فصل 14

کتاب: تاریخی کوچک از جهان / فصل 14

فصل 14

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14

AN ENEMY OF HISTORY If you have always found history boring, you are going to enjoy this chapter. At about the same time as Hannibal was in Italy (that is, shortly after 220 BC), an emperor was ruling over China who hated history so much that, in 213 BC, he ordered all history books and all old reports and records to be burnt, along with all collections of songs and poems and the writings of Confucius and Lao-tzu ­ in fact everything he considered to be useless rubbish. The only books he permitted were ones on agriculture and other useful subjects. Anybody found in possession of any other sort of book was to be put to death. This emperor was Shih Huang-ti, the first emperor of all China and one of the greatest warriors there has ever been. He was not born into an imperial family but was the son of one of the princes I told you about, who ruled the many Chinese provinces. His province was called Ch’in, from which his family took its name, and it is likely that the whole country now known as China was named after him.

AN ENEMY OF HISTORY

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There are certainly more than enough reasons for China to take its name from the Prince of Ch’in. Not only did he make himself the first emperor of all China, by conquering all the other provinces one by one, but he transformed the entire country. He threw out all the princes and totally reorganised his empire. And if you ask me why he hated history and destroyed all those books, it was because he wanted to wipe out every trace of how things had been done before, so he could build an entirely new China ­ his China ­ starting from scratch. He built roads everywhere and began work on an enormous project: the Great Wall of China. Today it is still a massive construction, a double wall made of stone with tall towers and castellations, winding its symmetrical way over plains, through deep ravines and up steep mountain slopes as it follows the line of the frontier for all of four thousand miles. Shih Huang-ti built it to protect China’s many hardworking and peaceable peasants and townspeople from the wild tribes of the steppes, whose warlike horsemen roamed the vast plains of inner Asia. It had to be strong enough to resist their incessant raids, with all their looting and killing. And he succeeded. Of course, over the centuries the wall has often been rebuilt and strengthened, but it is still there today. Shih Huang-ti didn’t have a long reign. Soon a new family ascended the throne of the Son of Heaven. This was the Han family. They saw no need to undo all Shih Huang-ti’s good works, and under their rule China remained strong and unified. But by now the Hans were no longer enemies of history. On the contrary, they remembered China’s debt to the teachings of Confucius and set about searching high and low for all those ancient writings. It turned out that many people had had the courage not to burn them after all. Now they were carefully collected and valued twice as highly as before. And to become a government official, you had to know them all. China is, in fact, the only country in the world to be ruled for hundreds of years, not by the nobility, nor by soldiers, nor even by the priesthood, but by scholars. No matter where you came from, or whether you were rich or poor, as long as you gained high marks

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A LITTLE HISTORY OF THE WORLD

in your exams you could become an official. The highest post went to the person with the highest marks. But the exams were far from easy. You had to be able to write thousands of characters, and you can imagine how hard that is. What is more, you had to know an enormous number of ancient books and all the rules and teachings of Confucius and the other ancient sages off by heart. So Shih Huang-ti’s burning of the books was all in vain, and if you thought he was right, you were mistaken. It’s a bad idea to try to prevent people from knowing their own history. If you want to do anything new you must first make sure you know what people have tried before.

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