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The Emperor and the Chairman: Exploring Leadership in Ancient and Modern China

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The Emperor and the Chairman:

Exploring Leadership in

Ancient and Modern China
Abigail Kuhn

Ann Arbor Learning Community

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Grade Level:

6 - 8

At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Explain the guiding principles of leadership for two Chinese leaders, one ancient and one modern

  • Compare and contrast the leadership and legacy of Emperor Qin and Chairman Mao

  • Evaluate connections between the legacies of Emperor Qin and Chairman Mao

Guiding Questions:

  • What guiding principles helped shape the leadership of Emperor Qin and Chairman Mao?

  • How did the time in which they were born help shape who they became as leaders?

  • How is the leadership and legacy of each similar to and different from that of the other?

  • How do the leadership and legacy of Emperor Qin and Chairman Mao intersect with each other?

Connections to Common Core:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.2 Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to supporting ideas; provide an objective summary of the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.6 Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.7 Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.
Connections to C3 Framework:

D1.5.6-8. Determine the kinds of sources that will be helpful in answering compelling and supporting questions, taking into consideration multiple points of views represented in the sources.

D2.His.3.6-8. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to analyze why they, and the developments they shaped, are seen as historically significant.
D3.1.6-8. Gather relevant information from multiple sources while using the origin, authority, structure, context, and corroborative value of the sources to guide the selection.

D3.4.6-8. Develop claims and counterclaims while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both

D4.1.6-8. Construct arguments using claims and evidence from multiple sources, while acknowledging the strengths and limitations of the arguments

D4.2.6-8. Construct explanations using reasoning, correct sequence, examples, and details with relevant information and data, while acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of the explanations.
Lesson Description:

Looking at the Terracotta Warriors, a group of sculptures depicting the armies of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, it’s as though history is frozen in time. Each individual face seems to tell a story, arousing our curiosity about who and what the real warriors represented. We find ourselves asking questions that transcend time and place. Why were they created? Who built them? How were they constructed? What else might be buried, as these figures were so many years ago, that we have yet to discover?

These fascinating artifacts are tourist magnets. Each year more than a million visitors come to see the Chinese warriors lined up in battle formation, still standing at the ready to defend their emperor and their homeland. Despite their undeniable appeal, however, for American tourists the Terracotta Warriors can also be a dramatic reminder of some of the ways in which the United States differs from China—even though we might find it difficult to articulate exactly what those cultural differences are. Misunderstandings can arise from such cultural distinctions. It can be hard to know how to reach common ground, for example, when it comes to teaching Asian history in American schools.
For a variety of reasons, many of today’s American educators never studied China during their formative years. Perhaps in part because of that, China’s long and complex history can seem overpowering to teachers. But we must bear in mind that the Chinese economy will likely surpass the U.S. economy by the year 2020, which means our students will be living in a world that looks much different than today. Despite their teachers’ comfort level with Chinese history, it is critical that our students gain an understanding of Asian history.
The changing face of global economics and society should lead us to reexamine the relationship between the United States and China. In addition, we should reconsider how we approach teaching this part of history. As the world becomes more interconnected, students must develop the skills necessary to adapt to this changing world. Critical thinking, creativity, leadership, and global awareness will be essential to schools in the 21st century.
Middle school students are often intrigued by the mystery surrounding ancient cultures. While modern history may also interest them in different ways, some students struggle to link the two periods or find relevance in ancient history. This lesson works to bring together China’s ancient and recent histories.
Historians have compared the leadership and legacies of Emperor Qin and Communist Chairman Mao Tse-tung, often with a critical eye to both men. In a fascinating intersection of ancient and modern, studying the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors near the end of the Cultural Revolution provides an opportunity to explore the similarities and differences between these two men. Note that the resources listed at the end of this lesson provide a good place to start the journey to better understanding China, its leadership, and its place in the 21st century.
Time: Two to three 90-minute class periods

  • Computer with Internet Access

  • Photos of Terracotta Warriors

  • Photo of Mao’s portrait outside the Forbidden City

  • Copies of propaganda posters or access to digital images

  • Copies of the provided documents (all available at



  • Begin class by asking students to name American presidents or historical leaders that they hear about most often. This could be done in small groups, with each group creating their own list. Have groups share their ideas and look for crossover. How many leaders did every group list? (This could be adapted to fit your current topic of study.)

