Scholars Debate Over Qin Shi Huang Dis Legacy History Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
Scholars debate over Qin Shi Huang Dis legacy that he left after his reign. In the past, he had been perceived as a disillusioned, power-hungry, tyrannical man whose lust for immortality he sought brought about the creation of a massive tomb filled with thousands of clay, life-like figures that must have taken years of pure craftsmanship and manpower to create. However, in the last 50 years or so, his history has been re-analyzed into a colossus of a historical figure in Chinese history whose historical impact was equal to both Alexander the Great and Caesar combined. By ruthless force of will, he bound warring states together and knit them into a tightly centralized governmental system, standardized China’s language and law,and built major structures such as the early structure of the Great Wall of China that would be continued by later dynasties. Even the style of his coins, a metallic circle with a square- shaped hole through the middle which could let people easily carry coins, lasted well into the dawn of Communist rule. However, these feats pale in comparison to his greatest legacy, the establishment of a bureaucracy that would survive for more than 2,000 and would be “the largest in the world, staffed by educated men and reaching to the lowest peasant in the land” (Wood). The view held by the western public reflects the darker aspects of his life. Despite his massive reforms in the economic and political systems of China, he also garnered the reputation of being an oppressive and borderline psychotic ruler, the most commonly cited example being the Great Wall of China, which was built with hundreds of thousands of conscripted workers in such a small timeframe that thousands were overworked to their deaths. (Many of these workers are believed to be actually buried within the Great Wall) Perhaps one of the greatest stories that personified these psychotic and tyrannical tendencies is one regarding his obsession with immortality. In an attempt to obtain the fabled elixir of life, he dispatched thousands of people to Penglai mountain. Because he received failure so poorly (execution), not a man dared to return. Determined not to fail, he created another group of three heroes to capture this elixir. The three men returned with nothing but a frightening story of a “gigantic fish” that guarded the elixir. He decided that the best solution would be to hunt this “gigantic fish” himself with a gatling-gun like crossbow (repeating crossbow). Despite his best attempts, the elixir continued to elude him (for obvious reasons). His next shot at immortality was the synthesis of immortality pills made of mercury, an extremely toxic element, would lead to his death. The dynasty he had envisioned continuing for thousands of years would barely struggle through a decade. The root of China’s current alteration of the perception of Qin Shi Huang Di roots from the similarities derived between Qin Shi Huang Di and Mao Ze Dong. Both were inspirational leaders who united China in their times of need. Qin Shi Huang Di united China following a 200 year period, known as the Warring States period, creating a political entity recognizable as the China we know today. Similarily, Mao Ze Dong united a war-torn China following the collapse Qing dynasty, managing to create stability in a land which was used as World War II’s battlefield. However, the similarities do not end there. Qin Shi Huang Di was also know for his massive public works projects, often recruiting hundreds of thousands of workers at the expense of tens of thousands of lives to complete great engineering marvels such as the Great Wall of China, the Lingqu Canal, and the Mausoleum of the First Emperor. Mao Ze Dong similarly ordered huge public works projects, such as dams, canals and other infrastructure projects, which millions of peasants and prisoners had been forced to toil on and in many cases die for. However, these projects often proved useless as they had been built without the input of trained engineers, whom Mao had rejected on ideological grounds. Other policies set out during Mao’s reign parallel Qin Shi Huang Di’s actions during his reign. For example, both were extremely well known for their persecution of intellectuals in their empires that Mao would later be quoted as bragging: “He [Qin Shi Huang Di] buried 460 scholars alive; we have buried 46,000 scholars alive.” (Edwards). As Tun Dun, the musical composer for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero, would put it, “”Qin Shi Huang Di was pretty much like Mao Zedong. He unified China. He made the language, made the measuring system, made the currency.” With these similarities, it would come as no surprise that the Communist party, just as it has protected the reputation of Mao in order to defend both the legitimacy of his leadership and the foundation of the Communist government in China, would protect the reputation of Qin Shi Huang Di in a similar manner lest Mao be compared to Qin Shi Huang Di in a historical sense.
The Communist government has commonly censored foreign films, a practice almost completely alien to Americans. Instead of a “free speech” clause in their equivalent Constitution, the Communist government is allowed completely control over the media world of China. State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, or SARFT for short, is the leading censorship administration in China. Following the ban of a fairly popular recent film, SARFT released a list of criteria that censors must follow. The rules that directors “must not produce films that depict hardcore sexual activity, rape, prostitution or nudity” (Coonan) were in response to the film that was released. “Vulgar dialogue or music and sound effects with a sexual connotationâ€¦murder, violence, horror, evil spirits and devils and excessively terrifying scenes, conversations, background music and sound effects â€¦[distortion of] the civilisation and history of China or other nations … tarnish[ing] the image of revolutionary leaders, heroes, important historic characters, members of the armed forces, police and judicial bodiesâ€¦ reconstruction of crimes or films that reveal police investigatory techniques, [advocation of] nihilism, environmental damage, animal abuse and the capture or killing of rare animals” (Coonan) were also included onto this list.
