Five Stylish Recent Books

As New Year’s is often a time of glitz and glamour (and last-minute holiday giving), we thought we would feature a few books that often include text with smart things to say, but would also be worth getting just for the pictures.

1. Lynn Pan's Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars
An examination of the polyglot artistic influences in early twentieth century Shanghai, by one of the city’s acute observers.

2. Claire Roberts and Geremie R. Barme eds., The Great Wall of China
This book features essays by many scholars about the varied history and uses of the Great Wall, alongside photographs and interviews with people who live with the Wall on a daily basis.

3. Marcia Reed and Paola Dematte eds., China on Paper: European and Chinese Works from the Late Sixteenth to the Early Nineteenth Century
We have mentioned this book before at China Beat—created to accompany an exhibit of works at the Getty Museum, this volume canvases artistic works that depict the interactions between East and West during a vital period of exchange.

4. Antonia Finanne, Changing Clothes in China
Reviewed by Nicole Barnes at China Beat earlier this year, Finnane’s book is a stylish tour through Chinese fashion. Focused particularly on the modern period, Changing Clothes explores the interplay of fashion, social movements, and politics.

5. Melissa Chiu, Art and China's Revolution
Like China on Paper, this book was based on an art exhibit (that we have mentioned at China Beat before), and includes essays by various contributors like Roderick MacFarquhar as well as interviews with artists. The book argues that we must see Cultural Revolution era art as more than just propaganda, but instead an artistic movement that has shaped the contemporary Chinese art world.


Taiwan Top Five

By Paul Katz

As we prepare to ring out 2008, here are a few thoughts about some of the leading stories that have shaped Taiwan during the past year:

1. Back and Blue: Ma Ying-jeou sweeps into office as Taiwan's new president, winning a convincing majority of the popular vote based on a platform promising a more stable relationship with China, economic prosperity, and clean government. Cross-Straits tensions have declined markedly, while the opening of direct links should bring great benefits to the citizens of both China and Taiwan. At the same time, however, the economy remains in the doldrums (see #2) and there are also concerns about the future of the judicial system (see #3). The KMT's return to power has also witnessed the rehabilitation of Chiang Kai-shek's reputation (plus the name of his memorial hall), attempts to interfere with the mass media, and occasional expressions of anti-Japanese nationalism.

2. Hard Times: The TAIEX, once expected to top 10,000, is now languishing in the 4,000s, but it's the working class that is truly suffering. As of November, the number of men and women who had lost their job had topped the half million mark, with Taiwan's 4.6% unemployment rate being one of the highest in East Asia and having the dubious distinction of topping the four little dragons. Other workers are being forced to take long periods of unpaid leave, which allows them to keep their jobs but not earn enough money to make ends meet. It looks to be a cold, dark winter, but hopefully things will improve once the world economy rebounds.

3. Justice For All? The vigorous prosecution of corruption cases involving current or former DPP officials (including unprecedented reliance on pre-trial detention), extensive use of police force against protestors, and switching of judges during judicial proceedings all suggest that Taiwan's legal system is at risk of being transformed from a means of furthering the growth of civil society into a tool for the state to silence its rivals. Meanwhile, investigations into allegations of corruption against KMT figures appear to be going nowhere, while a KMT legislator shown to have dual citizenship is still enjoying plenty of perks from her prestigious and powerful position.

4. And Then There Were Four: Now entering its 20th year, Taiwan's professional baseball league (CPBL) has shrunk to its original size of just four teams, with two others having been disbanded due to financial losses and gambling scandals. The local basketball league (SBL) is rumored to be in trouble as well, but baseball has always been at the heart of this country's sporting scene, embodying both the best (exuberance, dedication) and the worst (inefficiency, corruption) aspects of Taiwanese culture. However, the smaller number of teams, combined with an influx of players returning from abroad, may spark improvements in the quality of the game and a return of its fan base. There is always hope.

5. The Pandas Are Coming! Actually they're here, having arrived as an early Christmas gift on December 23 aboard a chartered 747 from Chengdu. Currently under quarantine in their lavish US$9.24 million Panda House at the Taipei Zoo, Tuan Tuan 團團 and Yuan Yuan 圓圓 (whose combined names mean ''reunion'') are scheduled to be available for their adoring admirers just in time for the Lunar New Year. Some people have raised concerns about sovereignty (according to CITES, the panda gift is an ''internal/domestic trade'' transfer), but who could resist such cute and cuddly comfort from concerned communist cousins? Moreover, their arrival should do wonders for the local economy, especially in and around the Taipei Zoo.

So let us end the year on a note of optimism. Despite the troubles it has faced during the past year, Taiwan remains a symbol of openness and opportunity. Let us hope that the future brings tidings of comfort and joy.


Zeng Jingyan Accepts Hu Jia's Sakharov Prize

In late October, the European Parliament announced that it would award this year's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Hu Jia, an activist for HIV/AIDS and the environment currently imprisoned in Beijing. Hu and his wife, Zeng Jingyan, have been adept at using new media to share their message of human rights activism with an international audience, making Hu Jia better known outside China than inside it.

The award ceremony was held December 17. China has continued to protest the award.

Zeng Jingyan, who remains under surveillance at the couple's apartment, accepted the award via video, subsequently posted on YouTube. Both installments of the video are below.

Coming Distractions: Postcards from Tomorrow Square

China Beat has been faithfully following James Fallows's reports for the Atlantic from first Shanghai and now Beijing since he moved to China in 2006. His reports have covered topics from China's international image to the financial crisis to the Great Firewall, and he blogs regularly at the Atlantic's website. Fallows's reports have now been gathered together in a collection, Postcards from Tomorrow Square, that will be available for purchase tomorrow. Over email, Fallows chatted with Kate Merkel-Hess about the new book and his thoughts about reporting from China.

Kate Merkel-Hess: Your forthcoming book Postcards from Tomorrow Square is a collection of essays about China that cover some of the same topics you have touched on in your writings for the Atlantic over the past two years. One of the overarching themes you mention in your introduction is the diversity and variety in China—something you say you suspected before coming to China in 2006 but that was confirmed for you as you did your reporting. What other China myths are most in need of debunking, and which did you have the most fun exploding in the book?

James Fallows: I know that for a lot of people based in China, or who have far deeper familiarity with China than I do, my emphasis on the diversity and individuality of modern Chinese life could seem obvious, or banal. It might also seem that way to people with no China experience at all. One American with whom I was talking recently said, “Well, of course, every human being is an individual.”

And of course that is true. But I have found the emphasis important when talking about China for several reasons. One is that, in my judgment, this universal truth about humanity is more vividly true about China than about some other countries and cultures. Partly that’s because of China’s scale, in all senses—geographic reach, regional difference, range of individual experience in the last twenty years and the thirty years before that, and so on. Simply to be true to the spectacle I’ve seen here, I’ve found it worth pushing this theme.

Another important reason to stress the diversity of modern Chinese experience is that it takes some nudging to get many Western readers thinking that way. People freely talk about “China” doing this and “the Chinese doing that,” and I think the starting Western assumption is that there’s one big unified mass. While admiring the technical achievement of the Olympic opening ceremony, I actually thought it served the country ill in projecting the image of countless hordes all doing the same thing under central control.

Oh, yes, to answer your question: the other main assumption I found myself working against is that “rising China” is something that should be feared. Taken seriously, yes. Not condescended to. But the tone in much US and European discussion is that China has solved all its problems and its marching unstoppably onwards. It’s not quite that way, I’ve tried to explain.

KMH: Did you move to Shanghai in 2006 with the intention of writing a book about China? And did that book resemble what eventually became Postcards?

JF: My wife and I left Washington, D.C. for Shanghai with a combination of assumptions and uncertainties similar to those with which we’ve begun other similar long-term reporting stints. There were some things I knew that I wanted to learn about China. How should outsiders feel about the economic miracle underway there? How seriously, really, were its environmental problems? How much, if any, of the old Communist era did people miss – as people miss some of the old days of Soviet glory in Russia? Etc. But mainly we wanted to see and learn about the things we hadn’t known we should be interested in – the things that are obvious and important once you’re on scene but that don’t always make their way into journalistic accounts.

In writing terms, this meant that I went assuming I’d do a series of articles for the Atlantic, as I have been doing – roughly half on topics I knew ahead of time I’d be looking into (environment, financial relations) and the other half on things I’d learned about on scene. While feeling strongly that I didn’t want to write a book just for the sake of writing one, I had my eye open for topics that I thought would support long narrative treatment. (“Long narrative” because I think there are already lots of good books offering overviews on China. I wanted to find specific stories that might shed light on larger trends.) I did find one of those themes, which I plan to explore in a second narrative book I hope to finish in the next year. I hadn’t anticipated that the Atlantic articles I did formed a kind of narrative sequence of their own. The idea to combine them, with new material, occurred to the publisher and made sense to me. That is the genesis of Postcards – which in my biased view does have a kind of coherence in trying to convey what parts of China looked and felt like at this stage in the country’s history.

KMH: This was not your first stint in Asia. How did the four years you spent in Asia in the 1980s inform your time in China? In your first piece for the Atlantic from Shanghai, you mentioned that your time in Japan in the 1980s coincided with the dollar’s collapse against the yen. Was it eerie to be in Asia for another economic crisis? Were there other ways that you drew on that earlier experience—practically or intellectually—to do your work this time?

JF: You’re right: the reason I’m in China in the 2000s is that I spent four years in the neighborhood twenty years ago. My wife and I actually made our first visit to several major cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, a few more – in 1986, when we were based in Japan and faked our way into China as part of the U.S. delegation to the World Esperanto Congress. (We had to learn the language as part of the deal; it’s easier than Mandarin!) I then came back to China three or four times over the next four years, while mainly learning about Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, and places other than the PRC itself.

That experience had several residual effects. The main one was to make me interested in China – and aware (as I still am) of how little I know about it. Another was to give me the perhaps misguided confidence that my wife and I could make our way through a place where we had little previous experience and no well-developed connections. And of course it was an intellectual construct: in watching Japan’s rise and then its financial stagnation, we’d seen the last dramatic stage in East Asian economic development. The similarities in China’s approach – and, mainly, the differences – have been an important touchstone all the way through. And as I think will be evident to readers, I have found China’s economic rise to be a fundamentally more open phenomenon, for the rest of the world, than Japan’s approach was.

As for the latest crisis – hey, blame Alan Greenspan! Not me.

KMH: Many of your pieces for the Atlantic move forward from a premise of “Americans typically think X about China, but actually…” Did those pieces grow from your own surprise at discovering something new about China? What were some of your surprises or realizations about China that didn’t make it into your pieces?

JF: Ahah! You have cruelly revealed the trademarked secret of everything I’ve ever written for the magazine! Probably I find it easiest and most natural to write that way for two overlapping reasons. One is that I most enjoy learning about, and then writing about, things that are different from what I expected before bumping into them. I don’t really like writing, but I love reporting, because it gives me an excuse to satisfy my curiosity and often to change my mind. The other reason is that I feel there is some journalistic benefit in exposing people to information or ideas they don’t currently hold. I figure: if I hadn’t heard about subject X, maybe a lot of other Westerners haven’t heard about it either. So I’ll tell them about it and let them see if it changes their outlook as it changed mine.