  • Discuss the following:

    • What leadership qualities did these people display?

    • What legacy have they left?

    • Why do we remember Presidents Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, George Washington, or FDR more than Presidents Chester Arthur or Millard Fillmore?

    • What guiding principles shaped these people and how did it affect their leadership and/or legacy?

    • How has our place in this world and our past affected the way we view each of these people?

  • Watch the first 3:17 of Simon Sinek’s TED talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” (Depending on the level of your students, you may have them watch the entire talk before the start of class.)

  • Ask students:

    • Do you agree or disagree that the “why” is more important than the “how” or the “what”? Why?

    • Think about the people you listed above. What is the “why” for some of these people? How did this help them to inspire action?

    • How is the “why” important for even “bad” leaders?

  • Show students the photo of the entrance to the Forbidden City. Ask them for their observations of the photo. Use this to help gauge how much they know about China. For instance, do they know who is in the portrait? Do they connect the ancient and modern in this photo? Do they know what the Forbidden City is?

  • Based on student observations, ask some of the following questions.

    • What might the placement of this photo say about the leader in the photo?

    • Likewise, what might it say of his legacy?

    • What is the value of looking at both the ancient and the modern in a country’s culture?

    • What questions do you have after seeing this photo?

Looking at their Leadership: Comparing Qin and Mao
How to Use These Activities: While comparing the leadership qualities of Qin and Mao could be difficult for students, the following activities allow for a variety of learning opportunities and scaffolding that will help students focus on specific aspects of each leader. Activity 1 has students explore two schools of thought in China, Confucianism and Legalism, whereas Activities 2 and 3 require students to apply these schools of thought to Qin and Mao. While many historians feel that both Qin and Mao represent some degree of Legalism, providing an opportunity for students to explore Confucianism provides additional context for their work. This is particularly important considering the role that Confucianism has played in Chinese history.

Depending on the time available, it may be necessary to have students work in groups and then come together as a whole class to compare and contrast the two leaders in Activity 4. In this case, Activity 1 could constitute small groups that focus on either Confucianism or Legalism. From here, small groups may be used to move through Activities 2 and 3, with groups either completing Activity 2 or 3. If the small group method is used, groups should share their findings with the class so all students have the necessary information for Activity 4. If you wish to break it down further, groups that work with the Mao documents could split into sub-groups that look at specific types of sources.

Activity 1: Schools of Thought: Confucianism and Legalism

  • Have students read the documents for Confucianism and Legalism.

  • Ask students what these men had to say about leadership. Ask students if any leaders come to mind when they hear these things.

  • Make a Venn Diagram to show the similarities and differences between these two schools of thought. If this activity is done in small groups, it will be helpful to have students complete their Venn Diagram when groups present their findings to the class.

  • Note: There are other schools of thought in China, but for the purpose of this lesson, Confucianism and Legalism are most significant.

Activity 2: Emperor Qin

  • Have students read the documents for Emperor Qin.

  • Give students photos of the Terracotta Warriors.

  • Discuss the following questions. Students could also answer these questions in small groups or independently.

    • What type of leadership qualities does Qin seem to possess?

    • How do you see evidence of Confucianism or Legalism?

    • How does Qin make decisions?

    • What is the foundation for his leadership?

  • Have students create a “propaganda poster” to show what they have gathered about Emperor Qin.

Activity 3: Chairman Mao

  • Have students read the documents on Chairman Mao.

  • Give students copies of propaganda posters.

  • Discuss the following questions. Students could also answer these questions in small groups or independently.

    • What type of leadership qualities does Mao seem to possess?

    • How do you see evidence of Confucianism or Legalism?

    • How does Mao make decisions?

  • Have students create a “propaganda poster” to show what they have gathered about Chairman Mao.

Activity 4: Comparing/Contrasting: Qin and Mao

Have students create a chart that shows their interpretation of the effectiveness of Qin and Mao as leaders. This will be used when students begin to look at the legacy of these two leaders.

Looking at their Legacies:

The legacies of Qin and Mao are complex and fascinating. Use the chart students created in Activity 4 to begin discussing the legacy of Qin and Mao. Ask students how they view the legacy of each. Encourage students to support their answers with their work from previous activities. It is important that there be some discussion around the intersection of these two men. How does the legacy of Mao reflect the legacy of Qin? How does Mao’s legacy affect that of Qin?

