China's first and last emperors Walters show: Terra cotta army and the challenge to Jiang Zemin.

March 02, 1997

THE MANDATE OF HEAVEN determines who reigns in China. The Communists won that mandate in 1949, regimenting the empire. Whether they will last, like Han and Ming dynasties, must be doubted. More likely, the Communists will depart leaving permanent works, like the Qin dynasty of the third century B.C., whose military, economic and bureaucratic achievements are on view at "The First Emperor" show at the Walters Art Gallery starting today.

China, its great literary and religious age over, was small warring states. The prince who became king of Qin at age 13 realized its distinction was military. He conquered neighboring states and then the known world. His superior military technology is on view, typified by a crossbow trigger such as Europe would not see for more than a thousand years.

But his real contribution (like the Communists') was centralized bureaucracy, standardizing weights and measures, axle widths, coinage that lasted until this century, the Chinese script, and completing the Great Wall.

Mao Tse-tung was communism's First Emperor. Deng Xiaoping preserved Mao's state by jettisoning his economic and cultural lunacy. Deng picked three heirs, firing the first two. The third, Jiang Zemin, rules with the three titles of the modern emperor, head of state and of the Communist Party and of the military commission. But he is not yet a ruler with the Mandate of Heaven so much as a consensus seeker within the Communist courtier class.

Probably, the Mandate of Heaven rejects more emperors. The next dynasty may be democratic. The First Emperor died in 210 B.C. Courtiers kept his body hidden until they could rearrange the succession, which killed off the dynasty, and conspiracy theorists will think that happened to Deng Xiaoping.

The First Emperor was protected in death by 8,000 life-sized terra cotta statue soldiers, a magnificent 14 of which are at the Walters. He remains safe in his tomb. This army was discovered by a well-digger 23 years ago. Some of the artifacts shown with it were dug up in the past few years. The First Emperor built for eternity. The Communist last emperors centralized power as he did, but eternity eludes them.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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