Chinese history

Stories of the Qin Dynasty

Chinese history

Nu Mengjiang and the building of the Great Wall

The first Qin emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, sent his generals north with 500,000 labourers. They were not paid for their work: often they were seized and taken away from their farms by the emperor's soldiers. Nu Mengjiang's husband was one of these conscript workers. The night he was taken away she took a white jade hairpin and broke it in half. She gave half to her husband, saying: 'My heart is as white and pure as this jade. Keep this half and you will feel that I am with you.'

Thousands of labourers died of cold and exhaustion, and the news of the terrible conditions on the Great Wall spread across China. Nu Mengjiang heard what was happening, and with fear in her heart set out on her own to find her beloved husband. She took with her some padded clothes to keep him warm and began the long journey. It was already late autumn and the nights were cold. Sometimes she even slept by the roadside. Eventually she arrived at the mountain range where she knew the Wall was being built. She wandered through the hills searching for the place where her husband was working. Then she heard a flock of geese, and followed them until she finally reached the Great Wall. There she saw the workers dressed in rags, their bodies reduced to skin and bones. She went from one work team to the next asking if anyone knew her husband, but no-one had heard of him. Eventually she found some people from her native town who told her where to look. When she reached that place she was told that her husband had died three days earlier, and that his body had been buried under the Wall. For three days and nightsshe wept.

On the first night her cries brought forth a mountain storm. On the second night the sky turned black. On the third night the Wall split open and revealed the bodies of millions of labourers who had perished. Suddenly she noticed in the hand of one of the men who lay there a hairpin, a white jade hairpin, the other half of the one she had carried so far in the hope of saving her husband.

Great Wall
Great Wall at Badaling Mountains. 1980

The death of the first Qin Emperor

In July of the year 210 BC a grand procession set out from Hebei province towards the imperial capital at Xianyang. At the centre of the procession was a closed chariot, to which messengers would bring messages and for which a team of cooks prepared lavish meals. The occupant never answered the messages nor ate the meals, for it was the dead body of the first Qin emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi. His death was kept secret by his high officials whilst they plotted to bring their own candidate, the weak second son, to the throne.

It was hot weather and the body began to rot, so to disguise the smell they surrounded the emperor's chariot with baskets of fish. When they reached Xianyang the death of the first emperor was announced and Hu Hai, the second son, was crowned. The first emperor had claimed that the Qin dynasty would last 10,000 generations. In fact it lasted only a little over a year after his death.

Calling a deer a horse

Zhao Gao, one of the chief ministers of the second Qin emperor, suspected some of the ministers of being disloyal to him. He had a servant bring a deer into the hall and called all the ministers together. Pointing to the deer he said, 'Look at this fine horse I have brought for His Majesty the Emperor. I want to know what each of you thinks of it.' One by one the ministers spoke. Most of them praised the 'horse', saying what a splendid animal it was and how clever Zhao Gao had been to find it. A few, though, refused to call it a horse, and one even said, 'Horse? What horse? I see only a deer!'

After they had all finished speaking, Zhao Gao gave a signal to his soldiers, who grabbed all those who had not said that the deer was a horse. He had them executed, hoping in this way to terrify everyone into silence.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001 China Now 151, Page 16

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