Challenging the Official History of The Art of War and the Terra Cotta Army of Qin Shi Huang
There are two great mysteries about the life of Qin Shi Huang, First Emperor of China—and a grand conspiracy. And these tightly related events are of profound significance extending way beyond the borders of China.
The young prince who was far removed from the upper reaches of royal succession in the state of Qin probably didn’t see himself becoming founder and emperor of China. But there were those who saw in him such a destiny. A meeting that was hardly due to chance brought together that prince and a man named Lü Pu-wei. Through careful nurturing, court intrigue and a great deal of luck (including the untimely death of senior members of the royal family) the young prince Cheng assumed the throne of the Qin Kingdom at age 13. Now that was remarkable enough, but who could have imagined that this young man would, in a mere twenty-six years, end the 200-year long “Warring States period” and found a nation?
When War Became Illegal
Qin Shi Huang succeeded in consolidating states that had been engaged in a brutal war for generations. He established a new national capital and system of government (still in place today) and cancelled all military and religious privileges. The new nation, which eliminated feudalism centuries before such a thing was even dreamed possible in Europe, made competence the sole requirement for employment and advancement. Privileges that emanated from military power or religious influence were eliminated. In the new nation rule by law, equality and most importantly – peace – were firmly established. Qin Shi Huang made war illegal.
How did the young king, in just a few short years find out how to end war and found a nation built on peace, and make that happen? The king was firmly committed to the best rule in governance: surround yourself with the most competent advisors and administrators you can find. His court identified the best minds throughout Asia.
They were brought to Qin where he had established a series of academies dedicated to learning and advancement. He gave the academy scholars an incredible challenge. He told them he wanted to end war— forever. And he wanted to build a unified China that would last— forever.
Persuaders of Peace
The scholars worked long and hard. In time, they discovered a fundamental principle that we do not recognize to this day: “Peace,” they said, “cannot be made out of war. Peace can only be realized through peaceful means.”
Having achieved that monumental understanding, they then set out to determine what those peaceful means might look like. They told the king that he needed to engage a battalion of itinerant “persuaders” to travel throughout the Middle Kingdom. They were to challenge people’s perceptions and assumptions such as the widespread belief that war was natural and unavoidable. They were prompted to imagine a time where states lived in harmony, lands were cultivated, and where average people had a real chance at comfort and improvement. These persuaders were masters of their art, and they practiced it in small groups, and the courts of kings.
Persuaders were trained at the academies, and as they travelled the land, they made continual reference to a small manual that had guided their learning, and that was the guide to their new profession. The little manual was pocket sized, and it was produced by Qin’s School of Sun Tzu.
The Mysterious Manual
The manual did not have a name. It time though, it became known as “The Art of War.” This was an invention. The first sentence in the work begins with “The art of war…”. In ancient Chinese that was expressed as ” ping-fa,” but the meaning of ping-fa 2,300 years ago was “the art of diplomacy.” In my opinion, “diplomacy” as preached by the Qin academies meant, “How to manage without the waste of conflict.” The scope of these instructions was both internal and external conflict.
Had someone picked up a copy of the persuader manual, they would think it a jumble of mixed strategies and tactics and odd, unintelligible stuff about military maneuvers. After all, it talked about armies and battles, storming castles and setting fires. Having had the benefit of training under masters, the persuaders knew that the imagery was an aid to learning and understanding and the instructions largely metaphorical.
There may have been another reason for the language and imagery: should a persuader be taken prisoner as a spy, the manual would give nothing away about the methods being followed. If ping-fa had been in non-metaphorical, non-military language, Qin’s plans for peaceful conquest would have been visible. And that could not be allowed to happen. It is fascinating that this ruse has been perpetuated into the twenty-first century.
Today, ping-fa is found in the military strategy and history section of bookstores and libraries. The alleged military context has migrated from the military academies to boardrooms, marital advice and fitness clubs; in fact, it’s found in just about every domain where strident command and control are preached. And often, institutions that live by that philosophy have the militarist version on required reading lists.
Today it is not easy to even gain consideration of the possibility that “Sun Tzu” was a mythical teacher, and that the teachings were metaphorical. That hurdle remains intact despite little or no valid historical verification of the book’s authorship, age, or application. The book remains in the military genre even though there is really nothing military about it, and military commentary usually finds it both incomprehensible and impractical for the management of war.
Qin Shi Huang was the first emperor of a unified China. His remarkable success in ending 200 years of war and founding the empire through peaceful means had followed a methodology fully articulated in a manual that we know today as The Art of War but which author David Jones insists is really a manual for the management of organizations and relations between organizations.
There are great mysteries about the life of Qin Shi Huang, First Emperor of China—and a grand conspiracy. And these tightly related events are of profound significance extending way beyond the borders of China.
A great deal had gone into the plans and execution that ended two hundred years of war and established an empire. There were remarkable achievements in the way the empire was administered, and the changes that had been put in place. Privilege and feudalism were eradicated. Placement and promotion were based on competence—not connections. But the first empire ended in only four years after the death of Qin Shi Huang. What could have gone wrong?
