Qin Shi Huang, Term Paper Example

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Term Paper

Qin Shi Huang: Great Leader or Great Tyrant?

Leaders inspire loyalty while they are alive. Great leaders inspire loyalty even after they die.  Tyrants inspire terror while they are alive, and only fear of another tyrant after they die. But great tyrants inspire treason as their legacy. Qin Shi Huang was a great tyrant. Two millennia after he died, thousands of his soldiers returned, their terracotta loyalty smashed to bits.[1]

Born Zhou (or Ying) Zheng in 259 BCE, his father was King Zhuangxiang of the state of Qin. Upon his death in 247 BCE, Zheng assumed the throne. He was thirteen years old. Lü Buwei, who had been a chief advisor to Zheng’s father (and by literary tradition the father of Zheng), continued in power as Zheng’s advisor. At the age of twenty-two, Zheng began winning the long battles of unification called the Warring States Period. By 221, Zheng had conquered the six competing states of Chu, Han, Wei, Zhou, Yan, and Qi. In doing he unified China for the first time. Thereafter he was Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China (loosely translated).

Qin Shi Huang died  in 210 BCE at the age of forty nine while hoping for immortality. By then he had, in addition to unifying China, given the new country an entirely new system of administrative units, measurements, money, and writing; replaced Confucianism with a practical-oriented system called Legalism; built the important Lingqu Canal; and began construction of what eventually became the Great Wall of China. Reading all this and knowing nothing more about him, one might even have hoped that Qin Shi Huang had become immortal, the better to shower the human race with the fruits of his leadership. Yet his body was not even cold before the treason began. His own second son conspired, with the help of Qin Shi Huang’s own chief advisor, to compel his older brother, the rightful heir to the would-be dynasty, to commit suicide.

Dictators, tyrants, and even more conventional kings and presidents get a kind of courtesy credit for all kinds of things that happen during their reigns. The Mongol tyrant Tamerlane has been credited with the invention of the boardgame Shatranj al-kabîr, also known as Tamerlane Chess, because it was developed (by somebody) during Tamerlane’s lifetime. In history books (and term papers) we read that a certain leader “built” this or “created” that. And in the paragraphs above I deliberately did the same thing. But of course what these leaders often (if not usually) do is simply approve of a plan thought of or advocated by someone else, perhaps even a former defeated (and dead) opponent. They “build” something by providing the charisma, money and/or slave labor. Or they simply get some grand vision into their heads and order it built, and, if the project is successfully, historians and term-paper writers dutifully report that the tyrant was “great” because he “built” this and “reformed” that. And if the project doesn’t work, those involved in the project are imprisoned and/or killed and one hears less and less about it as the centuries pass. One thinks of Iraq’s late dictator, Saddam Hussein, being driven by a half-finished gate standing by itself, awaiting the wall that would eventually be built linking it around his new residence. The sight of it unfinished unsettled Hussein. So he ordered the entire wall to be finished by the time he drove back that evening, failure not being an option. And it was done.

The defining expression of that kind of governance would be the start of the Great Wall: it wasn’t to protect “China”. It was to protect Qin Shi Huang. He had the power to make the people build it without pay and at great cost in life to themselves. The same goes for his many palaces (and again one is reminded of Hussein and his own many (tasteless) compounds).

By the light of their success in such practices large and small, do tyrants literally sow the seeds of their undoing. Such leaders’ sons grow up learning the attitude. Qin Shi Huang had grown up himself learning the hard tricks of supreme leadership from his own father, and was certainly guilty of the above kinds of abuses. It’s a natural process of systemic corruption that starts at the top, and works its way down. The later scholar Sima Qian, writing in his Records of the Grand Historian: Quin Dynasty,[2] makes this clear: The First Emperor trusted his own judgment, never consulting others, and hence his errors went uncorrected. The Second Emperor [Qin Shi Huang’s son] carried on in the same manner, never reforming, compounding his misfortune through violence and cruelty.[3]

We can turn to Jia Yi’s Faulting the Qin, also known as the Ten Crimes of Qin for another contemporary confirmation.[4] Jia Yi was a writer and advisor to Emperor Wen of the Han dynasty, which succeeded the Qin.  He wrote that although Qin Shi Huang’s own people of Qin hoped for peace under the newly unified China, hundreds of thousands were put to work on the Great Wall and the building of his castles. Jia Yi criticized Qin Shi Huang for his greed and fixation on immediate results, and, because of his method of rule, of being unable to trust his advisors, and withdrawing from his own people into his castles. He relied on secret edicts, burning ancient books, instituting harsh laws, practicing deception, lacking elementary humanity, and, consequently, dooming his dynasty to ruin after his own death.  Jia Yi concluded by saying that methods that work in seizing an empire will not succeed in preserving it (a lesson that democratic politicians running for office today periodically relearn).

