China was united by the fearsome First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, in 221 BC. His relentless power was symbolised by the Terracotta Army guarding his tomb: impassive, regimented, unquestioningly obedient to his authority.
But, recently, stunning documentary finds have given us a picture of the real-life troops of the First Emperor: soldiers’ letters that bring to mind the Vindolanda tablets, written by Roman troops posted near Hadrian’s Wall. Take this from 6 April 223 BC, in which the brothers Heifu and Jing send greetings to their family back home: “Our unit is about to help in attacks on rebel cities at Huaiyang in Henan. How long it will take, and how many of us will be captured or wounded no one knows…”
But then Heifu becomes delightfully personal: “Now when you get this letter, mum, look in Anlu for silk cloth that is cheap. If there is some that can be made into an unlined skirt and shirt, can you make that and send it with the cash? If the cloth is too dear, just send the cash and I’ll make the clothes myself with hemp cloth. How are auntie, sister Kangle and Aunt Gushu? Is the marriage taking place?” These remarkable new finds are among the earliest voices of ordinary Chinese people left to us today.
There has been a continuous tradition of historical writing in China for more than 2,500 years. Historians wrote the official narrative, but they also expressed moral judgments on good and bad rule. Hence the tyrannical First Emperor ordered history books to be burned and the historians buried alive, “fearing the power of the past to discredit the present”.
Sima Qian (c145–c86 BC) lived during the Han dynasty, a century or so after the book burnings. His father, the keeper of the imperial calendar, had been working on the lost history of pre-Qin China, and on his deathbed he made his son swear to complete it. Unfortunately, Sima fell foul of Emperor Wu Di, by speaking up for a man he believed had been wrongly accused. Furious, the emperor condemned Sima, who was expected to kill himself – after all, the only other option was to accept castration, and become a ‘non-person’.
But, because of his oath to his father, Sima couldn’t take the ‘gentleman’s path’, and he explained why in one of the most famous letters in Chinese literature, addressed to a friend. “Before I had finished my rough draft, I met with this calamity. It is because it had not been finished that I submitted to the extreme penalty without rancour. When I have completed this work, if it may be handed down to people who will appreciate it and be read in great cities and villages, then though I should suffer a thousand mutilations, what regret should I have? A man has only one death. That death may be as weighty as Mount Tai or as light as a goose feather. It all depends upon the way he uses it.”
We should be grateful that Sima continued with his endeavour. His reconstruction of the centuries of pre-Qin history was one of the greatest intellectual undertakings in Chinese culture, the foundation of all chronological inquiries into Chinese prehistory. And the staggering archaeological discoveries of the 20th century have proved that his order of the kings of the prehistoric dynasties was accurate.
One of the most thrilling passages of Sima’s entire history is his description of the First Emperor’s tomb. “They dug down deep to underground springs, pouring copper for the outer casing of the coffin,” he tells us. “Workmen were instructed to make automatic crossbows primed to shoot at intruders… After the funeral ceremonies, the inner passages and doorways were blocked, and the exit sealed, trapping the workers and craftsmen inside. None could escape.”
The tomb is still there, of course, guarded by the Terracotta Army. Tantalisingly, the inner tomb still awaits investigation, its contents arguably the greatest archaeological mystery in the world.
China has the oldest continuous poetic tradition in the world. The Book of Songs, a wonderful anthology of love, war, agriculture and festivals, goes back to the 11th century BC, before the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Poets have always been right at the centre of the civilisation – the voices and the conscience of China. Du Fu (AD 712–70) is considered to be the greatest. “There’s Dante, there’s Shakespeare and there’s Du Fu,” says Harvard professor Stephen Owen. “They are the poets who helped create the emotional vocabulary of their cultures.”
Du Fu lived in the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907), one of the most brilliant epochs in the story of civilisation. But in his forties a century of peace and high culture crumbled in the face of corruption, environmental disaster and rebellion. As many as 30 million people died of war, famine or disease, or became refugees.
A minor civil servant, Du Fu himself became a refugee and experienced what we see on our screens today in the horrors of Yemen or Syria. He wrote of the patience of ordinary people, their betrayal by corrupt rulers. In his portraits of people who had lost everything, you find hints of Kipling’s ventriloquy of the common soldier, or the tragic sense of destiny you get from the First World War poets – of the old world gone and a new world waiting to be born. During the war, when he trudges home half frozen, to find his baby son has died, he becomes Everyman:
“I am ashamed of being a father;
So poor that I caused my son to starve to death….
And I am one of the privileged.
If my life is so bitter
Then how much worse is the life of the common man?”
Du Fu died in obscurity, but his poetry has endured. And that’s because, more than any other poet, he expressed what it was to be Chinese in his love of friendship and family, and his belief in Confucian morality (virtue, kindness and benevolence) through thick and thin.
Politics are at the very heart of Chinese civilisation. Where the focus of Indian civilisation and literature is spiritual and metaphysical, China’s is political. The state is not only a historical fact but an imaginal construct that has permeated people’s lives, minds and dreams for millennia.
Since the time of the First Emperor there has been a tension between the perceived necessity of harsh authoritarian rule and the desire for moral government based on humane, Confucian ideals. In the late 19th century, reformers attempted to do away with autocracy, and many different trajectories for the future emerged, some calling for revolutionary change. One of them was feminism. The star writer was Qiu Jin (executed for sedition in 1907) who famously asked: “Why can’t women be heroes too?” Less well known is the mysterious He Zhen.
Born around 1884, He Zhen wrote at the very moment the suffragettes were fighting for the vote in Britain. Among recently rediscovered works is her essay On the Question of Women’s Liberation, published in 1907, which now looks like one of the great tracts of feminism.
“For thousands of years the world has been dominated by the rule of man,” she observed. “This rule is marked by class disjunctions in which men – and men only – exert proprietary rights. To rectify these wrongs, we must first abolish the rule of men and introduce equality among human beings… And the goal of equality cannot be achieved except through women’s liberation.”
He Zhen’s later life is a blank. Some said she had a breakdown, despairing of politics. Others claimed she dropped out and became a Buddhist nun. Did she see more of China’s 20th-century tragedies? If only we knew.
Michael Wood’s latest book, The Story of China: A Portrait of a Civilisation and its People, was published by Simon & Schuster in September 2020