Chinese TV series extols unification legacy of emperor Qin

The brutality of Qin Shi Huang's reign has been left out of the television series "Da Qin Fu" or "Qin Dynasty Epic".
The brutality of Qin Shi Huang's reign has been left out of the television series "Da Qin Fu" or "Qin Dynasty Epic".

XI'AN - Most Chinese historians regard Qin Shi Huang, who declared himself the first emperor of a unified China, as one of the country's most ruthless rulers.

Among other things, he oversaw the burning of books and the burying alive of hundreds of outspoken Confucian scholars to unify written Chinese and silence dissent.

An estimated 400,000 slaves and convicts died building the Great Wall to keep out nomadic "barbarians" in the north. Successive dynasties fortified the Great Wall, which now measures more than 21,000km long. 

Millions were enslaved over the four decades it took to build the emperor's Terracotta Army - listed by Unesco as the Eighth Wonder of the World - which guards his mausoleum and protects him in his afterlife.

The mausoleum is located in Xian, in Shaanxi province in central China, which also served as the capital during the Qin dynasty and was previously known as Chang'an or Eternal Peace.

The life-size sculptures of 8,000 terracotta soldiers, 130 wooden chariots and 670 clay horses were first discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well. All were lying 35m under the ground, undisturbed for more than two millennia because thousands of people were killed to prevent the location of the emperor's resting place from being revealed.

The brutality of Qin Shi Huang's reign has been left out of a 78-episode television series Da Qin Fu or Qin Dynasty Epic, no doubt to whitewash his cruelty and underscore his most enduring legacy - unifying China.

In today's context, self-ruled Taiwan is the missing link.

President Xi Jinping declared in a speech on Jan 2, 2019, that China and Taiwan "must be and will be" reunified. The democratic island's ruling Democratic Progressive Party has rejected Mr Xi's peace overture.

"The (political) message of the TV series: There is nothing more important than reunification of the country," said Mr Jeremy Lin, a veteran China watcher and the No. 2 editorial writer at Taiwan's The Journalist magazine.

"China will brook no interference by the US or other foreign forces regarding Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan," Mr Lin said.

Mr Xi and his predecessors have poured billions into modernising the two million-strong People's Liberation Army (PLA). In a bold move, he has restructured the PLA and cracked down on corruption to ban the buying and selling of promotions in a bid to turn the world's biggest armed forces into a lean and mean machine that is capable of winning wars.

"China's rise hinges on it becoming a strong country (first)," Mr Lin, the editorial writer, said.

The television series that has a captive audience of more than 230 million viewers romanticises the first emperor, who was born Ying Zheng in 259 BC.

The first few episodes focuses on Ying Zheng's gruelling childhood as a hostage in the neighbouring state of Zhao after his minor prince father fled from Zhao to the state of Qin with the help of Lu Buwei, a merchant who used his wealth to help Ying Zheng's father become crown prince and eventually king of Qin.

Lu Buwei went on to become prime minister and, together with Ying Zheng's mother, served as co-regents after Ying Zheng returned to Qin and ascended the throne at the age of 13 upon his father's death.

Millions of postings on Chinese social media have either praised or bashed the television series.

Qin Shi Huang unified China when he was 38. His fearless and formidable Army of Tigers and Wolves conquered the six other states, one after another, during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

Millions of postings on Chinese social media have either praised or bashed the television series, which sought to humanise Ying Zheng, who was torn over whether to execute his half-brother for staging a coup and whether to sack Lu Buwei, his mentor.

Qin Shi Huang executed the entire clan of Lao Ai, the secret lover of his widowed mother, after he found out about their illicit affair. He spared his mother, grudgingly.

In addition to unifying written Chinese, the first emperor is also credited with standardising currency, weights and measurements while linking all seven states with canals and roads. He died in 210BC at the age of 49. The Qin dynasty was toppled four years later.

The privately-financed television series - the fourth and last of a quadrilogy - first aired on prime-time state television last December. Broadcast on at least five provincial cable channels, it cost an estimated 600 million yuan (S$123 million) to make and took about 15 months to film.

It is still available on a host of Netflix-like Chinese platforms that offer online streaming from a library of domestic and foreign films and TV series.

Perhaps, the most enlightening facet of the series has been the debunking of Western stereotypical portrayal of Chinese emperors as tyrants who could do as they wished.

Even Qin Shi Huang had to balance rival political factions to prevent any one interest group from becoming too powerful.