huang built a formidable fighting machine. His army is easy to imagine because he left us the famous terracotta warriors in Xian.
“The Qin was really the first state to really go into total mobilisation for war,” says Peter Bol.
“It really saw the work of its population being fighting and soldiering to win wars and expand.”
One by one, Qin Shi Huang defeated neighbouring states, swallowed their territory into his growing empire and enslaved and castrated their citizens.
“Every time he captured people from another country, he castrated them in order to mark them and made them into slaves,” says Hong Kong University’s Xun Zhou.
“There were lots and lots of eunuchs in his court. He was a ruthless tyrant.”
But still, no Qin, no China.
“From Mongolia down to Hong Kong, and from the sea right the way across to Sichuan - it’s an enormous territory,” says Frances Wood, curator of the Chinese collection at the British Library.
“It’s the equivalent of the whole Roman Empire added together, if you like. And you’ve got one man ruling all of it.”