As for what I haven’t conveyed yet – hmmmm. I have had pretty much a Just-In-Time strategy of getting out the ideas as soon as I learn them. But I have five or six more articles to do from China, and I’ll try to portion them out that way and in the next book.

KMH: In “The View from There,” which originally ran in the Atlantic last fall, you discuss the ways living abroad can change or clarify one’s ideas about the U.S. You argue there that openness to the world is a fundamental component of maintaining American prestige. What opportunities does Barack Obama’s election open for renewed or altered interactions with China? Are there concrete things you are hoping to see from the next administration that could make a real difference for future relations with China?

JF: As for the general prospect of America under Obama: I am sure that heartbreak and disappointment of various sorts lie ahead, just because no one can do as much as is expected from Obama just now. But I view the election results as having spared America a true disaster – by which I mean, ratifying rule by the party that, among other things, had nearly destroyed the “brand” of America in the world’s eyes – and also elevating a person well equipped to address some of America’s most acute needs. Here I’m talking not so much about the financial crisis of the time but rather the cultural underpinnings of America’s long-term vitality and strength. I think that the United States has been successful and vibrant in exact proportion as it has been open to the talent of the world – notably including Chinese talent. Obama stands for that in his policy and his life identity. So from my perspective as an American nationalist, I am relieved to think that our main comparative advantage will no longer be undercut.

Specific dealings with China are a strange exception to what has been, in my view, the general catastrophe of Bush Administration foreign policy. The one area in which Bush has more or less managed to keep his eye on sane, long-term interests has been in relations with China. The U.S. speaks up where it disagrees with the Chinese government, but it treats the relationship as one that must be maintained. (e.g. Bush never threatened to boycott the Olympics, but in his Bangkok speech just before arrival in Beijing he also laid out the areas where the U.S. and China disagreed.) So the initial goal for Obama will be “do no harm” to existing US-China relations. Addressing the financial imbalance will help in that regard.

KMH: It is clear from the books you reference in Postcards that you read widely among popular books on China, from John Pomfret’s Chinese Lessons to Susan Shirk’s Fragile Superpower to even a passing reference to David Landes’s scholarship. (It is always exciting for historians to see historical work referenced outside academic writing…) What readings do you recommend to friends and colleagues heading to China? What have you been reading and enjoying recently?

JF: One reason I love my kind of journalism – by which I mean, the high-end magazine world – is that it provides an excuse to read everything you can on a topic. My wife and I spend basically all our time reading as much China-related material as we can: histories of the language, pop novels, political tracts, business analyses. I just finished reading again Jonathan Spence’s To Change China, which I’d first read twenty years ago. Sitting two feet away from me right now is China Marches West: the Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, by Peter Perdue, which a friend recommended. I gave a friend for Christmas The Banquet Bug, by Geling Yan, which I love on many levels. Two Kinds of Time, by Graham Peck, justly deserves the big push that Robert Kapp is giving it now. The canon of recent good words of journalism and history is too large for me to dare to start naming names: the risk of offending by omission is huge! It’s a great time to be reading about China.


Rock is Not Revolution, Part II

[For Part I of this series, see Chris Heselton's post from 12/23/08.]

By Chris Heselton

One of the early rock musicians to make the jump to mainstream and become a household name was Xu Wei. His popularity is probably due to a style that some have called Chinese country or folk rock. This style does not have the explosive rage of heavy metal that many in the popular audience find hard to accept. Instead, he Xu Wei style is a more calm and relaxing melodic rock. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Xu Wei’s music is how similar it is to many of the romantic and nostalgic lyrical themes of pop music. Hometown (故乡, 2000), one of his best known songs and one often sung in Karaoke (KTV) bars, has many of these typical romantic and lament-filled lyrics seen in pop music. This is the kind of lyrical and musical style that wins broad acceptance in 21st century Chinese society:

The setting sun on the horizon shines again upon my face
Reflecting again that restless heart of mine.
What place is this still so desolate as before
This endless journey goes so slowly.

I am eternally heading towards a distant place - a lonely wanderer
You are amongst a vast sea of people –my woman
On the road in a strange village during a wintry night,
This thought harms me like knife.

Always in my dreams I see your two helpless eyes
And then my heart is again awakened
I stand here thinking about the scene when you once parted (with me)
You standing among the crowd, so lonely.
That’s your broken heart.
My heart is truly so maddened.

In my heart, you are forever the “hometown.”
Alone, you always abided and silently awaited me.
On the road in a strange village during a wintry night,
This thought harms me like knife.

Always in my dreams I see your two helpless eyes
And then my heart is again awakened
I stand here thinking about the scene when you once parted (with me)
You standing among the crowd, so lonely.
That is your broken heart.
My heart is truly so maddened.

Always in my dreams I see your two helpless eyes.
And then my heart is again awakened.
Always in my dream I see you walking on the road back home.
You stand below the setting sun, looking so magnificent.
That’s your dress flapping freely.
That’s your grace like the water.







Currently, one of the more popular mainstream rock groups is the Taiwanese band May Day. This group is probably the quintessential pop-rock group in the Chinese-language music world. This group proudly touts its image as an energetic high-spirited college band that sings, principally, about love. Their popular songs such as Eternal Stars of Eternal Hearts (恆心的恆星), Embrace (擁抱), and Tenderness (溫柔) all play on romantic themes yet have a clear pop-rock feel to the instrumentals. In many ways, May Day is no different from many Chinese boy bands except the rock instrumentals. However, sometimes their origins as a college rock band can be heard. The cover song for their first album, Long Live Love (愛情萬歲), may surprise listeners that it does not sing about love, but promiscuity and emotional detachment – uncommon in Chinese pop music but not hard to find in rock.

I need the warmth of you body
Although at this moment I don’t feel the least bit cold.
I feel an enormous hunger.
Although full with boredom - expanding my soul.
Requited love cannot cause again “the kingdom and the city to collapse”,[1]
But collapse your emotions, (your emotions) are getting colder, a firm soul.

At this moment, don’t wait any longer,
Don’t wait anymore. Don’t wait anymore. Let the passion get cold.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Just let me try on your clothes and then your underwear.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Just let me explore you deep deep deepest place – your secret.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Just let me try on your clothes and then your underwear.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Don’t wait any longer for the truth that has not once befallen.
Before the day break,
I just want to…
Play with you as much as I can.

I don’t care about your name.
Your tomorrow, your past, you’re just a man or woman.
I’m clear about that.
I don’t plan to leave you, but I also don’t plan to really love you.
Requited love cannot cause the kingdom and the city to collapse,
But collapse your emotions, (now your emotions) are getting colder, (becoming) a firm soul.

At this moment, don’t wait any longer,
Don’t wait anymore. Don’t wait anymore. Let the passion get cold.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Just let me try on your clothes and then your underwear.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Just let me explore you deep deep deepest place – your secret.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Just let me try on your clothes and then your underwear.
Just let me kiss you, kiss you, kiss you, until the sky gets bright.
Don’t wait any longer for the truth that has not once befallen.
Before the day break,
I just want to…
Play with you as much as I can.





In the early days of Chinese rock, there is clearly an emphasis on originality. In many ways, older songs of the day simply couldn’t express the meanings these bands wanted to put out for their generation. For Chinese pop music, the emphasis is more on melody, and for many romantic songs, the message is pretty universal. Sometimes remaking a classic can be a sure seller that has a guaranteed accepted melody and message. Recently, Chinese rock has also taken on this trend as well with everything from Zheng Jun remaking the classic Why are the Flowers Thusly Red? (花儿为什么这样红?) to Cui Jian’s perversion of Teresa Teng (鄧麗君) classics like Small Town Story (小城故事). More interesting is the emergence of the “translation version” (翻版) of many foreign songs. It is extremely common in Chinese pop music to take songs from the American and Japanese musical traditions and merely to re translate or re-conceptualize the lyrics. Chinese rock music has also begun to follow suit. The popular mainstream rock artist Zheng Jun (郑钧) has made several remakes and “translation versions” as well as his own original works. Many American rockers may recognize this remake of Coldplay’s song Yellow translated into Chinese as Falling Star (流星):

I want to know how long can a falling star fly
Is its beauty worth pursuing or not

The flowers of the night sky, are scattered behind you
Giving me long lasting happiness. It’s worth going to wait for.
So my heart runs like mad from dusk till dawn.
I cannot bear it again.

Willing myself to descend upon your hands
Transforming into the rainbow of the black night.
The insects become the breeze of the moon light – become the breeze of the moon light
I leap from my body – leap into your river
I swim all the way to the end. It’s so free there.

I make a wish, I make a wish to protect
And set my heart still at the most beautiful moment.
Willing myself to descend upon your hands
Transforming into the rainbow of the black night.
Willing myself to never see again the radiance of the sky.

Happiness leaps into your river
Swims all the way to the end
(It) leaps into your river. I make a wish to protect
At the most beautiful moment, I make a wish.
I want to know how long can a falling star fly.
Giving me long lasting happiness.





跳进你的河 我许个愿保佑

[1] A Chinese idiom that refers to how beautiful women can cause the kingdom to collapse. Similar, in many ways, to the idea of Helene of Troy.

Chris Heselton is a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine.


Philosophical Tours of China, from Dewey to Derrida

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Peter Zarrow’s piece last month on Bertrand Russell’s writing on and travels to China may have gotten some of our readers curious about the other two members of the triumverate of famous philosophers mentioned in the introduction to that post: the Indian poet and thinker Rabindranath Tagore and the American pragmatist and educational theorist John Dewey. What each of these two men thought about and did while in China could be well worth a posting. And perhaps in 2009 the blog will run such pieces, as it would be a very appropriate year to do so, at least in Dewey’s case, marking as it will the 90th anniversary of his first lectures in China. Also of interest would be a comparative look at the ways Chinese intellectuals of the day responded to Russell, Dewey, and Tagore.

John Dewey

One thing likely to emerge from such a comparison would be that it was the philosopher who came from the country closest to China who met with the most opposition. This was partly due to Tagore arriving at a time, 1924, when New Culture Movement iconoclasm was still going strong and his message was seen as traditionalist. There may now be a statue at Peking University honoring Tagore’s visit to that campus, but as Stephen N. Hay stresses in Asian Ideas of East and West, and as Pankaj Mishra points out in a recent New York Review of Books essay, there was a good deal of resistance to his ideas among intellectuals in Shanghai and Beijing during the 1920s.

Rabindranath Tagore

Here’s how Mishra puts it, noting the irony that sometimes what an Asian thinker has to say finds more who welcome it in Western than Eastern settings:

“His message—that modern civilization, built upon a cult of money and power, was inherently destructive, and needed to be tempered by the wisdom of the East—had a receptive audience among many people in the West who had been forced by World War I to question their faith in science and progress. But when, traveling in the East, he exhorted Asians not to abandon their traditional culture, he was often heckled and booed.”
Another theme that we could pick up on in 2009 would be whether there have been international thinkers of more recent decades whose lectures at Chinese institutions have parallels to those given in the late 1910s and 1920s by Russell, Dewey, and Tagore. One possible set of names to float, which would have a certain symmetry, if only because two are Westerners and one a South Asian, would be Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (who both gave high profile speeches in China in 2001 at a time when their works were thought of as fashionable in some intellectual circles there) and Amartya Sen (who gave a keynote address at the 2006 Beijing Forum). This would also underscore that the early twenty-first century and the immediate aftermath of World War I saw increased links between foreign and Chinese scholars.

