Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

The Founder of the Chinese Empire

In the year 246 B.C. came to the throne of China the most famous of all the monarchs of that ancient empire, the celebrated Hoangti,—Tsin Chi Hoang-ti, or "first sovereign emperor of the Tsins," to give him his full title. Various stories are told by Chinese historians of the origin of this great monarch, they denying that he was of royal blood. They say that he was the son of a woman slave who had been bought by the emperor, and that the boy's real father was a merchant, her former master. This story, whether true or false, gave the young emperor much trouble in later years. His mother, after he came to the throne, grew so dissipated that he was forced to punish her lover and banish her. And the merchant, his reputed father, being given a place at court, became eager for a higher position, and sought to influence the emperor by hints and whisperings of the secret hold he possessed over him. Hoangti was not the man to be dealt with in such a fashion, and the intriguing merchant, finding a storm of vengeance coming, poisoned himself to escape a worse fate.

Such are the stories told of the origin of the famous emperor. They may not be true, for the historians hated him, for reasons yet to be given, and made the most of anything they could say against him. All we are sure of is that he ascended the throne at the youthful age of thirteen, and even at that age quickly made his influence widely felt. What lay before him was practically the conquest of China, whose great feudal lords were virtually independent of the throne, and had, not long before, overwhelmed the imperial armies.

Fortunately for the young emperor, the great prince's, having no fear of a boy, either disbanded their forces or quarrelled among themselves, two of the most powerful of them declaring war upon each other. Taking advantage of these dissensions, Hoangti gained, step by step, the desired control of his foes. Ouki, a great general in the interest of the princes, was disgraced by the aid of bribery and falsehood, several of the strong cities of the princes were seized, and when they entered the field against the emperor their armies, no longer led by the able Ouki, were easily defeated. Thus steadily the power of the youthful monarch increased and that of his opponents fell away, the dismembered empire of China slowly growing under his rule into a coherent whole.

Meanwhile war arose with foreign enemies, who appeared on the western and northern boundaries of the empire. In this quarter the Tartar tribes of the desert had long been troublesome, and now a great combination of these warlike nomads, known as the Heung-nou,—perhaps the same as the Huns who afterwards devastated Europe,—broke into the defenceless border provinces, plundering and slaughtering wherever they appeared. Against this dangerous enemy the emperor manifested the same energy that he had done against his domestic foes. Collecting a great army, three hundred thousand strong, he marched into their country and overthrew them in a series of signal victories. In the end those in the vicinity of China were exterminated, and the others driven to take refuge in the mountains of Mongolia.

This success was followed by a remarkable performance, one of the most stupendous in the history of the world. Finding that several of the northern states of the empire were building lines of fortification along their northern frontiers for defence against their Tartar enemies, the emperor conceived the extraordinary project of building a gigantic wall along the whole northern boundary of China, a great bulwark to extend from the ocean on the east to the interior extremity of the modern province of Kan-suh on the west. This work was begun under the direct supervision of the emperor in 214 B.C., and prosecuted with the sleepless energy for which he had made himself famous. Tireless as he was, however, the task was too great for one man to perform, and it was not completed until after his death.

This extraordinary work, perhaps the greatest ever undertaken by the hand of man, extends over a length of twelve hundred and fifty-five miles, the wall itself, if measured throughout its sinuous extent, being fully fifteen hundred miles in length. Over this vast reach of mountain and plain it is carried, regardless of hill or vale, but "scaling the precipices and topping the craggy hills of the country." It is not a solid mass, but is composed of two retaining walls of brick, built upon granite foundations, while the space between them is filled with earth and stones. It is about twenty-five feet wide at base and fifteen at top, and varies from fifteen to thirty feet in height, with frequent towers rising above its general level. At the top a pavement of bricks—now overgrown with grass—forms a surface finish to the work.

How many thousands or hundreds of thousands of the industrious laborers of China spent their lives upon this stupendous work history does not tell. It stands as a striking monument of the magnificent conceptions of Hoangti, and of the patient industry of his subjects, beside which the building of the great pyramid of Egypt sinks into insignificance. Yet, as history has abundantly proved, it was a waste of labor so far as answering its purpose was concerned. In the hands of a strong emperor like Hoangti it might well defy the Tartar foe. In the hands of many of his weak successors it proved of no avail, the hordes of the desert swarming like ants over its undefended reaches, and pouring upon the feeble country that sought defence in walls, not in men.

