The First Emperors of New China


The current exhibition at the British Museum, The First Emperor, is a tribute to the man who ordered the building of that huge monument to himself, the tomb of the Terracotta Warriors. The focus of the exhibition is a small selection of artefacts from the tomb, including a number of statues of the warriors themselves. It is a blockbuster exhibition which attempts to match the scale and ambition of its subject.

A short film which precedes the main part of the exhibition shows how Emperor Qin managed to conquer and unite what is now the territory of China. At the end of the film we see the map rapidly turning crimson and the word ‘Qin’ appearing on the map. ‘Qin’, we learn, gave origin to the western word China to denote what was called in Chinese the Middle Kingdom – or the centre of the world.

The exhibition was partly criticised in the Guardian for offering an uncritical and revisionist account of the achievements of a man who history has generally remembered as a brutal tyrant who ‘massacred prisoners, burned books and slaughtered scholars’. The words ‘cruel’ and ‘brutal’ are absent from the exhibition. The key message of the exhibition, signalled clearly in that introductory film, is one that the Emperor himself would have been happy with: He was on a celestially-inspired mission to unite ‘All-under-Heaven’ and so to bring China into existence. The existence of China is, therefore, no historical accident: It was written in the stars.

However, historians have on the whole ceased to regard all human history of the great achievements of supreme individuals equipped with armies and visions of a future world reshaped according to their ambitions. Also, it would, or at least should, be very hard in 2007 for any serious thinking person to sustain the belief that nations and states have a historical mission to exist, that they are the result of destiny and not of chance.

We learn very little in the exhibition about the lives of those who actually built the tomb. There are some references to convicts being used, to the huge numbers of slaves whose lives were sacrificed to its construction. But the overall message is that this was the work of a visionary, an emperor creating a coherent and sovreign empire which has survived intact up to the present day.

One key theme or, I would argue, purpose of the exhibition is that of continuity. Qin established the systems of weights and currency and was also largely responsible for establishment of the writing system, as well as beginning the building of the Great Wall. This grants legitimacy to the subsequent rulers of China: a series of dynasties have maintained China’s unity and preserved and guarded its treasures. The rulers of this empire have now generously allowed those who cannot visit the Middle Kingdom to enjoy at first hand a glimpse of its profoundly rich and mysterious cultural legacy.

The way in which China chooses at different times to regard its previous rulers is very instructive. This is particularly true of representations on TV (1). According to the Asia Times:

‘It has been a tradition in China, both under the communists and long before, to criticize Chinese leaders indirectly but deftly by comparing them to misguided, wicked or weak emperors, ignoring the welfare of the people, or by comparing them to the wise and benevolent rulers of the past. Chinese readers – and today’s television viewers – are savvy enough to read between the propagandists’ lines and understand 2,000-year-old contrived allusions to current politics.’

The Chinese people, then, understand the significance of the different dynasties. Some of them represent more insular styles of rule, some more outgoing, some more brutal and legalistic, some wiser and more benign. Visitors to this exhibition are left to make their own connections between the great rulers of the past of the great rulers of the present.

The current Chinese emperors, then, are laying claim to a heritage which goes back way before 1949, when Chairman Mao told the Chinese people to stand up. Mao was a great admirer of Emperor Qin, by the way, allegedly claiming “He buried alive only 460 scholars, but we have buried alive 46,000”. The exhibition makes a claim on behalf of the current Chinese regime on a inheritance which goes back 2,000 years, and which is ultimately divinely derived. What we are being shown in this exhibition are some of the more treasured family heirlooms.

So what is the problem? Every nation and state in the world seeks to demonstrate that its existence is the inevitable product of all earlier stages of history, and to this end adapts, adopts, invents and constructs myths, legends, historical figures and movements, not to mention pre-existing monuments, in order to prove its rightful legacy. ‘China’ is no more or less artificial an entity than any other nation.

China as a country, if not a nation, has, in broad terms, been around for a very long time. But my question is: How much legitimacy are we prepared to concede the Chinese Government? It consists of an unelected oligarchy of bureaucrats who govern by means of repression and corruption. The subjects of the Chinese Communist Party regime enjoy little in the way of human and democratic rights. It is the world’s largest dictatorship, and its claims to legitimate authority are contested, or at least questioned by a large proportion of the world’s population, including in China itself.

