China’s first empire (under Qin Shi Huang) came into being when Qin orchestrated the end of 200 years of war, and introduced a time of peace and order in accordance with the principles of the Legalist philosophy. That philosophy demanded that leaders and states establish and rigorously follow the rule of law; that administration be fair, objective and independent of class; and that the state, business and the economy be managed in accordance with the best known practices of the day. It was a winning scenario.
There was only one fly in this grand ointment. The Confucians, who had been disenfranchised when Qin established the empire, maintained a massive, well-orchestrated conspiracy to undermine the emperor. But to their chagrin, they discovered that the emperor was loved – and his people dreamt – even more than did the emperor – that he would be immortal. Nobody however dreamed that the emperor would die unexpectedly. As soon as his death was announced, the Confucians mobilized. Now the emperor’s successors came under their relentless attack. Unlike Qin Shi Huang, his successors were of limited strength, intelligence and competence. Court intrigue, and what passed for mass communications 2200 years ago was beyond them. In short order, the Confucians toppled the first empire and launched the second – “Han” – empire of China.
The Han administration had a challenge greater than that it had faced during the hated years of the first empire. They now had court control but – being dictatorial and warlike – they needed a subservient and willing population. They had grand plans. They would return the Middle Kingdom to feudalism, re-empower the military and nobles, and embark on campaigns of conquest and domination. To accomplish that they realized that they had to energize and re-define their propaganda campaign. But this new campaign was a demonstration of propaganda genius.
In those days, messages were conveyed not by press release but by stories. The emerging Qin kingdom used stories (known as persuasions) to convince the people of the Middle Kingdom that Qin was endowed with the Heaven-sent right to found an empire. The Han – without hesitation – followed in their footsteps. They ramped up their campaign of discredit against all things Qin and Legalist while maintaining and enhancing the structures, laws, policies and practices of the Qin administration. What the Qin had built was kept for the most part – but all that was good in that inventory and kept was claimed to be a Han invention. Amazingly, not only the people of China 2200 years ago believed it – much of this is believed to this day.
One of the stories told by the second empire was the story of “Meng Chiang-nü.” Her tragic life, as the widow of a man who died during forced labor on the Great Wall, is an immortal Chinese folktale (Waldron, Arthur. The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth.) To this day, she is believed to have been a real person and is a living symbol of Qin Shi Huang’s alleged tyranny.
“Meng’s husband, Wan, a scholar, was taken from their home and carried away to help with the building of the Great Wall. Meng, saddened by the loss of her husband, waited for news of him. Much time passed without hearing of his whereabouts. One night in her sleep he came to her and told her he was freezing to death. She awoke and made the decision to travel to the area where she thought he was working and take him clothes she had made for him. During her journey she almost froze to death in a snowstorm. A crow flew down next to her as she slept in the snow and, upon her awakening, showed her how to flap her wings so she could join the crows and fly to her destination.
Upon her arrival at the Great Wall she learned that her husband had died. She learned that he had been buried with many other workers in a section of the Great Wall. She searched the wall but couldn’t locate his body. Anger arose from within her and poured out of her, causing lightning to split the sky and rain to pour from the heavens, washing away whole sections of the Great Wall. As the bones of the workers swirled about, Meng pricked her finger and asked that her blood penetrate the bones of her husband, Wan. She located his bones and wrapped them in the clothes she had brought for him.
The cruel emperor, Qin Shih Huangdi, was furious with her but taken with her beauty. The emperor gave her a choice of coming with him or being beheaded. Meng responded by asking for three wishes: to have her husband buried in the style of a prince, to have the kingdom mourn him for forty-nine days, and to give him a public funeral.
The emperor granted her the three wishes. After Wan’s funeral she thanked the emperor and then threw herself into the sea, for she could not stand the thought of being with the emperor. The emperor commanded that her body be dragged from the sea, cut into pieces, and her bones ground into dust. As they threw her dust into the sea, thousands of little silvery fish filled the waters.
So today if you visit the Great Wall next to the Eastern Sea, you and others in China will remember the story of Meng and Wan.”
This story is complete nonsense, but it is a powerful one and it has made its way into Chinese history, opera, theatre and music. It incorporates several Han myths:
- that Qin Shi Huang built the Great Wall
- that the Great Wall was built by forced labour
- that Qin Shi Huang hated intellectuals
- that Qin Shi Huang was cruel
- that a common person would rather die than be in his presence
If you are interested in reading the fascinating story of how a small kingdom in pre-China was able to end 200 years of internecine war and found the great nation of China, read: The School of Sun Tzu – Winning Empires without War. It is available from Iuniverse.com.