New Book Available to Order: The Many Lives of the First Emperor of China

The culmination of eighteen years of study, this book is neither a standard biography of the First Emperor nor a dynastic history of Qin. Rather, it looks historically at interpretations of the First Emperor in history, literature, archaeology, and popular culture as a way to understand the interpreters as much as the subject of their interpretation. 

The Many Lives of the First Emperor of China

The Many Lives of the First Emperor of China

Tyrant or national hero? An interdisciplinary exploration of China's First Emperor

Ying Zheng, founder of the Qin empire, is recognized as a pivotal figure in world history, alongside other notable conquerors such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Julius Caesar. His accomplishments include conquest of the warring states of ancient China, creation of an imperial system that endured for two millennia, and unification of Chinese culture through the promotion of a single writing system.


Only one biased historical account, written a century after his death, narrates his biography. Recently, however, archaeologists have revealed the lavish pits associated with his tomb and documents that demonstrate how his dynasty functioned. Debates about the First Emperor have raged since shortly after his demise, making him an ideological slate upon which politicians, revolutionaries, poets, painters, archaeologists, and movie directors have written their own biases, fears, and fantasies.

This book is neither a standard biography nor a dynastic history. Rather, it looks historically at interpretations of the First Emperor in history, literature, archaeology, and popular culture as a way to understand the interpreters as much as the subject of their interpretation.

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About the Book
Tag: Monographs
Publisher: University of Washington Press
Publication Year: 2022
ASIN: 0295750227
ISBN: 9780295750224
List Price: 65
A superbly researched and beautifully written study of the ways the First Emperor of China has been interpreted, represented, and appropriated throughout Chinese history. A tremendously exciting work.
– Michael Puett, Harvard University
This adventurous and important study brings the famous First Emperor of Qin to us through a kaleidoscope of voices. We are given an entirely new way to read and understand the impact of this elusive figure, whose unification of China made "the greatest rupture with the past until the onslaught of modernization."
– Jessica Rawson, warden, Merton College, University of Oxford (1994-2010)
Makes scholarship on remote ancient history relevant to our contemporary globalized world. The scope of this book is broad across space, time, and academic disciplines.
– Lai Guolong, University of Florida
Relatively few scholars of early history have sought to consider their topics in light of later times and modern historiography. Rarer still are those who incorporate modern cultural phenomena such as film and video games into their research. These things are Barbieri-Low’s great contribution.
– Charles Sanft, University of Tennessee
A stimulating, innovative book on a major figure in world history. Barbieri-Low plumbs archaeological and textual materials, including recently excavated manuscripts and inscriptions, for reliable information about the life and times of the First Emperor of Qin; and he juxtaposes his findings with the First Emperor’s wildly divergent later representations in various media. Romping over more than two thousand years, his compelling analysis of their contexts and motivations invites reflections on both the nature and the present-day importance of history and historiography.
– Lothar von Falkenhausen, UCLA
A brilliant kaleidoscope of the ever-changing, semi-mythological image and rich cultural history of China’s First Emperor that ranges across millennia from ancient artifacts to contemporary film and literature.
– Martin Kern, Princeton University
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New Lecture Uploaded “Visions of Immortality and Paradise in Ancient China and Egypt”

This lecture was given at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 2018.  It previews what would become the final chapter of my book Ancient Egypt and Early China: State, Society, and CultureThe talk introduces the concept of the multi-component soul in each civilization and the representations of a paradisiacal realm where part of that soul could reside. Visual representations include paintings on tomb walls, coffins, stone carvings, pictorial bricks, and portable objects.  The last part of the talk introduces the notion of “games of fate,” boardgames and associated rituals that could assist one in gaining access to paradise.

Open the Lectures page for this and other lectures

New Lecture Uploaded “Eurasian Currents of Transmission and Adaptation”

This lecture explores the preliminary results of one of my new projects that will look at patterns of diffusion and adaptation of objects, images, and technologies over the long course of four millennia of Eurasian prehistory and history. This talk looks specifically at the glass eye-bead, Chinese figured silks, Roman silver plate, and the Ionic capital. Click HERE for the lecture page for this and other lectures.

New Lecture Uploaded, “Imagining the Tomb of the First Emperor of China”

This lecture was given in Montreal in 2017 and previews the final chapter of my forthcoming book, The Many Lives of the First Emperor of China (University of Washington Press, 2022).  The talk looks at different imaginings of what might be held in the First Emperor’s unexcavated tomb, by historians, poets, artists, archaeologists, and movie and video game designers. Click Here for the Lectures Page

Professor Barbieri Awarded NEH Fellowship

I was just awarded a full-year fellowship from the NEH to work on the first complete English translation of the Discourses on Salt and Iron (Yantielun 鹽鐵論), one of the most important classical texts to survive from the 1st century BCE in Han dynasty China. The Discourses on Salt and Iron is a work in sixty chapters, only twenty-eight of which have been previously translated into English. It purports to be a faithful recording of an imperial court debate held in 81 BCE between the government and its critics about whether to abolish state monopolies on iron and salt production that had been imposed four decades previously.  And while some chapters do indeed discuss the state monopolies, the topics in the debate ranged widely, touching upon all the controversial political, military, economic, and social issues of the time. The Discourses on Salt and Iron thus constitutes a rare and indispensable snapshot of the political economy of the Han dynasty.  The text is invaluable for understanding the political currents and economic policies of the most populous empire on earth near the turn of the common era.