While this vast building operation was going on, Hoangti had his hands so full with internal wars that he adopted the custom of sitting on his throne with a naked sword in his hand, significant of his unceasing alertness against his foes. Not until his reign was near its end was he able to return this emblem of war to its scabbard and enjoy for a few years the peace he had so ably won.

No sooner had the great emperor finished his campaign of victory against the Heung-nou Tartars than he found himself confronted by enemies at home, the adherents of the remaining feudal princes whose independent power was threatened. The first with whom he came in contact was the powerful prince of Chow, several of whose cities he captured, the neighboring prince of Han being so terrified by this success that he surrendered without a contest. In accordance with Hoangti's method, the prince was forced to yield his power and retire to private life in the dominions of the conqueror.

Chow still held out, under an able general, Limou, who defied the emperor and defeated his armies. Hoangti, finding himself opposed by an abler man than any he had under his command, employed against him the same secret arts by which he had before disposed of the valiant Ouki. A courtier was bribed to malign the absent general and poison the mind of the prince against the faithful commander of his forces. The intrigue was successful, Limou was recalled from his command, and on his refusing to obey was assassinated by order of the prince.

Hoangti had gained his end, and his adversary soon paid dearly for his lack of wisdom and justice. His dominions were overrun, his capital, Hantan, was taken and sacked, and he and his family became prisoners to one who was not noted for mercy to his foes. The large province of Chow was added to the empire, which was now growing with surprising rapidity.

This enemy disposed of, Hoangti had another with whom to deal. At his court resided Prince Tan, heir of the ruler of Yen. Whether out of settled policy or from whim, the emperor insulted this visitor so flagrantly that he fled the court, burning for revenge. As the most direct way of obtaining this, he hired an assassin to murder Hoangti, inducing him to accept the task by promising him the title of "Liberator of the Empire." The plot was nearly successful. Finding it very difficult to obtain an audience with the emperor, Kinkou, the assassin, succeeded in an extraordinary way, by inducing Fanyuki, a proscribed rebel, to commit suicide. In some unexplained way Kinkou made use of this desperate act to obtain the desired audience. Only the alertness of the emperor now saved him from death. His quick eye caught the attempt of the assassin to draw his poniard, and at once, with a sweeping blow of his sabre, he severed his leg from his body, hurling him bleeding and helpless to the floor.

Hoangti's retribution did not end with the death of the assassin. Learning that Prince Tan was the real culprit, he gave orders for the instant invasion of Yen,—a purpose which perhaps he had in view in his insult to the prince. The ruler of that state, to avert the emperor's wrath, sent him the head of Tan, whom he had ordered to execution. But as the army continued to advance, he fled into the wilds of Lea-vu tong, abandoning his territory to the invader. In the same year the kingdom of Wei was invaded, its capital taken, and its ruler sent to the Chinese capital for execution.

Only one of the great principalities now remained, that of Choo, but it was more formidable than any of those yet assailed. Great preparations and a large army were needed for this enterprise, and the emperor asked his generals how many men would be required for the task of conquest.

"Two hundred thousand will be abundant," said Lisin; "I will promise you the best results with that number of men."

"What have you to say?" asked the emperor of Wang Tsein, his oldest and most experienced commander.

"Six hundred thousand will be needed," said the cautious old general.

These figures, given in history, may safely be credited with an allowance for the exaggeration of the writers.

The emperor approved of Lisin's estimate, and gave him the command, dismissing the older warrior as an over-cautious dotard. The event told a different tale. Lisin was surprised during his march and driven back in utter defeat, losing forty thousand men, as the records say, in the battle and the pursuit. What became of the defeated braggart history fails to state. If he survived the battle, he could hardly have dared to present himself again before his furious master.

Hoangti now sent for the veteran whom he had dismissed as a dotard, and asked him to take command of the troops.

"Six hundred thousand: no less will serve," repeated the old man.

"You shall have all you ask for," answered the emperor.

This vast host collected, the question of supplies presented itself as a serious matter.

"Do not let that trouble you," said the emperor to his general. "I have taken steps to provide for that, and promise you that provisions are more likely to be wanting in my palace than in your camp."

The event proved the soundness of the old warrior's judgment and his warlike skill. A great battle soon took place, in which Wang Tsein, taking advantage of a false movement of the enemy, drove him in panic flight from the field. This was soon followed by the complete conquest of the principality, whose cities were strongly garrisoned by imperial troops, and its rulers sent to the capital to experience the fate of the preceding princely captives. The subjection of several smaller provinces succeeded, and the conquest of China was at length complete.

