Feb 182019


Today is the birthday (259 BCE) of Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇), founder of the Qin dynasty and the first emperor of a unified China. He was born Ying Zheng (嬴政) or Zhao Zheng (趙政), a prince of the state of Qin. He became Zheng, the king of Qin (秦王政) when he was 13. Because Zhao Zheng was so young, Lü Buwei acted as the regent prime minister of the state of Qin, which was still waging war against the other six states (the Warring States Period). Zhao Chengjiao, the lord Chang’an (长安君), was Zhao Zheng’s legitimate half-brother, by the same father but from a different mother. After Zhao Zheng inherited the throne, Chengjiao rebelled at Tunliu and surrendered to the state of Zhao. Chengjiao’s remaining retainers and families were executed by Zhao Zheng.

As king Zheng grew older, Lü Buwei became fearful that he would discover he was having an affair with his mother, the queen dowager, Zhao Ji. He decided to distance himself and find another lover for the queen dowager. He found a man named Lao Ai. According to The Record of Grand Historian, Lao Ai was disguised as a eunuch by plucking his beard. Later Lao Ai and queen Zhao secretly had two sons together. Lao Ai then became ennobled as marquis Lào Ǎi, and was showered with riches. Lao Ai hatched a plot to replace Zheng with one of the hidden sons. But during a dinner party drunken Lào Ǎi was heard bragging about being the young king’s stepfather. In 238 BCE the king was travelling to the ancient capital of Yōng (雍). Lao Ai seized the queen mother’s seal and mobilized an army in an attempt to start a coup and rebel. When king Zheng found out, he ordered Lü Buwei to dispatch lord Changping and lord Changwen to attack Lao Ai, and their army killed hundreds of the rebels at the capital, although Lao Ai succeeded in fleeing from this battle.

A price of 1 million copper coins was placed on Lao Ai’s head if he was taken alive or half a million if dead. He and his supporters were captured and executed, and his two hidden sons were also killed.  Zhao Ji was placed under house arrest until her death many years later. Lü Buwei drank a cup of poisoned wine and committed suicide in 235 BCE. Zheng then assumed full power as the king of the Qin state. Li Si became the new chancellor replacing Lü Buwei.

Zheng and his troops continued to take over different states. The state of Yan was small, weak and frequently harassed by soldiers. It was no match for the Qin state. Crown prince Dan of Yan plotted an assassination attempt to get rid of Zheng, asking his retainer, Jing Ke, to go on the mission in 227 BCE. Jing Ke was accompanied by Qin Wuyang in the plot. Each was supposed to present a gift to Zheng: a map of Dukang and the severed head of Fan Wuji, a disloyal Qin general who had escaped to Yan. Qin Wuyang first tried to present the map case gift, but trembled in fear and moved no further towards the king. Jing Ke continued to advance toward the king, while explaining that his partner “has never set eyes on the Son of Heaven, which is why he is trembling.” Jing Ke had to present both gifts by himself. While unrolling the map, his dagger was revealed. The king drew back, stood on his feet, but struggled to draw his sword to defend himself. At the time, other palace officials were not allowed to carry weapons. Jing Ke pursued the king, attempting to stab him, but missed. Zheng drew out his sword and cut Jing Ke’s thigh. Jing Ke then threw the dagger, but missed again. Suffering eight wounds from the king’s sword, Jing Ke realized his attempt had failed and knew he would be executed. The Yan state was conquered by the Qin state five years later.

Gao Jianli was a close friend of Jing Ke, who wanted to avenge his death. As a famous lute player, one day he was summoned by Zheng to play for him. Someone in the palace who had known him in the past exclaimed, “This is Gao Jianli”. Unable to bring himself to kill such a skilled musician, the emperor ordered his eyes put out. But the king allowed Gao Jianli to play in his presence. He praised the playing and even allowed Gao Jianli to get close to him. Gao Jianli continued to plot, and had his lute fastened with a heavy piece of lead. Once when he was playing, he raised the lute and struck at the king. He missed, and his assassination attempt failed. Gao Jianli was later executed.

