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Tales Of The Ancient World. The Emperor

This tale is cast in the reign Qin Shihuagndi (221 - 210 B. C.) The empire he had built trough violence and cruelty, fell to peaces under the impact peasant and slave rising soon after the death. 


Khersonez Sewastopol1Somewhere in the Southern Land there lived a beautiful young girl, Meng Jiand by name. She was barely three times five years old. Here visage resembled a peach, and here voice were like the warbling of an oriole. 

The ruler then was Shi Huang. He possessed all the lands in the Celestial Empire. All towns paid him tribute. Even herdsmen living in the desert bowed before his greatness and sent him gifts. Out of all the rulers who were called Sons of Heaven, Shi Huang was the most powerful. In the west he ordered people to build a palace called Wufang, in the east to drain the boundless marshes, and in the north to build a wall ten thousand li long and ten ren high. 

A noble youth by name of Qi Liang lived at that time. One day the Emperor's warriors came for him. He was to help build the Great Wall. Qi Liang escaped and hid in a garden that no outsider had ever entered. The youth concealed himself behind a mound of rocks, and saw a girl as beautiful as a fay walking towards the pond. A colourful butterfly alighted upon a flower at her feet. The girl wanted to touch it. She pulled out a silk handkerchief and threw it, but the handkerchief fell into the pond while the butterfly flew away. The girl came up to the edge of the pond. 

"Who is this?" she cried out, seeing the youth's reflection in the water. 

Qi Liang did not know what to do: if he ran, the warriors would catch him, but staying with a strange girl was embarrassing. Finally, he took a step forward, and bowed. 

"Save me! I beg you, save me!" 

"How did you get here?" the girl asked. 

"My name is Qi Liang. I am hiding from the Emperor's men." 

The girl (called Meng Jiang) liked the stranger. He was tall and handsome. She was smitten with love for him. 

"Let's go and see Father," she said.

 Her father also liked the young man. He asked him about his family, tested his knowledge, and decided that he was a suitable son-in-law. The wedding would be held that very day. 

But before Qi Liang had time to thank his future father-in-law, the Emperor's warriors entered the house. They led the youth away, and sorrow fell upon the family. Meng Jiang retired to her bedroom and sang a sad song: 


Cold winds have assailed my house, 

The jug of wine has turned to ice, 

The pillow and mat are as cold as snow. 

I live as in a dream.


Time passed. People grew older, and wrinkles appeared on their faces. Even the powerful Emperor could do nothing against time. The skin on his face was lined with wrinkles. It looked like the skin of a baked apple. The slits of his eyes grew narrower still. Hardly ever did he leave Wufang, his main palace, and his visits to the pavilion of Wu Yi, the youngest and most beautiful of his thousand wives, became rarer and rarer. But as before, the Son of Heaven ruled with an iron hand. People prostrated themselves before him, kowtowed, deceived and lied, to win his grace. And he became ever more arrogant and cruel. To the previous nine kinds of execution he added three new ones, and the Celestial Empire was filled with the agonised wails of those who were thrown into boiling pots, or were torn by chariots, or cut in half. Not only convicted criminals were executed, but also all their relatives four times removed. 

As before, fawning courtiers wrote poems about the most virtuous of emperors, the benefactor and father of his subjects. They wrote from habit, because the Emperor no longer cared for either song or poetry. He did not ask for any poems, and did not reward those who wrote them. 

"Everything born between Heaven and Earth, is mortal," said an ancient sage. But Shi Huang thought himself unique. He hoped that Fate would make him an exception. He forbade everybody to speak of death. And his countless officials saw to it that his command should be obeyed. The character "death" was carefully erased or blotted out with ink even in the writings of the ancient kings inscribed on bronze plates or bamboo tablets. Of anyone who died, people said, "He has lived out his life" or "He has joined his ancestors". 

Tall walls of stone were built round the cemeteries, and if no stones were available, people were allowed to use the trunks of trees or bamboo poles not shorter than of human height. 

The Emperor summoned scholars and magicians. He ordered them to find lingzhi, which granted immortality, for he knew the song: "I pick lingzhi in the Eastern land, the land of immortals, near the borders of Penglai; swallow the concoction, I have been told, and you will live for ever." 

Scholars searched all the forests and dug up all the mountains in the Under- Heaven. They even visited the neighbouring countries, but only one of them succeeded in finding an unusual mushroom purple as the emperor's cape, with many white spots on top of it. It turned out, however, that the mushroom did not grant immortality. The scholar, who was ordered to try eating the mushroom, died in great pain. 

This time, the Emperor did not punish the other scholars: true, they had not carried out his will, but neither had they done anything that would shorten his life. 

Someone told the Emperor that righteous men lived 200 or 300 years. Shi Huang ordered his men to find these righteous ones and question them about the secret of their longevity. Again, the scholars went to all the corners of the Celestial Empire. After a long search, they brought an ancient to the palace: he had never done any evil, and was reputed to be a righteous man. But when the old man opened his mouth, people saw he had no tongue. The tongue had been cut off thirty years before, because he had dared censure the Emperor. 

Scholars had long since been under suspicion. They were proud of their wisdom, possibly aiming in secret to show their superiority over the omniscient Emperor. They applauded the past because they wanted to harm the present. They spread rumours, and had the temerity to discuss the Emperors edicts. And now they brought a man to the palace who, even though he knew the secret of longevity, could not pass it on.

