The First Emperor
There is a legend of a man who forged a nation. It says that he was a great warrior and a ruthless tyrant. He was driven by an obsession to build the greatest nation on earth. This drove him to insanity … but the vision became China and he was its first emperor.
When the first emperor was finally laid to rest, the legend continues, he had become the most powerful man on earth. For 30 years, he had subjected China to the most violent and bloody phase in its history, yet he had achieved the impossible: he had unified a people – 10 times as many subjects as the pharaohs of Egypt had – across an empire that would outlast Rome by 1,000 years. And he fortified it with the single largest structure on earth: the Great Wall.
When the doors of his tomb were closed for the final time, the most fantastic part of that legend was born. The great ruler, it was said, was sealed in a bronze model of his world, surrounded by rivers and seas of flowing mercury.
For more than two millennia, the legend remained, but who this man really was and how he had founded this nation remained shrouded in mystery. The only detailed information came from a single written history, compiled 100 years after the first emperor’s death: the Shi-Ji, the records of the ‘grand historian’ Sima Qian.
According to Professor Robin D S Yates of McGill University, in the Shi-Ji, ‘we’re able to recreate the first emperor from the perspective of his high officials and of those who tried to assassinate him, and even from the point of view of the ordinary person in the street. It’s an entire world that Sima Qian has given to us. But for 2,000 years, all we had was this text.’
Then in 1974, the world was stunned when archaeologists found the Terracotta Army in Xi’an in the centre of China. This, the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century, gave the first real substance to the legend.
‘With the discovery of the pottery army,’ says Professor Yates, ‘we began to discover the truth behind Sima Qian’s story. It’s like finding the real Camelot, except that it is, of course, 10,000 times more interesting and more detailed and more fascinating.’
‘What we knew from the historical texts, from these legends, was the tale of a person who seemed larger than life, almost impossibly large as an historical figure,’ says Professor Jeffrey Riegel of the University of California, Berkeley. ‘But if someone could be responsible for a burial complex of that enormity, then all of this now suddenly rings true.’