Reviews

Secrets of China's First Emperor & China's Great Wall

In their best moments Secrets of China’s First Emperor and China’s Great Wall inspire in the viewer a strange mixture of awe, wonder and pity.


Secrets of China's First Emperor: Tyrant and Visionary

Distributor: Koch
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2008-06-10

China's Great Wall

Distributor: Koch
MPAA rating: Unrated
US DVD Release Date: 2008-06-10
First date: 2006

Who could witness the astounding rise of China and not be moved to a powerful and searching curiosity? They would be as silly as the Chinese in the Ming Dynasty who refused to learn about the strange pale guys with beards that were showing up in Guangdong. Our friend may well think,” Well, since almost everything they have (compass, gunpowder, paper etc.) is derived from our technology, they must be ready to embrace our superior Confucian culture and pay homage to our Emperor.” Not.

Watching Secrets of China’s First Emperor and China’s Great Wall is an excellent way for outsiders to begin shedding their ignorance of what may soon be the most powerful nation on Earth. These thought-provoking documentaries not only introduce us to China’s rich history, they also clear up a few misconceptions. In their best moments they inspire in the viewer a strange mixture of awe, wonder and pity.

The terrible story of Qin (pronounced Chin) Shi Huang is certainly awe-inspiring. Born in 259 B.C. as a prince of Qin, one of the seven warring kingdoms that comprised China, Qin Shi Huang was not only the unifier and founder of China but also its near destroyer. His million-man army showed no mercy. Prisoners were buried alive and soldiers gained promotion by giving a severed head to their commanders.

The intellectual and psychic violence was even worse. All writings not using the official script, all non-Qin histories and the works of Confucius, were gathered and burned. The 460 scholars who objected to this were buried alive. To picture the enormity of the cultural loss (not least the loss of life), imagine what western culture would be like if the Roman Emperors had destroyed all books not written in Latin. A few brave scholars managed to hide some precious books.

The ideology of the Qin dynasty was legalism. All Confucian and local traditions governing every aspect of life were replace by one centralized code. State violence and the fear of it were to be the key to an orderly if dystopian society. Under legalism, morality was irrelevant while fear was vital.

Amidst the horror, some beneficial things were accomplished. Weights and measures were standardized. A coinage was established that was used until 1912. A network of roads equal to the Roman system was established. The first of a series of Great Walls was completed in only 15 years, stretching over 3,000 miles. Most importantly, the concept of a unified China under a single government was established.

Of course no human being can commit such deeds without going mad. Over the course of his reign, Qin Shi Huang becomes ever more reclusive, more paranoid and more fearful of death. Alchemists were hired to search for the elixir of life and the most remarkable tomb on the planet was prepared for his afterlife. To build the tomb, 700 thousand peasants were conscripted, branded and put to work. Over 100,000 died.

For two millennia this story was only found in Historical Records a chronicle written by Sima Qian two centuries after Qin’s death. Most of it was treated with considerable skepticism, mainly because the chronicle described a tomb that was too spectacular to be believed and whose location had been lost. This all changed in 1974, when some peasants found some pieces of terra cotta and archeologists went to investigate.

What they found was a tomb that rivaled the great pyramids at Giza. To date, 34 years of intense excavation has barely unearthed one quarter of the mausoleum complex. Amazingly, the chronicle has described the tomb with complete accuracy. The scale and sophistication of the tomb are breathtaking.

The first thing that was found was a life size army of over 7,000 terra cotta warriors. There are ranks of infantry, crossbowmen and charioteers each with individual features. Weapons were found perfectly preserved because the Chinese used chromium-plated steel, which was re-invented in Europe in 1938! Later a complete terra cotta orchestra was discovered along with terra cotta bureaucrats and scholars.

