Unity and Dominion

The first unified dynasty of China was founded in 221 B.C. Fifteen years later, it fell. But the imperial machinery it set in motion during that short time was to span the dynasties, running for over two thousand years until the proclamation of the Republic in 1912.

The Qin Dynasty was the product of a century of military expansion by a peripheral feudal state of the same name. The Qin state overran its neighbors one by one, bringing the Warring States Period (463-222 B.C.) and the fragmented Zhou Dynasty to a close. The process began with far-reaching social reforms introduced by the Legalist philosopher Shang Yang, advisor to Duke Xiao of Qin (reigned 361-338 B.C.).[1] It was completed by Duke Xiao's descendant, Duke Cheng, the self-proclaimed First Emperor, under the tutelage of another Legalist, a disciple of Shang Yang named Li Si.[2]

The central work in the Legalist corpus is The Book of Lord Shang (Shangjun shu). Traditionally attributed to Shang Yang, as it now survives it is the work of many hands.[3] It reads like a collective how-to manual for the absolute State. Legal documents recently discovered in the grave of a local Qin dynasty official display in astonishing detail the concrete workings of the empire, providing evidence that policies of the kind set forth in The Book of Lord Shang had in fact become day-to-day reality.[4]

The aim of this chapter, however, is not to establish a cause-effect relation between the ideas of 'great' men, texts, and subsequent events. These formations are indeed understood to be related--but all on the level of effect. All are effects of a common dynamic that is contained neither in the concepts, nor in the texts, nor in the events, but is located in their interstices, inhabiting the space of their interrelation. The aim here is to chart that inter-dynamism: what Michel Foucault would call the "strategies" of the absolute State, and Deleuze and Guattari its "abstract machine." What we hope to establish, alternating between textual analysis of The Book of Lord Shang and historical description, is a flow-chart of despotic desire.