Introduction to Reacting to the Past
King Zheng’s Great Debate and the Unification of China
Poster for "Qin Dynasty Epic" series
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Reacting to the Past
Reacting to the Past is an active learning pedagogy of role-playing games in which students explore a historical topic by taking on character roles that require them to communicate, collaborate, and compete in order to achieve assigned objectives. Please note that these games demand a high degree of student preparation and participation. You will need to read various primary and secondary source materials in order to prepare speeches and engage in oral debates. You will also need to work with other players in order to achieve shared objectives or establish mutually beneficial alliances. Finally, the “analysis” that you will write at the conclusion of the game will require you to demonstrate a deep understanding of the historical significance of the issues in the game. In short, students who have read the materials carefully and become fully immersed in the game are likely to do significantly better than those who rely on general impressions and uncertain recollections.
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The Game
Each player will begin the game with a social rank (from 0-20), which is based on the ranking system that was developed by Lord Shang (c. 390-338 BCE) to transform the Qin sociopolitical structure from an aristocracy to a meritocracy. Your rank will increase or decrease depending on whether you satisfy the objectives listed on your role sheet and (if you are not an indeterminate) your faction advisory. Many of these objectives focus on the philosophical issues that will be debated at the court of Ying Zheng, such as whether human nature is fundamentally good or bad or how Qin can succeed in unifying China. Some objectives, however, are personal (such as advancing one’s own career or ending someone else’s), so be thoughtful about what information from your role sheet you decide to share with others.
Example of Game Objectives
As ???, you begin the game with a social rank of ten (out of a possible twenty). To win, you need to increase your social rank by at least five degrees; you lose if your social rank is decreased by five degrees or more but draw if you end up with a social rank in the range of 6-14. Your social rank will rise or fall based on your ability to complete the game objectives for the ??? Faction (as detailed in your faction sheet) as well as the following personal objectives: ...
Those who are participants in the Great Debate may also be “rewarded” or “punished” with the raising or lowering of ranks based on their performance during the debate. Such rewards and punishments will be announced at the beginning of the subsequent session in the king’s opening speech. Those who are not participating in the debate may be similarly rewarded or punished based on their conduct in the previous session. Because players will begin the game at different ranks and their ability to raise their social status will vary according to the details of their assigned role, victory and loss will be determined by the degree to which one’s status rises or falls over the course of the game. Specific victory conditions will be provided in your role sheet, but in general a player will “win” if they attain their most important objectives, “lose” if they fail to attain their most important objectives, or “draw” if their accomplishments are somewhere in between.
Most roles will require at least two pieces of written work, each of which should be written in character and draw on relevant ideas from the course readings and/or additional research. Unless otherwise specified, papers should be 500 words each and must be submitted on Blackboard; after logging in, click “RTTP Game 1” on the left tab and then choose the relevant assignment in the “Assignments” folder. It is essential that you submit the in-game assignments by the specified deadlines, since your failure to prepare for a speech or submit a propoal will have a significant effect on the other players in the game. For this reason, late submissions for in-game assignments will not be accepted. For the post-game analysis, late submissions will be penalized one degree (e.g., from B to B-) for each day that it is late. All papers should include appropriate references to “academic” sources with both direct quotations and indirect summaries cited using Chicago Style footnotes. For additional details regarding essay requirements, see the RTTP Assignment and RTTP Historical Analysis Rubrics.
15% Two Written Assignments (500-word minimum; 7.5% each)
5% Participation
25% Historical Analysis
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Shang Yang: Enrich the State and Strengthen the Army
Historical Context
Lord Shang’s Sociopolitical Reforms

[At the heart of Shang Yang’s reforms] was the replacement of erstwhile aristocratic ranks with the new system of twenty (initially fewer) ranks of merit for which most males were eligible regardless of pedigree or economic status. The eight lowest ranks were distributed in exchange for military achievements, in particular the decapitation of enemy soldiers, or could be purchased by wealthy individuals in exchange for grain; successful rank holders could be incorporated into the military or civilian administration and thereafter be promoted up the social ladder.
