Ingesting Mercury and the Noble Lie: On Anthony Barbieri-Low’s “The Many Lives of the First Emperor of China” and Shadi Bartsch’s “Plato Goes to China”

By Leigh JencoMarch 6, 2023

Ingesting Mercury and the Noble Lie: On Anthony Barbieri-Low’s “The Many Lives of the First Emperor of China” and Shadi Bartsch’s “Plato Goes to China”

The Many Lives of the First Emperor of China by Anthony J. Barbieri-Low
Plato Goes to China: The Greek Classics and Chinese Nationalism by Shadi Bartsch

THE TWO BOOKS under review examine the legacy and contemporary importance of two historical figures whose influence on contemporary thought and culture can only be described as gargantuan. The first is the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. The other figure is Qin Shihuang (259–10 BCE), a.k.a. “The First Emperor of China,” known to many in the West from the terracotta warrior statues excavated from his extravagant, booby-trapped Xi’an tomb in 1974.

Each figure has been the subject of continual reappraisal. Plato is known to many (erroneously) as the father of philosophy and (more accurately) as propagator of the “noble lie,” a myth about the naturalness of class hierarchy meant to discourage political critique. The Platonic noble lie dates to a Socratic dialogue authored by Plato in the fourth century BCE, but it gained more recent fame when it was controversially interpreted as a justification for the deceit propagated by the US government for its war in Iraq in the early 2000s. It has also been taken up in China. The First Emperor has long made appearances in works of history and literature outside of China; inside of China, he has had an even richer afterlife. Since the Maoist era (1949–76), for example, he has been known as a model for the territorial unification (some might say imperial expansion) of East Asia, which he initiated in 230 BCE from his state of Qin—from which the English word “China” is derived. Both figures have enjoyed a noteworthy posthumous career, often serving as convenient stand-ins for political positions or ideas with only tenuous connection to their historical roles.

Plato Goes to China: The Greek Classics and Chinese Nationalism (2023) examines one such recent use of Plato. Its author, Shadi Bartsch, is a distinguished scholar of the Western classics who learned to read Chinese as a means of understanding how Plato and other Greek philosophers were being talked about in contemporary China at a time of heightened political tensions. A central interest of hers is the way that many intellectuals and policymakers in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have favorably embraced the noble lie in the wake of Xi Jinping’s rise to power, interpreting Plato’s story of inherent merit and hierarchy as “merely stating the obvious.”

Perhaps because of this fascinating political phenomenon, Bartsch does not focus on Greco-Roman classicists or other academics engaged in serious scholarship on Plato and related figures, though she acknowledges and, in some cases, draws on their work. Instead, she concentrates on PRC writers who “promote public and ideological responses to [Western] classical texts” in blogs, op-eds, articles, speeches, and other media. The first chapter provides a prelude to this, moving swiftly through the Chinese examination of Greek thought in the 400 years stretching from Jesuit contact with the Ming court in the 16th century to the Tiananmen movement and massacre in 1989. Subsequent chapters take up specific topics associated with “classics after the crackdown.” This phrase serves as the title of the second chapter but also indicates Bartsch’s persistent reading of the main texts with which she engages as responses to, or support for, political repression. There is a logic to this approach given her choice of material. Most of the public intellectuals she examines are ideologues, writing under conditions of extreme and growing political oppression and surveillance. Perhaps not surprisingly, their appropriation of the Greek classics is often so obvious as to be uninteresting (such as using Thucydides’s work to criticize the compulsiveness and demagoguery of democratic forms of government) or veer into the merely instrumental (claiming, for example, an identity between the Confucian ideal of humaneness, ren, and Socrates’s notion of “the good,” agathon).

The downside to this approach is that the book gives little indication of how or even that Chinese thinkers produce ideas of any conceptual complexity. Bartsch acknowledges that the uses of Greek philosophy by the Chinese writers and policy makers examined in the book “are not intellectually sophisticated” (emphasis in original). But this lack of sophistication is not entirely due to the sources themselves. Plato Goes to China tends to obscure from view the way political criticism in China has been motivated by a complex and ongoing engagement with a heterogeneous Sinophone textual heritage as well as ideas coming from a huge range of sources beyond Greek antiquity—including everything from Third-Worldism to just war theory to British liberalism. The Chinese interpretation of Marxism is probably the most famous example, but the creative redeployment of postmodernism, say, or the troubled legacies of Chinese engagement with the meaning of freedom—manifest in intellectual debates so meticulously examined by Gloria Davies in her exemplary work Worrying About China: The Language of Chinese Critical Inquiry (Harvard UP, 2007—make no impact on Bartsch’s readings here.

