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Is Qin Shi Huang that cruel?


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#1 Guest_Liu Bang_*

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 07:33 AM

Many say that Qin Shi Huangdi was a tyrannical ruler but is it really true? I mean, I don't think he's that cruel becuase some of the things he did were apparently needed. I'll state my reasons.

Qin Shi Huangdi was able to unify China because of his own talent and strategies as well as the foundations of the Qin Empire laid down by his predecessors. He unified China within seventeen years and brought an end to the Warring States Period. Yes, you might say that he killed many, but if he did not unify China, the Warring States Period will continue (the seven states will be fighting with one another to gain power) and many more people will be killed.

Qin Shi Huangdi's merits?

1. He unified the Chinese written language, contributing to China's civilisation. Chinese characters used in the otehr six states were unified under the lesser seal characters of Qin.

2. The units of measurement and currency were also standardized which led to economic growth.

Think about it. These two methods were certainly useful, otherwise it would be difficult for trading between the states.

3. He approved the digging of the Ling Canal and the Zheng Guo Canal, connecting waterways in the South and joined, as well of built the Great Wall together from Lintao in the West to Liaodong in the East, preventing other tribes like Xiongnu from attacking China.

When Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi started the project, tens of thousands of people have to be mobilized, resulting in many families torn apart. But I feel that this is really needed. The digging of the Ling Canal and the Zheng Guo Canal, connecting waterways in the South will certainly benefit the people in the South, won't it? It would be worse if they experienced a drought there with no water. By doing this, Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi should be commended, shouldn't he?

The joining and building of the Great Wall is also needed, otherwise China would have no barrier to protect it and it will be fallible for other tribes to attack. More people would die and be separated from their families if war breaks out.

So, the main question: What do you feel about Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi? Yes, he certainly was cruel, but after reading his merits, what do you guys feel?

#2 fcharton

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 09:37 AM

As a starter, I would like to mention that the general opinion of Qin Shihuang was very negative *until very recently* (ie less than 50 years). My personal impression is that the rehabilitation of Qin Shihuang in modern times has a lot to do with concerns about Mao Zedong's place in history: a harsh leader, with a short lived reign, but who united China (whatever this means...), and enabled a golden age (Han...) to happen. In other words, all of this is politically loaded, even though the parallel is very contrived (and btw, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw a rehabilitation of the Sui dynasty anytime soon, for just the same reason...)

Many say that Qin Shi Huangdi was a tyrannical ruler but is it really true? I mean, I don't think he's that cruel becuase some of the things he did were apparently needed. I'll state my reasons.


One very important reason is that all the sources we have on the Qin dynasty date from the Han dynasty, and are very critical. No matter the doubts Sima Qian could harbour towards his emperor, he most certainly was a man of his time, influenced by Huanglao and Confucianism, and opposed to all the political ideas associated with Qin. So, yes, the portray of Qin Shihuang was certainly not painted in rosy colours.

Yet...

Qin Shi Huangdi was able to unify China because of his own talent and strategies as well as the foundations of the Qin Empire laid down by his predecessors. He unified China within seventeen years and brought an end to the Warring States Period. Yes, you might say that he killed many, but if he did not unify China, the Warring States Period will continue (the seven states will be fighting with one another to gain power) and many more people will be killed.


This notion of "unifying china" is a very modern one: until 256 BC, China was actually unified, under the Eastern Zhou, and most authors of this era, although they criticised to climate of violence and rule of strength, did not, apparently feel, that "uniting China" was such a big deals... In fact, destroying so many noble families, which had blood connection to the ruling houses of Zhou and Qin, was considered a very bad thing Qin Shihuang did, over most of Chinese history.

1. He unified the Chinese written language, contributing to China's civilisation. Chinese characters used in the otehr six states were unified under the lesser seal characters of Qin.
2. The units of measurement and currency were also standardized which led to economic growth.
Think about it. These two methods were certainly useful, otherwise it would be difficult for trading between the states.


He did not unify the language (actually, a point could be had that Chinese spoken language is not united now), he did, to some extent unify the script, but I don't think it was such an imposing achievement. Just look at how easily ideas and books circulated during the Warring States (how quickly Daoism, which originated in Chu, or Legalism, which seems to have come from Jin, spread through all China).

Also, just see how mobile merchants and statesmen were during the Warring States (from Su Qin and Zhang Yi, who went from a state to another, to Lu Buwei, who did business all over China).

In my opinion trade and exchange between the states was quite developped during the Warring States (and possibly the Springs and Autumns) era. This development made the standardisation of scripts and measurement possible, not the other way around...

