Taking it on the Qin: how I learned to love Chinese history

If the past is, as L.P. Hartley put it,  a foreign country, then China must be a distant galaxy. I suppose that Chinese students studying the Holy Roman Empire, the Albigensian Crusade, the Hundred Years War or the build-up to WWI may well experience a similar feeling. Be that as it may, I am determined to get a handle on Chinese history.

One of the first problems you have to deal with is the names. All literate Chinese can read the characters; the script is indeed common throughout China. This is tremendously useful in a country of this size. But the characters are pronounced differently in each local or regional dialect. To render this complex system into western script is a daunting challenge. The standard method today is the pinyin system. Developed in the 1950s, pinyin is used to teach Standard Chinese and spell Chinese names in foreign publications. You can also see it on Chinese keyboards. I have even read that pinyin could one day replace Chinese characters, a view held by Mao Zedong. It would seem inconceivable to me. When Pinyin was originally introduced in the 1950s China was an ally of the Soviet Union and the possibility of using the Cyrillic script of Russia instead of Latin script was real. However, as Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated from the late 1950s the latter won out.

Pronunciation is also a bit of a minefield, but I am beginning to get the hang of it. Here are a few examples:

Qin = Chin

Zhou = Joe

Sui = sway

Before the pinyin system there was the Wade-Giles system which gave us Peking,Canton and Mao Tse-tung. These have now been replaced by Beijing,Guangzhou and Mao Zedong respectively.

At the heart of Chinese history are the dynasties. There have been dynasties in China for millennia. The Chinese know from bitter experience what happens when dynasties collapse. Chaos kills. The death tolls can be quite horrific but for us in the West they hardly register. In Mathew White’s book Atrocitology: Mankind’s 100 Deadliest AchievementsChina features prominently, with ten atrocities in the top fifty:

2= Mao Zedong (1949–76) 40,000,000

5 Fall of the Ming Dynasty (1635–62) 25,000,000

6=Taiping Rebellion (1850–64) 20,000,000

13 An Lushan Rebellion (755–63) 13,000,000

14=Xin Dynasty (9–24) 10,000,000

17= Fall of the Yuan Dynasty (ca 1340–70) 7,500,000

19=Chinese Civil War (1927–37, 1945–49) 7,000,000

25 The Three Kingdoms of China(189–280) 4,100,000

37 Fang La Rebellion (1120–22) 2,000,000

40 Age of Warring States (ca 475–221 BCE) 1,500,000

46 Qin Shi Huang Di (221–210 BCE) 1,000,000

And remember China suffered the second highest losses in WWII after the USSR.  The Sino-Japanese War of 1937–45, saw the deaths of at least two million Chinese troops and 7 million civilians. The official Chinese death toll is much higher – 20 million. The Japanese invasion of 1937 turned into the greatest, bloodiest guerrilla war ever fought. Both sides destroyed crops, farms, villages and bridges as they retreated, so as to prevent their enemy from using them. Widespread famine and starvation were the inevitable result of this scorched earth policy. Millions of Chinese were willing to fight and die. By the end of the war, 95 million Chinese were refugees. Early on in the conflict, after capturing Nanking, Japanese troops went on a six-week spree of mass murder, torture and rape that left 300,000 dead. This is known as the Rape of Nanking, what author Iris Chang called the Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. During the eight years of fighting 200,000 Chinese women were kidnapped and forced to work in Japanese military brothels. And another 400,000 Chinese died after being infected with cholera, anthrax and bubonic plague that the Japanese had dropped from military aircraft. But, despite all the atrocities and deprivations the Chinese just wouldn’t surrender.

However I wouldn’t want to give the impression that Chinese history is all about massacres. There is a rich history of culture, thought, architecture, and inventions. The list of Chinese inventions is impressive: cast iron, porcelain, gunpowder, civil service exams, paper, printing, paper money and toilet paper to name but a few.

Confucius (Kongzi, literally “Master Kong”) believed in the superiority of antiquity over the present. He harked back to the early years of the Zhou dynasty.  He didn’t want to introduce innovations but to restore what was good. He promoted strong family loyalty, ancestor worship, respect of elders by their children, and the family as a basis for ideal government. He is well known for his early version of the Golden Rule:  “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”  He was out of fashion in the twentieth century; both foreign analysts and Mao Zedong criticised him for symbolising the past and of holding the country back. Today, Confucius is back in favour. His emphasis on harmonious societal relations fits n nicely with the Communist party leadership’s desire for stability and social harmony. The interest in Confucius may also be a reaction against what some see as excessive Western influence and their criticism ofChina’s democratic deficit. The other famous Chinese thinker was Sun Tzu an Eastern Zhou military strategist; author of The Art of War, a manual of military strategy, in which the central idea was that all war is based on deception. It is still used today by armies, business strategists and even Australian cricket coaches

But that’s enough philosophy. Let’s get back to megalomaniacal tyrants, a subject dear to my heart. The leader in question is Qin Shi Huang. With the assistance of his Prime Minister Li Si, he constructed a highly centralised totalitarian state. Qin Shi Huang broke up the old aristocracy and abolished feudalism so that he could keep power out of the hands of ambitious nobles. He also reduced all regional variations to one official version of everything. This meant standardised writing, weights and money. All wagons had to have the same axle length so they would fit on the new roads he had built all over China. These roads made it easier for him to quickly send his armies to any area in revolt.  He ordered that every book in China be brought to him.  This was not because he was an avid reader; he wanted them all to be burnt except for a few technical manuals. And he had 460 scholars buried alive. In was in Qin Shi Huang’s reign that construction on the Great Wall of China began. To build this wall, he sent a general to the frontier with 300,000 soldiers and a million conscripted labourers, most of whom were said to have died in the construction. They were replaced by more workmen who were forced to go north. Legend has it that every stone in the wall cost a human life

Qin Shi Huang was also obsessed with eternal life and took large doses of mercury.  He sent Xu Fu, the court sorcerer, to the eastern seas twice to look for the elixir of life. In 219 BC and 210 BC he made two journeys with a fleet of 60 ships and 3,000 virgin boys and girls. He never returned from the second mission and it is thought that he may have arrived and died in Japan. Some historians have credited Xu Fu with being the catalyst for the development of ancient Japanese society. He brought new plants, farming techniques and knowledge that improved the quality of life of the ancient Japanese people. Xu Fu is worshipped as the “God of farming”,God of medicine” and “God of silk” by the Japanese.

What Xu Fu didn’t manage was to find the elixir of eternal life and Qin Shi Huang died at the age of 49. Ironically the large doses of mercury he took probably hastened his death. He wanted to be buried in style. The Chinese historian Sima Qian, writing a century after the emperor’s death, claimed that it had taken 700,000 men to construct the emperor’s mausoleum, but this does seem implausible. Nevertheless, it was a breathtaking project. It took around 40 years to build. What is most famous is the Terracotta Army a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang. There are around 6,000 Terracotta Warriors and their purpose was to protect the Emperor from evil spirits in the afterlife. There were also horses, chariots and 40,000 real bronze weapons.

I haven’t got that much further. I am now reading about the early Han dynasty. I don’t know if I will be able to get through the book in one go. I think I already have an overdose of names and places. If you feel that this is all too much for you, then I will close with a handy aide du memoire to help you remember all those tiresome dynasties that I found online. It should be sung to the tune of Frère Jacques:

Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han;

Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han;

Sui, Tang, Song;

Sui, Tang, Song;

Yuan, Ming, Qing, Republic;

Yuan, Ming, Qing, Republic;

Mao Zedong;

Mao Zedong;


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