The Blood of Belshazzar — Archetypal Cursed Gem, Part Five: The Tiger of Ch’in

In the history of the cursed ruby, “Part Four: Nanda Empire to China” its course was traced through India during the early Maurya Empire. The bandit lord Skol Abdhur knew much more of its history than he recounted to Cormac Fitzgeoffrey. Brooding over it in private, or sleeping drunken with it clutched in his fist, he had visions and dreams that revealed much of its terrible past to him. So did other possessors of the red stone. Some of it was recorded here and there.

The Chinese monk Fa Hsien was the most reliable of those chroniclers. In general, historians who even take notice of his “Account of the Ruby” believe that he never wrote it; that it’s a melodramatic forgery by a lesser writer using his name. The “Account” does ramble, feature savage and violent passages, and display a style inferior to Fa Hsien’s other writing. But even a devoted Buddhist monk would be affected by the Blood of Belshazzar. We needn’t wonder that he was less lucid while he carried it.

Fa Hsien begins with the circumstances that brought the jewel into China, and then to the court of Ch’in. It was long before his time, but he knew his country’s history. The Ch’in were one of the noble families who had served the Chou royal house in the eighth century BCE. Time and fortune made them rulers of the westernmost of the Seven Warring States. Then, in the fourth century, a bureaucrat from the court of Wei deserted to the Ch’in. His name was Shang Yang. He had fine workable ideas, and no scope to practice them under his Wei bosses, but he found a ruler ready to listen to him in the Ch’in lord, Hsiao Kung. Between them they created the best organized state in the country.

Despite the near-miracles he worked in Ch’in, he was a dead man as soon as his patron and protector, Hsiao Kung, passed away – which happened in 338 BCE. The new ruler held a personal grudge against Lord Shang Yang.  While an adolescent crown prince, he had committed a crime, and due to Yang’s reforms, been punished for it like an ordinary person. Once he came to the throne as King Hui, he had Yang put to death on charges of treason; torn apart between five chariots.

Yang’s reforms and their effect outlived him. The Ch’in state had become wealthy and powerful, with an efficient if brutal army. It had also developed a devious divide-and-conquer policy which made a fine art of playing its rivals against each other. It employed carefully judged methods of spying, bribery, subversion — and assassination, where that was considered appropriate.

With these advantages, Ch’in gained the upper hand among the Seven Warring States by 260 BCE. Until then Chao had been pre-eminent, but Ch’in met and defeated its army in the year mentioned above. The time was ripe for the lords of Ch’in to claim imperial status — the Divine Mandate of Heaven. As always, that translates to, “We have a bigger war machine than you.”

Then the Blood of Belshazzar appeared on the scene. A thieving adventurer from Yunnan brought it to the court of Chao. In the thirty years since Ch’in had broken their military strength, they had resisted complete subjugation, but it was imminent now. Chao’s king accepted the ruby and promised the stranger all he desired, if the red stone had the magical properties he claimed, and saved Chao from conquest.

The rogue died without seeing a brass razoo of his reward. Spies from Ch’in strangled him and stole the gem. Hiding, assuming disguises, evading pursuit, they took it to the Ch’in capital of Hsien-Yang, where their lord and employer, Yin Cheng, was king.

Yin Cheng was to become one of the truly dreadful men of history. He is remembered as the first emperor of all China, the man who unified the country and defined its borders for centuries — and also as a relentless butcher. One of his courtiers and advisers had this to say about him:

“He has … large all-seeing eyes. His chest is like that of a bird of prey and his voice like that of a jackal. He is merciless, with the heart of a tiger …”

Cheng succeeded his father in the year 246, at the age of thirteen. At twenty-two, he had faced an insurrection led by his mother’s lover, Lao Ai. The coup failed. Lao Ai’s supporters lost their heads, his entire family was purged, Lao Ai was executed as Shang Yang had been – ripped apart between five chariots – and King Cheng’s mother was placed under house arrest until her death. Cheng’s former chancellor, who had actually been behind the plotted coup, was ordered to drink poison, and replaced by a new chancellor, Li Si.

King Cheng was now thirty, and his agents had brought him the Blood of Belshazzar. Apart from cruelty and a rage for slaughter, the gem appears to have had other effects. Each new owner became prone to obsessive whims. King Yin Cheng’s main purpose – quite a bit more than a whim — was to subdue all China’s warring states and unify the country.

