“The Many Lives of the First Emperor of China” by Anthony J Barbieri-Low


The First Emperor, founder of the short-lived Qin Dynasty (221-207 BCE) and even “China” writ large by some accounts, is a well-known historical figure. The excavation and subsequent global circulation of the Terracotta Warriors, crafted to guard his tomb, have given rise to a certain “Qinomania” Stories of the entombed ruler only heighten the fascination of the mass-produced and life-sized soldiers. Born into a hostage situation, the man known as Ying Zheng broke with the past, burned books, and buried scholars alive as he forged a new kind of centralized state. He survived assassination attempts and became infamously obsessed with a doomed quest for immortality. But how do we really know what we know about this world-shaking unifier of “all under heaven”? 

Anthony J Barbieri-Low’s The Many Lives of the First Emperor of China is evidence that historical “meta-analysis” can produce a book as absorbing as a good narrative history. It draws the reader into a drama grounded not in biographical detail but in a dazzling array of historical sources and cultural artifacts. The portrait that emerges is a portrait of us: we who cast our gaze on the past to understand the present and deliver exhortations for the future.


The Many Lives of the First Emperor of China, Anthony J Barbieri-Low (University of Washington Press, August 2022)
The Many Lives of the First Emperor of China, Anthony J Barbieri-Low (University of Washington Press, August 2022)

In Part 1 of his four-part book, Barbieri-Low analyzes thousands of years of historical narratives and interpretations, beginning with the “fountainhead” of all First Emperor stories, the accounts of Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian. Over millennia, Confucian disdain for a ruler devoid of virtue gave way to 20th century evaluations grounded in historical determinism, psychological projection, and hero worship, particularly that of Mao, who celebrated the First Emperor as a unifier while boasting of his own even greater ruthlessness in meting out of revolutionary violence. In every era, including our own, people looked upon the past only to find a First Emperor who suited their own worldviews. Barbieri-Low concludes this section with a striking observation from the classroom, the site that inspired the book:


I often assign an essay in which I ask students to argue for a historical characterization of the First Emperor as hero, tyrant, nation builder, or human-rights abuser. Twenty years ago … international students schooled in mainland China overwhelmingly characterized the First Emperor as a hero or nation builder, while most American students determined him to be a cruel tyrant. In recent years, however, I have seen even those domestic students shift toward the hero assessment, reflecting larger trends in American society that reveal a worrisome attraction towards strongmen and demagogues.


If the book had ended there, it would be a success. But Barbieri-Low has more to offer. Part 2 examines “Unearthed Voices from the Qin Conquest”, or recently excavated materials that predate Sima Qian’s influential but biased account. Relevant archeological sources include a mass grave discovered in Shanxi and dated to 260 BCE, a date that corresponds with a brutal battle during the Qin conquest of the state of Zhao. Now, when I think of the Terracotta Warriors in their orderly rows, I will also think of the ill-fated soldiers of Zhao, “heaped all together” in what was likely “a mass burial of war casualties.”. “All but one,” writes Barbieri-Low, “had died from major trauma, either through being decapitated, cut in two, riddled with arrows, or having his head smashed in.” These dozens of men were among the estimated “1,500,000 enemy soldiers killed by the Qin armies in their century-long war of conquest.”


Following that grim analysis, part 3 takes a closer look at representations of iconic episodes in the First Emperor’s life, some of them apocryphal. Part 4 examines the First Emperor and his tomb through cultural representations, produced by individuals and corporate entities as diverse as Guo Moruo, Franz Kafka, and the American studio behind the video game Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb. With this organizational schema, some repetitiveness creeps in, while other worthy case studies, including riffs on the First Emperor in contemporary science fiction, are left out. But at every turn, there are small revelations. Among the better-known historical adaptations, like Zhang Yimou’s Hero, one finds analysis of obscure but fascinating gems, like Peng Jingya’s “The First Emperor of Qin Goes to Sea Seeking Immortals”, a story published in 1940s Japanese-occupied Shanghai which criticized imperialist Japan’s promise of modernization under its imposed tutelage, and slid past the censors as a story superficially about an emperor and a goddess.

The book is a hardback university press publication with blurbs by top scholars of early China. But if you’ve ever stood agape at the material riches of the Terracotta Warriors or sunk deep into an armchair with a good work of historical fiction or biography, then this book is also for you.

Elizabeth Lawrence is Assistant Professor of History at Augustana College.