Sunday, 16 September 2007

The Heresiarch excommunicates the First Emperor

The British Museum is currently packing them in with its "First Emperor" exhibition; a spectacular show, to be sure, and in marketing terms a triumph. What disturbs the Heresiarch is the BMs apparently unquestioning celebration of one of history's most ruthless tyrants, and most compellingly loopy megalomaniacs to boot.

We are invited, for example, to marvel at the individuality built into every one of the individual terracotta warriors. But individuality is hardly the word that first comes to mind when contemplating the ranks, row upon row, column upon column, lined up in the burial pits in China. Rather the unique characteristics of each figure seems to point to the monotony of the whole, the grim subjection of the individual to the mass, the ghastly regimentation of an entire society.

Make no mistake, Chin Shi Huang Ti (or however we're supposed to spell his name these days on the say-so of his appropriately totalitarian successors in Peking) was a grade one monster, a Stalin de ses jours. More Stalin than Mao, in fact. Here was a ruler so philistine that he buried philosophers alive, a man who executed doctors for suggesting that he might need treatment, who died (it is pleasant to report) from the ill effects of elixirs he took in an attempt to live for ever.

Yes, he unified China. But he did so not out of idealism but in order to impose his rule. He showed, for example, a devotion to uniformity that ought to make him the pin-up of our masters in Brussels, forcing different "regions" (they were actually countries) to adopt the same writing, the same industrial methods, the same weights and measures, the same money. Worse, he managed to persuade the next two thousand years or so of history that all this was a good thing. It wasn't: it was Chin who prevented the emergence in China (and fancy naming a country after yourself, an act of hubris rivalled only by Cecil Rhodes, but with rather more long-term success) of the kind of rich, plural history that we take for granted in the West.

And think what he destroyed. Actually, we don't really know what he destroyed, since he made such a thorough job of destroying it. But imagine how impoverished our own civilisation would be if Augustus (perhaps the closest Western parallel) had set out to knock down the Parthenon, burn the works of Homer, Euripides and Cicero, not to mention the Hebrew bible, forced the Greeks, the Jews and the Germans to all speak Latin, and then built a ruddy great wall to keep us all trapped inside.

What worries me is that the attitude of mind represented by the tyrannical Chin is so admired, and not just in China. Modern governments pay lip-service to multiculturalism, a polite word for divide-and-rule, while imposing ever more uniformity. The First Emperor would have loved CCTV, just as he would have loved biometric ID cards, satellite tracking and the rest. In the name of security, a new tyranny is insinuating itself among us, and few people really seem to care. Perhaps the enthusiasm for Chin and his nefarious works is only to be expected.