Another point on The First Emperor: Why this fixation with the hoodlum Qin Shi Huang? With nearly 3,000 years of recorded history (and a couple of millennia of myth preceding that), China has plenty of stories much more engaging that Qin’s brutish stomp to power. I suspect that the real reason for the fascination with Qin is that Chinese people know, in their hearts, that the unification Qin carried out was a ghastly mistake.It's often me remarked that periods of cultural greatness are also times of political decadence. Can't be a coincidence, can it? But then what the heck is the connection? Granted political power is not needed for cultural creativity. Why does it actually tend to milititate against it? John's comment is probably a clue. Cultural creativity tends to coincide, not merely with political weakness, but with political disunity. Everyone knows that America's great literary flowering, the American Renaissance of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, and Whitman (wow, what a pantheon! try matching that in any one generation!) occurred before, not after, America was "unified" by the American Qin Shi Huang, Abraham Lincoln.
In the “contending states” of pre-Qin China, there was great creativity and cultural variety. Real civilizational progress comes in such conditions — compare pre-Sargon Mesopotamia, the Greek city-states before Alexander, Renaissance Italy, or 19th-century Europe. From a great bureaucratic-despotic system like the one Qin established comes nothing but stasis, complacency, blind cultural arrogance, and civilizational stagnation. The ancient unification project, like the modern one, is a horrid blunder, from which nothing good will come. China is a civilization, not a country.
My hypothesis: Cultural greatness tends to arise from clashes between different points of view. Multivocality is the theme. Contending states are good for culture because they breed contending schools.