Han, a smaller state to the east of Ch’in, held first place on his list. Besides being smallest, nearest, and the easiest victim, it blocked access to the plains of North China. Its strategic importance was considerable. It had to go. Yin Cheng’s armies knocked it over in short order.

Zhao, to the north-east, was a land of tough people used to fighting off the ferocious, barbaric Hiung-nu, probably the same nation as the infamous Huns. Unfortunately, even Zhao couldn’t resist a major earthquake, and one devastated the northern kingdom in 229 BCE. King Cheng moved at once. He appointed Generalissimo Wang Jian to lead the invasion force, his best soldier, one of the most able and famous generals of the time. He entered Zhao almost before the aftershocks had ceased, and took the Zhao capital of Handan.

The King of Yan knew his state would be next. He chose a scholar and expert swordsman named Jing Ke to go to the Ch’in court as a Yan noble pleading for mercy for his country – and once he had an audience with Cheng, to kill him. He carried the severed head of a Ch’in defector who had taken refuge in Yan to add conviction.

Jing Ke approached the King of Ch’in with a poisoned dagger hidden inside a scroll. He made his attempt while Cheng was gloating over the severed head, but Cheng was able to defend himself with a sword, and the attempt failed. Jing Ke and his companion were executed. The reliable general Wang Jian was sent by his king to annihilate the Yan state immediately, and to misquote Kipling, “of course he went and did.”  Ch’in armies trained and fought under merciless discipline; their ferocity was a byword. They characteristically put prisoners to the sword en masse, and that was the gentle side of their behavior. After the assassination attempt, Cheng no doubt told his commander, “Be rather rougher than usual.”

The state of Yan drowned in blood and its remnant was taken over by Ch’in.

Wei, directly to the east of Ch’in, was to be next. Zhao, to Wei’s north, and Han, to its south, had already been conquered. That placed Wei in much the same position as a piece of meat between the two claws of a crab. Its chances of staying independent were slight.

Cheng decided this wasn’t a job worthy of the great Wang Jian’s abilities. He sent a lesser but competent general, Wang Fen, who wisely realized the great state of Chu to the south might interfere with his campaign unless he guarded his flank first. Moving against the border of Chu, he conquered and garrisoned ten or a dozen cities there. Afterwards he led his forces – six hundred thousand strong — into Wei and besieged the capital, Daliang.

Daliang wasn’t an easy stronghold to take. It had formidable walls and a wide, deep moat all around it, fed by two nearby rivers and a canal. Wang Fen set labor levies to work diverting the nearby Yellow River. After three months, Daliang was flooded, and the Ch’in forces took the inundated city. Deaths of soldiers and civilians of Wei together came to over one hundred thousand. Surrender followed. Wei too was annexed by Ch’in, in the year 225 BCE.

The mighty state of Chu had to be defeated next. With its immense area, resources and man-power, it was likely to prove an even tougher opponent than Zhao. It was a task for the great general Wang Jian. The king asked him how large an invasion force he would need.

“Six hundred thousand, sublime lord,” Wang Jian declared.

The king considered that for a long time. Six hundred thousand was the size of the army he had sent into Wei. Raising an immense force like that – for the second time in a single year – would mean considerable expense. The craving for conquest, and the influence of the ruby he now wore, battled with an urge to pinch pennies. Hmm …

He beckoned to another general at his court, the young and ambitious Li Xin. This man expressed the view that two hundred thousand would be enough to reduce the Kingdom of Chu. Populous and great in extent it might be, but all men knew its administration was corrupt. Chu’s admittedly huge army lacked morale.

The experienced Wang Jian chewed his graying moustache. It was ridiculous. The king couldn’t listen to this boasting whelp.

The king did.

He appointed Li Xin and another general to handle the invasion of Chu. Wang Jian concealed his disgust and left the capital on the pretext that he was ill. There wasn’t much else he could do. You didn’t tell a monarch like Cheng that he had his head stuck up his rectum and was begging for disaster.

The Ch’in armies entered the great southern state and captured a couple of cities with no trouble. Li Xin didn’t realize he was being suckered by a crafty Chu general. His opponent didn’t meet the invaders straight away. He retreated before them, letting them think he was afraid, and Li Xin became overconfident.

The Chu commander chose the right moment to counter-attack, and had his forces move against Li Xin’s after a secret forced march of three days and nights, ending in an immense ambush. The Ch’in army suffered disastrous losses and was ingloriously beaten. Li Xin was probably condemned to the death of a thousand cuts by his irate king.

