The First Emperor of China by Frances Wood

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The First Emperor of China by Frances Wood

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Category: History
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Published to coincide with The First Emperor Exhibition at The British Museum Frances Wood's book places the man withi his time and within the great sweep of Chinese history. Recommended.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 210 Date: August 2007
Publisher: Profile
ISBN: 978-1846680328

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For well over two thousand years the First Emperor of China has been reviled, largely because of his reputation for burning books and burying scholars. History would have it that his rein was brutal and repressive despite some achievements that are still obvious in China today. It was he that organised the construction of the Great Wall of China, albeit by forced labour, and created Imperial China - even using the name Qin (pronounced 'Chin') by which China is still known. He was also responsible for the standardisation of weights and measures and the building of 'speedway' roads radiating out from the capital.

Publication of The First Emperor of China coincides with the First Emperor exhibition which runs at the British Museum from September 2007 to April 2008 and it serves as a good introduction to the life of the man who was buried with 7,000 life-size terracotta warriors for company. The author, Frances Wood, is head of the Chinese Department at the British Library and it's this broad spread of knowledge which allows her to place the First Emperor not only within his time but also within the broad sweep of Chinese history.

Contemporaneous sources relating to the history of the First Emperor (258 - 210 BC) are not thick on the ground but Frances Wood has done a superb job of tracking down what is available, comparing them to other sources and placing them in context for us. The author spent some time in China as a student during the Cultural Revolution and there are some fascinating pieces showing how the First Emperor is reflected in twentieth-century China.

The writing style is dry with the occasional flash of wit. It's not 'easy reading' but does repay the effort required. The text is well annotated and interspersed with numerous line drawings. I thought they supported the text well, but couldn't readily see their source - which was a pity as I would have liked to have seen more of them. I did appreciate the map at the front of the book - it's very basic but gives an excellent idea of distances and how vast the country really is.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

If you're interested in earlier periods of history Bookbag can recommend Cathy Gere's The Tomb of Agamemnon, or Sea of Faith by Stephen O'Shea.

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