The House Of Ts'in, 246-206 B. C.
( Originally Published 1910 )
Ts'in Shi-hwang-ti, "Emperor First"—The Great Wall —The Centralised Monarchy—The title Hwangti—Origin of the name China Burning of the Books Expedition to Japan—Revolution Places the House of Han on the Throne
VIEWED in the light of philosophy,” says Schiller, "Cain killed Abel because Abel's sheep trespassed on Cain's cornfield." From that day to this farmers and shepherds have not been able to live together in peace. A monument of that eternal conflict is the Great Wall of China. Like the Roman Wall in North Britain, to compare great things with small, its object was not to keep out the Tartars but to reënforce the vigilance of the military pickets. That end it seems to have accomplished for a long time. It was, the Chinese say, the destruction of one generation and the salvation of many. We shall soon see how it came to be a mere geographical expression. For our present purpose it may also be regarded as a chronological landmark, dividing ancient from mediaeval China.
With the House of Chou the old feudal divisions disappeared forever. The whole country was brought under the direct sway of one emperor who, for the first time in the history of the people, had built up a dominion worthy of that august title. This was the achievement of Yin Cheng, the Prince of Ts'in. He. thereupon assumed the new style of Hwang-ti. Hwangs and Tis were no novelty; but the combination made it a new coinage and justified the additional appellation of " the First," or Shi-hwang-ti. Four imperishable monuments perpetuate his memory: the Great Wall, the centralised monarchy, the title Hwang-ti, and the name of China itself—the last derived from a principality which under him expanded to embrace the empire. Where is there another conqueror in the annals of the world who has such solid claims to ever-lasting renown? Alexander overthrew many nations; but he set up nothing permanent. Julius Caesar instituted the Roman Empire; but its duration was ephemeral in comparison with that of the empire founded by Shi-hwang-ti, the builder of the Wall.
Though Shi-hwang-ti completed it, the wall was not the work of his reign alone. Similarly the triumphs of his arms and arts were due in large measure to his predecessors, who for centuries had aspired to universal sway. Conscious of inferiority in culture, they welcomed the aid and rewarded the services of men of talent from every quarter. Some came as penniless adventurers from rival or hostile states and were raised to the highest honours.
Six great chancellors stand conspicuous as having introduced law and order into a rude society, and paved the way for final success. Every one of these was a "foreigner." The princes whom they served deserve no small praise for having the good sense to appreciate them and the courage to follow their advice. Of some of these it might be said, as Voltaire remarked of Peter the Great, "They civilised their people, but themselves were savages." The world forgets how much the great czar was indebted for education and guidance to Le Fort, a Genevese soldier of fortune. Pondering that history one is able to gauge the merits of those foreign chancellors, perhaps also to under-stand what foreigners have done for the rulers of China in our day.
Shi-hwang-ti was the real founder of the Chinese Empire. He is one of the heroes of history; yet no man in the long list of dynasties is so abused and misrepresented by Chinese writers. They make him a bastard, a debauchee, and a fool. To this day he is the object of undying hatred to every one who can hold a pen. Why? it may be asked. Simply be-cause he burned the books and persecuted the disciples of Confucius. Those two things, well-nigh incredible to us, are to the Chinese utterly incomprehensible.
Li-Sze, a native of Yen, was his chancellor, a genius more daring and far-sighted than any of the other five. The welding together of the feudal states into a compact unity was his darling scheme, as it was that of his master. "Never," he said, "can you be sure that those warring states will not reappear, so long as the books of Confucius are studied in the schools; for in them feudalism is consecrated as a divine institution." "Then let them be burned," said the tyrant.
The adherents of the Sage were ejected from the schools, and their teachings proscribed. This harsh treatment and the search for their books naturally gave rise to counterplots. " Put them to death," said the tyrant; and they went to the block, not like Christian marytrs for religious convictions, but like the Girondists of France for political principles. Their followers offer the silly explanation that the books were destroyed that the world might never know that there had been other dynasties, and the scholars slaughtered or buried alive to prevent the reproduction of the books.
The First Hwang-ti did not confine his ambition to China. He sent a fleet to Japan; and those isles of the Orient came to view for the first time in the history of the world. The fleet carried, it is said, a crew of three thousand lads and lasses. It never returned; but the traditions of Japan affirm that it arrived, and the islanders ascribe their initiation into Chinese literature to their invasion by that festive company—a company not unlike that with which Bacchus was represented as making the conquest of India. Their further acquaintance with China and its sages was obtained through Korea, which was long a middle point of 'communication between the two countries. It was, in fact, from the Shantung promontory, near to Korea, that this flotilla of videttes was dispatched.
What was the real object of that strange expedition? Chinese authors assert that it was sent in search of the "elixir of life," but do they not distort everything in the history of the First Hwang-ti? The great monarch was, in fact, a devout believer in the fables of Taoism, among which were stories of the Islands of the Blest, and of a fountain of immortality, such as eighteen centuries later stimulated the researches of Ponce de Leon. The study of alchemy was in full blast among the Chinese at that time. It probably sprang from Taoism; but, in my opinion, the ambitious potentate, sighing for other worlds to conquer, sent that jolly troop as the vanguard of an army.
In spite, however, of elixirs of life and fountains of youth, death put an end to his conquests when he had enjoyed the full glories of imperial power for only twelve years. His son reigned two years; and the first of the imperial dynasties came to an end—overturned by a revolution which placed the House of Han on the vacant throne.