Cheng called the old war-horse Wang Jian back to the capital and asked him to lead another expedition against Chu – this time numbering 600,000 men, as he had requested. Wang Jian agreed, but striking while the iron was hot, he asked for a grant of considerable land if his campaign was a success, to include a fine mansion on a lake, deeded to his family in perpetuity. King Cheng said, “Granted – but don’t fail me.”

The graying, crafty general had no such intention. He marched against Chu. The Chu rulers, remembering how they had trounced Ch’in invaders the previous year, thought they’d have little trouble repeating the victory. Wang Jian encouraged the belief. He established several large fortified camps in strategic positions – and, after doing that, refrained from any more aggression. The Chu generals decided that the once formidable Wang Jian, one of the greatest four military leaders in the country, was past it.

His strategy had its cost. Feeding and maintaining his vast force while it did essentially nothing was a problem. Ch’in soldiers wrote home pleading with their families to send them money and warm clothing.

The general had his officers train the men relentlessly while they waited. He knew it wasn’t easy for the Chu state to maintain a colossal army on active service month after month, either. They could always attack the Ch’in army in its strongly fortified camps, but if they did, their losses would be enormous. It was a matter of who could wait longest.

After a year the Chu monarch ordered the bulk of his military levies to disband and go home. He believed they could always be summoned again if needed. Wang Jian had clearly lost his former decisiveness and energy. Even if he decided to fight an active campaign now, he couldn’t move quickly enough to overrun the vast territories of Chu.

Mistake, as Julia Roberts says in Pretty Woman; huge mistake. Wang Jian ordered his soldiers out of their camps in a blitzkrieg onslaught that the vast but indolent state of Chu could not counter in time. The main Chu general was killed in action. In 223 Wang Jian’s army captured the Chu capital of Shouchun. The previous capital had been sacked by Ch’in armies in 241; now Shouchun suffered the same fate. The hellish scene must have been a lot like the butchery REH described in his “Black Chant Imperial.”

Trumpets triumph in red disaster,
White skulls litter the broken sod,
And we who ride for the one black master
Howl at the iron gates of God.

Virgins wail and a babe is whining,
Nailed like a fly on a gory lance –
White on the skulls the stars are shining,
Over them sweeps our demon’s dance.

After that there was nothing major left to do. The last shreds of the state of Yan were taken over in 222, the surviving members of its royal family captured. The very last independent one of the Seven Warring States, Ch’i, in the extreme east on the Yellow Sea, was a minor task to conquer compared with Zhao and Chu. It fell in 221 BCE.

King Yin Cheng was no longer a mere king but the first emperor of the whole land.

He assumed the name Shi-Huangdi. His first command was that all weapons not in possession of the Ch’in be confiscated and melted down. He used the metal to have twelve great ornamental statues of himself cast. With an iron hand he created a central administration for all the country, a single standard currency, a single written script, standard weights and measures, and even a standard length for the axles of carts to make road traffic more efficient.

Shi-Huangdi then ordered the construction of a vast northern defense system against the barbaric nomads. Various defensive walls in the north had been constructed in the past. Shi-Huangdi had them extended and joined together by enormous further fortifications. Any defensive walls along the borders of former states, that tended to divide his empire, he had torn down.  Little of his construction remains today; most of what we call the Great Wall now was built during the Ming Dynasty, much later. Still, that work followed the course of the first emperor’s project, just as the boundaries of China for many centuries were essentially what he had made them.

The labor included 300,000 soldiers. At least half a million common people worked on the project as forced levies. They were removed from their homes and marched to regions of arid desert or high mountains. There, they were quite simply worked to death in a rule of terror. Any laborer who slackened from exhaustion or sickness was strangled on the spot. His corpse was thrown into the earthworks and covered.

These were the ordinary, honest peasants. Criminals were sentenced to work on the huge fortifications as well, large numbers of them; the Emperor Shi-Huangdi now had the population of the entire country at his disposal. It’s doubtful whether the criminals were treated any worse than the press-ganged peasants. Women were frightened to bear sons and widowers dared not marry again, under the rule of the Tiger of Ch’in.

He ordered other huge public works, such as the Lingchu Canal in the south, which sounds as though its use ought to have been for peaceful transport, but it wasn’t. The purpose was troop transport and supply, so that his soldiers could attack and subjugate non-Chinese tribes in the areas of Yunnan and North Vietnam. How many died building the canal, and in the campaigns that ensued, we’ll never know exactly.