The following discussion points for further analysis of Qin’s and Mao’s legacies could be used as whole class, small group, or individual activities. It is not necessary to complete all of them, and therefore students may be able to choose one that is of particular interest to them. These discussion points are easily adaptable, and student findings could be displayed in a number of ways, including writing essays. Some students may find they need to conduct additional research.

Additional Discussion Points:

  • While no artwork from the time of Qin exists beyond the Terracotta Soldiers, artists throughout history have depicted the first emperor in a number of ways. Have students examine some of the following works of art from the 17th and 19th centuries and then discuss what these tell us about the legacy of Qin throughout Chinese history.

    • Emperor Qin Palanquin (17th century)

    • First Emperor (19th century)

  • The Chinese Communist Party has declared that Mao was 70 percent good and 30 percent bad. Have students discuss what they think about these numbers in regards to Mao as well, as what they might say about Qin.

  • How has the discovery and excavation of the Terracotta Warriors changed Qin’s legacy?

  • The Terracotta Warriors were discovered in 1974, but not officially announced to the Chinese public until 1975. At this point, the Cultural Revolution was nearing its end. How is this significant to both Qin’s and Mao’s legacy? How does this help bridge the gap between the ancient and the modern? How may the discovery of the warriors have benefited the Communist Party?

  • Consider the following quote from Quotations of Mao Tse-tung. While he speaks in the context of revolution and counter-revolution, how can his ideas about achievements and shortcomings be used to look at someone’s leadership and legacy?

Teacher’s Note: Draw two lines of distinction. First, between revolution and counter-revolution, between Yenan and Sian. Some do not understand that they must draw this line of distinction. For example, when they combat bureaucracy, they speak of Yenan as though "nothing is right" there and fail to make a comparison and distinguish between the bureaucracy in Yenan and the bureaucracy in Sian. This is fundamentally wrong. Secondly, within the revolutionary ranks, it is necessary to make a clear distinction between right and wrong, between achievements and shortcomings and to make clear which of the two is primary and which secondary. For instance, do the achievements amount to 30 per cent or to 70 per cent of the whole? It will not do either to understate or to overstate. We must have a fundamental evaluation of a person's work and establish whether his achievements amount to 30 per cent and his mistakes to 70 per cent, or vice versa. If his achievements amount to 70 per cent of the whole, then his work should in approve the main. It would be entirely wrong to describe work in which the achievements are primary as work in which the mistakes are primary. In our approach to problems, we must not forget to draw these two lines of distinction, between revolution and counter-revolution and between achievements and shortcomings. We shall be able to handle things well if we bear these two distinctions in mind; otherwise, we shall confuse the nature of the problems. To draw these distinctions well, careful study and analysis are of course necessary. Our attitude towards every person and every matter should be one of analysis and study.

End by returning to the photo of the entrance to the Forbidden City. Have students discuss the significance of Mao’s portrait on the entrance to the imperial palace. What does this say about his legacy, but also about the legacy of the imperial age of China (and thus Qin’s)?

Teacher’s Note: The Forbidden City is from a period much more recent than Qin, and consequently he would not have lived here. However, the Forbidden City does represent a symbol of imperial China.
Assessment Materials:

  • Students can be assessed formally and informally throughout. Venn diagrams, propaganda posters, leadership effectiveness charts, and conversation may be used for formal assessment. Students must participate in discussions to fully engage in these activities, and this should be a component of informal assessments.

  • Write a conversation between Qin and Mao to compare and contrast their leadership and legacy.

Methods for Extension:

  • Explore other significant 20th-century leaders in China, particularly Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek.

    • Who are the other leaders in this lesson? What is their legacy? Have students explore one of these leaders independently and write a letter to this person.

    • How do we know that the Terracotta Warriors belong to Qin if they are never mentioned in writing?

  • Have students explore their own leadership. What lessons can they apply from Qin and Mao in their own lives? Who might they have the ability to influence? How do they want to be remembered as leaders?

  • Consider other ancient societies that you have studied with your students. Have students compare and contrast the leadership seen in these with that seen in Chinese leaders.

