There are few enough points of continuity between the official state ideology of Maoist China and the ideology espoused by the country's leaders today. But the significance of Qin Shi Huangdi, First August and Divine Emperor and subject of the outstandingly popular BM exhibition, The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army, might be one of them.* In the mid-1970s he had a starring role in one of the more bizarre movements of the Great Helmsman's fading years. This was the so-called Struggle between Confucianism and Legalism, an attempt to recast the whole of Chinese history into a Manichaean conflict between two 'lines'. You had the Confucian bad guys (humanist, conservative, capitalist) and the Legalist good guys (harsh authoritarian proto-socialists, with History on their side). 'Burying the Confucians and burning the books' - for which the First Emperor had been excoriated by centuries of historians - was now reconfigured as the forward-thinking decisiveness necessary to crush backsliding and ensure the victory of the correct line. The modern, slightly (but not much) subtler version of this appears in Zhang Yimou's 2002 film portrayal, Hero. There, the emperor voices in impeccable classical Chinese the sentiment that you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, or, to put it differently: the deaths of many are a necessary part of China's rise to Unity and Greatness. The 'resistance is futile' film clips of the all-conquering armies of Qin, projected onto the walls of the Reading Room, look as if they use some of the costumes from the movie. Underneath the visitor's feet are the old library desks, one of which was arbitrarily decided by curators to be 'Marx's seat', in order to satisfy the curiosity of pious delegations from the East; not so very long ago, either.
LRB 3 January 2008 | PDF Download