Under Shi-Huangdi, also, independent and original thought was forbidden. Although the time of the Seven Warring States had been one of constant conflict, it had also been a time of great intellectual freedom. Ideas of all kinds were developed and discussed freely. The Tiger Emperor and his chancellor, Li Si, were ardent Legalists. The Legalist doctrine held that human beings were vicious beasts who could only be made to behave correctly through fear and punishment. Dissent was crushed and Confucians, among others, were harshly persecuted. Li Si oversaw the mass burnings of books expressing other philosophical viecrovwpoints. As far as he was concerned, books on practical matters like medicine and agriculture – and prophecy, also considered practical – were the only safe ones.

History was allowable if it was the approved version of the Ch’in state’s history. Shi-Huangdi even wrote his own texts on that subject, since no existing ones pleased him. Books of history considered dissident or subversive were destroyed. So were their authors.

Over 450 Confucian scholars who protested the book burnings were buried alive. Others were branded as criminals and sent north to work on the wall, in effect a death sentence. The defeated states’ leading families, tens of thousands of people, were forcibly removed from home and settled in the Ch’in capital, Hsien-Yang, where they could be watched and trouble-makers detected.

Wherever the sun and moon shine,
Wherever one can go by boat or carriage,
Men obey the orders
And satisfy the Emperor’s desires.

The malign gem he wore constantly seems to have induced a certain wild craziness in Shi-Huangdi, as it did in Skol Abdhur centuries later, during the Third Crusade. He dreaded assassination; he’d had three close calls with would-be slayers. He moved from palace to palace along secret tunnels and slept in a different locale each night. When he travelled, he did so in a closed carriage, sending three or four identical ones by different routes so that no-one would know which contained the Emperor. To reveal his whereabouts was a capital crime.

He hungered to become immortal and believed it was possible. Soothsayers, shamans and magicians in large numbers surrounded him. Alchemists and apothecaries who promised him the elixir of life could always get a hearing – but of course having the ear of the tyrant was dangerous. He believed that immortals lived in the fabulous Isles of Penglai somewhere across the eastern ocean, and sent delegations of handsome youths and virgin girls on embassies to find them.  He hadn’t, it seems, paid attention to the wisdom of his own country’s myths. The P’an-t’ao, the peaches of immortality, ripen once in three thousand years. Besides, they’re exclusive to the gods.

His moods shifted from arbitrary brutality to deep sadness. His craving for immortality was matched by an obsession with death. He built a necropolis for himself in which the central tomb, five hundred meters by five hundred, was larger than many palaces of the time – and more ornate. Surrounding it were administrative buildings, a model wetland filled with life-sized bronze images of cranes and other birds, and the astounding terracotta army of 7,000 life-sized soldiers, so individually detailed that it used to be assumed (when they were first discovered in 1974s) that they had been modeled from life. The Chinese terracotta soldiers are famous around the world now; they’ve been exhibited in major museums in many countries. “Remarkable” is a mild word for them.

His central tomb chamber had a copper-domed ceiling in which the stars and planets were represented in pearl inlay. Rivers and seas were represented in liquid mercury. Grave robbers were discouraged by booby traps, chiefly powerful crossbows with tripwire trig

The emperor died on a journey to China’s eastern shore in 210 BCE. His tricky chancellor, Li Si, brought the Emperor’s body back to occupy his tomb with the same elaborate secrecy he had used to travel while alive. His purpose in concealing Shi-Huangdi’s death was to ensure the succession of his own preferred choice. He forged an edict commanding the crown prince and proper heir, Fu Su, to commit suicide. He produced a will, also forged, naming a younger son as the Second Ch’in Emperor. Er Shi ascended the throne aged twenty.

He lasted three years. Weak, dissolute and vicious, he had all his father’s cruelty but none of his strength or organizing powers. His eunuch tutor, a power-hungry puppet master, really ran the empire. When Er Shi defied him at last, the eunuch forced him to kill himself, and the next ruler of Ch’in reigned only 46 days. The founders of the Han Dynasty, which came immediately after Ch’in, sacked, fired and razed the capital, Hsien-Yang, and beheaded all surviving members of the Ch’in royal family.

As Skol Abdhur truly said to Cormac Fitzgeoffrey centuries later, “Blood! That is a drink the ruby craves! Blood follows it; blood is drawn to it … He who wears it must quench its thirst or it will drink his own blood! Aye, the heart’s flow of kings and queens have gone into its crimson shadow!”

Read: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Six; Part Seven