Would the British Museum, and by extension the British state, be prepared to host a similar exhibition on behalf of the Government of Burma? Or North Korea? (2)

In the exhibition bookshop you can buy a seemingly fairly random selection of things related to China. One thing that may be useful to anyone vaguely interested in Chinese history is a book giving a broad outline and a timeline of Chinese history for children. The book makes a brief reference to the Cultural Revolution, a period when a previous generation of Communist Party leaders ransacked their own country and tried as hard as they could to destroy the country’s cultural legacy: it was reportedly only through the direct intervention of Zhou Enlai that such crucial sites as the Forbidden City, the Potala Palace in Lhasa and even the site of Terracotta Warriors were saved. It would be strange, to say the least, if a brief guide to Russian or German history made such scant reference to the Stalin and Hitler eras. There is no mention of the single most prominent recent event in Chinese history in the eyes of the world, the events of June 4 1989, when the previous generation of leaders again murdered thousands in a desperate attempt to hold on to the reins of power, an event which the current leadership refuses to acknowledge on any level.

The culmination of the book’s timeline and, presumably the mental timeline of the exhibition’s visitors, is, inevitably, summer 2008, when the Chinese capital will host the Olympic Games. This is a key moment for the Chinese Government, a coming-out ball which will confirm beyond any doubt that China is, despite its continuing refusal to grant basic democratic and human rights to its population, a nation whose sovreignty and authority is beyond question (3). It will be a coronation ceremony for the emperors of New China.

This seems to be an apt term for what has previously been known as the People’s Republic; given that the only two pillars of CCP ideology for the last number of years has been nationalism and ‘we can make you rich!’; a name change, beloved of despots in desperate need of a fresh new image, seems well overdue. The PR in China could stay, of course, but with a different meaning, and given the success of our own beloved former leader in rebranding his party with the facile addition of the word ‘New’, it seems entirely appropriate for the CCP’s attempt to remake itself for internal and international consumption. ‘Xin Zhonghuo’, anyone?! (4)

The message of the Olympics is, to borrow a phrase: China’s Coming Home. And just as the slaves dedicated themselves selflessly to building the stunning monument to vanity that is the tomb of Emperor Qin, the Chinese people are wholeheartedly and voluntarily putting themselves hard to work. A recent Guardian special collected some very revealing comments regarding the importance that a lot of people give to the Olympics, and the effect a successful games will have on ‘national pride’: ‘”I don’t have any religious or political convictions. So you can say that the Olympics is my main belief,” says primary school teacher Zhou Chenguang. According to the taxi driver Xia Shishan: ‘We will finish top of the medal table. And when we win, I will be so excited my blood will boil.” In Beijing projects are being completed at a furious pace and on a meglomaniac scale in the attempt to turn the host city into a place suitable for international visitors such as sports people, journalists and tourists, even if in the process making it into a city which will be pretty much unaffordable to the people who acually live there (4).

The current exhibition at the British Museum is a PR coup for the Chinese Government, and simultaneously an advert for the much greater showcase event next summer. It can to some extent be regarded as propaganda, rather than history.

Of course, a great deal can happen between now and June 2008, and a great deal could happen during the games themselves. What will happen if the very tight control that the authorities are trying to exercise over the event doesn’t work? What if there are protests? What are the Falun Gong capable of? And how will the world react?

1 – The Qin dynasty was very positively portrayed in the 2005 film hero, regarded by some viewers as an outright piece of CCP propaganda. See also http://film.guardian.co.uk/News_Story/Critic_Review/Observer_Film_of_the_week/0,,1312773,00.html.

2 – Unfortunately I didn’t see the Ancient Persia exhibition two years ago, so have little idea of how that may have related to the question of Modern Iran, beyond what I managed to glean from various websites. There is obviously a significant contrast between the Forgotten Empire, which no clear connection with the present, and the First Emperor, which implies continuity. According to the New York Times, the exhibition ‘give ancient Persia its proper place — between Assyria and Babylon on the one hand and Greece and Rome on the other — in the chronology of early civilizations. In that sense, ”Forgotten Empire” is also highly topical…John Curtis, the show’s curator and keeper of the museum’s ancient Near East department, added in a statement: ”It may also be important at this time of difficult East-West relations to remind people in the West of the remarkable cultural legacy of a country like Iran.” ‘. Personally I find such aims perfectly laudable, but whatever the stated aims of the exhibition under discussion here they are not nearly as commendable. Plus, Iran is actually, strictly speaking, a democratic country…

3 – This contrasts with the status of little Taiwan, officially known as the Repuplic of China, which will once again compete under the name of Chinese Taipei, owing to the demands of the Chinese in Beijing. See also http://www.guardian.co.uk/china/story/0,,2174496,00.html.

4 – I’d love to read an analysis of how Beijing’s rebranding of China as a dynamic forward-thinking business-friendly place matches Blair’s project to ditch the Labour Party’s ideological and historical baggage in the mid-nineties. I remember reading some time ago that one of the many foreign politicians to lecture the Chinese leadership in the 1990s was Peter Mandelson.

5 – Obviously East London is now starting to go through the same process. See http://www.redpepper.org.uk/article555.html.

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