How Emperor Qin Shi Huang Got His New Clothes

Since the 1980s, China’s harsh first emperor has become a popular subject for sensitive, revisionist portrayals in TV and film.

In the recently concluded hit historical drama “Qin Dynasty Epic,” Qin Shi Huang (259 B.C.-210 B.C.) — the first emperor of China — is depicted as a benevolent ruler who wishes to eliminate the kings of other states, unify the country, and bring happiness to the people.

This is in sharp contrast to ancient China’s traditional depiction, which sees him as a tyrant rising from bloody wars. Yet, such empathy for Qin Shi Huang hasn’t been uncommon in popular Chinese culture over the past four decades, reflecting both a reinterpretation of historical figures and a shift in mainstream values.

Since the Han dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D.), which followed the Qin, Confucian thought has dominated Chinese society. Qin Shi Huang was viewed as a tyrannical, unruly figure who put his own ambition before the lives of ordinary people and suppressed Confucianism by “burning the books and burying the scholars.” This assessment lasted in China right until the end of the monarchy in 1912, when intellectuals who accepted Enlightenment tenets attacked Qin Shi Huang as a totem of imperial power. Following the founding of the People’s Republic, playwright Guo Moruo even used Qin Shi Huang to satirize Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Kuomintang, in his historical play “Gao Jianli.”

Although some during the Republican period looked to reappraise China’s first emperor, the most significant change didn’t come about until the 1980s. At that time, new historicism emerged in Chinese history and literature, which advocated reassessing authority, and deconstructing and generating new historical narratives. Under this influence, historical dramas such as “Yongzheng Dynasty” and “For the Sake of the Republic” boldly recreated and reevaluated figures like the Yongzheng Emperor, Empress Dowager Cixi, and Sun Yat-sen, giving audiences a refreshing change and triggering heated debates.

Amid this new wave, Qin Shi Huang was an important object for examination. In 1986, Asia Television in Hong Kong launched the first historical drama based on his life titled “Rise of the Great Wall.” Shortly after, broadcast stations across the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan all followed suit, releasing dramas focused on the emperor. In the 1990s, films and TV dramas presented more diverse views, both critical of his despotism and admiring of his achievements, reflecting the complex attitudes producers had toward the emperor. Continue to read the full article here


– This article was written by Zong Cheng, and translated by David Ball. It originally appeared on Sixth Tone