The Chinese Emperor, by Jean Levi, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 341 pages, $18.95
Bureaucratic totalitarianism is often thought to be an invention of the 20th century, an evil alchemy of 19th-century Marxist ideology and 20th-century Leninist bureaucracy capable of transmuting precious freedoms into base slavery. But credit for this political sorcery must be given where credit is due. The inventor of the iron cage of totalitarianism is not Vladimir Ilich Lenin—though it is of course his specter that looms over the peoples of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe—but an emperor of ancient China, the Ch'in Shih Huang Ti, or first emperor of the Chin dynasty.
Throughout most of Chinese history, peasants could go about their daily lives unmolested by the government, except for taxes and occasional stints of corvée labor. However despotic the ruler who sat on the dragon throne, however much he terrorized his courtiers at the capital and his officials in the cities and major towns, off in the villages a kind of grassroots democracy flourished. Peasants summed up their freedom from oppressive government in a folk saying: "Heaven is high and the emperor is far away."
The first emperor of the Chin dynasty, who unified China for the first time in 221 B.C., sought to collapse this distance between himself and his subjects. During an age when the reach of even the most ambitious rulers exceeded their grasp, the Chin emperor sought to make all the population of China accountable to him. Acting through an enormous cadre of bureaucrats, a complex skein of laws, and a highly elaborated ideology, he very largely succeeded. In so doing the Chin emperor became the archetype for a political monster that has become all to common in our modern age. More than two millennia before George Orwell coined the term, ancient China endured the world's first Big Brother.
The Chin emperor is a household name throughout the Orient, yet few in the West, outside of a handful of Orientalists, have heard of this grandfather of all despots. Now French sinologist Jean Levi's new novel, based closely on the historical record, makes his story accessible to all.
We are introduced to the Chin emperor as a young man. Blessed with an acute mind, but limited by a weak constitution, he is a Chinese Strelnikov, a classical ascetic of the type that make such formidably single-minded revolutionaries. Pleasures of the flesh bore and even repel him, and he throws all of his energies into the quest for power. He launches a series of campaigns that soon bring most of what constitutes modern China into his domain, creating the largest empire the world had known up to that time. For the next 12 years, until his death in 210 B.C., he rules with an iron hand.
But it is his specific policies that so stunningly anticipated the bureaucratic totalitarian empires of our own century. To begin with, a special cadre of inspectors was established to keep watch over officialdom. At the provincial level, for example, there was a civil governor, a military commander, and a political commissar. The duties of the commissar were, like their latterday counterparts in Communist countries, to spy on the governor and military commander and make sure that they did not deviate from the official line or criticize government policy.
The emperor's credo was that "a wise prince doesn't ask his subjects to behave well—he uses methods that prevent them from behaving badly." Every arena of life was to be regulated. The people were not permitted to bear arms, and all weapons were confiscated and sent to the capital. Trade was viewed as "parasitical activity" and was made illegal. Wandering minstrels were banned and replaced by authorized troupes of singers and musicians whose repertories had to be approved by the Ministry of the Interior.
As the laws proliferated, the bureaucracies charged with enforcing them waxed large. Fierce punishments calculated to squelch any murmur of resistance were meted out to violators. For major capital crimes, not only the offender but his whole family were annihilated. Those convicted of lesser crimes were sent by the millions to the gulag, where they labored on government projects. Yet still there was dissent.
It was the wealth of the country, the Chin emperor concluded, that made the people more difficult to govern. To be rendered pliant, the people must be reduced to penury. To kill off the parasites—orators and scholars, thieves and troublemakers—all surpluses must be destroyed. Only a hand-to-mouth existence would cure the people of seditious thoughts.
At first, with an eye to squandering the rich peasant stocks of grain and livestock, the Chin emperor launched a series of wars of conquest. But in the peace that followed each campaign the peasants confounded him by quickly waxing more prosperous than before.
What was required, he saw, was a project of such monumental dimensions that it would soak up the wealth of the country for a decade or more. After considering a range of proposals, he reached his decision. The empire would undertake to shut itself in against the unruly savagery of the outside world. Millions of slaves and convicts were sent north, and work began on the Great Wall.