Additional Resources:
China / General

Jacques, Martin. “Understanding the Rise of China.” October 2010. TEDLondon 2010. Video file, 21:30. 2010.

Li, Eric X. “A Tale of Two Political Systems.” June 2013. TEDGlobal 2013. Video file, 20:37. 2013.
Mitter, Rana. Modern China: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Wasserstrom, Jeffrey N. China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Creek, Timothy, Ed. A Critical Introduction to Mao. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Montero, Diego. “30 years on, Mao’s memory preserved.” China Daily, September 9, 2006.
“Morning Sun.”
Spence, Jonathan D. “Mao Zedong.” Time, April 13, 1998.,9171,988161,00.html

Clements, Jonathan. The First Emperor of China. Chalford: Sutton Publishing, 2006.

Lubow, Arthur. “Terra Cotta Soldiers on the March.” Smithsonian Magazine, July 2009.
Man, John. The Terracotta Army: China’s First Emperor and the Birth of a Nation. London: Transworld Publishers, 2007.
Portal, Jane, Editor. The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army. London: The British Museum Press, 2007.
Qin and Mao

Gracie, Carrie. “Qin Shi Huang: The Ruthless Emperor Who Burned Books.” BBC News Magazine, October 14, 2012.

Primary Sources

Ding Hao, Zhao Yannian, and Cai Zhenhua. “Turn China into a prosperous, rich and powerful industrialized socialist country under the leadership of the Communist Party and Chairman Mao!” January 1954. Chinese Posters: Propaganda, Politics, History, Art, University of Amsterdam.

“Emperor Ch’in Wang Ti (221-206BC) travelling in a palanquin, from a history of Chinese emperors (colour on silk).” 17th Century. Bridgeman Art.
Gu Yuan. “Smash the imperialist war conspiracy, forge ahead courageously to build our peaceful and happy life!” c. 1950. Chinese Posters: Propaganda, Politics, History, Art, University of Amsterdam.
Propaganda Poster Group Shanghai. “Criticize the old world and build a new world with Mao Zedong Thought as a weapon.” September 1966. Chinese Posters: Propaganda, Politics, History, Art, University of Amsterdam.
“Qin Shi Huang, first Emperor of China.” British Library.
“Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, June 27, 1981.” Marxists Internet Archive. Accessed March 25, 2014.
“Scatter the old world, build a new world.” 1967. Chinese Posters: Propaganda, Politics, History, Art, University of Amsterdam.
Sima Qian. “The Basic Annals of the First Emperor of the Qin.” Accessed March 25, 2014.
Shanghai People's Fine Arts Publishing House Propaganda Group. “The sunlight of Mao Zedong Thought illuminates the road of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” August 1966. Chinese Posters: Propaganda, Politics, History, Art, University of Amsterdam.
Tsung, Mao Tse. “Changsha (1925).” Marxists Internet Archive. Accessed March 25, 2014.
_____. “First Speech at the Second Session of the Eighth Party Congress, May 8, 1958.” Marxists Internet Archive. Accessed March 25, 2014.
_____. “The Masses Can do Anything, September 29, 1958.” Marxists Internet Archive. Accessed March 25, 2014.
_____. “Quotations from Mao Tse Tung, Leadership of Party Committees.” Marxists Internet Archive. Accessed March 25, 2014.
_____. “Snow (February 1936).” Marxists Internet Archive. Accessed March 25, 2014.
Zhang Yuging. “The east is red.” October 1965. Chinese Posters: Propaganda, Politics, History, Art, University of Amsterdam.
Secondary Sources

de Bary, William Theodore, Editor. Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia University, 1960.

The East is Red, A Song and Dance Epic.” Morning Sun. Accessed March 25, 2014.
Kuhn, Abigail. “Forbidden City.” August 2013. Photograph by the author.
_____. “Terracotta Warriors.” July 2013. Photographs by the author.
Kuo-Tao, Chang. “Mao – A New Portrait by an Old Colleague.” New York Times, August 2, 1953.
“Mao’s Rose Emphasized.” New York Times, October 2, 1963.
Sinek, Simon. “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” September 2009. TEDxPuget Sound 2009. Video file, 18:04. 2009.
Topping, Audrey. “Chinese Unearthing 2,200-Year-Old Life-Size Clay Soldiers.” New York Times, October 16, 1975.

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