3. He approved the digging of the Ling Canal and the Zheng Guo Canal, connecting waterways in the South and joined, as well of built the Great Wall together from Lintao in the West to Liaodong in the East, preventing other tribes like Xiongnu from attacking China.


Actually, the Great Wall was not built by Qin Shihuang. Most of it had been built before, by the states of Yan, Zhao and Qin. some researchers (see Nicola Di Cosmo's Ancient China and its enemies) even believe that they were not built to defend against the barbarians, but to enclose grasslands taken from them. Note also that the Great Wall hardly prevented the Xiongnu to attack China...


Again, I pretty much agree that Qin Shihuang has probably been presented under a very unfavourable light by later authors. But on the other hand, the idea that he allowed China to be united and to experience economic growth through large scale engineering project seems like a very contrived backwards projection of modern history...

Francois

Edited by fcharton, 16 November 2007 - 09:47 AM.


#3 Ashura

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 11:00 AM

As a starter, I would like to mention that the general opinion of Qin Shihuang was very negative *until very recently* (ie less than 50 years). My personal impression is that the rehabilitation of Qin Shihuang in modern times has a lot to do with concerns about Mao Zedong's place in history: a harsh leader, with a short lived reign, but who united China (whatever this means...), and enabled a golden age (Han...) to happen. In other words, all of this is politically loaded, even though the parallel is very contrived (and btw, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw a rehabilitation of the Sui dynasty anytime soon, for just the same reason...)

One very important reason is that all the sources we have on the Qin dynasty date from the Han dynasty, and are very critical. No matter the doubts Sima Qian could harbour towards his emperor, he most certainly was a man of his time, influenced by Huanglao and Confucianism, and opposed to all the political ideas associated with Qin. So, yes, the portray of Qin Shihuang was certainly not painted in rosy colours.

I don't see any reason to rehabilitate Sui though, especially when it was overshadowed by Tang. Personally I'm not under the influence of Chinese politics, but modern historical standards do say that there is a lot of doubt with the historical description of Shi Huangdi, after all Chinese history was written by confucian literati, and as we know their main rival was the Legalists, so the bias alone is enough to doubt this story.

This notion of "unifying china" is a very modern one: until 256 BC, China was actually unified, under the Eastern Zhou, and most authors of this era, although they criticised to climate of violence and rule of strength, did not, apparently feel, that "uniting China" was such a big deals... In fact, destroying so many noble families, which had blood connection to the ruling houses of Zhou and Qin, was considered a very bad thing Qin Shihuang did, over most of Chinese history.

Depends on your definition of unification. If it means a single political entity which represent the highest authority over a state, then Zhou, East and West, was not a unified state, it was not even a federal state, as federal states have a single highest source of authority, namely the constitution. Zhou, many believe was rather of a loose alliance, and it authoriy came with its ranking. It was like a military order rather than a state in which a single set of rules. The other lords just followed the ranking in the Zhou system. The reaction of confucians to Qin was with the eliminating of ancient institutions & order, along with the fact that they lost out in the political struggle with the Legalists. Then with the establishment of Han gov't, for propoganda purposes it was reasonable for the officials to side with confucian in writting history.

He did not unify the language (actually, a point could be had that Chinese spoken language is not united now), he did, to some extent unify the script, but I don't think it was such an imposing achievement. Just look at how easily ideas and books circulated during the Warring States (how quickly Daoism, which originated in Chu, or Legalism, which seems to have come from Jin, spread through all China).

Also, just see how mobile merchants and statesmen were during the Warring States (from Su Qin and Zhang Yi, who went from a state to another, to Lu Buwei, who did business all over China).

In my opinion trade and exchange between the states was quite developped during the Warring States (and possibly the Springs and Autumns) era. This development made the standardisation of scripts and measurement possible, not the other way around...

We don't really know. However it is reasonable to deduce that sphere of Zhou understand each other perfectly and there was a bigger difference between Zhou and Chu, Wu, Yue, Ba, Shu etc. Since there was a hegemon system for quite some time during Spring & Autumn, it is also reasonable to deduce that languages had became more similar or people started learning each other's languages, just like how a noble in medival Europe could speak different languages. What is clear is that people used a single script to describe different languages later on.

As for standardization of measurement and currency, don't forget it was Qin monopoly now, it is just natural to have one measurement. The different measurements among different states had their historical role though, namely that they created an exchange rate system among the states, and the states could benefit from it if they wanted to get they hands in it. In a monopoly, you don't need an exchange rate system, as it will only make it harder to tax people, but of course as a whole a single measurement and currency do reduce transaction cost. The standardization was done out of necesscity.

