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.”
From left to right, posters from the first (2009), second (2013), and third (2017) seasons of “The Qin Empire.” From Douban
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.
Left: A promotional image for the historical drama “Rise of the Great Wall”; right: A still from film “The Emperor’s Shadow.” From Douban
“The Emperor’s Shadow,” directed by Zhou Xiaowen and co-produced by Ocean Film Company and the state-backed Xi’an Film Studio marked the beginning of the Qin Shi Huang fever in the 1990s. The keyword in the movie is “unification”: The King of Qin (who later becomes Emperor Qin Shi Huang) works hard, but is frustrated that he can’t truly unite the country because the “people’s hearts and minds” are not unified, and so he turns to the power of music. Despite its more nuanced depiction of Qin Shi Huang as a lonely man, the film drew criticism for supposedly justifying his brutality and distorting the real history of his reign.
Such historical narratives, and criticisms of it, extended to director Zhang Yimou’s 2002 movie “Hero.” A swordsman called Nameless is tasked with killing the King of Qin, but eventually spares his life. But why doesn’t he kill him? Another assassin named Broken Sword explains: tianxia, rendered in the movie’s translation as “our land.” He says in the movie: “As long as the wars continue, many will die. While only the King of Qin can end the killing.” The King of Qin in the movie is determined and resolute, forgoing talk of love or children to achieve his wish of unifying the nation. Interestingly, Chen Daoming, who plays the king, had recently played the Qing dynasty’s Kangxi Emperor — a figure often hailed as a model leader for ushering in a golden age of prosperity.
A still from the 2002 film “Hero.” From Douban
From the 1996 movie “The Emperor’s Shadow” to the TV series “The Qin Empire” that started in 2009, it’s not difficult to notice that Qin Shi Huang tends to be depicted in mainstream TV and movies in a positive light. Cultural research scholar Dai Jinhua at Peking University once argued that recent reinterpretations of historical figures embody a greater “realization of power.” Dai maintained that creators of films and shows become incarnations of the emperor, taking on his concerns and sorrows, with overarching concepts such as tianxia, “the people,” and “unity” becoming common buzzwords.
It’s no coincidence that the evolution of feudal monarchs on screen has accompanied the opening up of Chinese society and diversification of values. The scheming of emperors, condemned from the bourgeois revolution up to the socialist revolution period, regained legitimacy and is being openly presented or even worshiped. In particular, charismatic figures have become increasingly attractive as values have expanded or even split.
However, mainstream culture during China’s reform period wasn’t entirely empathetic of monarchs. In the 1998 film “The Emperor and the Assassin,” director Chen Kaige adopted a different take on Qin Shi Huang. He was no longer a symbolic tyrant or powerful leader, but rather an ordinary man, swept along by history, adapting his identity and mission every step of the way. Viewers are presented with a ruler who is sensitive, capricious, and wracked with insecurities — he has a floating bridge specially constructed as a reminder of his youth, and he buried alive children in the state of Zhao to completely defeat them. He commands the battlefield on horseback, killing multiple enemies in a single blow but loses himself in fear when hunted by assassins.
A still from the 1998 film “The Emperor and the Assassin” showing Lady Zhao and Qin Shi Huang. From Douban
Other characters in “The Emperor and the Assassin” also challenge the reasons for hailing Qin Shi Huang’s achievements. Lady Zhao, played by Gong Li, witnesses the tragedy that befalls her motherland defeated by Qin, telling the King of Qin: “I’ve been so stupid. I thought that with you, the people no longer needed to shed blood. But on my way here, I saw people hanging from the eaves of their homes and tied to trees before being executed — that was the work of your soldiers. Villages have been razed to the ground and cities lie in ashes. This was all you. How are you any different from those other kings?” After the movie “Hero” was released, Chen expressed his dissatisfaction with Zhang’s film even more openly, saying: “I don’t think it’s right to sacrifice one’s own life for the good of the collective.”
The humanism in “The Emperor and the Assassin” remains an important trend in present-day culture. Despite its apparent difference from new historicism, humanism likewise emerges from the debris of the orthodox ideology that centered on class struggles, representing an urge to rewrite classical narratives of history. In some cases, both can be found in the same production, although such attempts are not always successful. One major problem lies not in the palace, but in the depiction — or lack thereof — of ordinary citizens: Even in humanistic productions, humanism is often disproportionately projected on individuals, rather than the masses.
It is an interesting journey to appreciate Chinese historical dramas through the lens of changing worldviews and value systems. Yet, I’m looking forward to future productions featuring untold stories and figures, bringing people who bear the consequences of the rulers’ merits and demerits to the screen.
Translator: David Ball; editor: Cai Yineng; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: A promotional image for the TV series “Qin Dynasty Epic,” 2020. From @电视剧大秦赋 on Weibo)