At the same time the world's first cult of personality was invented. Clever ministers attributed godlike powers to the Chin emperor, and official bards spread stories of his fabulous accomplishments throughout the length and breadth of the empire. One minister had carved in the rock of a sacred mountain gigantic footprints, four feet long and two feet wide, and let it be known that these had been made by the august emperor's shoes. At the summit of another sacred mountain another minister had placed a set of chess pieces as tall as a man. The emperor, he avowed, had ascended the mount and played chess with the gods. Everywhere steles were raised with deeply carved inscriptions lauding the emperor and the accomplishments of his rule. "All men under the sun work with one heart," these read in part. "Morals have been standardized. Neighbors keep watch on one another, relatives inform on relatives, and thieves lie low!" Few among his fearful and awestruck subjects dared disobey the Chin emperor's edicts.
Still, despite the harshness of his laws and the strength of his personality cult, the occasional act of sedition did occur. The only way to achieve perfect control over his subjects, the emperor reasoned, was to eradicate thought itself.
"I must be the sole criterion of truth," the Chin emperor said to himself. "A law that was the subject of debate ceased to be a law at all: it was no longer natural or necessary. Did people discuss the validity of hunger or thirst?…His edicts must be like night and day, autumn and spring, bringing life or death, plenty or devastation. He must stultify his people, emptying their hearts."
An imperial edict was issued:
"Anyone owning classical books or treatises on philosophy must hand them in within thirty days. After thirty days, anyone found in possession of such writings will be branded on the cheek and sent to work as a laborer on the Great Wall or some other government project. The only exceptions are books on medicine, drugs, astrology, and agronomy.
"Private schools will be forbidden. Those who wish to study law will do so under government officials.
"Anyone indulging in political or philosophical discussion will be put to death, and his body exposed in public.
"Scholars who use examples from antiquity to criticize the present, or who praise early dynasties in order to throw doubt on the policies of our own, most enlightened sovereign, will be executed, they and their families!
"Government officials who turn a blind eye to the above-mentioned crimes will be deemed guilty by virtue of the principle of collective responsibility, and will incur the same punishment as that inflicted for the offense itself."
The consequences of the edict were swift and devastating. Pyres of burning books lit up the cities and towns, as China's ancient literature was reduced to ashes. For possessing forbidden texts, 3 million men had their faces branded with the stamp of infamy and were deported to the Wall. Numerous scholars committed suicide in protest, while others hanged or drowned themselves out of fear.
But it is for his punishment of 463 famous Confucian scholars that the Chin emperor is notorious. These were individuals that the emperor personally tried and found guilty of conspiracy, sabotage, and lese-majesty. He sentenced them to the five tortures—beating, amputation of the nose, branding of the cheek, amputation of the feet, and castration. They were then buried up to their necks in the earth and their heads crushed by chariot wheels.
The late Chairman Mao Zedong, an avid reader of historical chronicles, was a great student and admirer of the Chin emperor. When his enemies castigated him as a second Chin emperor, China's worst political epithet, he was not insulted but flattered. He complained only that the comparison somewhat understated his accomplishment. "The Chin emperor put only 463 scholars to death," he said. "I have put 463 thousand scholars to death."
That was, for a modern totalitarian dictator, a strikingly candid statement to make. One of the few political advances that has been made in the past century is the incorporation of the Lie. While the Chin emperor was never afraid to say what he was up to, Mao Zedong and other modern despots, rare moments of candor aside, either say nothing about what they are doing or disguise it by ideology.
Mao's other improvement on the archaic despotism of the Chin emperor came in the realm of thought control. While Mao, like the Chin emperor, was in the habit of simply murdering those who engaged in seditious acts, he was less harsh towards those who merely thought or spoke them. Instead of ordering their execution, he required them to attend struggle sessions, at which they publicly recanted their political sins. Thus humiliated, they thereafter seldom posed political problems for the authorities.
The Chinese Emperor is a book that deserves to be read twice, once as a fast-paced tale of intrigue, adventure, and power, and once more as a chilling harbinger of the second Chin emperor to come.
Steven W. Mosher is director of Asian Studies at the Claremont Institute and the author of Broken Earth: The Rural Chinese and Journey to the Forbidden China.