I’ll leave it to others to figure out how far we’d want to push the notion of parallels between Sen and Tagore (these might be interesting) or between either Derrida or Habermas and Russell (these might be less so), but I think for a contemporary counterpart to Dewey, we need to look to a late twentieth century visitor to China rather than an early twenty-first century one. The person I am thinking of is Frederic Jameson, who is, like Dewey was, an American. More to the point, like Dewey, but as far as I know unlike Habermas and Derrida, his influence on Chinese intellectuals has taken many forms, thanks to people who have studied with him rather than just heard a lecture or two. And his interest in China, like Dewey’s, lasted well beyond the time of his first visit in the mid-1980s.

Frederic Jameson

It is also fitting to get to Jameson before 2008 ends for two reasons. The main one is that the influential theorist of the postmodern was given a very special award this year, the Holbergprisen (or Holberg Prize). And, interestingly, not only did the prize organization’s summary of his achievements mention his writings on Chinese topics (among many other subjects) and the extraordinary impact his work has had in Asia, but one of the presentations included in a symposium about his work that was held to mark the occasion was called “Frederic R. Jameson in China” and given by an unusually high-profile Chinese intellectual, Wang Hui. In addition, 2008 was when the latest—but not the first and perhaps not the last—book on Chinese studies appeared that included an acknowledgment to the prize winner: Origins of the Chinese Avant-Garde: The Modern Woodcut Movement, a work by Xiaobing Tang, who heard the theorist lecture in Beijing and then went on to get a doctorate at Duke, Jameson’s home institution.


Rock is not Revolution

By Chris Heselton

Rock is revolution! Rock is rebellion! Rock is democracy! Well, at least Axl Rose seems to think so with his new album Chinese Democracy. A rock legend singing to democracy in China seems almost poetically fitting. When people tend to think of China and rock music, it almost always comes back to democracy, more specifically, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Rock was the theme genre of the liberal, underground democratic movement. Ever since Cui Jian (崔健) played "I Have Nothing" (一无所有)—sometimes translated as “Nothing to My Name”—at the protest, rock music has been associated with democracy in China, and this song its theme song.

Few think of Chinese rock as a popular mainstream conformist genre, but they would be mistaken to believe that rock is impervious to pop music trends and the lure of a larger audience (and profit). Since the turn of the century, Chinese rock has made a roaring comeback – surging this time not into a political movement but into the mainstream of Chinese language music. This rock music is different from the rock of the 80s and 90s. Mainstream popular music has now fused with rock to form a musical genre fitted to the popular music taste of young Chinese listeners. Whereas rock in the 80s dealt with depressing themes of individualism, social alienation, and disassociation (though plenty of young people who listened to Cui Jian then also consumed their share of gentle and sometimes upbeat Canton Pop on the side), now bands are looking to the same themes that have always figured in modern pop, regardless of the country – love, loss, nostalgia, upbeat felicitation.

What’s to account for this change? Some have argued it is government repression of more underground rock music in the recording industry, but I think that is probably giving the government too much credit. Many non-mainstream rock bands do get recorded – just this year one of the elites of Chinese rock, Tang Dynasty (唐朝), came out with its new CD, The Knight of Romance (浪漫骑士, 2008); however, many of these albums from non-mainstream groups never achieve the popularity that turn them into musical figures of national adoration. Even Cui Jian, the father of Chinese Rock, had his latest CD Show You Color (给你一点颜色, 2005) bomb. To put it simply, the majority of Chinese youth generally find it hard it to relate to the lyrics and melodies of some of the more hardcore rock.

A video about the band Tang Dynasty

For rock to enter the mainstream, bands have had to adapt and conform to popular music taste to which a young general audience can relate and find acceptable. It is no different from popular music trends in Taiwan, Japan, Korea, or even American rap music in the 1990s. Musicians have the option of either conforming to the mainstream and hitting the big time or remaining in obscurity. For many rock bands, this means breaking away from themes of individuality and emotional detachment from society and singing more generally about love. The instrumentals also become subtler and lighter, and swear words and inappropriate themes are generally avoided (with exceptions). The influence is not one way, however. Many elements of rock music have entered into the repertoire of, especially Taiwanese, pop singers/groups like S.H.E. and Jay Chou (周杰论).

This does not mean that the good old days of rock are gone though some may think so. It really shows a new diversity in the options of artistic styles. Not everyone has to be the non-conformist anti-social rocker to be a rock star. Rock stars and groups like Xu Wei (许巍), Zheng Jun (郑钧), May Day (五月天), and Shin (信乐团) have all become household names in recent years employing the electric guitar with softer lyrics showing the influence of Cantonese pop music. Leading the way in this popular transition of Chinese-language rock are Taiwanese bands, but this does not mean that Chinese musicians have been left in the dust. Even some of the old school rock stars like Tang Dynasty and Cui Jian are willing to be at least partially co-opted to achieve a portion of fame and their proverbial slice of the pie.

Meanwhile, the more hardcore groups like Overload (超载), Yaksa (夜叉), ChthoniC (閃靈樂團), and Brain Failure (腦濁), although they all have several albums, are relegated to an underground sub-culture unable to capture large audiences with their rebellious lyrics and rough instrumentals. This diversity of approaches in Chinese rock is a far cry from the revolution, rebellion, and democracy that some once believed rock stood for, but it is the new dichotomy of Chinese rock as some have become popular rock stars and others underground cult favorites.

The lyrics are where one really can see the differences. To show you how these bands are made, in the next section of the article, I would like to share with you the lyrics of several popular rock songs that do succeed and compare them with those that did not.

[Part II will be posted later this week.]

Chris Heselton is a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine.


More Last Minute Gifts: Books from China Beat Contributors

Many of our regular contributors have recent books out on China as well. We highly recommend the following as gifts for those many China non-experts in your life.

1. Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang
For: The Worldly Progressive

Chang’s book, published this year to positive reviews (including this one at the New York Times by Howard French, where Factory Girls was also recently named one of the Times' 100 notable books for 2008), follows the lives of young factory workers in Dongguang. Read an excerpt, published earlier at China Beat, here.

2. Socialism is Great!, Lijia Zhang
For: The Memoir Maven

In this autobiography, Zhang tells of her young life working in a Nanjing munitions factory and how she eventually ended up leading worker demonstrations in 1989.

3. China’s Brave New World, Jeffrey Wasserstrom
For: The World Traveler

In short vignettes, Wasserstrom delves into the quirks and contradictions of modern China, drawing out what “global China” means on the ground. To read more about the book, see Wasserstrom’s piece about it last spring in China Economic Review.

4. Forbidden City, Geremie Barmé
For: The Beijing Bound

Travelers (of the armchair variety or otherwise) will find Barmé’s volume full of insights into the history of Beijing’s most famous site. China Beat ran a review of the book last June. For a book on Beijing outside the Forbidden City’s walls, Mike Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing is also enormously entertaining (listen to a China Beat interview with Meyer here).

5. Beijing’s Games, Susan Brownell
For: The Sports Fan

Brownell explores why this year’s Games were so important to China, and you could even print out a few of Brownell’s “as it happened” columns from China Beat to tuck in with it, like this one or this one.

When we made up this list of books by China Beat contributors, for some reason we stayed in the realm of non-fiction books, but we'd be remiss not to mention two intriguing fictional works that China Beat contributors have published recently. Xujun Eberlein's collection of tales set in the 1970s and early 1980s, Apologies Forthcoming, may be just the right thing for the Short-Story Fan on your list (see review here), while former China correspondent-turned-crime fiction writer Catherine Sampson's The Slaughter Pavilion (her second mystery featuring Chinese private eye Song) could be a perfect gift for someone you know who is addicted to Whodunits (for review see here; currently only available in the UK).


Divine Justice

By Paul Katz

As China ascends to its place as a leading nation on the world stage, questions have arisen concerning the role of its legal system. As Joseph Kahn noted in a feature article entitled Deep Flaws, and Little Justice, in China’s Court System, “Justice in China is swift but not sure.” Many protests in China today center on the issue of justice, with one blogger responding to the January 2008 fatal beating by parapolice officials of a man trying to videotape a protest by lamenting “Where is justice? Where is the law? Aren’t there any rules in China?

My newest book, Divine Justice: Religion and the Development of Chinese Legal Culture (Routledge 2008) considers these issues by examining the ways in which religious beliefs and practices have contributed to the formation of Chinese legal culture. It does so by describing two forms of overlap between religion and the law: the ideology of justice and the performance of judicial rituals.

The former covers beliefs about how the gods intervene in human affairs in this life and the next in order to ensure the attainment of justice. Because this ideal is rarely realized in earthly courts, many people place their faith in underworld deities who have the power to pass judgment on both the living and the dead.

The latter extends to the realm of practice, and involves instances when men and women perform oaths, chicken-beheadings, and underworld indictments in order to enhance the legitimacy of their positions, deal with cases of perceived injustice, and resolve disputes.

These rites coexist with other forms of legal practice, including private mediation and the courts, comprising a wide-ranging spectrum of practices that I refer to as the judicial continuum. Individuals ranging from high-ranking officials to chaste widows have performed judicial rituals for centuries, and such rites have shaped the legal histories of overseas Chinese in colonies like Batavia, the Straits Settlements, and Hong Kong, as well as those who immigrated to countries like Australia and the United States.

Despite the fact that China is experiencing a period of rapid religious revival, the fate of its judicial rituals is unclear, especially since religious beliefs and practices labeled as “superstition” (mixin 迷信) still face the very real threat of state persecution. Judicial rituals remain largely underground, meaning that the judicial continuum in China today remains fragmentary and inchoate. Inasmuch as the effective functioning of any legal system requires a certain degree of entirety, the extent to which the Chinese government proves willing to tolerate the performance of judicial rites may influence its citizens’ confidence in their ability to obtain true justice.

Penitents dressed as criminals process in front of a Hsinchu police station, with McDonald's sign in the background

In contrast, judicial rituals are an integral part of legitimation and dispute resolution processes in modern, high-tech nations like Taiwan, where people rely on such rites to deal with problems that are not readily addressed in the courtroom (particularly family tensions) or even resolve disputes that have already entered the formal legal system. The role of such rites in Taiwan’s current political environment remains to be seen, however, as its legal system faces many new challenges. The present state of affairs has prompted Amnesty International to issue a public statement urging the authorities to investigate concerns centering on charges of excessive use of police force, and to conduct legal procedures in a “fair, transparent, and timely manner in compliance with international standards.”

While some Taiwanese prosecutors have been quoted as asserting judicial authority by making statements such as “Suspects in certain cases investigated by prosecutors need not be convicted of a crime, but we can use [the legal process] to teach them a lesson” (檢察官辦案不一定是要當事人被判有罪,但至少要讓他們得到『教訓』), it might be worth bearing in mind the late Attorney General Robert Jackson (1892-1954)’s definition of what it takes to be a distinguished prosecutor: “The citizens’ safety lies in [someone who] tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims, [and] who serves the law and not factional purposes.”