Graphic representing social ranks
Each rank ... granted its holder economic, social, and legal privileges, such as the right to cultivate a certain amount of land, the right to be given slaves to assist in its cultivation, as well as the right to redeem certain punishments. The ranks were not fully inheritable; under normal circumstances, a man could designate one heir to his rank, but the heir received a rank one or two positions lower than his father, and the decrease was sharper for the holders of higher ranks (except for the one or two highest ones). This system therefore generated a much higher degree of social mobility than had prevailed in the aristocratic age. It effectively transformed the society from one based on pedigree, in which the individual’s position was determined primarily by his or her lineage affiliation, into a much more open one in which individual merit, especially military merit, for the most part determined social position. ... Manifold data confirm that in the aftermath of Shang Yang’s reforms Qin became a highly mobile society in which pedigree played only a secondary role in determining one’s status. (The Book of Lord Shang, 19)
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Overview of the Game
The game focuses on a series of hypothetical debates that are set at the court of Ying Zheng, the King of Qin, in the year 238 BCE. Qin is the strongest of the seven states that have survived the Warring States period (481-221 BCE), which as the name suggests is an era of continual warfare. From 1046-256 BCE, the so-called “Middle Kingdom” (i.e., China) had been ruled by the kings of the Zhou dynasty, though their power had been on the wane since 771 BCE and the dynasty was formally ended when Ying Zheng’s great-grandfather, King Zhaoxiang (r. 307-351 BCE), conquered the last Zhou king in 256 BCE.
          The purpose of this Great Debate is to gather some of the greatest thinkers in China to develop a comprehensive plan to bring the Warring States period to an end. The debate will take place over five days and focus on the following topics:
1. Human Nature: What is “human nature”? Is it that which is fully manifest from the moment we are born, like our desire for self-gratification? Or perhaps it is something that needs to be properly nurtured before it can be fully realized—like our potential for moral growth, which requires a nurturing environment and self-cultivation before it can reach its true potential. In either case, does our inborn nature impel us toward sagehood, impede our moral growth, or simply define a neutral foundation that can be transformed into something positive or negative based on the choices we make and the actions we take.
2. Social Organization and Self-Cultivation: How should society be organized to provide the ideal environment for both social harmony and personal growth? Does the ruler need to engage in any self-cultivation practices in order to realize the ideal social order? What about the rest of society?
3. Unifying the Warring States: For nearly 250 years, China has been torn apart by endless war, but of the dozens of states that existed at the beginning of this period, only seven major states remain. What is the best strategy to restore unity to our fractured country? Should one employ diplomacy to build a coalition so that the various states can be united peacefully or is military domination the only way that peace can be attained?
4. Governing the Empire: Once the empire has been united, should it be governed through a feudal system (with numerous semi-autonomous states that are loyal to a single king), an imperial system (with an emperor who rules all of China through a centrally organized bureaucracy), or something in between?
5. Ruling Philosophy: On the final day of the debate, King Zheng’s Inner Council will develop a framework for establishing the ideal sociopolitical order by selecting the best responses to each of the four debate topics. Those whose perspectives are adopted will be appropriately rewarded and the resulting document will then serve as the official “Ruling Philosophy” of Qin.
The Great Debate provides the overt structure of the game, but beneath the surface is a power struggle between three factions that are competing for domination of the Qin court. King Zheng has been under the co-regency of his prime minister, Lü Buwei, and his mother, Queen Dowager Zhao, since he ascended the throne at the age of thirteen. Although he recently performed the “capping ceremony” that symbolized his formal entry into adulthood, Prime Minister Lü and Queen Dowager Zhao continue to thwart all efforts to establish his full authority as king, as this would significantly diminish their own power as regents. Moreover, the Prime Minister and the Queen Dowager have conflicting personal interests, including (but not limited to) the fact that any increase in the power of one will result in a decrease in the power of the other. Each has therefore become the center of a faction that is focused on maximizing its control over the Qin court. A third faction is headed by the king’s closest aide, Li Si, who hopes to increase his own power by working to end Ying Zheng’s period of regency and restore the dominance of Legalism, which has slipped under the leadership of Lü Buwei (who has demonstrated a clear distaste for Legalist policies).
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Peking Opera Masks
King Zheng
Future First Emperor of China
Yin-Yang Symbol
Lü Buwei
Leader of the Lüshi Chunqiu Faction
Prime Minister of Qin
Yin-Yang Symbol
Member of the Lüshi Chunqiu Faction
Famous Confucian
Yin-Yang Symbol
Empress Dowager Zhao
Co-Leader of the Empress Dowager/Lao Ai Faction
Mother/Regent of King Zheng
Yin-Yang Symbol
Lao Ai
Co-Leader of the Empress Dowager/Lao Ai Faction
Advisor to the Empress Dowager
Yin-Yang Symbol
Li Si
Leader of the Legalist Faction
Advisor to King Zheng
Yin-Yang Symbol
Han Fei
Member of the Legalist Faction
Author of the Hanfeizi
Yin-Yang Symbol
Lord Changping
Military General/High-Ranking Member of Qin Society