In 230 BCE, Zheng unleashed the final campaigns of the Warring States period, setting out to conquer the remaining independent kingdoms, one by one. The first state to fall was Hán (韓; sometimes called Hann to distinguish it from the Hàn 漢 of Han dynasty), in 230 BCE. Then Qin took advantage of natural disasters in 229 BCE to invade Zhào. Qin armies conquered the state of Zhao in 228 BCE, the northern country of Yan in 226 BCE, the small state of Wei in 225 BCE, and the largest state and greatest challenge, Chu, in 223 BCE. In 222 BCE, the last remnants of Yan and the royal family were captured in Liaodong in the northeast. The only independent country left was now the state of Qi, in the far east, what is now the Shandong peninsula. The young king of Qi sent 200,000 people to defend his western borders, but in 221 BCE Qin armies invaded from the north, captured the king, and annexed Qi.

For the first time, all Chinese lands were unified under one powerful ruler. In that same year, Zheng proclaimed himself the “First Emperor” (始皇帝, Shǐ Huángdì), no longer a king in the old sense and now far surpassing the achievements of the old Zhou Dynasty rulers. The emperor made the He Shi Bi, a famous old jade disk of considerable historical value, into the Imperial Seal, known as the “Heirloom Seal of the Realm”. The words, “Having received the Mandate from Heaven, may (the emperor) lead a long and prosperous life.” (受命於天,既壽永昌) were written by prime minister Li Si, and carved on to the seal by Sun Shou. The seal was later passed from emperor to emperor for generations to come.

In an attempt to avoid a recurrence of the political chaos of the Warring States period, Qin Shi Huang and his prime minister Li Si completely abolished feudalism. The empire was then divided into 36 commanderies (郡, Jùn), later more than 40 commanderies. The whole of China was thus divided into administrative units: first commanderies, then counties (縣, Xiàn), townships (鄉, Xiāng) and hundred-family units (里, Li, which roughly corresponds to the modern-day subdistricts and communities).

During his reign, his generals greatly expanded the size of the Chinese state: campaigns south of Chu permanently added the Yue lands of Hunan and Guangdong to the Chinese cultural orbit; campaigns in Central Asia conquered the Ordos Loop from the nomad Xiongnu, although eventually it would also lead to their confederation under Modu Chanyu. Qin Shi Huang also worked with his minister Li Si to enact major economic and political reforms aimed at the standardization of the diverse practices of the earlier Chinese states. He is traditionally said to have banned and burned many books and executed scholars, though a closer examination renders the account doubtful. His public works projects included the unification of diverse state walls into a single Great Wall of China and a massive new national road system, as well as the city-sized mausoleum guarded by the life-sized Terracotta Army https://www.bookofdaystales.com/the-terracotta-army/ . He ruled until his death in 210 BC during his fourth tour of Eastern China.

For today’s recipe I am going to give you a video on the making of biang biang noodles, a hand-pulled wide noodle, very popular in Shaanxi province central homeland of the Qin dynasty. The Chinese character for biáng is one of the more complex Chinese characters in modern usage, although the character is not found in modern dictionaries or even in the Kangxi dictionary. The character is composed of 言 (speak; 7 strokes) in the middle flanked by 幺 (tiny; 2×3 strokes) on both sides. Below it, 馬 (horse; 10 strokes) is similarly flanked by 長 (grow; 2×8 strokes). This central block itself is surrounded by 月 (moon; 4 strokes) to the left, 心 (heart; 4 strokes) below, and刂 (knife; 2 strokes) to the right. These in turn are surrounded by a second layer of characters, namely 穴 (cave; 5 strokes) on the top and 辶 (walk; 4 strokes) curving around the left and bottom. According to legend the character biáng was invented by the Qin dynasty premier Li Si which is meant to suggest that biang biang noodles were around in his day – although this is mere hearsay. It’s a good dish, though, and still popular.

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