Last Minute Gifts: China Books

So you’ve put off holiday shopping until now. If you’d like to share your love of China this year, here are a few recommendations for old classics and more recent releases for the recipients on your list. All these books are widely available and relatively affordable.

1. Fortress Besieged, by Qian Zhongshu
For: The Literature Lover

We’ve written about this 1947 novel at China Beat before. It is a classic of Chinese literature, but not particularly well known in the West, making it the perfect gift for a well-read friend or relative.

2. The Question of Hu, Jonathan Spence
For: The Europhile

In John Hu, a Chinese convert brought to Paris by a French Jesuit in 1722, Spence found a lively and affecting example of the confusion of cross-cultural interactions.

3. The Story of the Stone (Hongloumeng), by Cao Xueqin (trans. by David Hawkes)
For: Jane Austen Fans

“Dream of the Red Mansion,” in this version translated as “Story of the Stone,” is the most important of Chinese novels, telling the story of the inner life of two elite Manchu families. David Hawkes’s translation puts the Qing novel into the language of the English aristocracy (in five volumes; we’ve linked to Volume 1 above).

Liu Dapeng’s life straddled China’s wrenching transition to modernity. In this book, Harrison tells that story through one man’s life in rural Shanxi.

5. China: Fragile Superpower, Susan Shirk
For: The Policy Wonk

Of the many books available on “understanding” China and its political relationships to the US, this is one of the best and most readable. Read an earlier China Beat review of it here.


Chinese in Laos

We've been hearing a lot lately about China's growing economic activities in Africa and its "charm offensive" in various parts of the world, linked to things such as the establishment of Confucius Institutes everywhere from the U.S. and the U.K. to South Africa, South America, and Serbia. But many of the most complicated international ties involving China are still, as in the past, ones that connect it to neighboring countries, such as those of Southeast Asia. Caroline Finlay, who has written pieces for China Beat before on issues such as Vietnam and the torch route, sheds light on different sorts of China-Southeast Asia ties here...

By Caroline Finlay

Chimes jingle on gold-painted stupas and teenagers strum guitars to the beat of passing tuk-tuks in Luang Prabang, Laos’ UNESCO World Heritage sight nestled on the Mekong. Sadly, a more obtrusive rhythm has hit the scene: the squawk of walkie-talkie phones. Like a large percentage of Lao’s motorbikes, clothes and electronics, the walkie-talkie phones are a Chinese import, strapped to the belts of the increasingly numerous Chinese tourists visiting Luang Prabang, famous for its now fragile serenity.

The marshland that will soon become Vientiene's second Chinatown

China has begun to re-establish ties with sparsely populated Laos, which has historically aligned with Indochina War ally Vietnam. The Chinese have made a number of gestures to the Lao people - they have built a highway linking Yunnan to Thailand, are working on a sports complex for the 2009 SEA Games, and are involved in a hydroelectric project in Vientiane province. But it’s not without a measure of self-interest. The new highway links China with the Thai market, eliminating the need to ship down the twisting and increasingly shallow Mekong, while the Chinese have been awarded a large and controversial land concession in Lao’s capital Vientiane in return for enabling Laos to host Southeast Asia’s largest sporting event.

In Luang Prabang, a Chinese-funded airport upgrade is planned to begin in early 2009, and NGOs and tourists alike are concerned that the roar of jet engines will be the new background to their riverside sunsets. According to an Asian Development Bank (ADB) report [1], Luang Prabang’s airport “is not compliant with ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization] safety and security standards for current operations,” and the Laotian government is “interested in upgrading the runway… to support the operation of B737 and A320 aircraft.” The project is expected to boost tourism by 125 percent in the first three years, provide Lao laborers with income, compensate and resettle those on land required by the project, and include a gender and HIV/AIDS awareness program. Construction will be funded by China EXIM Bank at $63.2m, while the Laotian government has pledged $20.4m for the other programs, including resettlement.

Concerns have arisen over the project, especially over the lack of international oversight in a country that has been sliding down Transparency International’s corruption perception scale. The ADB report states that “ADB’s Anticorruption Policy and Policy relating to the Combating of Money Laundering…is not applicable to the project since the ADB is not participating in financing the project investment.” In UNESCO’s 32nd session in Quebec this summer, it was reported [2] that “several new development projects, including a new airport and a new town on the right bank of the Mekong, would have an adverse impact on the World Heritage property, both in terms of visual integrity and noise pollution,” and that development in Luang Prabang has led to a decline in Lao traditional heritage that could “justify ‘World Heritage in Danger’ listing.” Rumors abound in Luang Prabang that the labor for the airport construction will be shipped in from China, reducing the benefit to locals, and that the Chinese were awarded another land concession on the right bank of the Mekong in return for their soft loan and construction expertise. The land in question has actually been set aside for a South Korean development with a five-star resort and golf course.

Chinese foreman Ac Ho, from Yunnan, who has lived in Laos for seven years and is currently working on the Sanjiang shopping center complex

Foreign NGOs have yet to publicly denounce the project, but a Voice of America report [3] states that “concerns have been raised that while this new town will bring modernity to the people in the area, it may adversely affect the city of Luang Prabang itself.” The report also gives Laotian Deputy Prime-Minister Somsavad Lengsavath an opportunity to respond to these claims. “Lengsavath points out that, for the past twelve years, Laos has followed the international criteria for maintaining the city’s World Heritage status,” but that, “there are some aspects, such as the construction of new buildings, that Lao officials still need to further address.”

Issues like World Heritage status and even resettlement concern a small percentage of Laotians; what is more obvious is the rocketing number of Chinese economic migrants moving into their backyards. Nearly every large town has a “Dalat Chine” or Chinese market, where locals can buy cheaply made clothing, motorbikes and impressive rip-offs of Nokia and Apple mobile phones. The vendors usually live in an accompanying housing complex, speak very poor Laotian, and rarely interact with locals. In a report by Thomas Fuller for the New York Times [4], Luang Prabang resident Khamphao says that “life is better because prices are cheaper.”

While that may be true, the Chinese presence may be hurting local businesses, “There are some good properties for sale in Phonesavanh [the capital of Xieng Khouang province],” says Ditthavong, a Xieng Khouang native, “because the Chinese have put the Laotian shop owners out of business. The Chinese have access to such cheap goods. The Lao can make more money by renting them storefronts than they ever could running their own shops”

Work on the Chinese-built statium just outside of Vientiane

Thousands of Chinese workers have been brought in to construct Vientiane’s stadium and a new Chinese-owned shopping complex, and more are expected to move in to develop the new Chinatown, Vientiane’s second, on the capital’s outskirts as well as the airport in Luang Prabang. Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Thongloun Sisouluth said in a 2008 BBC report [5] that, “economic migration is unavoidable in this modern time,” while Vientiane resident Xaisomboun Soukhummalay has the same worries as Luang Prabang’s World Heritage committee – cultural dilution. “Our population is six-and-a-half million,” he says, “their one Yunnan province is seven times that!”

1. Asian Development Bank. Technical Assistance Consultant’s Report. Lao People’s Democratic Republic: Greater Mekong Subregion Luangphrabang Airport Improvement Project. Project Number 39564. August, 2008.
Available at http://www.adb.org/Documents/Reports/Consultant/39564-REG/default.asp
2. Boccardi, Giovanni and Logan, William. 2007 Mission Report. Reactive Monitoring. Mission to the Town of Luang Prabang World Heritage Property. 22-27 November, 2007.
Available at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/479/documents/
3. Pongern, Songrit. “Korean, Lao Companies to Develop a New City in Luang Prabang”. Voice of America. 30 October, 2008.
Available at http://www.voanews.com/lao/archive/2008-10/2008-11-09-voa1.cfm?CFID=77434028&CFTOKEN=68304550
4. Fuller, Thomas. “In Laos, Chinese motorbikes change lives”. The New York Times. 27 December, 2007.
Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/27/world/asia/27laos.html
5. Pham, Nga, “China moves into laid-back Laos”. BBC News, Vientiane. 8 April, 2008. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7329928.stm

(Interview with Ditthavong from Xieng Khouang by Caroline Finlay.)

For further information, see the following links:
China – Thailand highway, International Herald Tribune
SEA Games stadium / land concession / new Chinatown in Vientiane, VOA report
Transparency International / Corruption perception index
China EXIM Bank
Chinese hydroelectric project in Vientiane province
Chinese shopping mall in Vientiane


Selectivity in Imaging the First Emperor

With the Mummy 3 DVD, with its reanimated Qin Shi Huang Di (played by Jet Li), coming out just in time for last minute holiday shopping, with a video game tie-in to come out as well, we asked K.E. Brashier of Reed College, a specialist in early China, to provide our readers with some background on previous views of the First Emperor in high culture and pop culture media. He very obligingly sent us what follows. Dealing with many issues, including earlier films and video games to make use of the Qin rulers, it is an expanded version of an essay that served as a "Preface" to an Oxford World Classics book, Raymond Dawson's translation of a set of relevant Sima Qian writings:
The First Emperor: Selections from the Historical Records.

Selectivity in Imaging the First Emperor
(Or “Looking at us looking at Sima Qian looking at the First Emperor.”)

By K.E. Brashier

The story of Qin may vaunt grandiose armies and new empires that encompass all under heaven, but it also extends to more humble images:

Li Si, [the chief minister of Qin], was a man of Shangcai in Chu. In his youth, when he was a minor clerk in the province, he noticed rats eating filth in the latrines of the clerks’ hostel; and if they approached a man or dog, they were generally scared of them. But when Si entered a granary, he observed that the rats in the granary were eating the stored-up grain, living underneath the main chamber of the granary, and not being worried by either man or dog. At this Li Si sighed and said: "A man’s status is just the same as with rats. It simply depends on where one locates oneself!"
Excavated Qin legal statutes indeed allude to granary rodent problems in which three mouse holes equated with one rat hole, two rat holes warranted a beating and three or more a fine.[1] Yet the opportunist rat in these opening lines of the chief minister’s biography is intended to characterize the political entrepreneur Li Si in the Warring States Period (481-221 B.C.E.), an era that marked the end of the Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 B.C.E.). The biography’s author, Sima Qian, would elsewhere extend this trait of opportunism to the new ruler whom Li Si would serve. That is, Sima Qian took a dim view of the First Emperor of Qin and his advisors in general – much dimmer than does modern popular culture – and he brands the ruler as a cruel charlatan who, like Li Si, simply put himself in the right place at the right time.[2] Both Li Si and the First Emperor merely took advantage of the situation and didn’t endeavor to nourish the people through moral rectitude.

In contrast, modern culture highlights the First Emperor as the glue that brought Chinese culture together in terms of territory, currency, measures, roadways, written language and more. Books and documentaries routinely dub him “the man who made China,” elevating him to creator status. Images of his cruelty may persist, but the warfare, the quest for immortality and the exacting laws that extended down to mere mouse holes are now often treated as necessary evils and personal quirks leading to the much greater prize of unification, of fusing ‘all under heaven’ or tianxia 天下.

