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Qin Shi Huangdi
"China's First Emperor"


Synopsis | Download PDF of Play

Qin Shi Hwang is an historical play in five acts which chronicles the overthrow of the First Emperor of China (221-207 B.C.) by a courageous peasant. It is the story of the three most important characters involved in that well documented revolution. The first is Chen Shen, a peasant; the second is Qin Shi Hwang (first Emperor of China), and the third, is an ambitious confidante to the Emperor, the eunuch Kao Chao.

The story begins in a rural village of ancient China (circa 220 B.C.) during the reign of Emperor Qin, variously known to history as The Yellow Emperor, The Dread Tiger, First Emperor of the Black Haired People and Ruler of the Middle Kingdom. It ends with the overthrow of Qin and the victory of a peasant led revolt.

The play opens with the protagonist, Chen Shen, a strapping young country boy, impatiently waiting for word from his sweetheart, E-Tai. He is anxious to learn of her father’s response to his marriage proposal. After the opening scene with his mother, he takes leave of her, in search of E-Tai, with whom he rendezvous. E-tai communicates to her beloved that her father has consented to the marriage. The happy moment is interrupted by the appearance of a village friend who informs the two that the conquering troops of the Yellow Emperor have ordered everyone into the village square.

The action quickly explodes as Emperor Qin’s soldiers barge into Chen Shen’s mother’s small hut with weapons drawn. Their orders are to search everywhere and confiscate all the contraband weapons of the village. Chen Shen’s inheritance, the family sword, is taken and his mother is beaten as she begs them not to take the sword.

The play transitions to the royal audience chamber of Emperor Qin. He and his advisors have gathered to lay out the foundation for the now unified China, made possible by his crushing triumphs in the North, South, East and West. Many extreme policies for the newly occupied territories are mandated therein. Around the Empire, troops are ordered to burn all illegal writings and round up all able bodied male subjects, to provide labor for the building of the Great Wall of the northern frontier.

Back at Chen Shen’s village, he and many of his fellow villagers are pressed into the Emperor’s service, and E-Tai is singled out by Qin’s troops for her extraordinary beauty. She is taken prisoner, to the Emperor’s palace in the East, to be incorporated into the Royal Harem of consorts and concubines.

Three years later, the Emperor has grown increasingly erratic. Qin is deeply troubled by the prospect of his own pending mortality. In this state, he gullibly entertains the fanciful musings of many a charlatan advisor, blind to their chicanery. Chief among them is a Priest-Magician known as Foh Shih. He has convinced Qin of the existence of a rare magical plant, the Long-Life Flower, found only on a far away faerie island. Captivated by the Magician’s words, The Emperor sends three thousand children, from the best families of the realm, as required by Foh Shih, in search of the magic herb. Foh Shih directs this course of action, reasoning that only the purest of mind, spirit, and virtue could hope to find the mystical Long-Life Flower. One of the Emperor’s most intimate advisors, Minister Li Si, fears the developments unfolding before him, and the growing influence of Foh Shih over Emperor Qin and his vast government.

Chen Shen returns to his village after three years of conscript labor at The Wall. There, he is greeted with the news that in his absence, his mother has died, and that E-Tai, the love of his life, had been abducted by the Emperor’s soldiers and sent to the Royal Harem. Chen Shen and his close friend, Hu-Shur, vow to kill Emperor Qin or die trying.

At the Harem, a dazed and distraught E-Tai despairs with heartache. She yearns for the company of her dear father and the sights and sounds of her simple country hamlet. Her sorrow is interrupted by the news that The Emperor would be relocating some of them to the Great Royal Palace. The selection is to be overseen by the chief eunuch in charge of the Emperor’s Harems: the corpulent and vicious, Kao Chao. He secretly falls in love with E-Tai and schemes to have her near him. Kao Chao makes advances on E-Tai, but she is alarmed and appalled by the eunuch, leaving him feeling agony and fury.

The story shifts to General Moo Shi, commander in charge of the garrison at the Great Wall. He has confided with Minister Li Si. They share mutual concerns regarding the Magicians’ sway over the Emperor. Their worry is then occasioned by a conflict within the Royal Family which results in the sudden banishment of Qin’s eldest son, Prince Fu-Su, to the Great Wall. Kao Chao machinates to exploit these tensions in an effort to stage a coup and place his chosen proxy on the throne.

Prince Fu Su dutifully obeys his father and travels north to The Wall for his penitent service. There, he bonds and empathizes with the slaves and conscripts who serve the Empire under horrid conditions.

Next, the devious Kao Chao traps Minister Li Si into a conspiracy to poison the Emperor. Then, Kao Chao sets into motion a chain of events calculated to result in the suicide of the heir designate. Kao Chao’s plans succeed. Emperor Qin and the Elder Royal Prince both meet nefarious ends. With his candidate, Hu-Hai, placed on the throne, Kao Chao next works towards securing the crown for himself.

Arguing upon Confucian and legal principles, the maniacal eunuch convinces the new Emperor that the deceased Emperor’s Harem must be entombed in the Royal Mausoleum, so as to accompany the dead king to the Other World. E-tai’s fate is sealed. Meanwhile, Kao Chao initiates his ruse, tricking the new Emperor into committing suicide. The tale climaxes as the nearly victorious Kao Chao is ultimately challenged by a general rebellion which is led by Chen Shen. He is joined by tens of thousands in the battle to overthrow the government. Combat ensues and the rebels prevail, putting Chen Shen on the throne and making him the new Emperor of China.

This play features usage of many classical Chinese historical sources—including that of the great Szuma Chien ”“the greatest historical work China has produced.” It is also enriched by the great little known work of Wilson V.Z. Faung, Chin Shih Huang (1971).

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