Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor of China

There have been many emperors of China (although if you compare it to China's population through the years, maybe it's just a handful), but only one has the honor of being the First Emperor. That would be Shi Huangdi, whose name literally translates to "The First Emperor." It's like he was born to that job! I'm going to change my name to "CEO of Google" and see how that works out.

Fig.1: These Warring States just would not get along, no 
matter how many times we sent them to their rooms to 
think about what they've done.
Shi Huangdi was born around the mid-third century BC (Before Crullers, the concept of the circular pastry would not come to pass for another 250 years) during the time that my genius ancestor/incarnate Sima Qian called the Warring States Period. China was not a unified country during this time, and was broken up into the states of Qin, Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhou, Wei, and sometimes Y and W (fig.1). Shi Huangdi succeeded his father as the ruler of Qin (pronouced "chin"), the western most Warring State, at the age of thirteen. He was merely a king during this time, but he knew if he worked hard, stayed in school, and said no to drugs, that he would become something even better someday.

Starting in 230 BC, Shi Huangdi began the war to end all wars...of the Warring States period. He picked off the other states one by one, starting right away with the Han that same year, then Zhao in 228 BC, Yan in 226 BC, Wei in 225 BC, stopped for a coffee break in 224 BC, then took care of Chu in 223 BC. Only Qi remained, and the king of that state sent an overwhelming force of 200,000 people to stop the invasion. The plan failed, the king was captured, and Qi was annexed into the unified Chinese state, solidifying Qi's place as the Bill Buckner of Ancient Chinese history. Shi Huangdi could now claim his rightful spot as the First Emperor of China (fig.2).

Fig.2: Upon becoming Emperor, Shi Huangdi was given a special hat that allowed 
him to propel into the sky and watch over his hard-fought empire from above.
As is typical when an empire conquers a territory, Shi Huangdi forced unity down people's throats. He disbanded all regional forms of government, standardized the currency and the system of measurements, built extensive roads to connect all corners of his empire, and forced all ballparks to play God Bless Qin during the seventh-inning stretch. Most significantly, the Chinese script was unified from the several different forms of chicken scratch Westerners cannot decipher, to the one form of chicken scratch Westerners cannot decipher.

Fig.3: When Legalists told Confucianists 
what to do, they would ask, "Why?" 
which got really annoying after a while.
Shi Huangdi implemented these changes because he subscribed to a philosophy called Legalism, which held central authority and the power of the ruler above everything else. This school of thought was in conflict with other popular teachings of the day, such as Confucianists, who, according to the Legalists, need to stop asking so many stupid questions (fig.3), as well as Daoists, who were just dirty hippies, and Illegalists, who were only asking for trouble. To drive home the point that all other philosophies were silly and pointless, in 213 BC Shi Huangdi initiated the policy of "Burning of Books and Burying of Scholars," which is exactly what it sounds like. Writings of anything that contradicted Legalism, detailed the history of states other than Qin, or referred to the Emperor as a "Nanny-poopoo," were burned.  Several scholars of the competing philosophies were also buried alive, in case they got any wise ideas about rewriting some of those books (this is why Confucianism is the dominant philosophy of the Earth's mantle today).

But Shi Huangdi's reign would not last forever, no matter how much he wanted it to. He became obsessed with prolonging death and finding the so-called Elixir of Life; he sent many of his subjects on wild goose chases to find it, as well as trusted many alchemists to feed him their own concoctions that would allow him to live forever. Obviously the Elixir of Life was never discovered, but they did manage to mix up the perfect recipe for a margarita. In 210 BC, Shi Huangdi died while on campaign, reportedly after taking some mercury pills designed to beat death. Huh, ironical. The Chief Minister, Li Si, knew they'd have a riot on their hands if the people knew the emperor was dead, so they covered it up on the two-month march back to the capital of Xianyang. Li even ordered carts of rotten fish to be carried around the Emperor's cart, so people wouldn't notice the corpsy smell hanging around. Seriously, that's what the sources say. I can't even make that up!

Eventually, Shi Huangdi's son, Er Huangdi (literally, "Second Emperor") succeeded to the throne, but he wasn't as capable as his father was (aka: he wasn't as much of a jerk), and the people quickly revolted against Qin rule. Within three years of the First Emperor's death, the Qin's military manpower was destroyed, the Second Emperor was forced to commit suicide, a new dynasty was taking shape, and someone in Shouchun actually did discover the Elixir of Life, but didn't get around to telling anybody. In the end, it seemed that Shi Huangdi only made a lasting impression during his lifetime...or did he? He united China for the first time in history, a precedent that would be followed up by later dynasties. The name of his dynasty, Qin (remember, pronounced like your chinny-chin-chin) gave the English language the name "China." The system of standardization in script and measurement is still used by Chinese in a somewhat different but similar form today. But honestly, the biggest present that the First Emperor left behind was this:

Fig.4: No one can defeat a terracotta army! They are unbreakable!
The Mausoleum of Shi Huangdi was uncovered in 1974, and while the Emperor's tomb has not yet been excavated, the entrance is filled with these lifesize statues of soldiers made from terracotta, made to protect the Emperor as he journeys into the afterlife (and the wacky situations he gets himself into on the way). Archaeologists estimate that there are around 8,000 of these soldiers, all organized into rank and regiment, as well as over 600 horses, 100 chariots, and two cats named Flippsy and Floppsy, who we can only assume were Shi Huangdi's best friends in life. So even though this guy wanted to avoid death at all costs, he sure knew how to impress people even after leaving this world.

And that's the story of Shi Huangdi, China's first emperor. His rule would initiate over two millennia of imperial rule of China until 1912 with the abdication of Modai Huangdi ("The Last Emperor," which, once again, he should've saw coming), and much of his legacy is felt in China to this day, despite all the communism going on there now. My hope is that when they finally open his tomb, he will be hanging out, alive all this time, and rise to become the First Emperor all over again! And then commence with the "Burning of Laptops and Burying of Snooty Philosophy Professors!"

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