Deciding whether to see him as an opportunistic charlatan or a cultural unifier depends upon which lens we use. Looking at the First Emperor of Qin is itself a lesson in looking, in seeing us seeing him. First, there is the self-projected image of the Qin ruler, an image now being reconstructed through the things he left behind ranging from terracotta warriors to mountain inscriptions. Second, there is the lens ground and polished by Sima Qian, the grand historiographer who lived a century after the First Emperor. For him, the First Emperor wasn’t the founder of an imperial tradition that would last two thousand years; he was the unpopular Qin tyrant from a few generations ago whose brief dynasty was justifiably overthrown by the worthy Han, Sima Qian’s own court. Finally, there is our own lens transforming the First Emperor into the focal point of operas and video games, of movies and theme parks. Why we choose to see the First Emperor today as epitomizing martial valor and cultural unity may tell us more about what we want out of the present rather than the past. All three lenses – the First Emperor’s, Sima Qian’s and our own – tell us what we want to remember or to have remembered, not necessarily what the Qin story actually is. Like Li Si’s own status, how we view the First Emperor “simply depends on where one locates oneself.”

The First Emperor of Qin’s self-projected image
Had there been no Sima Qian to leave behind his Shi ji or Historical records that tell us almost everything we know of the First Emperor, how might we have viewed this man based on the physical evidence alone? For example, would we see him and his ancestors as western outsiders relative to the dominant cultural sphere of the Zhou Dynasty, or would we see them as part of mainstream civilization? To be blunt, was China’s first emperor Chinese?

If seen through Sima Qian’s lens, the people of Qin historically derived their culture and morality from their western tribal neighbors; they were “in the same category of the Rong and Di,” a classification clearly intended to be derogatory. Sima Qian has Li Si himself admitting to the backwardness of Qin culture when it comes to entertainments such as music. “Now striking earthenware jugs and banging jars, strumming the zither and smiting the thigh while singing ‘Wu! Wu!’ to delight the ear is truly the sound of Qin,” the chief minister laments, thereby justifying the importation of eastern amusements and advisers.[3] Mere backwardness might not have been bothersome to the Central States had Qin been satisfied to remain quietly on the periphery, but the grand historiographer lamented that state’s greater ambitions:

In this case the Qin customs were mixed up with those of the Rong and Di, favoring violence and cruelty over benevolence and propriety, and yet they occupied the position of a subordinate who would protect the royal house and set out the suburban sacrifice. The gentleman would be fearful of this.[4]
Furthermore, Qin’s eastern neighbors would complain that Qin “possessed the mind of a tiger or wolf,” failing to recognize ritual or propriety in its pursuit of violence.[5] This barbarian and even animal-like stereotype of Qin would persist within the marketplace of images over the next two millennia. For example, Tang poetry would highlight and even romanticize the First Emperor’s persona as a fearsome warrior emerging from the pre-imperial Chinese version of the Wild West. As Li Bo (701-762) wrote:

The King of Qin swept through the six directions, his tiger gaze so courageous! Brandishing his sword, he parted the floating clouds, and the feudal lords all came westward.[6]
Following Li Bo’s lead, Li He (791-817) also associated the First Emperor with a menacing tiger:

The King of Qin mounted his tiger and roamed the eight directions; The flashes from his sword illuminated the air, the heavens turning jade green.[7]
Both geographically and cosmologically, the tiger formally symbolized the West throughout imperial history. That is, the First Emperor was not only branded formidable and terrifying, he was also from beyond the cultural milieu of the Central States. Even in the 20th century, scholars still questioned the Qin ruling family’s ethnicity and cultural identity.

Yet archeology tells a different story that would deny Qin’s alien status. Qin royal tombs since at least the eighth century were by no means humble and backward, and they sometimes housed up to a hundred elaborate ritual bronze vessels. The types of vessels in their tombs and the structures of their above-ground ancestral halls are thought to heed Zhou sumptuary regulations, and the remnants of their capital cities indicate impressive palaces and temples. As Lothar von Falkenhausen summarized in 2004:

Whether or not the Qin rulers were originally members of the elite stratum of the Shang and Zhou core population, the overwhelming majority of currently observable cultural traits, as well as the pattern of their articulation, are in tune with Zhou practices, suggesting that ‘Qin culture’ should be defined as a regional phase of Zhou culture – distinctive and idiosyncratic in some respects, but still well within the Zhou fold.[8]
Even more recently, Gideon Shelach and Yuri Pines have also surveyed the archeological evidence and echo von Falkenhausen’s conclusions:

Because most of the aspects we were able to analyze, such as the funerary practices of the elite, public buildings, and epigraphic sources, are associated with formal display in the public arena, we assume that the identity we ‘see’ is the one Qin rulers and elite wanted to project to themselves, to their subordinates and to the elite of other states. This public image is far from being the 'barbarous Other’; actually, Qin ruling elite displayed remarkable adherence to many aspects of the Western Zhou tradition, often observing it more closely than their peers from other Zhou states.[9]
Judging from the physical remains, Von Falkenhausen, Shelach and Pines all argue that the Qin culturally numbered among the Central States throughout much of its history and only in the 4th century B.C.E. pursued a different course after adopting major Legalist reforms that broke up the aristocracy and replaced its power with an increasingly deified ruler. Labels of barbarianism appear in Chinese texts only after this time. That is, instead of the alien Qin state gradually becoming more like the Central States, it actually began like the Central States and then separated itself from them.

In some cultural practices, the Qin even led the Central States such as in the general usage of mingqi 明器 or ‘bright vessels,’ burial imitations made of cheaper materials and often reduced in size. Instead of interring a functional bronze vessel, a full-size granary or indeed a living attendant, Qin mourners buried substitute forms that pointed to or indexed such utility, and gradually the other states followed Qin’s lead. The reasons behind this major transition – whether economic frugality or changing religious conceptions of the invisible realm – remain unknown, but pre-imperial texts occasionally reference the possibility of mass producing these function-free alternatives. As the Legalist philosopher (and Li Si’s classmate) Han Fei (c. 280-c. 233 B.C.E.) once noted, “Even if one possessed a million human figurines, he still wouldn’t be considered strong … [because] human figurines are ineffective in resisting the enemy.”[10]

Han Fei considered such human figurines as useless in practical terms, but other early thinkers regarded them as worse than useless. According to the fourth century B.C.E. philosopher Mencius: “When Confucius said, ‘Whoever created burial figurines for the first time should have no successors,’ he was referring to those who made and used human representations.”[11] Several Han sources refer to Confucius sighing when he gazed upon burial figurines, adding that “he saw the beginning and knew where it would end.”[12] The end he foresaw was how this practice would lead to burying the living to accompany the dead. Commentators during the Han explain that Qin rulers had first used figurines in their burials, but this practice put them on the slippery slope to this later, more brutal practice as in the case of the Qin’s Duke Mu having three worthies of his state buried with him at his death in 621 B.C.E. Commemorated by a famous Book of songs poem entitled Huangniao or “Yellow birds,” this event is also said to have led to Confucian predictions of the Qin’s early demise. That is, the proper sage kings left behind good institutions that caused a state to last forever, but the state of Qin would surely have no successors because it readily killed its best people.[13] The grand historiographer himself blamed Qin royalty in 678 B.C.E. for beginning the practice of burying the living to accompany the dead.[14]

Yet here again story has departed from history. Sima Qian and his Han colleagues viewed the whole of history as a steady decline from the loftiness of a distant Golden Age, the Qin being the bottom of the slope that the Han would endeavor to correct. This assumption on the nature of historical time was a lens that skewed their interpretation of objects such as burial figurines and eras such as the Qin. Specifically, archaeology reveals that at least since the Shang Dynasty – well before the reported Qin commencement of the practice – people were being executed or were committing suicide to escort their patrons or masters into the afterlife. In contrast, Qin and Han earthenware substitutes of human attendants and household things are generally regarded as a trend away from using real people and things, transforming the character of the burial “from that of a treasure chest to that of a model dwelling” as one modern scholar describes it.[15] The earliest known case of figurines being used in a Zhou period mortuary context is indeed in the state of Qin, namely a pair of crudely-hewn wooden figurines about 80 cm in height and dating to around 700 B.C.E.[16] The oldest known Qin terracotta figurines – a pair of ten-centimeter-tall statues found in a ceramics workshop – were excavated in 2006 and only date back to the beginning of the Warring States Period (481-221).[17] This increasing reliance upon substitutes is not to imply the rulers of the Qin state altogether shunned the burial of live attendants, but they carried out human sacrifices no more frequently than its eastern contemporaries and the practice did not evolve from burying human figurines.[18] The charge that Qin was becoming increasingly barbaric runs contrary to the archeological record.

Yet what of the charge concerning the First Emperor’s general ‘violence and cruelty’ exemplified by his martial might? Was the hyperbolic language of Jia Yi (201-169 B.C.), quoted in Sima Qian’s history, justified when he wrote:

The king of Qin … waved his long whip and drove the contents of the cosmos before him, swallowing up the two Zhou [courts] and eliminating the feudal lords. He stepped into the position of highest honor and orchestrated the six directions around him; he brandished his staff and club to whip and bastinado all under heaven, his might causing everywhere within the four seas to quake.[19]
Our modern image of him is closely allied with the army of eight thousand life-size terracotta warriors discovered since 1974 near his grave mound in Shaanxi Province. The very nature of that army forces the viewer to shift orders of magnitude, not seeing individual infantrymen or particular archers but a structured military mass beyond any personalized scale. The vast scale of his underground terracotta army would seem to justify Jia Yi’s awesome image, although why the army was created remains a mystery. Was it (as most people today conjecture) a dynamic fighting force to fend off his ghostly enemies in the afterlife? Or was it instead a static definition of his grandeur, an extension of his identity permanently embedded in the silent landscape?[20]

Whatever the answer, archaeology itself is an accidental science, meaning that we can’t control what will be discovered or when, although the pace of that science is accelerating. The spate of road, bridge and factory building in the increasingly industrialized Shaanxi Province has uncovered more than fifty major new finds in recent years, including in 2006 a tomb that is thought to belong to the First Emperor’s grandmother.[21] Furthermore while there are no immediate plans to excavate the First Emperor’s own tomb, archeologists are indirectly probing its structure with ground penetrating radar, electrical resistance measurements and thousands of core samples, together generating a three dimensional schematic of the tomb mound’s interior. Instead of pyramid-shaped, the tomb itself is now envisioned as like a square volcano with the football-field-sized tomb down in the crater and access corridors cutting through the east and west rims.[22] The core samples reveal high levels of mercury, perhaps confirming Sima Qian’s own description of the structure that depicted a model of the Chinese cosmos wherein rivers of mercury flowed for eternity.[23]

While the tomb interior itself remains the stuff of conjecture, more and more is now known about the pits of grave goods around that tomb, and those pits are beginning to reveal that the First Emperor’s grand martial image, while definitely significant, is only a partial picture.
a) In 1999, excavators within the cemetery complex uncovered a pit containing a dozen life-sized acrobats, their shirt-less bodies realistically depicted with some muscular and heavy set whereas others were of slighter build.
b) In 2000, they found civil officials wearing long jackets with knives and whetstones hanging from their belts which were tools for scraping off wooden and bamboo slats used in record keeping.
c) In 2001, they exhumed more than two score highly detailed life-sized bronze water foul including geese, ducks and storks from a single tunnel, and they uncovered fifteen life-sized terracotta musicians from an adjoining tunnel.[24]
Other finds include the remains of exotic animals and numerous horses among the building foundations and the many adjoining graves located within the walls of the First Emperor’s tomb complex. When assessing how the First Emperor valued these newly excavated burial goods, we might consider their detail, their material composition and especially their proximity to the ruler’s final resting place. While the terracotta warriors are numerous, they still stand a kilometer away from the tomb. The question we might ask ourselves when evaluating the First Emperor’s image is how our picture of him based on the physical evidence alone might have been different had these pits been excavated in 1974 rather than those of the infantry and archers.