Actually, the Great Wall was not built by Qin Shihuang. Most of it had been built before, by the states of Yan, Zhao and Qin. some researchers (see Nicola Di Cosmo's Ancient China and its enemies) even believe that they were not built to defend against the barbarians, but to enclose grasslands taken from them. Note also that the Great Wall hardly prevented the Xiongnu to attack China...

Um....Being a defensive structure and a fence do not conflict with each other. A fence is after all a defensive structure, and it does work to keep out unwanted visitors. As for its effectiveness, were you talking about the raids against Han or Qin? If it was Han then China was war-torn and any defensive structure needed to be man.

Again, I pretty much agree that Qin Shihuang has probably been presented under a very unfavourable light by later authors. But on the other hand, the idea that he allowed China to be united and to experience economic growth through large scale engineering project seems like a very contrived backwards projection of modern history...

Francois

Don't understimate unification. In economic terms we can call it a monopoly. It this sense he was indeed the first person and the foundation to monopolising Chinese society. Such monopoly allowed huge supply side surplus, which allowed the gov't to spend in unnecessary public goods such as military, canals etc, which might in turns benefit the empire. Note that Han was only able to counter attack Xiongnu when it had established itself as a monopoly.

As for the original question about his cruelty, depends on your view really. If you want to look at it in a politics prespective, he was most certainly virtuous, as Machiavelli would say.

Edited by Ashura, 16 November 2007 - 11:10 AM.

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#4 fcharton

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Posted 16 November 2007 - 11:52 AM

I don't see any reason to rehabilitate Sui though, especially when it was overshadowed by Tang.


Well, you could say exactly the same thing about Qin, which was overshadowed by Han... I think the similitudes are actually great : both Qin and Sui reunified China after a period of fragmentation, under a very authoritarian rule, which proved to be short lived, as the dynasty didn't survive its ruler. Yet, both were succeeded by a very successful and long-lasting dynasty.

Now, if you except modern era, note that the traditional assessment of Qin and Sui (which have been written, just like every single dynastic history, by the next dynasty) used to be very negative, and quite similar...

Personally I'm not under the influence of Chinese politics, but modern historical standards do say that there is a lot of doubt with the historical description of Shi Huangdi, after all Chinese history was written by confucian literati, and as we know their main rival was the Legalists, so the bias alone is enough to doubt this story.


As I said, the fact that every dynastic history is written by the next dynasty, and, as such, is supect, is a constant of all chinese historiography.

I would agree that there are reasons to doubt the portrait of Qin Shihuangdi, but note that many modern popular history books have a very ambivalent attitude towards this record bias...

On the one hand, they tend to be wary of possible bias in the judgment passed on the Qin. On the other hand, any detail written just once in the Shiji, or later books (the 700 000 builders, the size of Epang Palace, the description of the Tomb, or the details of the laws of Lord Shang) are considered gospel truth, even though they were written or edited by the same "suspect" confucian litterati. I don't think the modern attitude is less biased than the ancient one...

As a side note, the description of Han writers as Confucian litterati is a bit misleading. Although there certainly was a confucian revival during the western Han, huanglao, legalism and other doctrines were quite common too. Note also that almost all of our sources on Qin Shihuang were compiled by one man, Sima Qian, who is extremely difficult to classify in terms of schools of thought...

Francois

#5 Ashura

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Posted 17 November 2007 - 12:43 AM

Well, you could say exactly the same thing about Qin, which was overshadowed by Han... I think the similitudes are actually great : both Qin and Sui reunified China after a period of fragmentation, under a very authoritarian rule, which proved to be short lived, as the dynasty didn't survive its ruler. Yet, both were succeeded by a very successful and long-lasting dynasty.

Now, if you except modern era, note that the traditional assessment of Qin and Sui (which have been written, just like every single dynastic history, by the next dynasty) used to be very negative, and quite similar...

In many ways they are similar, but there is a fundemental difference. Qin's "mandate of heaven" was not recognized, while Sui's was. Qin's downfall was using brute froce to destroy ancient institutions while Sui's downfall was always one person's fault. Traditionally people never liked Qin, but Sui had a lot of supporters. Qin was supposed to be the destroyer of the world while Sui was benevolent, eps in the description of Yang Jian. It comes down to the issue of legitemacy, people recognized Sui's, but not Qin's.

As I said, the fact that every dynastic history is written by the next dynasty, and, as such, is supect, is a constant of all chinese historiography.

I would agree that there are reasons to doubt the portrait of Qin Shihuangdi, but note that many modern popular history books have a very ambivalent attitude towards this record bias...

