The first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang, continues to fascinate, most recently for television viewers in Britain through Andrew Graham-Dixon’s The Art of China (BBC). Qin’s terracotta army in Xi’an attracts tourists by the busload. What is lesser known is his decree ordering the destruction of all books except those covering medicine, war, divination or agriculture. He wanted people to believe that no values or ideas had existed before he seized power in 221 BC – a kind of year zero.
At the top of his hit list was Shang Shu, but it survived at least in part and is the topic of a new translation by Martin Palmer.