Good and bad polytheists (part 9): Gaozu and Qin Shi Huang

GAOZU (born Liu Bang)

Emperor GaozuThe region where the early civilization of China flourished reminds us of Mesopotamia. It began in the far east along the Yellow River with the Xia Dynasty, and then expanded under the Shang Dynasty to include the Yangtze to the South. A third dynasty, the Zhou, then proceeded to overthrew their predecessors and ruled over a larger territory until 771 BCE. After that time, the Zhou kings lost power and their dominions gradually underwent fragmentation, until 475 BCE when four mature states began to engage in wars of domination. This situation, which is known as the period of Warring States, went on for several centuries, and was also accompanied by the competition of many philosophical schools, particularly Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism. A further complication arose when one of the four contending states, Jin, was divided into three parts following a civil war, one of which was the Han. This partition shook the balance of power and facilitated the domination of China. Consequently, within a hundred years, the intensity of alliances and wars increased. The Chu and Qin were the largest and most warlike of the states, although the Qin proved far more successful: They were victorious in most of their battles and they also claimed succession to China after they defeated the last remnants of the Zhou dynasty in 249 BCE. They afterwards fought for 25 years till they established the first empire of China. By this time, a peasant by the name of Liu Bang was already a young man providing feudal labor for the new Qin emperor.

It so happened that this Liu Bang, who had a character greater than that of a peasant, was once tasked to escort prisoners to build the emperor’s mausoleum, now just dead. When some of them escaped, Bang chose to release the rest and become their leader, because it was a capital crime under the harsh Qin laws to let criminals escape. He was already known for his troubles with the law, and now he determined to resist the Qin as a ringleader of outlaws. He succeeded to arouse the peasants of a county to rebellion and they joined with him. By this time, about 208 BCE, the provinces of China had rebelled, taking advantage of palace intrigues regarding the Qin succession. Liu Bang soon found himself work as a warlord, and was rewarded in 206 BCE with the title of King of Guanzhong, upon beating his competitor, Xiang Yu, to a race to the Qin capital. Bang distinguished himself as a good man upon entering the city, by forbidding his men to kill innocent people or pillage anything. Being dissatisfied that Bang had won the title, the warlord Xiang Yu tried to murder him by a trick, but failed. The two competitors fought for domination over China in the next four years, and Liu Bang won the contest at the battle of Gaixia. As the ruler of a large territory now known as Han, the modest Liu Bang reluctantly accepted the imperial crown by his subjects, and became known as Gaozu. Thereafter, he proved he was worthy of the title by acting contrary to the harshness and maladministration of the Qin: he lowered taxes, tributes and feudal service, freed debtors, and adopted Confucianism to promote the welfare and harmony of society. Gaozu also put an end to the destructive Mongolian raids by offering nomadic warlords noble wives in marriage and paying tribute in exchange for peace. Perhaps more notably, he avoided a future civil war for succession when he followed the advice of his honest councilors rather than his ambitious concubine. His honesty was also such that he divided the empire into provinces governed by kings, several of whom were not related to his blood. He payed for this act of trust, since two of these unrelated kings revolted, and although he suppressed them with success, he died from his wounds in battle in 195 BCE. It is said that Gaozu scolded the physician who assured him of a cure, and declared that it was the will of Heaven* for him to meet his end. As necessary an evil as an empire was, Gaozu, much like his earlier neighbor Chandragupta, was the best his land could offer to rule it.  


* Also called Tian. This was the supreme God of the China, first established as a state-cult by the Shang Dynasty. As supreme priests of the land, it is thus possible that emperors were henotheists, but there was no suppression against or competition with the traditional practices of Chinese Folk Religion. We see  signs of monotheism only in philosophical writings, particularly of Mozi and Laozi, and their followers.


QIN SHI HUANG (born Zhao Zheng)

Emperor Qin Shi HuangThis is the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, who ruled for 27 years. Unlike Gaozu, he had a princely birth, his father being king of the state Qin. Another historical account debases him as the illegitimate son of an eminent politician and friend of the Qin king, named Lu Buwei. There is no certainty in this report, and some historians dismiss it as a falsehood invented to disparage the emperor. Nevertheless, as has already been shown in this series, parentage does not determine whether one is a good or bad polytheist. Zhao Zheng, as he was known before becoming emperor, proved himself early as a merciless punisher of treason. In 235 BCE, still a young man of 23, he had the family and retainers of his half-brother, who had revolted and defected to another state, all executed as an example. A third case went as follows. Lu Buwei, who feared that his affair with Zheng’s mother would be exposed, he got one of his agents in the palace to use the royal seal of the queen dowager to gather an army to revolt and seize power. Having failed to do so, Zheng ordered that the agent be torn to pieces by horse carriages, and also had the man’s family killed. Furthermore, he confined his mother to her house until her death. Although the scheming Lu Buwei committed suicide, King Zheng replaced him with a powerful minister, Li Si, who would match his own harshness.

Since an empire had become a necessary evil for China, Zheng is not to be blamed for waging wars that many others took part in. However, considering the great numbers of deaths and destruction, it was to be expected that the new emperor would give some comfort to a suffering people and land. The two attempts against his life before he became emperor, and a third one after, should have made him a cautious ruler, rather than resentful towards human nature. But instead of taking his new title of emperor as an opportunity to promote good and provide for the welfare of society, he sought only to punish faults and strengthen the empire. His minister succeeded in dividing the empire into provinces, counties and districts to facilitate administration and taxation; naturally, standards in measure, weight, currency, and writing followed. These were elementary accomplishments necessary to any empire. There are four large projects that could have been considered promising, if all of them were not carried out so cruelly and in the wrong way. First, he abolished the feudal system, but in doing so, he made the people directly subject to his demands for labor. Second, he used several hundred thousand laborers to construct what later became the Great Wall, in order to protect the borders from northern raids. Innumerable laborers died unnecessary deaths there; it is estimated up to a million. Third, he ordered similar numbers of men to dig a long canal to connect north and south territories more directly, especially for his armies. Fourth, his minister suppressed books and authors, in order to control the state without opposition. Only the state could teach politics and philosophy, and even historical books, which recounted the past deeds of kings, were burned as bad examples. As a strict follower of Legalism, Li Si attacked the harmonious teachings of Confucius, which actually advocated obedience to authority, and, along with burning books, the emperor is said to have ordered 460 men to be buried alive. It is disputed whether these martyrs were Confucius scholars who protested, or priests and shamans who were accused of keeping secrets about prolonging life and health from the emperor. The emperor’s arrogance and lust for power drove him to great lengths to acquire a sort of elixir that would make him immortal. After a long, cruel reign, it is believed he died by drinking mercury, a substance he hoped would enable him to live forever. But only his evils proved immortal; having left behind no will, an ambitious minister, a weak son, and a hateful reputation among his subjects, his empire soon descended into ruin, giving way to a righteous and worthy leader, Gaozu.  


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