China’s First Emperor (258-210 BC) has been the subject of debate for over 2,000 years. He gave us the name by which China is known in the West and, by his unification or elimination of six states, he created imperial China. He stressed the rule of law but suppressed all opposition, burning books and burying scholars alive. His military achievements are reflected in the astonishing terracotta soldiers—a veritable buried army—that surround his tomb, and his Great Wall still fascinates the world.Despite his achievements, however, the First Emperor has been vilified since his death. This book describes his life and times and reflects the historical arguments over the real founder of China and one of the most important men in Chinese history.
“Wood’s book is a readable introduction to a ruler who has been hailed both as his country’s founding father and vilified as a ruthless tyrant.”—Sunday Times“Frances Wood presents a different portrait China's First Emperor, offering good reasons why myths of cruelty and megalomania should not be entirely believed.”—Metro“Essential reading and a colourful insight into a world in the making.”—The Good Book Guide“Wood’s thorough analysis of the history is heightened by sensuous descriptions that, along with poems, recipes and other quirky details, provide a vivid evocation of life in this period.”—Waterstones’ Books Quarterly “In 246 B.C., at age 13, Zheng, also known as Qin, ascended to his late father's throne. Proclaiming himself the first emperor, Qin ruled for 36 years, expanding his empire through military force and unifying China with a well-ordered set of legal codes. In this first-rate historical and biographical sketch, Wood, head of the British Library's Chinese Department, debunks some of the legends of megalomania and cruelty that have grown up around Qin (for instance, that he buried alive scholars who disagreed with him). Using the 1974 discovery of an army of more than 6,000 terra-cotta soldiers buried in Qin's tomb, Wood points out the emperor's obsession with immortality, his fear of death and his desire to maintain his rule in the afterlife. Wood admits there's little written evidence about Qin; yet her close reading of these sources offers fresh insight into a little-known figure and his kingdom, far outpacing John Man's The Terra Cotta Army.”—Publishers Weekly“Tightly structured, nimble pocket portrait of China's First Emperor. Qin Shihuangdi (259-210 BCE), who took power in 246 BCE, has had many mantles draped across his shoulders: founder of imperial China, enemy of the intellect, seeker of immortality, father of the world's most elephantine bureaucracy, tyrant of the first order. But primary-source material about him is not thick on the ground, points out Wood—certainly not as thick on the ground as the 8,000-man terracotta army the Emperor had buried with him. (That's the subject of John Man's The Terra Cotta Army, 2008, which makes a nice complement to this more straightforward biography.) Wood judiciously relies on the archaeological record, on a trove of bamboo-slip documents found at the Place of the Sleeping Tiger and on The Grand Scribe's Records, the work of a court astrologer writing a century later under a different dynasty. The Emperor's accomplishments suggest a strong, autocratic character, someone who could bring the anarchic Warring States to heel. He was a book-burner, wanting to focus his subjects' attention on the present rather than some mythical, golden past. (Squelching Confucianism and Daoism was probably an additional motive.) He initiated the Great Wall, described here in captivating archaeological detail. He brought bureaucratic order and standardization to a great state in which agriculture and military prowess were of primary importance. Wood also provides colorful social-history tidbits: Peasants were forbidden to dye their clothes; a third-century BCE feast would have included "plump orioles, pigeons and geese, flavored with broth of jackal's meat." He also paints in broad strokes such topics as the debate between Confucianism and legalism, the boasts Mao made about having outdone Qin Shihuangdi (;He buried 460 scholars alive; we have buried 460,000’) and the role of the afterlife in Chinese history, always with an eye as to how they illuminate the First Emperor. Intelligent, albeit conjectural; rangy yet concise-thoughtful work from an experienced Sinologist..”—Kirkus Reviews
Frances Wood is head of the Chinese department at the British Library. She is also the author of multiple books, including, Did Marco Polo Go to China?, No Dogs and Not Many Chinese: A History of the Treaty Ports, and The Silk Road.