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, head of the Chinese Department at the British Library—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, flavoured 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.