Not Everlasting Life, but a Swift Death for the Emperor
The emperor was on daily medications that were allegedly intended to make him immortal, but they were lead-based, and he died from poisoning. He died before he had fully institutionalized his regime, and he had no named competent successor. There were assassination attempts against the emperor, and it is not unreasonable to suspect that the poisoning may have been intentional. The enemies of Qin Shi Huang, who claimed the “Mantle of Heaven,” considered him a usurper and heretic. In fact, his very existence was an offence to them.
But opposition was not easily mobilized. The state’s royal families had all been moved to the new capital. Their supports and networks has been shattered. All weapons had been confiscated and melted down. But stability and sustainability all depended on a solid core in the empire. It might be said that the first empire was based on a personality – a personality that had achieved miracles – and all of them in the living memory of the population. Perhaps a coup was simply impossible.
With the death of Qin Shi Huang the empire wobbled. It’s likely many thought him immortal. And perhaps recovery might have occurred if a strong successor has followed him. But such was not to happen. A series of weak, unprepared, and ineffectual replacements paved the way for what could have been a simple takeover. The official history states that the first empire was replaced though an armed revolution led by peasants who despised Qin Shi Huang. This is almost certainly false.
Propaganda and Political Fabrication
With their return to power in the Han dynasty, the Confucians and military regained all that they had lost. But popularity and common support were not easily gained. The new regime knew that they had to discredit the life and achievements of the first emperor to ensure they became accepted as the legitimate power in the new nation. They designed and delivered a campaign of dis-information that was extraordinary, unprecedented, and utterly successful. To this day, the second (Han) dynasty is considered to be the founders of China, while Qin Shi Huang and the Qin Kingdom are given short shrift in the official histories.
The dis-information program was brutal. Most of it remains enshrined in what is considered the history of China, even though much of it is unverified. It included alleged facts about the emperor that I dismiss as political fabrication. Included were arguments that the emperor:
- assembled an army of several hundred thousand soldiers to destroy the neighboring states and maintain order;
- decapitated prisoners of war by the tens of thousands;
- buried scholars alive;
- burned all books that did not coincide with his views;
- used the bodies of workers to reinforce the Great Wall;
- spent the wealth of the nation on palaces and luxuries;
- established a system of professional and amateur spies to report on dissidence with severe punishment for real or imagined infractions;
- drove the people into near slavery and poverty to maintain the armed state.
The Incredible Terra Cotta Monument
And now we come to another mystery: Qin Shi Huang’s now-famous terra cotta “army.” Historians and tourism promoters believe it to be an army in the same way that others have declared Ping-fa the “Art of War.” That declaration is based on appearance. Meaning and plain common sense have not been applied.
The terra cotta array, while it has soldiers and transport vehicles, also features a host of other “civilian” images. Guides (and the literature) at Xi’an affirm that it was constructed by the First Emperor “to protect him in the afterlife.” He apparently expected to carry on with his battles even though he was dead. Qin Shi Huang was a brilliant leader. His material and conceptual inventions were centuries ahead of his time, yet we are told that he wanted to be protected by clay soldiers after he died. This is simply nonsense.
The Meaning Behind Ping-Fa
But if this is nonsense, then what were they for? When I took on the job of unearthing what ping-fa was really all about, I first looked at the context within which the book was written. Then, who wrote it? What was it used for? What did it achieve or help achieve? None of these questions have been addressed in the Sun Tzu commentary. They are the critical questions. And in examining the terra cotta array, we need to ask more of the same.
There is a known, and undisputed fact: Qin Shi Huang created a new nation from the warring states. It is also generally agreed that he prohibited war in the new empire. But there is less agreement how he brought all this about. The scant legitimate history about this period and the nation-building process can’t seem to avoid declaring that Qin had a massive army of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and that it crushed those opposed to amalgamation.
Here’s just one example: One report on China’s founding said that the Qin army of 600,000 captured 450,000 in one battle. And the army was so intimidating all these captives stood patiently to be beheaded. This is clearly nonsense. I argue that the evidence strongly supports the idea that he ended war and founded the empire through peaceful means, convincing the warring states that there were far more reasons to come together into a joint empire than to continue fighting among themselves.
Peace, Not War
What would make sense in terms of the Terra Cotta Array is that he wanted to make a profound, and visible statement to the people of China about the terrible times of the 200-year Warring States period, and the grand new times of the Chinese empire. And he would want his people to see exactly what the costs of war were, and how foolish such expenditures were. His advisors made it clear to him that peace did not come from war; actually, more war comes from war. Therefore, he wanted people to come from all areas of the empire to see an exhibit. They could not have helped but to be totally dazzled. Perhaps some did get to see it before the site was terrorized, and almost totally destroyed by the marauding warriors of the Han dynasty. If there were records of the display, its function, and what the people’s reactions were, they did not survive the Han dynasty.
As a final footnote, we have today a book that shows in clear, concise steps how to ensure people can live in peace in a complex environment. We have an exhibit that shows just how dreadful the costs of war are. We are left to conclude that though peace takes a great deal of work to achieve, war takes even more work, and its benefits are not at all evident. Both are artifacts of Qin Shi Huang, the greatest peacemaker and nation builder ever. But both the monument and the book are known throughout the world today— as instruments of war.
Published in the Journal Ancient Origins
2 April, 2017
David G. Jones B.A., M.A.
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 Amazon.ca, Amazon.com and Iuniverse.com.