De-mystifying the Despot: An EPQ Journey from West Yunnan to West Yorkshire

Julian Wood – GSAL Alumnus & Oxford Graduate

Outstanding GSAL alumnus Julian Wood has recently graduated from Pembroke College, Oxford, with a degree in History & English. During his time in the Sixth Form at school, under the expert supervision of recently-retired deputy head Mr Lunn, Julian undertook an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ); here, Julian reflects on his work for the benefit of current students, both in terms of the learning process and the content of the final product. Mr Yates (Staff Editor)

He buried 460 scholars alive; we have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive… You [intellectuals] revile us for being Qin Shi Huangs. You are wrong. We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold. When you berate us for imitating his despotism, we are happy to agree! Your mistake was that you did not say so enough.

So was the reflection of Mao Zedong, founding father of the People’s Republic of China, upon being compared to Qin Shi Huangdi; the first emperor of a unified China between 221-210BC. At first glance, the remark appears confusing: ‘despotism’ with which Chairman Mao was unashamedly ‘happy’ to agree. When the emperor had allegedly buried people alive? Surely not? Yet the quotation is the quotation, and this apparent paradox is at the heart of something compellingly inescapable about the emperor: that he was, and remains, a polariser of opinion. A complex man, with an unclear legacy, and an even less clear modern-day moral ‘rating’. In other words, then, he was a man about whom a student could form an original opinion; an historical subject ripe for investigation in an Extended Project Qualification, or EPQ. This was the challenge, under the supervision of Mr. Lunn, that I chose to undertake during my Sixth Form years at GSAL. The question: ‘Was Imperial China under Qin Shi Huangdi a Nation Under Paranoid Despotism or Driven Reform?’. Although unaware of it at the time, in tackling it I would also lay the groundwork for the methodology and practices for my subsequent study: a History and English degree at the University of Oxford.  

My attraction to Huangdi was a simple one: he was an historical heavyweight. This was the man who took China from 254 long years of catastrophically bloody internal warfare into being a unified predecessor of the modern state. He ordered the building of a road and canal network over the entire realm; instigated the construction of its instantly recognisable Great Wall and Terracotta Army of statues; and oversaw the creation of a single writing script for his disparate subjects, so successful as to have evolved into today’s Chinese characters. More than these achievements, however, is that Huangdi was also a composite; ‘infamous’, as well as ‘famous’. Huangdi the unifier was also said to be Huangdi the scholar-killer. His government would amputate a foot for the theft of a single coin; led by a man who allegedly – and for which W. J. F. Jenner dubbed him China’s ‘antique Hitler’ – ordered a whole village violently exterminated on suspicion of a single resident carving some dissident graffiti. There was simply so much to this historical gift that kept on giving. He fostered a peculiar curiosity, so palpable as to make the vastness of the spatio-temporal distance between us – from 21st-Century Yorkshire to China in 210BC – almost irrelevant. The EPQ is a fantastic opportunity for exploring, and receiving credit for, interests beyond the A-Level curriculum. This was why I was attracted to one. Huangdi had absolutely no relation to anything that I had studied before. Yet, after finding him accidentally in the bowels of Wikipedia after looking up a film that I had enjoyed, I was hooked. It was an odd way to find a subject, but one that left me locked on course; ‘this, Sir’ – I said to the then-convener of the EPQ at GSAL, Mr. Watkins – ‘has to be my topic’. In retrospect, it was this draw that, as the project took its course and was met with long hours and not infrequent ‘dead ends’, sustained the work; that made the push to complete it, and to take pride in it, especially worthwhile. It is this genuine interest for a subject that those involved with applications at my own University say is the golden thing that they are looking for; and a real point-scorer that they have always assured can be discernibly spotted in interviews and personal statements.

The EPQ is a fantastic opportunity for exploring, and receiving credit for, interests beyond the A-Level curriculum… It is this genuine interest for a subject that those involved with applications at [Oxbridge] say is the golden thing that they are looking for; and a real point-scorer that they have always assured can be discernibly spotted in interviews and personal statements.

When Huangdi and I squared up to each other, even with Mr. Lunn’s advice from the sideline, I was up for a challenge. The reign and its legacy teach us with undeniable effectiveness that the study of the past is not one of convenient, black-and-white moral compartmentalisation. Indeed, if there is anyone left to believe an adapted version of Thomas Carlyle’s long-disputed adage that History is ‘the history of great [people]’, then the apparently confusing quotation from Chairman Mao with which I began evidences a burning question: what is ‘great’? What is the role and significance of such subjective language, and of such perspective-dependent judgements, in our understanding of History? Indeed, what is its worth more generally, within the study of all arts subjects that require a sense of interpretation and opinion? This was the real head-scratcher with which Mr. Lunn and I grappled at our regular EPQ meetings, and was something of a ‘hot topic’ in my both my University interviews and beyond into my degree itself. Perspective, in arts subjects, is paramount. To examine Huangdi and his China solely from the perspective and standards of 21st-Century Britain would have been insufficient and limited. If I were ever to hope to understand the true impact of Huangdi upon his China, my position alone would not have been enough; I would have to find a means of entering it.