The reason, Jia Yi went on to write, is that the people themselves are the core of an empire and must therefore be treated well. Jia Yi stressed that the central government has to be strengthened and the local power holders have to be weakened. The peasants have to be supported, as the root of all state income, while the merchants have to be suppressed, presumably because they would tend to be city people with money. Qin Shi Huang did not follow this plan. He suppressed everyone, merchants, nobility, and peasants alike.

Writing on the benefits of unification, Qian recorded that the empire was divided into thirty-six provinces, each one ruled by a governor, a general, and a “superintendent.” Weights and measures were standardized, the gauge of wheels and length of axles was made uniform, and the writing system was standardized. All these reforms certainly did some real good, but arguably that was not their primary purpose, which was to systematize Qin Shi Huang’s total control over his empire. Standardization helps do that. One is almost reminded of U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s attempt to put America on the metric system in 1978. This effort failed totally and at great expense. It may be that only a tyrant can force such fundamental changes on an indifferent people, that even a benign great leader (which an American president is virtually by definition) will be defeated in such attempts. Qin Shi Huang was that tyrant. Having first formally led the unification of China, he then internalized the long wars of conquest, turning them upon his own people of his own state of Qin, as well as of the states he had conquered. Unification promised the standardization which could then enable systematic tyranny.

The replacement of Confucianism with Legalism had the same motivation (the writer Jia Yi, mentioned above as the author of Faulting the Qin, was considered a Confucian writer). On this subject, it is doubtful that any emperor who presumed to depose the central tenants of Confucius could be considered a great leader in China. Legalism was a kind of early attempt at building a totalitarian government free of all political opponents, combined with a philosophy that all people are fundamentally evil and not to be trusted. Instead they had to be guided by harsh laws and punishments. Their thought had to be controlled, which led to a great burning of books and the execution of many scholars (supposedly by burying them alive). This was in great contrast to Confucius’s thought, which advocated the view that humanity was basically virtuous, and that a kind of natural order was to be preferred to a draconian one that, for all intents and purposes, made war on its own subjects by conquering them and then crushing them.

Legalism, which Qin Shi Huang and his ministers and advisers explicitly supported, was supposedly a reform from the older ways of Confucianism and Daoism. The states’ laws were to be clearly written, and everyone was to be equal before the law. In theory it was an early attempt at a rule of law. However, those laws did not apply to the emperor, who name was specifically kept out of accounts of failure and wrongdoing by himself or those in his favor. We can see now what the problem was: there was no free press.

A free press, we have long known, is essential for good governance and the good administration of justice through law. (Looking at Mexico today under siege in its own internal war, and Cuba under communism, we behold examples of states with no free press. We can also watch how the Web is forcing changes in those countries and others around the world.) Lacking that counterbalancing force, the emperors — and everyone else in that historical position — were simply corrupted by absolute power, legalism or no legalism.

The issue of a lack of a free press at that time and place in China (and indeed the world) points to an obvious problem in describing Qin Chi Huang as a tyrant and not a leader: the retroactive application of today’s standards to yesterday’s situations. Is this a meaningful thing to do? Consider the case of his allegedly burying 460 scholars alive. It might be thought that, terrible as it must seem to us, China in its early histories had seen much worse abuses involving hundreds of thousands of deaths, and collectively millions of them. We might be tempted to apply a kind of sliding scale of moral values. But now consider a remark by Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party and the emperor de facto of China from about 1950 to his death in 1976, about Qin Shi Huang: He buried 460 scholars alive; we [the Chinese Communists] have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive… You [intellectuals] revile us for being Qin Shi Huangs. You are wrong. We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold.[5] Continuing that line of thought, can we compare as roughly equal events the book burnings of Qin Shi Huang and the burial of the 460 scholars with the Chinese Communist’s Land Reform Campaign (1947– 1952, 1.0 – 4.5 million deaths); the Campaign to Suppress Counter­revolutionaries (1950–1953, 700,000 – 2 million deaths); the Sufan Movement (1955, over 500,000 deaths); Destruction of the Four Olds campaign (1966, massive destruction of cultural artifacts); the Great Leap Forward  (1958 – 1961, 36 – 45 million deaths);  and the Cultural Revolution campaign (1966 – 1976, 3 – 20 million deaths)?  Reading of those latter campaigns, one has to consider if the sliding scale of moral values should be slid the other way.  If we consider that Mao Zedong was a far greater tyrant as well as a much more recent one, and we accept the concept of relative moral values, then should we perhaps consider that Qin Shi Huang wasn’t as bad as we first thought, and so a candidate for great leader instead of great tyrant?