Also discovered was a river decorated with over 40 bronze statues of cranes, geese and swans. The casting was so advanced that we can’t currently duplicate it. Even more amazing are indications that a vast chamber recreating the lakes, rivers and seas of China using mercury exists. The actual tomb of Qin has not yet been found. The chronicles say that all of his concubines that hadn’t born him children were sealed in there. What wonders and terrors wait to be discovered.

O we are building the dream, to keep out the barbarians

O we are bearing an eternal curse that has confused gods and humans

Lord of Heaven, how long is this wall?

Longer than a hundred wars

Lord of Heaven, when will our suffering end?

When water is heavier than sand

O my dream is a grave near home, where I can lie on a peaceful slope

O wide and rich is our land, nourished by blood and endless hope

-- The First Emperor by Ha Jin and Tan Dun

One of the more interesting things that one learns from watching China’s Great Wall was how ambivalent the Chinese were about it. In fact it took over 150 years of westerners gaping and exclaiming in wonder before it became a source of Chinese pride. China’s Great Wall does an excellent job of explaining this hostile apathy.

The most important reason is that every wall built to keep foreigners out (or citizens in) is a sign of profound weakness. All walls, from Hadrian’s Wall in Roman Britain to the French Maginot line to the Berlin Wall and the current Border Wall going being built by the United States, are representative of internal decay, no matter how impressive the wall is. As the Chinese have learned over the millennia, if you’re building a wall you’ve already lost.

China’s Great Wall should have been named China’s Great Walls. China has been building walls for centuries before unification and almost every dynasty has built a great wall on its northern frontier since. Most of these walls were built out of pounded earth and straw. The walls were supplemented by watchtowers, signal towers, and forts, and all are masterpieces of construction and human sorrow. Always built by forced labor, Chinese tradition (and Ming construction records) has it that one man dies for every three feet of wall constructed. When one considers that over 24,000 miles of walls have been built over the ages, the human cost is incredible.

The most famous wall buster of them all, Genghis Khan, famously said, “A wall is only as strong as the men who guard it.” And this is the greatest defect in the Great Wall system. After a dynasty goes through the enormous expense to build such a wall, there is precious little left to spend supporting the garrisons manning it. Indeed, conditions for troops stationed on the wall were so bad that many would desert and join the steppe peoples on the other side. Other troops would mutiny and become bandits or even overthrow the Emperor.

So why go through all this expense if the project is doomed to fail? The problem was that no other solution was financially or culturally possible. To deal with the nomads of the steppes militarily required a huge standing army of well-trained horsemen. This is prohibitively expensive and was able to be done only by dynasties at the height of their vigor.

Another solution was to buy off the nomadic tribes with tributes of silk, silver and princesses, which was unbearably humiliating. The obvious solution of signing treaties and trading on equal terms was culturally impossible. According to the Chinese worldview, barbarians such as Mongols (or Englishmen) were not to be dealt with at all. Even allowing barbarians (non Chinese) to pay tribute was regarded as a slight to Chinese honor. This attitude held for over 2,000 years, only somewhat subdued in recent history by the colonialists' guns. Western nations may want to rethink some of the assumptions behind their trade policies with China.

The last of the Great Walls built by the Chinese is the famous “Stone Dragon”. Begun in the mid 1500s and finished in 1644, its scale and beauty is breathtaking. One of the greatest engineering and logistical feats in human history, its construction led directly to the downfall of the Ming Dynasty when a group of ill fed and unpaid soldiers rebelled, formed their own army, and deposed the Ming Emperor. As a result, a Ming general allowed the Manchus to enter and set up the Qing dynasty. Still, it’s a very impressive wall.

Indeed, there are scenes of great beauty in both documentaries. One is a depiction of young students learning to write in the classical fashion. The combination of elegance and simplicity is a powerful statement. Another scene shows what an Imperial banquet looked like. I’ve eaten Chinese food my whole life but this meal was incredible. It gave me a mad urge to collect porcelain. I also now hope to one-day travel to the tomb of Qin Shi Huang and witness the magnificence of ancient China. These DVDs are truely eye openers.

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