Yet the tomb complex as a whole was not necessarily a self-projected image; it was never intended to be exhumed, broadcasting his fame to later generations. On the contrary, Sima Qian tells us it was sealed up with its workers inside, and “vegetation and trees were planted to make it look like a hill.” However, the First Emperor did leave behind other physical evidence explicitly intended to vaunt his reputation among the living, namely the seven or eight mountain inscriptions dedicated to him, written between 219 and 210 B.C.E., that record the merits of China's unifier, his standardization schemes, his pity felt for the people, his righteousness, humanity and wisdom. These inscriptions in tetra syllabic verse, most of which are set down in the Historical records and translated by Dawson in this anthology,[25] not only extol his virtues but self-referentially note that they were made to proclaim and preserve the fact of these virtues. They served as banners of imperial merit, both praising territorial unity and even enhancing it by their very presence on the eastern mountains, far from the western capital of Xianyang. Explicitly inspired by the Confucian traditions from the state of Lu, these territorial markers balance his martial valor with his concern for the people:

Armed force exterminates the violent and rebellious, but civil power relieves the guiltless of their labours, and the masses all submit in their hearts.
The inscriptions are conscious of the need to eulogize both military strength and popular welfare. Instead of merely “eliminating the feudal lords” as Jia Yi described the First Emperor’s might:

Abroad he taught the feudal lords, gloriously bestowing the blessings of culture, and spreading enlightenment by means of the principles of righteousness.
These inscriptions evince that his self-projected image was not intended to be that of a strict, heavily armed Legalist.

Thus he clarifies human affairs, and brings concord to father and son. With sagacity, wisdom, humaneness, and righteousness, he has made manifest all principles…. Farming is put first and non-essentials are abolished, and it is the black-headed people who are made wealthy.
If the First Emperor were telling his own story, it would not be that of a megalomaniac who “brandished his staff and club to whip and bastinado all under heaven.”

However, the story’s principal teller is the Han’s Sima Qian, not the Qin’s First Emperor, and while these various inscription texts are preserved in the former’s Historical records – only a few characters of the actual mountain inscriptions survive today[26] – the grand historiographer frames each of them in such a way so that we might question the First Emperor’s sincerity. As Martin Kern has pointed out, the emperor both pursued personal immortality but also dignified the dynastic principles of culture and righteousness, and Sima Qian may have intended to draw attention to the contradiction between these two messages:

The two notions of personal transcendence and dynastic permanence are mutually exclusive: the first is narrowed to the individual yet transcends the social realm; the second is within this realm yet not restricted to the individual ruler. When [Sima Qian] repeatedly places the account of the emperor's efforts to achieve personal transcendence immediately after the inscription texts, which stress dynastic continuity, he strives to play off the person against the institution of the emperor. The positive dynastic myth created by the First [Emperor] … is contradicted by the negative personal myth worked out by the Han historian.[27]
That is, Sima Qian’s framing technique may be intentionally skewing how we view the First Emperor’s own assertions. Kern goes so far to speculate that the stories of the First Emperor’s quest for immortality were Sima Qian's later insertions based upon local folklore.

To recapitulate, post-Qin writers including Sima Qian would have us see the First Emperor as alien, as cruel, as warlike and as ultimately fixated by the quest for immortality. Those writers may be right, but the physical evidence so far does not support those charges. That being the case, we ought to consider where Sima Qian would focus our attention and why he chose his particular focal point.

How Sima Qian sees the First Emperor
In 1989, an IMAX documentary entitled “First Emperor of China” dramatized the Qin ruler’s unification and drew upon the imagery of the terracotta army. “Perhaps his empire has lasted for ten thousand generations after all,” it concluded. “That would not be a surprise to Qin, the First Emperor.”[28] In 2006, a documentary entitled “The First Emperor” on the Discovery Channel also dramatized the unification and highlighted some new finds at the tomb complex, and this documentary carried the subtitle “The man who made China.”[29] Why didn’t Sima Qian share the modern popular assessment of the First Emperor as a ten-thousand-generation empire builder or “the man who made China”?

Today we may perhaps see him as the founder of an imperial legacy and cultural sphere that has generally persisted in terms of language and territorial unity up to the present – putting the “Qin” in “China” – but Sima Qian was in a very different position. He was an official of the Han court that had defeated the fifteen-year Qin Dynasty less than a hundred years earlier, and that defeat had to be justified. Furthermore, the First Emperor had elevated himself well above his own past. “He does far more than imitate antiquity” brags one of his own inscriptions, and Sima Qian’s appraisal of him ends, “The First Emperor himself thought that his achievements surpassed those of the Five Emperors [of antiquity], and his territory was more extensive than that of the Three Kings, so he felt embarrassed to be considered on par with them.” From Sima Qian’s perspective as the man who literally wrote the history on the three pre-Qin dynasties of the Xia, Shang and Zhou, the First Emperor’s self-projected image of a cosmic unifier who would outshine and outlast all previous courts may have seemed rather inflated.

Thus on one hand, the First Emperor did not live up to his own press in the eyes of Sima Qian. Yet on the other hand, the First Emperor was clearly not just another commoner. How might Sima Qian account for the emperor’s meteoric rise and fall? Here we return to the larger theme of being in the right place at the right time, a theme fully developed in the biography of Li Si.

The Shangcai rats are said to have taught the future chief minister how circumstances shape behavior with timid rats hiding in the latrine and brave rats fearlessly living under the granary. The trick was to recognize opportunity and locate oneself in the right circumstances, the right place and time. Sima Qian has Li Si leaving his teacher with the words, “I have heard that if one gets an opportunity one should not be slow to seize it.” For him, the right place was the up-and-coming western state of Qin, and the right time was just after the death of its king, leaving a young, malleable heir on the throne – the future First Emperor. He traveled to the Qin court and communicated this same message to the king:

The ordinary person misses his chances…. This is the one opportunity in 10,000 generations. If you are idle and do not press ahead, the feudal states will regain their strength and will combine with each other to form north-south alliances, and even if you had the fine qualities of the Yellow Emperor you would not be able to unify them.
According to Sima Qian, the young king took this message to heart, grabbed the opportunity, completed the empire and promoted Li Si as its chief minister.

Sometimes translated as ‘tragic flaw,’ hamartia is any disproportion in a character’s being that leads to his or her downfall. Sima Qian seems to say that opportunism was Li Si’s hamartia as later evident when the First Emperor himself dies and leaves the next young, malleable heir on the throne. This time the opportunist is not Li Si but the dreaded court eunuch Zhao Gao, and the future ruler isn’t the First Emperor’s rightful heir, Fu Su, but merely a younger brother whom Zhao Gao would use to replace him. (Fu Su was subsequently forced to commit suicide.) This time it was Li Si’s turn to become the victim of ambitious opportunism. With Zhao Gao now playing Li Si’s role, the eunuch pressures the younger brother to dragoon the chief minister into their own machinations:

"The time has come, the time has come!" said Zhao Gao. "If we delay, we shall not achieve our plans. There are abundant provisions and swift horses, and the only fear is that we shall be too late.”
The problem with relying upon opportunism to establish power is that, once power is established, other opportunists will in turn seek out the right time and place to tear that power down. With Zhao Gao as the new political entrepreneur, Li Si meets his end by mistakenly siding with him. Opportunists do not keep their friends, and Zhao Gao ensured the tragic Li Si would eventually be tried and executed.[30]

Here Sima Qian may be less historian and more writer as he thoroughly develops this theme of Qin opportunism.[31] At the end of “The Annals of Qin,” he includes an essay by Jia Yi that addresses the question of why the First Emperor was able to “brandish his staff and club to whip and bastinado all under heaven,” and his answer is exactly the same as the theme of the Li Si biography. The First Emperor was simply in the right place at the right time. The place was Qin itself, a state in Western China that was naturally fortified with surrounding mountains and rivers. From such a citadel, the twenty hereditary rulers of Qin could flex their muscles among the feudal lords. “Surely it wasn’t because [Qin] produced worthies generation after generation?” Jia Yi rhetorically asks. “It was all because they occupied this vantage point.” He even recounts how once during the Warring States Period the feudal lords rallied to attack Qin, but despite their skilled generals and wise rulers, they were frustrated by the steep slopes and narrow ravines. Qin coaxed their combined armies into its passes and then crushed them. Sima Qian himself would modify Jia Yi’s thinking, arguing that it wasn’t so much the west’s mountainous terrain that gave Qin its advantage but something more geomantic. When explaining the Qin ascent to power, he affirms the cosmological generalization that “The east is where things arise; the west is where things come to fruition.” For proof, he then lists all of history’s great leaders who had first arisen in Western China.[32] Thus Jia Yi and Sima Qian both credited the Qin’s location but for different reasons. Topologically or cosmologically, the Qin enjoyed the high ground.

As for being in the right time, the First Emperor found himself at the end of a long period of history without strong kings and without any hegemons who could lead the states in the name of the king. As Jia Yi summarizes:

In terms of their immediate past, it had become a long time since there had been a [true] king. Once the House of Zhou had fallen into insignificance and the five hegemons were gone, [the court’s] commandments could not circulate throughout the land under heaven. Therefore the feudal lords ruled with might; the strong invaded the weak; and the many turned violent against the few. Weapons and armor were never laid down, while officials and commoners became weary and ragged. Once Qin occupied the southward-facing position [of the ruler’s throne] and served as king for all under heaven, it meant that there was a son of heaven above. All of the masses longed for securing a peaceful life, and everyone set aside his preconceptions to look up to the sovereign.[33]
The war-weary Central States were dangerously susceptible to anyone who might bring them together, and given this opportunity, the First Emperor could have flourished by proving himself worthy of the people’s adoration. Yet in Jia Yi’s opinion, he was too greedy, short-sighted and self-consumed. That is, circumstance might locate a person in a potentially powerful position, but that person must also be right for the circumstances, must possess the virtuous integrity to fulfill his function, must work for the people’s interests to win their backing. Otherwise he was merely playing the role of ruler rather than being a ruler; he was a lofty façade rather than a true sage king.

By adding Jia Yi’s essay to the end of “The annals of Qin” and by replicating this message in his Li Si biography and elsewhere, Sima Qian makes the theme of opportunism in his overall Qin story rather explicit.[34] It is indeed a universal theme, perhaps most famously expressed by Shakespeare’s Brutus: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”[35] Yet the very fact that it is a story with a universal theme should begin to make the careful reader of these translations wary. When does the narrative eclipse the history? When does the storyline dictate selectivity of the facts? When does the message of an eye-catching rat anecdote take precedence over the subject’s self-projected image?