The feudal principalities, which had been the successors of the independent kingdoms into which the Chinese territory was originally divided, were thus overthrown, the ancient local dynasties being exterminated, and their territories added to the dominion of the Tsins. The unity of the empire was at length established, and the great conqueror became "the first universal emperor."

Hoangti the Great, as we may justly designate the man who first formed a united Chinese empire, and to whom the mighty conception of the Great Wall was due, did not exhaust his energies in these varied labors. Choosing as his capital Heenyang (now Segan Foo), he built himself there a palace of such magnificence as to make it the wonder and admiration of the age. This was erected outside the city, on so vast a scale that ten thousand men could be drawn up in order of battle in one of its courts. Attached to it were magnificent gardens, the whole being known as the Palace of Delight. Within the city he had another palace, of grand dimensions, its hall of audience being adorned with twelve gigantic statues made from the spoils of his many campaigns, each of them weighing twelve thousand pounds.

The capital was otherwise highly embellished, and an edict required that all weapons should be sent to the arsenal in that city, there being no longer danger of civil war, and "peace being universal." This measure certainly tended to prevent war, and "the skilful disarming of the provinces added daily to the wealth and prosperity of the capital."

The empire of China thus being, for the first time in its history, made a centralized one, Hoangti divided it into thirty-six provinces, and set out on a tour of inspection of the vast dominions which acknowledged him as sole lord and master. Governors and sub-governors were appointed in each province, the stability of the organization adopted being evidenced by the fact that it still exists. The most important result of the imperial journey was the general improvement of the roads of the empire. It was the custom, when a great man visited any district, to repair the roads which he would need to traverse, while outside his line of march the highways were of a very imperfect character. Hoangti was well aware of this custom, and very likely he may have convinced himself of the true condition of the roads by sudden detours from the prescribed route. At all events, he made the following notable remarks:

"These roads have been made expressly for me, and are very satisfactory. But it is not just that I alone should enjoy a convenience of which my subjects have still greater need, and one which I can give them. Therefore I decree that good roads shall be made in all directions throughout the empire."

In these few words he set in train a far more useful work than the Great Wall. High-roads were laid out on a grand scale, traversing the empire from end to end, and the public spirit of the great emperor is attested by the noble system of highways which still remain, more than two thousand years after his death.

Irrigation wheel


Having said so much in favor of Hoangti, we have now to show the reverse of the shield, in describing that notable act which has won him the enmity of the literary class, not only in China but in the whole world. This was the celebrated "burning of the books." Hoangti was essentially a reformer. Time-honored ceremonies were of little importance in his eyes when they stood in the way of the direct and practical, and he abolished hosts of ancient customs that had grown wearisome and unmeaning. This sweeping away of the driftwood of the past was far from agreeable to the officials, to whom formalism and precedent were as the breath of life. One of the ancient customs required the emperors to ascend high mountains and offer sacrifices on their summits. The literary class had ancient rule and precedent for every step in this ceremony, and so sharply criticised the emperor's disregard of these observances that they roused his anger. "You vaunt the simplicity of the ancients," he impatiently said; "you should then be satisfied with me, for I act in a simpler fashion than they did." Finally he closed the controversy with the stern remark, "When I have need of you I will let you know my orders."

The literati of China have always been notable for the strength of their convictions and the obstinate courage with which they express their opinions at all risks. They were silenced for the present, but their anger, as well as that of the emperor, only slumbered. Five years afterwards it was reawakened. Hoangti had summoned to the capital all the governors and high officials for a Grand Council of the Empire. With the men of affairs came the men of learning, many of them wedded to theories and traditions, who looked upon Hoangti as a dangerous iconoclast, and did not hesitate to express their opinion.

It was the most distinguished assembly that had ever come together in China, and, gathered in that magnificent palace which was adorned with the spoils of conquered kingdoms, it reflected the highest honor on the great emperor who had called it together and who presided over its deliberations. But the hardly concealed hostility of the literati soon disturbed the harmony of the council. In response to the emperor, who asked for candid expressions of opinion upon his government and legislation, a courtier arose with words of high praise, ending with, "Truly you have surpassed the very greatest of your predecessors even at the most remote period."

The men of books broke into loud murmurs at this insult to the heroes of their admiration, and one of them sprang angrily to his feet, designating the former speaker as "a vile flatterer unworthy of the high position which he occupied," and continuing with unstinted praise of the early rulers. His oration, which showed much more erudition than discretion, ended by advocating a reversal of the emperor's action, and a redivision of the empire into feudal principalities.

