China first meets him when he becomes the ruler of Qin, at the age of thirteen.
China attends enthronement ceremonies as the Son of Heaven's tacit recognition of the new ruler's legitimacy, even though the kings of Zhou have had little real power for hundreds of years, with the land split into states warring for supremacy. Each state has its own written language, customs, culture, clothing, its own existence like him, and China is both all of them and none of them.
He comes to this enthronement ceremony for the same reason as usual. It's the third enthronement ceremony in Qin in five years, and China hopes that King Zheng will actually remain on the throne for longer than three years, especially given his young age.
He, Qin, and Lü Buwei had agreed the previous night that Lü Buwei would prepare King Zheng before they formally meet him, and he is conversing with Qin in one of the King's sitting rooms when the new king and his chancellor enter.
China and Qin immediately cease their conversation, and the newcomers take their seats1, the King in the host's position2 and Lü Buwei beside China. Before Lü Buwei even introduces them to each other, King Zheng turns to China and says, "華夏3.", then hastily apologises for his impoliteness.
China is surprised. It is obvious that he is Zhou, given his manner of dress and his seat on the left4, but for King Zheng to use his true name without being told.... He did not expect it of this boy, not when no one has recognised him so immediately since the states collapsed into constant warfare more than two hundred years ago. Indeed, Lü Buwei introduces him as Zhou, and though the King does not refer to him as 華夏 again, China knows to expect great things from him.
In the twenty-sixth year of King Zheng of Qin's rule, Qin conquers Qi, the last of the other six major states. The minor state of Wei is the only other state left, and it has been Qin's tributary since Qin conquered the major state of Wei. For all intents and purposes, China is once again united5, and so, China, in his Zhou clothing, goes to see his new ruler.
The First Emperor has obviously been expecting him, for he is immediately directed to a sitting room situated in the inner reaches of the palace. The First Emperor arrives soon, and this time, after he sits down, China greets6 him as a subject rather than as an equal. The First Emperor smiles—they both understand that China has recognised the legitimacy of his rule with this one simple gesture.
After he returns China's greeting, China says, "The First Emperor7? Quite a hefty title for one who has not done much more than unite me. Your Imperial Majesty8 has not even done that in more than name, given that Qin and the others still exist."
"You can tell that they still exist?" the First Emperor asks, and China chuckles.
"Of course. They are both part of me and not part of me."
"Eventually, you will be the only one left," the First Emperor replies confidently, and suddenly, China is acutely aware of his age. He may still look only fifteen, has looked this age during all of the First Emperor's thirty-nine years, yet he has been alive for nearly two thousand and five hundred years9. He remembers a time before the states existed, and he knows he will still be alive long after the states die. The man in front of him is proof that he and what he embodies will always be the end goal for anyone who claims just a part of him.
China smiles. "Yes, but will Your Imperial Majesty still be alive then?"
It is a challenge.
Eight years after he takes off his Zhou clothing and dons the clothing of Qin, China storms into the First Emperor's study in a rage, disregarding the servants who try to stop him. He does not sit down or even greet the First Emperor in his anger, but China also knows that he wouldn't even confront his ruler in such a manner if they did not have such a strong bond.
"How dare you order the burning of all those books? Do you even understand what you are doing? Do you know how much work my scholars put into those books?" China remembers the days when he was surrounded by philosophers, remembers watching them compile the masters' thoughts, and he can only imagine how young he would still be without them.
"Yes," the First Emperor answers calmly while dismissing the servants with a wave of his hand, and China stares at him in disbelief. "I told you that you will be the only one left. I am merely making that true," he continues.
China does not know what to say. The First Emperor invites him to sit, and China does so. His ruler studies him for a few moments, then says, "You are the one who made such a point about the seven states' continued existence when you came to grant me legitimacy."
"I...That bears no relation."
"But it does," his ruler replies. "As long as they exist, you are not whole. I spent ten years conquering the other six states so I could claim you, and I don't want that to go to waste."
China stares at him. It's been so long since the states came into existence that he had forgotten they had once not existed, that for most of his life, no one else had been a part of him and he had not been a combination of different cultures and peoples, himself centring them all. He has never seen all of them as a zero-sum game.
"So you are destroying all the other parts of who I am in order to preserve me."
"Standardisation will transform the people from citizens of one of the seven states to citizens of the Qin Empire. Qin united China. You are the Qin Empire now, not Zhou. It is merely natural that only Qin's values remain."
"You will never erase people's memories," China says shakily. He knows he is officially the Qin Empire now, but it's easy to forget with the continued existence of Qin.
The First Emperor smiles. "People forget, given enough time. Eventually, only Qin's culture will remain, and so they can remember only Qin."
But I won't forget, China wants to say, except he isn't human, and maybe someday even he will forget. His days with his mother10 have long become little more than hazy sunshine and warmth, the banks of the River11 his guide and his mountains a reassuring presence in the background, with only specific memories dotted in between.
Perhaps one day, all he will remember of his First Emperor will be moments like these, along with what he has accomplished.