The now-retired High Court Judge, Jonathan Sumption, could not have been more correct when he described History as a ‘tremendous fund of vicarious experience’. It is an aspect of the arts subjects, a form of escapism, that is surely one of the most valuable; in everything from literature to History to music. To attempt to ‘experience’ Huangdi’s China, I spent – through access obtained via the Lawson Library – two weeks going through the Chinese section of the Leeds University Brotherton Library; searching out for relevant works on my subject as an evidentiary base from which to make notes. In this, I learned, essentially for the first time, how to research independently, and how to do higher-level academic work. I had before never appreciated how helpful, for example, the review summaries of books in academic journals could be. These not only offer an assessment of quality for scholarly works, but likewise provide a much-needed distillation of their arguments. Equally, I had never appreciated how helpful either footnotes or indexes could be in widening my range of material, tracing back other scholars’ paths and interpolating them into my own. It must be admitted that, at one point, Mr. Lunn did have to request his student to ‘please get out more’ upon being told that references were ‘friends indeed’. Sound advice, but that which made a more subtle and sombre point. I learnt, better than ever, the importance of material and time management; of making the process of working easier for myself, and not just becoming overwhelmed with the world of churning out pages. Categorising and dating all of my material along the way would bear significant fruit when having to reflect upon the overall process, as likewise was my carefully balancing both breaks and study. All of this, without a doubt, made the write-up stage, with all of its black-coffee-turbocharge and back-to-back double-albums of background music, just that little bit easier.

I learned, essentially for the first time, how to research independently, and how to do higher-level academic work. I had before never appreciated how helpful, for example, the review summaries of books in academic journals could be.

So, then, what filled those pages? As may be remembered by some of those who attended the entirety of the five-act length that was my EPQ presentation, the project was huge. It had been increased in size by my – in retrospect – extremely broad question: evaluating, essentially, any conceivable aspect of the reign about which I could find information; rather than limiting it to such digestible aspects as ‘economic’ or ‘political’ life. I thus learnt, perhaps the hard way, the importance of carefully selecting the boundaries of a topic before commencing any form of academic investigation. In light of this, then, I would of course not wish to inflict the projects totality upon a reader here. However, it really cannot be denied that – after a bit of digging – Huangdi and his time were shown to me to be both remarkable, and infinitely complex. As the EPQ unfolded it became readily apparent that there were significant questions of agenda and bias in the sources, which had the potential to derail the entire exercise. Our most detailed primary source on Huangdi, the near contemporary chronicle ‘Record of the Grand Historian’, is inherently problematic. Its author, Sima Qian, was writing for the royal court of the successor dynasty to Huangdi’s – the Han Dynasty – which had overthrown Huangdi’s son Qin Er Shi in a violent rebellion in 207BC. It was in Qian’s interests to rubbish the predecessor dynasty in order to legitimate, and praise via contrast, his patron. Yet this was not all, for even this relationship between employer and historian was not straightforward. The Han Emperor commissioning the chronicle, Wu, had – following a disagreement between the men – forced Sima Qian to make a choice: be killed, or be castrated. Qian chose the chop, and for the sole purpose of completing his chronicle. It has, therefore, been conjectured that emphasis on negative aspects of Huangdi’s reign may have been an attempt at covert criticism of Qian’s own Emperor; the historian drawing parallels to effect a hidden revenge against the man who had mutilated him. We might, therefore, understandably struggle to believe the credibility of Sima Qian’s reports that – for example – Huangdi was so unquestionably powerful, and insane, that he promoted a tree under which he had sheltered from the rain to be ‘minister of the fifth rank’. Clearly, with one’s sources for the study of History, a little more than a pinch of salt is always helpful.

This unreliable form of ‘entrance’ into Huangdi’s China aside, the historical world that I went on to discover was seminal to the discussion. The China before Huangdi was completely fundamental in discussing notions of historical relativism, or, more crudely, questions of how bad Huangdi and his administration may/may not have been given the attitudes and practices of his age. Thus, consider the following example: much secondary literature has criticised at length the use of certain punishments upon the peasantry for petty crimes. These were, namely, boiling criminals alive in cauldrons, and having their limbs affixed to multiple moving chariots to prompt complete dismemberment. By our standards, without any doubt, both of these punishments are inhumanely cruel, and nothing short of repulsive. Yet, archaeological remains have indicated that cauldron-boiling had been a standard punishment in the territories of the Chinese Empire since 694BC. Furthermore, also, even though it and chariot-ripping were banned in 167BC, they were so ingrained in practice as to have been widely carried out for centuries afterwards. In sum, then, as painful as it is to say it, we cannot reserve for Huangdi’s government any special condemnation beyond that which we may equally apply to any other Chinese governments of the age. In other words, while it does not make brutality any less abhorrent, and certainly not in any way any less unjustified, this context does render its use as less of a compelling force in the application of moral judgements.