If failing to meet these stringent requirements, the movie is typically banned from the country. While the Communist government has long had a stronghold on foreign films and has gained a strong reputation recently for its restriction of foreign films, the domestic film examination process is an even more extensive procedure that requires multiple interactions with the censorship department in order to produce changes to a typically already finished product. Because of this strict screening process, it could be easily assumed that many of China’s poorer filmmakers wouldn’t even bother creating a movie that wouldn’t easily clear the censorship department due to the high costs of creating even lower budget movies. Even China’s more prominent filmmakers will not attempt such ploys unless they know they have already garnered a significant fan base globally speaking. While the Internet and China’s famous black market for pirated movies has had helped destabilize the power held by the censorship administrations in China, the damage is already done. The high cost issues and the barriers that must be overcome just to create a controversial movie is a challenge that few in the Chinese movie industry are willing to take.
As the government controls much of the major media within China today, Qin Shi Huang Di’s legacy and current perception is altered based on his portrayal in modern media outlets. Filmography is perhaps the simplest way to reach major audiences. A modern marvel that can instantly reach millions of viewers at once in just days, it comes to no surprise that Qin Shi Huang’s greatest appearances in modern media are in movies. The most recent movie to portray Qin Shi Huang Di or reference him would be The Mummy Returns: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. However, this movie will not be discussed due to the fact that it is an entirely Western-Based movie and thus, involving no direct influence from the Chinese government and Chinese directors. It is interesting to note that in this movie, many of Emperor Han’s “signature” aspects such as terra cotta warriors or obsession with immortality are based off of Qin Shi Huang Di. The Myth, the next most recent mainstream Chinese movie to feature Qin Shi Huang Di is indeed directed by a Chinese (Hong Kong) director. However, Qin Shi Huang Di similarly plays a barely supporting role (his persona not even being seen once in the entire film). However, his obsession with immortality and his large mausoleum are referenced as well.
Hero, the third most recent movie to feature Qin Shi Huang Di actually features the emperor on a rather important level. It tells the story of three assassins planning to kill the Emperor of China through three different perspectives. The first perspective is the assassin’s take on the plan as he recounts the events in front the emperor. The second perspective is the emperor’s reanalysis of the assassin’s story in attempt to discover the true plan. The third perspective tells what actually happened which can be compared against the two previous perspectives. Finally, the assassin refuses to kill the emperor on ideological grounds and is executed. In at least two ways, “Hero” obscures the facts behind Qin Shi Huang Di’s life. First, is the long-held people’s perception of Qin Shi Huang Di, (which has lasted for thousands of years) that Qin Shi Huangdi was a tyrant, and that tyrants should be condemned. Although the aspiration for a benevolent ruler implied in this view is still a longing under autocratic rule, the condemnation of tyranny is universal. However, the movie “Hero” almost directly embodies the recent intent to reverse the public view towards Qin Shi Huangdi by attempting to change him from a tyrant to a benevolent ruler. This is best embodied by the emperor’s personal ambition that “the world under heaven” is the world ruled by the “son of heaven,” and that consideration of the benefits of “the world under heaven” is the consideration for the benefit of the “son of heaven” and is made no secret in this film, as expressed from the mouth of Qin Shi Huangdi: I didn’t expect that “the one who knows me best,””the soul mate” who “echoes my wants and mind” is the one “wandering the wilderness”. Zhang Yimou, the director of Hero, doesn’t even bother with taking opinions or perceptions from the common men living in Qin Shi Huang Di’s era. Instead, it revolves around the opinions from a tiny group of powerful, martial arts using, ruling elite that have little to no experience with the people they rule over, but idealistically care about the everyday lives of the men they control. This perspective (already flawed at best in the way it is carried out), while taking on an “interesting” look on Qin Shi Huang Di’s personal goals and motives, is at best, unilateral in its approach. Because this movie takes place during Qin Shi Huang Di’s attempts at unifying China, a period where he may have been an charismatic young man, it fails to actually describe any of the actual deeds of Qin Shi Huang Di later in his reign (such as the thousands killed in the building of the Great Wall, obsession with immortality, etc) and almost forces the viewer to base his/her judgements of Qin Shi Huang Di on a small portion of his lifespan, which is unfair to the end product of his rule. Just as many dictators in the modern day may have had almost positive, idealistic moments in their early career, their negative portrayals today are only based off of their net actions during their rule. Second, is the movie’s combination of Qin Shi Huang Di’s ideals with Communist ideals. This is best personified by the last translation of Tian Xia, another name for China. Of all the translations of such a name, the most common and literal one being under the heavens, the producers of Hero chose to instead translate it as “Our land”, to justify Qin Shi Huang Di’s conquests. “Our Land”, is the idea that the land is shared by the common person and that it was Qin Shi Huang Di’s responsibility to unify China for the sole sake of protecting the common person would have been alien in Ancient Chinese society. The consolidation of power into a single family has been the entire basis of Chinese history (dynasties). It has not been since the start of the Communist rule where the common person’s ideals and welfare was truly looked out for by the government. There would have been no reason for Hero to be censored by the Communist government. The positive portrayal of a ruler similar in many ways to Mao fused with many core Communist ideals fused right into the storyline would have easily made its way through China’s censorship process.