Larger themes aside, it should also be noted that the grand historiographer is really a story teller; as Dawson rightly points out, Sima Qian is explaining ‘traditions’ (zhuan 傳) about people and not unfolding histories in the modern Western sense. For him, the traditions surrounding the First Emperor have all the markings of a supermarket checkout-counter tabloid:

a) Sex. The First Emperor’s patron, Lü Buwei, hires the well-endowed gigolo Lao ai to sleep with the future ruler’s mother in order to cover up Lü Buwei’s own illicit affair with her that led to no less than the First Emperor’s birth, or so Sima Qian would have us believe. “Sometimes, to the strains of licentious music, he made Lao ai walk along with a wheel of tong-wood attached to his penis, and he ensured that the Queen Dowager heard about it so that she might be tempted.”
b) Violence. In a bid for thought control, the First Emperor burned the books that might reveal alternatives to his own form of Legalist government, and as for the scholars who were still talking about the Golden Age, “although they tried to exonerate themselves, more than 460 who had infringed the prohibitions were all buried alive at [the capital] Xianyang, and the whole Empire was made to know about this to serve as a warning for the future.”

c) Mystery. The emperor was called “the mysterious one,” and no one ever knew in which of his many palaces he was residing. “And if anyone mentioned the place which he honoured with his presence as he moved about, he would be condemned to death.”

d) Intrigue. After becoming the chief minister himself, the eunuch Zhao Gao attempts to drive the second Qin ruler mad and eventually succeeds in forcing him to commit suicide. The third ruler clearly recognized his danger. “Now supposing I present myself at the ancestral temple after I have fasted, this person intends to kill me, taking advantage of the fact that I am in the temple.” Thus he plotted, “I will plead illness and not go, and the Chief Minister is bound to come here himself, and when he comes, we will kill him.”

e) And a tear-jerking final scene. As Li Si and one of his sons support each other as they walk out to the place of their execution, the former chief minister in tears laments, “I would like to go with you again and take our tawny dog out through the eastern gate of Shangcai to chase the cunning hare, but how could that be done!”

There is a cinematic element in these stories, an element requiring that the wary reader consider the threshold between story and fact. The veracity of many such stories has rightfully been questioned,[36] and it is up to us to figure out as best as possible where the facts are clear and where we are really looking through a tinted lens.

How we see the First Emperor through Sima Qian
In the final scene of “The emperor’s shadow,” the movie’s title is explained as the musician Gao Jianli lies dying on the palace steps. Employed by the emperor to write the Qin anthem, this would-be assassin predicts, “History will record that when you were installed I attacked you,” to which the emperor responds, “Wrong: I write the history books, and they will say I kept you alive because you are my eternal shadow.”[37] The audience well knows that Sima Qian indeed recorded the story of Gao Jianli’s attempted assassination of the First Emperor in which Gao tried to hit him with a lead-filled zither; the audience clearly understands that it is in fact the emperor who is wrong. We are seeing through Sima Qian’s lens and not through the lens of the emperor.

With Gao dead, the emperor then walks majestically down the palace steps, across the courtyard and up a massive altar to light the pre-imperial cinematic equivalent of the eternal flame while the Qin anthem is sung in the background. The anthem itself is in fact derived from the end of one of the mountain inscriptions the First Emperor had left behind and Sima Qian had recorded. The chorus sings:

The area within in the six directions is the August Emperor’s land.
To the west it crosses the shifting sands, and in the south takes in the whole of the north-facing households.
In the east there is the eastern sea, and to the north it extends beyond Daxia.
Wherever human footsteps reach, there are none who are not his subjects.
His achievements surpass those of the Five Emperors, and his beneficence even extends to the cattle and horses.
No one does not receive the benefit of his virtue, and everyone is at peace in his dwelling-place.[38]
Here the screenwriters had to make a conscious choice. Out of the mountain inscriptions’ combined thirteen hundred characters, they chose roughly fifty that stress the theme of absolute unity in several different ways. That is, the First Emperor had this inscription composed, Sima Qian framed it in his Historical records, and we apply our own filters through our selectivity, a selectivity that ignores other themes in these inscriptions such as his “civil power,” his “principles of righteousness” and his promotion of farming before all other activities.

Chinese and Japanese plays and movies about the First Emperor date back to the 1950s, but his popular image is not static. In modern cinema, the closer the film stays to the Historical records, the more negative is the emperor’s image. All films of course take great liberties with their storylines, particularly with the addition of prominent female characters, but those that cite the most legends end up casting the First Emperor in the worst light. On this end of the spectrum, “The emperor and the assassin” begins and ends with the emperor being reminded to carry out his ancestors’ wishes to unite all under heaven, although by the finish we’ve learned to be skeptical with this ancestral call for unity because 1.) we’ve discovered along with the First Emperor that he is really the bastard son of Lü Buwei from the state of Zhao and not the descendant of the Qin rulers and 2.) just before the credits roll, we are reminded that this Qin vision of unity collapsed within fifteen years. More importantly, while the Qin sovereign began the movie as sincere and well intended in his drive toward unity, by the end he is portrayed as a tyrant as bad as any other contemporaneous ruler.[39]

On the other end of the spectrum are films such as “Hero” that have almost nothing to do with Sima Qian’s history even though the First Emperor still serves as the focal point. One of the four famous assassins named Broken Sword has realized through his study of calligraphy that a thing endures when it returns to a state of simplicity. He understands that, in terms of the Central States, simplicity equates with a single absolute unity, and to dissuade one of his cohorts from killing the Qin ruler and stopping the unification, he instructs the second assassin by writing in the sand the two characters ‘All under heaven’ (tianxia 天下), a phrase denoting territorial totality since the first Confucian and Daoist classics. At the end of the film after this second assassin relates Broken Sword’s lesson to the emperor himself, the emperor exclaims:

Who would have thought an assassin would understand me the best! Alone in my position, I have endured endless criticism, endless attempts on my life. No one has ever grasped what I have been trying to do. Even my own court regards me as a tyrant. And yet, Broken Sword, a man I barely knew, was able to see clearly what is truly in my heart.[40]
This unity-espousing emperor bears little resemblance to that portrayed in “The emperor and the assassin” or indeed in Sima Qian’s Historical records.

Sitting somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum are films such as “The emperor’s shadow” that very loosely draw upon a handful of stories found in Sima Qian – such as that of the musician Gao Jianli – but radically embellish the storyline to appeal to the modern audience. Here the main metaphor is of course music, and Gao is excited by the prospect of all musical notes becoming standardized via the unification. Furthermore, the different musical qualities of each state would become harmonized with one another as the Qin martial drums find common voice with the fine zither music of Yan. Portrayed as an aesthete, the emperor ultimately wants a singular imperial anthem because, along with unifying the currency, weights, measures and language, he also wants to unify the minds of his people.

Thus while all these films espouse unity, the image of the unifier depends upon how close the screenwriters kept to Sima Qian – the closer ones end up reflecting Sima Qian’s dislike of the First Emperor – but images of “the man who made China” are by no means limited to the silver screen.
a) On television in the 1980s, Asia Television Limited (Hong Kong) dramatized the First Emperor’s life over the course of roughly fifty episodes.
b) In books, treatment of the First Emperor ranges from the generally factual account of Jonathan Clements’ The First Emperor of China to the bizarre speculations of Maurice Cotterell’s The terracotta warriors: The secret codes of the emperor’s army in which the warriors’ hair skeins mimic the sun’s magnetic field, their varied hand positions reveal secret numerical codes and the Braille-like rivets on their armor contain hidden messages.[41] One fictional work identifies the First Emperor as an alien exile stranded on earth, and another transforms his terracotta warriors into an army of robots.
c) In computer games, one can explore the emperor’s tomb in the adventure-puzzle game “Qin: Tomb of the Middle Kingdom,”[42] or one can build a global empire in his name via the strategy game “Sid Meier’s ‘Civilization IV’.”[43] Even the emperor’s rightful heir, Fu Su, becomes the protagonist in the action role-playing game “Prince of Qin.”[44] Here instead of committing suicide, Fu Su ventures off to the capital to face down Zhao Gao and various possessed terracotta enemies.
d) On the stage, the New York Metropolitan Opera cast Plácido Domingo in the role of Tan Dun’s “The First Emperor” in an extremely elaborate 2006 remake of “The Emperor’s Shadow.”

Amidst the proposals to build a theme park beside his tomb and the ubiquitous image of his netherworld army now even appearing on Coca-cola bottles, the First Emperor has achieved an unforeseen kind of immortality in the 21st century that ranges from the glitzy to the glamorous.

What is it about the First Emperor that has earned him this immortality today despite Sima Qian’s dismissal of him as just being in the right place at the right time? Obviously his martial valor attracts movie-goers, gamers and adventure-loving readers, but an easily overlooked quality is the fact that he is only one man, a single individual rising above a distant, complex confusion of warring states with their divergent infrastructures. Chinese unification becomes easily reduced to a single emperor; the Qin Dynasty means a single man. Just as Broken Sword learned from calligraphy that a thing endures when it returns to a state of simplicity, the simplest image likewise survives when all extraneous, easily-forgotten detail is trimmed away. Had China’s unification been achieved by a complex corporate endeavor or had there been a succession of powerful Qin emperors, the First Emperor would have become lost in the crowd.

If the early historians are to be believed, the Qin rulers themselves are responsible for this image as aloof soloists. As seen above, there were Confucian predictions for Qin’s early demise because it did not leave behind enduring institutions but instead had its best people killed by burying them with the departed rulers. Sima Qian would continue to emphasize this notion of elevating the single law-giver at the expense of government institutions in his own descriptions of the First Emperor. Once the First Emperor united the empire, he used the term zhen 朕, ‘the mysterious one’ or ‘the secluded one,’ thereby highlighting his solitary position. Furthermore, he adopted the formal title of Qin Shihuang Di 秦始皇帝 that not only deified him – huangdi 皇帝 can be rendered ‘august god’ – but also caused all subsequent emperors to be numbered relative to himself as he alone was the shi 始 or ‘First.’ Yet this soloist image was not in name only, and Sima Qian records one complaint against the First Emperor as follows:

The business of the Empire, no matter whether trivial or important, is all decided by the Supreme One, who goes so far as to have the documents weighed, so that he cannot rest until he had dealt with the right number of documents for that day and night.
(“The Emperor’s Shadow” accentuates this image of the First Emperor as massive pallets of documents are carried back and forth behind the workaholic emperor.) Other similar complaints include the emperor’s choice not to establish his relatives to oversee the more distant kingdoms on his behalf, thus radically breaking from tradition. Instead, everything funneled through himself alone. Just as his empire became unified into one state, he himself became explicitly singular in name and action. As singular, he evolved into an easily preserved simple symbol within the communal memory of the next two millennia.

Thus the First Emperor as a symbol of unity possessed the potential to survive, but why is he enjoying particular popularity in the 21st century? First, Chinese economic development can be directly linked with a general upsurge in historical awareness. As Kishore Mahbubani contends:

As more and more Asians lift their lives up from the level of mere survival, they have the economic freedom to think, reflect, and rediscover their heritage. There is a growing consciousness that their societies, like those in the West, have a rich social, cultural, and philosophical legacy that they can call upon as they develop their own modern and advanced societies. The richness and depth of the Indian and Chinese civilizations, to name just two, have long been acknowledged by Western scholars…. What we are witnessing today is only the bare beginning of a major cultural rediscovery. The pride that Asians are taking in their culture is clear and palpable.[45]
Economic development not only fuels interest in the past, it literally uncovers more of that past in which to be interested as road, dam and factory construction reveals more and more archeology sites. Yet the speed of this development should not be overemphasized. In 2006, it still cost a tenth of a person’s average monthly income in Shaanxi just to visit the terracotta warriors.[46]

Second, the particular popularity of the First Emperor as a symbol is perhaps related to an even grander form of perceived unity developing in the 21st century. Once also considered an outsider and even provincial in the eyes of the predominant cultural sphere to its east, China is self-conscious of its growing importance on an increasingly ecumenical world stage. The question naturally arises as to how this unity will evolve and whether the global village’s oldest, largest and fastest developing resident will become its mayor. ‘All under heaven’ now means ‘all under heaven.’