Suddenly, China understands his ruler's obsession with achieving immortality.
The First Emperor dies thirty-seven years after he became King of Qin, on his fifth tour of his empire. China is not at his side when he dies, but he knows soon afterward, despite the ability of Li Si, the chancellor, to conceal the death from nearly everyone else. He says nothing, however, both because he understands Li Si's reasons for doing so and because he has no real power, hasn't had real power since more rulers than he cares to count. Li Si doesn't even know his true identity, anyway, and he had decided as well, long ago, not to interfere in these kinds of affairs.
China does his share of the mourning and participates in the funeral procession. He watches the First Emperor's coffin enter the tomb that took thirty years to complete, and he remembers the boy he met so many years ago, who even then had intended to claim him one day.
He still looks fifteen, at times even feels merely fifteen, yet his First Emperor is already dead at the age of fifty.
The seven states still exist, but he's starting to forget the scripts of all except Qin.
The Second Emperor is weak, and China knows that conspiracies and plots are rife at court, though he does not know of their details. He's heard the speculation that his First Emperor's death was a conspiracy, and he wishes that he had been there, at the end.
China can feel the restlessness stirring within him. He knows that things will change soon, and he thinks, even if history wants to forget you, I will make sure that everyone remembers.
1. The ancient Chinese conception of 'sitting' would be described as kneeling in English; one would kneel, with one's feet touching (some sources say just the big toe), and a distance of about the thickness of a single sheet of paper between one's buttocks and heels. Sitting in a chair was considered 'foreign sitting' up until Song China, when chairs became widespread. 'Kneeling', however, remained the most formal sitting position in Imperial China, and all formal ceremonies required sitting in this way. [back]
2. When receiving guests, the host would sit at the centre of the rear of the room, facing the door, while the guests would sit in two parallel rows perpendicular to him, facing each other. Like a U, with the guests where the two sides are and the host where the bottom is. [back]
3. I use 華夏 as China's 'true name' because 夏 is one of the first known names for the group of people who formed the core of what is now known as the Han people/ethnicity, while 華 became another word for Han/Chinese during the Zhou dynasty. 華夏 as a term itself began to be used during the Zhou dynasty to refer to the concept of China. (See here.) Thus, it makes sense that China would accept this term as his 'true name', as it indicates both his origins and who he is now.
中國 (the modern native Chinese name for China) was in use at this time, but it was typically used by each individual state to refer to themselves, and thus it is more likely that China would be referred to as 周 (Zhou) by anyone who has allegiance to a specific state. The use of 華夏, then, shows that King Zheng sees China as the personification of one united Chinese nation rather than the specific united Chinese nation of Zhou. I've used the Chinese logograms rather than a romanisation both for emphasis of China's identity and because there really isn't that much known about Ancient Chinese pronunciation, and I would feel strange using pinyin to represent how 華夏 would have sounded back then. [back]
4. In Chinese culture, the left side is more respected than the right side. [back]
5. There is a period of a time during the end of the Warring States period when Zhou had been vanquished by Qin and no one ruler existed for China, even if only in name. [back]
6. Greetings differ by their level of formality, and the Rites of Zhou lists nine types of greetings. I see China and King Zheng being of the same rank (both are subordinate to the Zhou monarch), while China is of an inferior rank to the First Emperor. When one receives a greeting, one should give a greeting in return, and a person of a superior rank would give a return greeting that is one level less formal than what s/he received.
The nine types of greetings are listed in (more) detail here (page in traditional Chinese), and the three formal greetings would be used in this case, the exact type depending on the relative ranks of the two people involved. [back]
7. The Chinese word for Emperor, 皇帝, is the combination of two separate titles, 皇 and 帝, used to refer to the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors respectively. The combination of these two titles are a result of the First Emperor's views that his accomplishments exceed those of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. [back]
8. While I've used 'you' in this fic, I see the First Emperor using a respectful second-person pronoun such as 君 when addressing China, given who China is (though with the way Old Chinese is structured, it's more likely that pronouns were used seldomly). I've used 'you' for simplicity's sake, since no equivalent pronouns exist in Modern English (and 'you' is the more formal form in Middle English, anyway). I use 'Your Imperial Majesty' as the equivalent for 「陛下」. [back]
9. While Hetalia canon says that China is four thousand years old (this, to my knowledge, is the general Japanese view), the Chinese claim that China is nearly five thousand years old (about four thousand seven hundred, to be more exact). Since this is a historical fic, it seems more appropriate to go with what the Chinese themselves believe. [back]
10. In my headcanon, China's 'mother' is Nüwa. The Chinese version of the article talks about historical people named Nüwa, and since I see nations' existence as beginning with a group of people feeling like they belong to the nation, I see China coming into existence around the time of the human leader Nüwa, who took him in and raised him. [back]
11. The Yellow River was once just called River (河; at this time, the words 川 and 水 were used as generic terms for 'river' instead), and the first usage of the term 'Yellow River' (黃河) can be found in the Han Dynasty. [back]