The Emperor summoned the dignitary Li Si and asked for his help and advice. The Emperor himself did not lack wisdom and could have settled accounts with the scholars himself. But he knew that in the event of success the ruler gained tame and glorv, while the responsibility for any mistake fell upon officials. 

Guessing the Emperor's will, Li Si suggested 1) to burn all books except those on medicine, soothsaying, and agriculture, 2) to publicly execute all those who dis- cussed the content of seditious books, 3) to execute those who referred to olden times to damage the present, and all their relatives, and, 4) to banish those who failed to submit their books for burning within 30 days of the edict, and make them build the Great Wall. 

The edict was endorsed by the Emperor and carried into effect in the 34th year of his reign. Dignitary Li Si was rewarded and became First Counsellor. 

Having decided that the burning of books was only half the job that Heaven had delegated him to perform, the Emperor ordered Li Si to gather all those who wrote books, and to bury them alive because no harm could come from those who were beneath the surface of the Earth. The decree was drawn up by Li Si and carried into effect in the 35th year of the Emperor's reign. 

Li Si was quartered by chariots that same year, because his actions had aroused censure. And those who censured him were so many that they could not be sent to build the Great Wall without damage to the state. 

The Emperor became senile. His nose fell off, his voice was wheezy like that of a jackal. People spoke of his death and dreamed of seizing his throne. That was when a scholar named Lu Sheng came to the palace. He had escaped with his life because he had been away, outside the Celestial Empire, looking for a righteous man, and had returned to the capital after all the other scholars had been executed.

Granted an audience, he respectfully kissed the Emperor's feet, and said: 

"Oh. Son of Heaven. I am your loyal servant Lu Sheng. For many years I have roamed the w orld in search of the plant of longevity and of righteous old men. I have travelled across the entire Earth, and have returned full of wisdom. There is no other righteous man on Earth besides you. And no one wiser than you. For you were the first to discover the great truth: to take life is easier than to prolong one's own life. Since you have left me my life, I shall reveal the secret of immortality to you. The righteous does not get wet in water, does not burn in fire, and sails in the clouds and fog. He is invisible and omnipresent like a deity. Let no official know in what palace vou reside; let no servant enter the chamber where you sleep, and let no one see how you eat. That is the secret of immortality." 

The Emperor was not a trustful man. But he believed Lu Sheng. He, too, knew that the less his subjects saw of him, the greater they thought he was. If they did not see him at all. he would win as much respect as a god. The Emperor disappeared from sight and issued an edict that anyone who revealed his whereabouts would be executed. 

The horrid years of the invisible man's reign began. Terror gripped the officials. They said the Emperor travelled across the country incognito and no one knew the day of his death. Never before were the imperial edicts carried out so meticulouslv. The w arriors never took off their armour, and kept their hand on their bows. Merchants carted food. The neighbouring peoples trembled before the power of the Emperor who. even invisible, made the whole world shake in fear. And thought no one threatened the boundaries of the Empire, the Great Wall rose speedily. The old roads proved insufficient. So new ones were bullt. And thousands of people doomed to hard labour and death trudged up and down these roads. 

The court flatterers sang the Emperor's praises as before, but no one remembered their untrue words because lies are like butterflies that live a day only while Ae truth is more enduring than stone. Plain people still remember the songs they sang, born of grief and hatred. "Wufang, Wufang, may you die, Qin Shihuang people sang. "If a boy is born, don't rear him; if a girl, feed her minced meat: for the bodies of the dead are piled high beside the Wall..." 

The spring and summer passed like a day. Autumn came, and a putrid smell haunted Shaqiu palace. It came from the imperial bedchamber. Fearing spies who might misinterpret their curiosity, the courtiers shrank from approaching its door. Then when the smell became unbearable, a courtier named Jin Wu surmised that salted fish was stored in the Emperor's room. The man was delivered to the chief executioner, who wanted to determine the source of the rumour, for the Emperor had never eaten salted fish before. When, under torture, Jin Wu said at least half the officials in the Celestial Empire had also smelled salted fish, it was decided to open the door of the imperial bedchamber. Instead of salted fish, they found the corpse of the Son of Heaven. 


Meng Jiang walked along the rain-washed path and sang her song: 

"Without you, I'm like a lute without strings, like a wheel without spokes, or a jug without a bottom." 

The boundless white blended with the heavens. Hungry kites hovered high in the sky, searching for prey. Wolves were howling amid the snowdrifts. 

But the fearless Meng Jiang kept walking along the path, and singing:

 "How cold it is. How heavy my heart. My husband is in the North where the gales are wilder than beasts and lack of warmth causes death..." 

Meng Jiang's love for her man drove her through forests and over hills Precipices could not stop her. Wild beasts did not touch her, birds showed her the way rhus came she to the Wall A wall without end. Beside it people wandered about with spades and pickaxes. The wind blew them down, and the guard's whip lashed them. 

"My husband's name is Qi Liang. I have brought him warm clothes" said the woman to the guard. 

The guard laughed and pointed to the white bones piled high beside the Wall.

Meng Jiang fell to the ground and wept bitterly. That instant a gale blew strongly, a black fog settled on the Earth and the Wall crumbled from the wails and tears of the women. And wretched ruins lay where the the Great Wall stood, while Meng Jiang's love of her husband lives on in her song. The song has been sung for two thousand years.