The translations that follow may not record the facts surrounding the Qin unification because we are looking at them through the lenses ground and polished first by the First Emperor, second by Sima Qian and third by our own selectivity that is in part based upon what we want to see. Fictions may at times eclipse facts, but does that devalue what you are about to read in these translations? The answer to that question is definitely not.

Here fictions can be more important than facts because it is these fictions that shaped history subsequent to the Qin. Sima Qian’s opportunistic tiger-hearted First Emperor became a watchword and yardstick by which to measure later rulers. Qin’s unifier transformed into a lesson plan of what to do and what not to do, making the grand historiographer’s work as much prescription as it was description. Thus for a better understanding of post-Qin history, we must read Sima Qian’s version of what happened.

Furthermore, fictions tend to last longer than facts. As is evident from the above, archeology continues to change what we know about the Qin, and some of the greatest archeological endeavors – including the excavation of the First Emperor’s tomb itself – still remain in the future. Thus, the self-projected image of “The man who made China” will carry on evolving as the known facts change. Likewise the third lens, namely our own selectivity, will not remain static as our needs that inform selectivity also change. In terms of our seeing the First Emperor, “it simply depends on where one locates oneself,” and where we will choose to locate ourselves in the future – whether in the global village or on a provincial periphery – may refocus our lens on the First Emperor.

Because the facts we know and choose to know will continue to transform whereas Sima Qian’s mixture of fact and fiction will not, prefaces such as this one should be published with a perforation on one side so they can be discarded after a few years, but the translations that follow will endure.

[1] A.F.P. Hulsewé, Remnants of Ch’in law (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1985), 162-163.
[2] With regard to Sima Qian’s attitude toward the First Emperor, Grant Hardy has written that the Historical records consistently praises the institutions and personages condemned by the First Emperor, and Hardy concludes:
It is useful to think of Sima Qian as the anti-First Emperor, the opposite who would later despoil the kingdom. Strange as it may seem, Sima Qian wrote a history whose intent was to undo, point by point, the ideological constructs of the First Emperor.
See Hardy, Worlds of bronze and bamboo: Sima Qian’s conquest of history (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 184. While Hardy’s point is somewhat extreme and interpretive, Sima Qian’s strong disapproval of the First Emperor is indeed evident.
[3] Shi ji, 87.2543-2544.
[4] Shi ji, 15.685. For other similar associations between Qin and its tribal neighbors, see Shi ji, 5.202 and 68.2234.
[5] Shi ji, 44.1857.
[6] Yu Xianhao 郁賢皓, Li Bai xuanji 李白選集 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji, 1990), 461-464 (“Gu feng” 古風 III).
[7] Ye Congqi 葉蔥奇, Li He shi ji 李賀詩集 (Bejing: Renmin wenxue, 1959), 53-55 (“Qin wang yinjiu” 秦王飲酒).
[8] Von Falkenhausen, “Mortuary behavior in pre-imperial Qin: A religious interpretation,” Religion and Chinese society vol. 1, John Lagerwey, ed. (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2004), 155. Among the “distinctive and idiosyncratic” practices that differentiate Qin mortuary tradition are flexed burials (i.e. the body, on its side, has its knees drawn upward toward the upper body) and westward tomb orientations that are probably Central Asian customs.
[9] Shelach and Pines, “Secondary state formation and the development of local identity: Change and continuity in the state of Qin (770-221 B.C.),” in Archaeology of Asia, Miriam T. Stark, ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 216.
[10] Han Feizi xinjiaozhu, 1139 (“Xian xue” 顯學). The term here for ‘human figurine’ is xiangren 象人. Li Si and Han Fei were both students of Xunzi, and Sima Qian has Li Si quoting from “Master Han” in his biography.
[11] Mengzi zhengyi, 63 (“Liang Hui wang” 梁惠王).
[12] For examples, see Huainan honglie jijie, 339 (“Miu cheng” 繆稱), similarly 542 (“Shuo shan” 說山); Wenzi shuzheng, 324 (“Wei ming” 微明); :Li ji jijie, 265 (“Tan Gong” 檀弓).
[13] Chunqiu Zuo zhuan zhu, 546-549 (Wen 文 2).
[14] Shi ji, 5.183.
[15] Jessica Rawson, Ancient China: Art and archaeology (London: Book Club Associates, 1980), 204.
[16] Von Falkenhausen, “Mortuary behavior in pre-imperial Qin: A religious interpretation,” 129-130.
[17] People’s Daily Online (August 15, 2006), originally reported by Xinhua News Agency.
[18] Von Falkenhausen, “Mortuary behavior in pre-imperial Qin: A religious interpretation,” 129.
[19] Shi ji, 6.280.
[20] I tend to favor the latter perspective and see the First Emperor’s tomb complex in a manner similar to how Emily Vermeule interprets the objects found in Mycenaean graves:

[T]he sword and dagger, the gemstone, the smith's tools or the priest's implements complete a man's identity underground, more surely than they help him in future spiritual life.... One cannot understand the "meaning" of such gifts, because in a sense they are meaningless, or mean more than one thing, and are not quite in the realm of rational gesture.

See Vermeule, Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 56.
[21] Petra Kolonko, “Am Grab der Kaiser-Ahnen,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (1 June 2006), 10.
[22] Marc Grellert, Manfred Koob and Mieke Pfarr, “Eine dreidimensionale Computerrekonstruktion der Kaisergräber von Xi’an,” in Xi’an: Kaiserliche Macht im Jenseits (Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2006), 131-134.
[23] Lion Television in early 2006 aired a two-hour document entitled “First emperor: The man who made China” on the Discovery Channel that summarizes some of the recent work on the tomb. While it reviews new evidence about the tomb, this documentary also presented as fact much fanciful speculation. This speculation ranged from claims that the First Emperor was an illegitimate child – a claim dating at least to Sima Qian’s time – to charges that the First Emperor became a madman who lost his grip on reality in his last years due to mercury poisoning.
[24] For images of these various finds, see Xu Weimin 徐衛民, Dixia junchen: Qin bingma yong keng Kaogu da faxian 地下軍陳﹕秦兵馬俑坑考古大發現 (Hangzhou: Zhejiang wenyi chubanshe, 2002); War and peace: Treasures of the Qin and Han dynasties (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Museum of History, 2002) and Xi’an: Kaiserliche Macht im Jenseits.
[25] Shi ji, 6.242-262.
[26] For photographs of the stone at Langya Mountain along the East China Sea, see National museum of Chinese history, A journey into China’s antiquity, vol. 2 (Beijing: Morning glory publishers, 1997), 73. The First Emperor’s inscriptions vaunt the unity he brought to China but are often not explicit as to the identity of the particular individual who brought about this unity. The Second Generation Emperor ordered that secondary inscriptions accompany the first, clarifying that it was indeed his father who was the subject of the first inscriptions. The remaining Langya inscription is mostly this secondary inscription, the text of which also appearing in Sima Qian’s Historical records.
[27] Martin Kern, The stele inscriptions of Ch’in Shih-huang: Text and ritual in early Chinese imperial representation (New Haven, CT: American Oriental Society, 2000), 160.
[28] National film board of Canada, Canadian museum of civilization and China Xi’an film studio, “First emperor of China” (1989).
[29] “The First Emperor: The man who made China” (Lion television, 2006) aired on the Discovery Chanel on 29 January 2006.
[30] This notion of seizing the right moment frequently appears in Li Si’s biography, and it is when Li Si seized the wrong moment that his fate is sealed. He wanted to remonstrate with the First Emperor’s wayward successor, and Zhao Gao maliciously orchestrated the worst possible opportunity to meet. “Thereupon Zhao Gao waited until the precise moment when Second Generation was feasting and enjoying himself, with women in his presence, when he sent someone to report to the Chief Minister: ‘The Supreme One is at this moment free, and he can have business submitted to him.’” Li Si unintentionally interrupted the banquet, and after furiously pointing out it was the wrong moment for such affairs, the angry emperor then became susceptible to Zhao Gao’s subsequent slanders of the chief minister.
[31] This theme of opportunism runs deep throughout Li si’s biography, and Sima Qian may even be highlighting the hypocrisy of Li Si, the First Emperor and others by contending that their proposed Legalism was anti-opportunist. Legalism was a strict adherence to clearly demarcated laws and required immediate punishments for anyone who would infringe upon those laws or indeed for anyone who might know about the infringement. Theoretically, even tossing ashes out onto the roadway merited an automatic heavy punishment. If the Qin legalist machine were fully in place, it would leave nothing to chance, nothing to opportunism and would thereby “frustrate the activities of ardent men of action,” according to the opportunist Li Si himself.
[32] Shi ji, 15.685-686.
[33] Shi ji, 6.283.
[34] Dawson’s translations do not include the Jia Yi essay which is unfortunate because Sima Qian’s choice to include it probably speaks to his attitude toward the Qin in general, particularly as Jia Yi’s theme of opportunism is replicated in Sima Qian’s biographies, as noted above. For English translations of Jia Yi’s essay, the reader is directed to Burton Watson’s translation of Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 74-83, or William H. Nienhauser’s edition entitled The grand scribe’s records: The basic annals of pre-Han China by Ssu-ma Ch’ien (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 163-169.
[35] William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” IV.iii.
[36] For six examples of questionable interpolations in the Historical records, see Derk Bodde, "The state and empire of Ch'in," The Cambridge History of China vol. 1, eds. Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 94-98.
[37] “The emperor’s shadow” (Fox Lorber Films, 1999).
[38] Shi ji, 6.245.
[39] “The emperor and the assassin” (Sony Pictures Classics, 2000).
[40] “Hero” (Miramax, 2002).
[41] Jonathan Clements, The First Emperor of China (Phoenix Mill, England: Sutton Publishing, 2006); Maurice Cotterell, The terracotta warriors: The secret codes of the emperor’s army (Rochester, VT: Bear & Company, 2004).
[42] “Qin: Tomb of the Middle Kingdom” (SouthPeak Interactive, 1995).
[43] “Sid Meier’s Civilization IV” (Firaxis Games, 2005). The author of this preface is proud to report that, in his role as First Emperor, he won the space race but sadly had to wipe out the British, Roman and Aztec empires in the process.
[44] “Prince of Qin” (Strategy First, 2002). The author of this preface regrets to report that, in his role as Fu Su, he never made it very far south of the Great Wall before he was eaten by a “tiger-fish.”
[45] Kishore Mahbubani, Can Asians think? Understanding the divide between East and West (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 2002), 26-27.
[46] Kolonko, “Am Grab der Kaiser-Ahnen,” 10.