With this in mind, and an appreciation of the centuries of massacre and atrocity that had characterised pre-Huangdi ‘China’, my view of the government materialised gradually in a slightly unexpected direction. As odd as it sounds to say, Chairman Mao’s attitude towards Huangdi’s government – even with acknowledgement of its atrocities – was not entirely incorrect. Huangdi’s government, in a very particular historical and moral contextual nexus, could be seen as a fairly progressive force. Its aim was control, a word to be deployed without positive or negative moral connotation; centralising all things to increase the power of a unified state. German has a word for this: Gleichschaltung; a term which has, unhelpfully for a study of Huangdi, found itself attached in historiography to the abhorrence of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. But in History, this only evidences the need for critical and objective assessment, rather than merely damning by association. For ‘control’ itself does not necessarily imply a moral dimension, as might be suggested by the negative ‘oppress’, or the potentially positive ‘guide’. Huangdi’s China, rather, was – crudely – the most extreme version of the ‘carrot and stick’ analogy you ever did see; an alternating cycle of enticement and punishment. If you played the game, you were fine; even rewarded, enjoying the flourishing cultural and economic opportunities in an undeniably stable socio-political landscape. If you transgressed, however, that was it. Be branded with hot irons. Lose a foot perhaps. Here was the realm of ‘anything goes’ if you were perceived to threaten national security at the smallest level. An effective figurative opposite – one might say – to University applications and work, in which willingness to illustrate your personal distinction (and i.e. not just ‘play the game’) is critical, and attempts at pretence and artifice are easily seen through.  That this in Huangdi’s China was not outright ‘bad’ per se is simply explained: it could convincingly be said that China needed a form – albeit perhaps not so a harsh a form – of it. For what the regime created, with no precedent and in complete contrast to the centuries of bloody civil war that had come before, cannot be seen as anything other than one of the great achievements of world history. The individual may have been at risk if they did not ‘play the game’, but the system was universal and – for the most part – relatively unbiased, and almost fair; forming, in its sweeping coverage of all citizens, ‘China’. This was the nuance of my final verdict: a regime undeniably effective at a macro-level, whilst more morally muddy (if not entirely ‘bad’ per se) at a micro-level. One perhaps ‘despotic’, but also ‘driven’ to positive ‘reform’.

The [EPQ] project had been the single greatest opportunity of my school career to follow my own academic interests. The only limit of any sort placed upon them was the format requirement of an essay, which in any case was not really a ‘limit’ at all, for it prompted my ideas to be articulated and linked with a care that actually allowed them to flourish.

Thus was the result of the contest between myself and Qin Shi Huangdi: a balanced, nuanced answer to a thornily complex question; achieved after many months of careful research and stratification. The project had been the single greatest opportunity of my school career to follow my own academic interests. The only limit of any sort placed upon them was the format requirement of an essay, which in any case was not really a ‘limit’ at all, for it prompted my ideas to be articulated and linked with a care that actually allowed them to flourish. Although at times difficult, and requiring a great quantity of work (and an even greater quantity of agonising over what of it to ‘keep’), the EPQ came to constitute one of the defining aspects of my time at GSAL. It grounded me in the methods by which my continued study would operate; it introduced me to the workings, and joys, of independent work; and, above all, it made me – essentially – a student in the higher education sense, for the first time.  All of this, for something that could even be marked as an official qualification at the end! Careful management of the project, and the gentle but ever-willing help of Mr. Lunn from the sidelines, meant that the work was never an inhibitor of my other A-Levels. It was an enhancer, fitting around my exam work to become, in the best way, effectively a form of academic stress-relief. It taught me more than just the facts of a 2000-year old emperor. The EPQ was, much as University is, a microcosmic ‘total’ education about myself and what could be both expected of, and achieved by, me. It was armed with this education, and with the support of my ‘manager’, that I won the game against the emperor; and would be able to reach, and so thoroughly enjoy, the effective ‘final’ that has been my degree at Oxford. It was, in the most lasting and rewarding sense upon reflection, a definite score: Wood/(Lunn) 1 – Huangdi 0.

[T]he EPQ came to constitute one of the defining aspects of my time at GSAL. It grounded me in the methods by which my continued study would operate; it introduced me to the workings, and joys, of independent work; and, above all, it made me – essentially – a student in the higher education sense, for the first time.  All of this, for something that could even be marked as an official qualification at the end!

Julian Wood

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