Hoangti, hot with anger, curtly reminded the speaker that that point was not open to discussion, it having already been considered and decided. He then called on Lisseh, his minister, to state again the reasons for the unity of the empire. The speech of the minister is one of high importance, as giving the ostensible reasons for the unexampled act of destruction by which it was followed.

"It must be admitted," he said, "after what we have just heard, that men of letters are, as a rule, very little acquainted with what concerns the government of a country not that government of pure speculation, which is nothing more than a phantom, vanishing the nearer we approach to it, but the practical government which consists in keeping men within the sphere of their practical duties. With all their pretence of knowledge, they are, in this matter, densely ignorant. They can tell you by heart everything which has happened in the past, back to the most remote period, but they are, or seem to be, ignorant of what is being done in these later days, of what is passing under their very eyes. Incapable of discerning that the thing which was formerly suitable would be wholly out of place to-day, they would have everything arranged in exact imitation of what they find written in their books."

He went on to denounce the men of learning as a class uninfluenced by the spirit of existing affairs and as enemies of the public weal, and concluded by saying, "Now or never is the time to close the mouths of these secret enemies, to place a curb upon their audacity."

He spoke the sentiments of the emperor, who had probably already determined upon his course of action. Having no regard for books himself, and looking upon them as the weapons of his banded foes, he issued the memorable order that all the books of the empire should be destroyed, making exception only of those that treated of medicine, agriculture, architecture, and astronomy. The order included the works of the great Confucius, who had edited and condensed the more ancient books of the empire, and of his noble disciple Mencius, and was of the most tyrannical and oppressive character. All books containing historical records, except those relating to the existing reign, were to be burned, and all who dared even to speak together about the Confucian "Book of Odes" and "Book of History" were condemned to execution. All who should even make mention of the past, so as to blame the present, were, with all their relatives, to be put to death; and any one found, after thirty days, with a book in his possession was to be branded and sent to work for four years on the Great Wall. Hoangti did not confine himself to words. The whole empire was searched for books, and all found were burned, while large numbers of the literati who had disobeyed the edict were arrested, and four hundred and sixty of them were buried alive in a great pit dug for that purpose.

It may well be that Hoangti had his own fame largely in view in this unprecedented act, as in his preceding wall-building and road-making. He may have proposed to sweep away all earlier records of the empire and make it seem to have sprung into existence full-fledged with his reign. But if he had such a purpose, he did not take fully into account the devotion of men of learning to their cherished manuscripts, nor the powers of the human memory. Books were hidden in the roofs and walls of dwellings, buried underground, and in some cases even concealed in the beds of rivers, until after the tyrant's death. And when a subsequent monarch sought to restore these records of the past, vanished tomes reappeared from the most unlooked-for places. As for the "Book of History" of Confucius, which had disappeared, twenty-eight sections of the hundred composing it were taken down from the lips of an aged blind man who had treasured them in his memory, and one was obtained from a young girl. The others were lost until 140 B.C., when, in pulling down the house of the great philosopher, a complete copy of the work was found hidden in its walls. As for the scientific works that were spared, none of them have come down to our day.

We shall now briefly complete our story of the man who made himself the most thoroughly hated of all Chinese monarchs by the literati of that realm. Organizing his troops into a strong standing army, he engaged in a war of conquest in the south, adding Tonquin and Cochin China to his dominions, and carrying his arms as far as Bengal. In the north he again sent his armies into the desert to chastise the troublesome nomads, and then, conceiving that no advantage was to be gained in extending his empire over these domains of barbarism, he employed the soldiers as aids in the task of building the Great Wall, adding to them a host of the industrial population of the north.

In 210 B.C. Hoangti was seized with some malady which he failed to treat as he did his enemies. Neglecting the simplest remedial measures, he came suddenly to the end of his career after a reign of fifty-one years. With him were buried many of his wives and large quantities of treasure, a custom of barbarous origin which was confined in China to the chiefs of Tsin. Magnificent in his ideas and fond of splendor, he despised formality, lived simply in the midst of luxury, and distinguished himself from other Chinese rulers by making walking his favorite exercise. While not great as a soldier, he knew how to choose soldiers, and in his administration was wise enough to avail himself of the advice of the ablest ministers.

Yet with all his greatness he could not provide for the birth of a great son. Upon his death disturbances broke out in all quarters of the realm, with which his weak successor was unable to cope. In three years the reign of his son was closed with assassination, while the grandson of Hoangti, defeated in battle after a six weeks' nominal reign, ended his life in murder or suicide. With him the dynasty of the Tsins passed away and that of the Han monarchs succeeded. Hoangti stands alone as the great man of his race.