If anything, comparing the two simply shows us that there is no moral relativism mediated by the passage of time. I would only note that Mao’s China had no free press either. It did have a mass controlled press however, and schools, and mass literacy campaigns, literacy being another way of standardizing thought. But there is another way of viewing Qin Chi Huang.

We can view Qin Chi Huang by comparing him with his successor, Emperor Gazhou of Han (personal name: Liu Bang). Perhaps this might shed light on our sliding scale of moral values. The Han dynasty is the source of the name of the Han Chinese, China’s ethnic majority, and the Han writing script. Gazhou was born a peasant, and in the event, wasn’t even sure he wanted to be Emperor and reportedly had to be convinced by his followers. Gazhou did not massacre indiscriminately, even after winning the last battle against the last ruler of Qin (named Ziying). Instead he gave orders specifically banning the usual pillaging, slaughter, and mayhem. In time growing ill and increasingly frail, Gazhou paid his doctors and sent them away, feeling that it was futile and wrong to try to thwart the will of heaven. Gazhou’s dynasty lasted almost four hundred years, during which time Confucianism, banished during the Qin interval, returned.

Qin Shi Huang as noted earlier was born the son of the then-reigning king of Qin, and grew up with thoughts of Kingship. He made pillaging, slaughter, and mayhem an integral part of his plan of conquest, and grew increasingly fearful of death as he got older. He died drinking mercury in an attempt to achieve immortality. That was in 210 BCE. By 207 it was all over.

But how can we be sure of all this? Are the sources reliable? Who’s to say what really happened? Actually there is much that is historically verified, and much that is not.[6] But in a way, what we are not sure of tells us much of what we need to know. It is enough, at least in some cases, that oral tradition reports something about one emperor that it doesn’t report about another. One emperor is said to have buried scholars, burned books, slaughtered at will and at leisure, and the other is said not to have. It’s the differences in the stories and their outcomes that matter, because those reported differences are themselves very old, and are reliable themselves as literature — we know they exist and have existed for over two thousand years. And that tells us that the moral differences enshrined in those stories and histories are just as old. The common people of that time, as now, knew the difference between being slaughtered or not being slaughtered, and appreciated being the latter and not the former. And they appreciated emperors who were aware of that.  People everywhere will always prefer a Gazhou to a Qin — or a Mao.

Works Cited

Hogarth, Brian. Asian Art Museum, “Ancient China: From the Neolithic Period to the Han Dynasty. Introduction–Studying Ancient China.” Last modified February 1999. Accessed May 5, 2012.            http://www.asianart.org/pdf/education/rebrand/Ancient-China-Neolithic-  Han.pdf.

Lieberthal, Kenneth. Governing China. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.

Loewe, Michael. The Former Han Dynasty. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Portal, Jane, and Quinbo Duan. The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army. London: British   Museum Press, 2007.

Sima, Qian. Records of the Grand Historian. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

[1] Portal, Jane, and Quinbo Duan. The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army. London: British Museum Press, 2007.

[2] Qian, Sima. Records of the Grand Historian. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

[3] There is also ambivalence, showing how Qin Shi Huang came to actually regard himself as a benevolent tyrant.

[4] Loewe, Michael. The Former Han Dynasty. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

[5] Governing China (2nd ed.) by Kenneth Lieberthal (2004).

[6] Hogarth, Brian. Asian Art Museum, “Ancient China: From the Neolithic Period to the Han  Dynasty.

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