On the one hand, they tend to be wary of possible bias in the judgment passed on the Qin. On the other hand, any detail written just once in the Shiji, or later books (the 700 000 builders, the size of Epang Palace, the description of the Tomb, or the details of the laws of Lord Shang) are considered gospel truth, even though they were written or edited by the same "suspect" confucian litterati. I don't think the modern attitude is less biased than the ancient one...

As a side note, the description of Han writers as Confucian litterati is a bit misleading. Although there certainly was a confucian revival during the western Han, huanglao, legalism and other doctrines were quite common too. Note also that almost all of our sources on Qin Shihuang were compiled by one man, Sima Qian, who is extremely difficult to classify in terms of schools of thought...

Francois

Note that I wasn't saying confucian litterati and Han writters were the same group of people, I was saying that they were natural allies for propoganda reasons, as posted in a later section of my original post.

As for your main point, there are many doubts toward the records of Pre-Qin to Qin's history, for exmaple the numbers of troops. My original point wasn't that modern attitude isn't bias, as a matter of fact it is, esp to ahistorical people who have minimal exposure to history as they are taught by the same traditions. My point is people who are armed with modern history standard know that the tradition descritption does not hold water.

As for the suspicion, yes it is suspectful for the whole Chinese historgraphy, but not all of the suspicions are of the same degree. Take the recent rehabilitation of Caocao for example, tradition history clearly stated that he was indeed a genius stateman who's state was quite legitimate, but the public just completely ignore that not due to suspicion to tradition history but because of a popular novel came out in early Ming. As we can see, suspicions are of different sources, and they deserve to be handle differently.
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#6 Guest_Liu Bang_*

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Posted 17 November 2007 - 07:12 AM

Hi guys,

Qin Shi Huangdi joined the Great Wall of China together but yes, he also built some parts of the wall. Ok, maybe not him, his soldiers, but yes, he ordered them to do so.

#7 Craig

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Posted 17 November 2007 - 09:59 PM

Hi guys,

Qin Shi Huangdi joined the Great Wall of China together but yes, he also built some parts of the wall. Ok, maybe not him, his soldiers, but yes, he ordered them to do so.


Wasn't even the term for 'Great Wall' a recent development? And the Ming who built the brick wall whereas previous wlls were rammed earth. Huangdi was a despot who believed that all served the Emperor. Huangdi restricted and compartmentalized knowledge and moved thousands of houuseholds around. He wasn't merely the Ruler, he owned everything, people included...and he set out to quantify and standardize everything under heaven. To say he did some good things sounds like at least the nazis made the trains run on time.
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Posted 18 November 2007 - 02:03 AM

Wasn't even the term for 'Great Wall' a recent development? And the Ming who built the brick wall whereas previous wlls were rammed earth. Huangdi was a despot who believed that all served the Emperor. Huangdi restricted and compartmentalized knowledge and moved thousands of houuseholds around. He wasn't merely the Ruler, he owned everything, people included...and he set out to quantify and standardize everything under heaven. To say he did some good things sounds like at least the nazis made the trains run on time.


Ok, well, let's just say that Qin Shi Huangdi joined the parts of the wall together. That should be fine, isn't it?

#9 ctrlsave

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Posted 28 August 2010 - 01:09 PM

I do believe that Qin Shi Huang is not as cruel as history made him out to be. And I believe that what he did was necessary for the greater good of the country though the process might not have been the best way. There was also no success story for him regarding these reforms of his in his own time to back him up ( correct me if i'm wrong please ). Surely there were more cruel rulers thoughout history and without any credits or reforms being made in their life time.

#10 WuXiaHer0

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Posted 29 August 2010 - 05:50 AM

Many say that Qin Shi Huangdi was a tyrannical ruler but is it really true? I mean, I don't think he's that cruel becuase some of the things he did were apparently needed. I'll state my reasons.

Qin Shi Huangdi was able to unify China because of his own talent and strategies as well as the foundations of the Qin Empire laid down by his predecessors. He unified China within seventeen years and brought an end to the Warring States Period. Yes, you might say that he killed many, but if he did not unify China, the Warring States Period will continue (the seven states will be fighting with one another to gain power) and many more people will be killed.

Qin Shi Huangdi's merits?

1. He unified the Chinese written language, contributing to China's civilisation. Chinese characters used in the otehr six states were unified under the lesser seal characters of Qin.

2. The units of measurement and currency were also standardized which led to economic growth.

Think about it. These two methods were certainly useful, otherwise it would be difficult for trading between the states.

3. He approved the digging of the Ling Canal and the Zheng Guo Canal, connecting waterways in the South and joined, as well of built the Great Wall together from Lintao in the West to Liaodong in the East, preventing other tribes like Xiongnu from attacking China.

When Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi started the project, tens of thousands of people have to be mobilized, resulting in many families torn apart. But I feel that this is really needed. The digging of the Ling Canal and the Zheng Guo Canal, connecting waterways in the South will certainly benefit the people in the South, won't it? It would be worse if they experienced a drought there with no water. By doing this, Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi should be commended, shouldn't he?

The joining and building of the Great Wall is also needed, otherwise China would have no barrier to protect it and it will be fallible for other tribes to attack. More people would die and be separated from their families if war breaks out.

So, the main question: What do you feel about Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi? Yes, he certainly was cruel, but after reading his merits, what do you guys feel?


He's not alone though. IMO, Li Si was as cold-blooded as Qin Shi Huangdi too.

Qin laws reveal a complexity and sophistication rather at odds with Qin's reputation for barbarism. It was not so much that the laws that oppressed as their abuse, as the First Emperor's demands drove the Qin economy into crisis. I've been reading The Terracotta Army written by John Man recently. It's got the author's opinions and analyses regarding the First Emperor's actions and his tomb. It may help answer your questions.

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#11 ZhanGuoXiaoJie

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Posted 26 October 2010 - 07:10 PM

I agree with some of the people here. Qin Shi Huang was not as cruel as most people here portray him to be. On the political and military and societal scale, he is quite a brutal ruler, yet...

...he is also exceptionally capable and knows what he is doing. Note that the Great Wall, though it killed many people, had protected the Han Dynasty when the Huns invaded (because if it wasn't there, the Huns would have invaded EVERY SINGLE DAY). What's more, the Huns weren't as major of a problem for Qin Shi Huang during his reign, but became a major problem for Liu Bang...which says miles about Qin Shi Huang's capacity as a ruler as compared to Liu Bang and many others.

Also, he created a new system for the Chinese society in regards to governing, as well permitting a new nation-wide system of writing and a new system of transportation and so forth. Any despot wouldn't want things like that for no reason (just look at the idiotic emperors that DID exist in China's history: when did they allow reforming the roads and transportation and trade system? When did they try taking on major projects like the Great Wall?). He did that to ensure that the transportation of the entire country would go well.

He even ensured that the monetary system and the unification would be an accepted idea for once. If it hadn't been for him, the Han Dynasty would have been completely like the Zhou Dynasty, and it would take centuries to go forwards in regards to the governmental system.

Last, but not least, he was ruling a nation that had a lot of criminals. The Qin nation was specifically a world where crime could be rampant if not kept under an iron fist, and that was what Qin Shi Huang had. Unfortunately, the rest of China didn't need that sort of law.

Personally? I find him kinda tragic and admirable, even though I would be deathly afraid of him if he were alive. XD It's funny how that works.

#12 chinooook

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Posted 27 October 2010 - 05:11 AM

Actually, the Great Wall was not built by Qin Shihuang. Most of it had been built before, by the states of Yan, Zhao and Qin.


Though this is written by almost everyone it is not true at all. The Great Wall of Qin was completely new built in the reign of Qin Shi Huang, only the eastern section in (maybe) Hebei and Liaoning (probably) made use of the GW of Yan.


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#13 LeoXiao

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Posted 27 October 2010 - 02:22 PM

Qin Shihuang seems to be like most dictators - cruel, paranoid, and ruthless, but it remains true that he did get some things done, like the unifications, the Great Wall, etc. Even though the guy did kill people needlessly and was somewhat crazy, at least he's not like that guy who ruled over Sichuan (I forget his name) and had a self-genocide policy.

Edited by LeoXiao, 27 October 2010 - 02:23 PM.

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#14 Yugoboy

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Posted 04 January 2011 - 01:05 PM

While this has been a fascinating and informative thread, the one topic I have yet to see addressed is the one nearest and dearest to my heart (and probably many of yours as well, if you think about it), namely, the burning of the history books and the execution of the scholars.

Many empires, emperors, leaders, dictators, kings and other totalitarian rulers utilized significantly ruthless methods to achieve their goals. Only the most despotic, however, tried to destroy all history.

Whatever other ways Qin was "cruel," this is his most brutal repression and longest-lasting effect (wouldn't we love to have more pre-Qin resources?)

#15 fcharton

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Posted 06 January 2011 - 05:17 PM

While this has been a fascinating and informative thread, the one topic I have yet to see addressed is the one nearest and dearest to my heart (and probably many of yours as well, if you think about it), namely, the burning of the history books and the execution of the scholars.


There were several discussions about this, you can look at this one.

http://www.chinahist...rs/page__st__45

If you can read french, I recommend the article by Zufferey (I can send it to you if you want it, just send me an email).

Francois




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