The choice to focus on a specific sort of Chinese reception of Greek classics, without contextualizing these views within the broader stakes or alternatives of intellectual debate in modern China, produces a kind of tunnel vision. The reader is given the impression that Chinese engagement with Western ideas is reducible to their reading of Greek classics, and that these readings are overwhelmingly partisan and simplistic. Bartsch, of course, acknowledges that serious scholarship on both the Greek and Chinese classics is taking place in China, and she pays the typical fealty toward the “dazzling array” of thinkers whose opinions change over time. But these gestures are undermined by often sweeping and sometimes inaccurate claims that are played out in the book’s analysis: for example, Bartsch’s assertion that the “belief that the west is as fundamentally shaped by its classical antiquity as the Chinese are by theirs has guided Chinese engagement with the west from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day.”

This is unfortunate, given just how creatively and heterogeneously Chinese thinkers since at least the 1860s have crafted new ideas from disparate sources; in fact, the Greek classics played a disproportionately small role in these conversations, in contrast to the outsize influence of Prussian statism in the work of Johann Bluntschli, the pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey, or of course the critical reexamination of the Chinese past undertaken by Liang Qichao, Hu Shi, Gu Jiegang, and others. These conversations contributed spectacularly to the very “national introspection and greater understanding of different cultures” that Bartsch claims as one of her book’s contributions.

The second book under review, The Many Lives of the First Emperor of China (2022) by Anthony J. Barbieri-Low, provides a different approach. It addresses a similar phenomenon of classical influence on contemporary politics and culture and, in doing so, touches in part on precisely the rich cross-cultural and cross-temporal engagements alluded to above. Where Plato Goes to China focuses on the reception of Greek philosophy by a small group of contemporary Chinese writers, Many Lives attempts an ambitious documentation of the First Emperor of China as a cultural, political, and legal icon across time, who (like Plato) appears as a figure onto whom diverse and contradictory arguments can be projected. He is portrayed in early written works and myths, but also in sculpture, film, comic books, and video games. He is represented in multiple and sometimes conflicting guises: as a symbol of Chinese national unity, or as a propagator of unparalleled suffering in his attempt to “burn books and bury scholars”; as a murdering, unhinged tyrant, or as a compassionate philosopher-king who propagated unified and transparent standards of rule; as evidence of the inherent unsustainability of political oppression, or of the inevitability of violence for progressing the movement of history.

Many Lives offers the most well-rounded depiction available in any language of the First Emperor’s personality, lifestyle, and historical era, as well as the subsequent narratives that for centuries shaped how his reign was understood. Barbieri-Low makes good use of his paleographic and Sinological training to identify just how closely (or not) the huge proliferation of stories about the Qin emperor, such as his insatiable lust or his insanity caused by his ingestion of mercury, follow the narratives of later commentators, most of whom are detractors and very few in possession of reliable historical records.

One of the strongest features of this book is its unique use of archeological evidence and excavated legal materials to reconstruct Qin history, including the voices of both officials and commoners. Later chapters consider how the emperor appears in media made for Western audiences: the 1995 puzzle-solving computer game Ripley’s Believe It or Not!: The Riddle of Master Lu, in which the player seeks to rescue a powerful talisman from the First Emperor’s tomb, joined an already illustrious field of Western appropriations of the emperor myth, which included Franz Kafka’s 1917 short story “Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer” (“At the Construction of the Great Wall of China”).

Its ambitious comprehensiveness means that Many Lives can sometimes devolve into a cataloging exercise that is rather light on analysis. The chapters are organized by theme (such as stories about assassination attempts, or the emperor’s role in the notorious book burnings), but occasionally it does digest its wealth of information into fascinating nuggets of comparison. Barbieri-Low observes, for example, that premodern authors tended to portray the First Emperor’s reprehensible behavior as having a moral explanation, whereas modern portrayals reduce it to a mental imbalance derived from the “personal trauma, medical handicaps, repeated attempts on his life, or ingestion of mercury” attested in some of his biographies. “In other words,” Barbieri-Low asks, “is murderous cruelty by definition insane, or is it merely at one end of the spectrum of humanity’s inherent inhumanity?” Dwelling a bit longer on these insights would have enabled the book to articulate just what is at stake with “the many lives of the First Emperor of China.”

As different as the two books are, it is valuable to place them side by side. Their documentation of new iterations of these gargantuan historical figures puts us in a better position to ask (and answer) new questions about figures who may be long dead but show no signs of losing their ability to inspire study, caricature, or political appropriation.


Leigh Jenco is associate professor of political theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is the author of Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao (2010) and Changing Referents: Learning Across Space and Time in China and the West (2015).

LARB Contributor

Leigh Jenco is associate professor of political theory at the London School of Economics. She is the author of Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao (2010) and Changing Referents: Learning Across Space and Time in China and the West (2015).


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