Chen Kaige’s epic drama, the Emperor and the Assassin, gets close and personal with Qin Shi Huang Di’s life. The movie is a five act long piece that focuses on the details of Qin Shi Huang Di’s life and his interactions with his favorite concubine whom he has sent to the Yan state for an intricate plot that will allow him to wage war on the an enemy state. Instead of the common one dimensionality of his other portrayals, Qin Shi Huang Di’s nature develops throughout the film. The figure of Qin Shi Huang Di is initially portrayed as fair and just with the intention of uniting all of China peacefully and leading it toward years of prosperity. In the end, his lust for power, beliefs behind his ancestral mandate, and the pressure behind the throne he occupies ends up consuming his personality, causing him to betray all of his initial intentions in a paranoia-induced fervor. Chen Kaige presents Qin Shi Huang Di’s attempts at bringing peace as a foil to the dangers that involve so much power consolidated into one man’s hands. Ultimately, Qin Shi Huang Di’s situation becomes unmanageable and in almost Shakespearean proportions, the same people he was trying to help are the ones who end up suffering. Unlike Hero, where only a small part of Qin Shi Huang Di’s life is taken and used to form the audience’s opinion on the ruler, the Emperor and the Assassin takes the facts of his life, lays them out in a neat and orderly sequence, and creates a personality to fit these events in an artistic fashion. This movie does actually show some aspects of Qin Shi Huang Di’s tyranny, including at one point causing the massacre a group of mere children, attributing them to the deterioration of Qin Shi Huang Di’s deteriorating moral compass. However, the initial “good” qualities counter balances his tyrannical ones, allowing not only a more balanced view on Qin Shi Huang Di, but also causes him to become a much more relatable and understandable character. Especially since this movie portrayal of Qin Shi Huang Di and his life could be seen as a parallel toward Mao Zhe Dong’s and his actions during the Cultural Revolution (during which Mao began to take on increasingly tyrannical aspects), the movie was initially “rejected by the censors; roughly 30 minutes of footage reportedly were excised to make it more “regime friendly.” (Filmreference.com)
“The Emperor’s Shadow” is an extravagant take on the life and times of Qin Shi Huang Di. Through the friendly relationship between a musician and the Emperor and lavish sets, it paints an epic picture of Qin Shi Huang Di’s rise to power. Realistically speaking, taking out the historical information and the luxurious backgrounds, the movie is really nothing more than the altogether familiar (and relatable) story of two childhood-best friends from different backgrounds and their ideological differences that separate the two. Although portrayed as a ruthless and brutal conqueror, Qin Shi Huang Di’s “concern with the symbols and identity of the new Qin Dynasty, and the way that these new symbols will come to represent all of China, and be accepted by the people”(Nepstad) sets off a redemptive quality that lets the audience believe he does still have “good of the people” in mind. Because of this concern, he controls the media within the time period. While it does give some empathy towards his cause, the movie sides with the musician as he refuses to write an anthem for an emperor he deems oppressive and is tortured and forced into writing it for the emperor, giving an negative aura towards the audience’s opinion on the idea of censorship. It comes as no surprise that after being briefly released in a few cities, it was banned by SARFT. The idea that art could not be controlled by the media (a practice historically supported by Qin Shi Huang Di during his reign) was also well supported by Mao. The movie’s criticisms of the restriction of media in order to control the intellectual in China for both time periods, was received very poorly by the SARFT, and in a swift act of irony, red-flagged and consequently banned the film. However, it should be of note that the film was generally well received by the Western public. For whatever reason, it served as an actual inspiration for the musical “The First Emperor”. However, again, this was indeed a Western production and thus prospective on Qin Shi Huang Di’ s rule, which is not relevant to the thesis of this paper.
Based upon the few movies portraying Qin Shi Huang Di, it can concluded that the Chinese government has altered Qin Shi Huang Di’s perception in modern Chinese culture as a benevolent (if not heroic) figure that directly conflicts the nature of his past in order to draw parallels to and support the Communist government due to many of the similarities between the Chinese Communist party Mao and the emperor by only allowing such movies to be made. Movies that either seem to conflict with Qin Shi Huang Di’s ideals that coincide with Communist party agenda seem to become red flagged by Chinese censors and subsequently altered or banned. However, it definitely must be noted that this analysis of the role of the Communist government in Qin Shi Huang Di’s is limited in that the oldest movie with Qin Shi Huang Di by a mainland Chinese film director was created in the 90s. However, this would only further points out the ease of the use Qin Shi Huang Di as a parallel to Mao and as a political commentary of the Communist government in a positive or negative light as it would seem to indicate that Qin Shi Huang Di was too sensitive of a subject to work upon until the advent of the 90s when the Chinese government relatively relaxed their censorship laws.
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