(DYNASTIC RULE and the CHINESE – continued)

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DYNASTIC RULE and the CHINESE (4 of 13)

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Shihuangdi's Rule and the beginning of the Han Dynasty

The conqueror Qin Shi Huang, or Shihuangdi, had built an empire befitting his title and claim as First Emperor. Various areas were slow to end their resistance, and to further secure his rule he tried collecting weapons. He saw danger in what people thought, and in 213 BCE his agents began confiscating all books other than those on subjects thought practical, such as agriculture, forestry, herbal medicine and divination. The confiscated books were burned, except for one copy of each, which were to be kept from the public in the state's private library.

Among the burned books were the centuries-old writings of Confucius and books by followers of Confucius. Future generations of Confucianists would see Shihuangdi as evil, and they would accuse him of having buried 460 scholars alive – a misunderstanding. Instead, it is said, he had merely had them executed. Rumor has it that he disliked hearing their complaints.

Across China, Shihuangdi took powers away from the local nobles – as had been done in Qin the century before – ending feudalism. He divided China into thirty-six administrative units, each staffed by people appointed by and responsible to his administration. He took from noble families the right to tax and gave his administration that exclusive right and the right to mint coins, and 120,000 noble families moved from what had been their power base in the provinces to the capital, Xianyang.

Shihuangdi was hardworking, setting daily quotas of administrative tasks for himself and not resting until he had completed them. He habitually consulted with his ministers. He standardized Chinese script, weights and measures, and laws. Across China he spread the right of people to buy and sell land – which increased his revenues from taxation. He built magnificent public buildings in his capital and great palaces for himself. He expanded canals for irrigation and transportation, and to interconnect his empire he also had a system of highways built.

Embittered aristocrats and oppressed intellectuals hated him, in part for his heavy taxation. And common people hated him for working them hard on his building projects. Fearing assassination, Shihuangdi had secret passages throughout his great palace and slept in a different palace apartment each night. It was not the serene life sought by the Taoists, but he was a man of religion, and he worried about the sexual morality of his subjects, believing that behavior displeasing the gods would adversely affect the well-being of his kingdom.

Shihuangdi liked touring his capital city incognito at night, and he liked to travel through his empire, to cities, mountains, rivers, lakes and to the shores of the sea. It was said that when a strong wind impeded his crossing a river, he sent 3,000 prisoners to deforest a nearby mountain that was believed to be the home of a goddess who had created the wind.

Later in his life, Shihuangdi traveled about looking for the location of the source of eternal life rumored among the Chinese. Before finding it he became sick on one of his journeys and died, in 210 at the age of forty-nine.

Shihuangdi had claimed that his dynasty would endure "for generations without end." His death, however, was followed by an exercise of power other than from within his family. Palace eunuchs attempting to hold onto their influence murdered some of Shihuangdi's top aids. They withheld news of Shihuangdi's death and sent a forged note to Shihuangdi's son and heir, ordering him to commit suicide, which he did. Then they elevated to the throne a younger son of Shihuangdi – a boy whom they hoped to control.

Some in areas that had been conquered by Shihuangdi saw in his death an opportunity to break from Qin rule, and some intellectuals came out against the rule of Shihuangdi's younger son. Peasants decided it was an opportune time to express their displeasure with imperial authority. Some commoners began killing local officials. Among common people arose local leaders who led them in rebellion. And in an attempt to regain their former powers, noble families began organizing their own gangs of armed men.

Early during the chaos, a middle-aged rebel leader and former Qin policeman named Liu Bang gathered an increasingly large army under him. He allied himself with a nobleman, Xiang Yu, who was hoping to re-establish the privileges of his family. Respecting the power of Liu Bang's force, Xiang Yu made Liu Bang prince of the district of Han.

In the year 206, the army under Liu Bang defeated an army under the authority of the eunuchs and the boy-emperor. Liu Bang entered the capital city, Xianyang, and there all members of the royal family were slaughtered, including the boy-emperor. Xianyang was burned to the ground, and historians speculate that the state library that contained the only copy of various forbidden books burned with it. The centuries-old writings of Confucius and others would have to be recreated from memory and imagination.

With the Qin emperor defeated, sometime after 207 Liu Bang and his former ally, Xiang Yu, began to war against each other. Xiang Yu has been described as a brilliant general but as having relied too much on violence as a means of winning obedience. He slaughtered defeated troops, and in taking cities he looted and seized attractive women. Liu Bang was colorless but he made an effort to conciliate and convert those he defeated. He surrounded himself with men of intelligence. Liu Bang aimed more at winning hearts and minds than did Xiang Yu.

In an opera titled Farewell My Concubine, Liu Bang's rival, Xiang Yu, complains:

My strength could pull mountains, my spirit pales the world. Yet, so unlucky am I that my horse just refuses to gallop! What can I do if my horse denies me even a trot? Oh my dear Yu Ji, what would you have me do?”

His concubine, Yu Ji, replies:

The Han [Liu Bang] has invaded us. Chu’s songs surround us. My lord’s spirit is depleted. Why then should I still live?”

She commits suicide. Eventually, so too does Xiang Yu.

Having established military supremacy, Liu Bang, prince of the district of Han, made himself emperor of all China. The era of Chinese history called the Han had begun.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.