Saturday, August 1, 2009
Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, apparently never heard the phrase, "You can't take it with you."
When Qin Shi Huang was born, China was split into feuding, feudal states. He became a king at 13 and declared himself Emperor at 38, uniting China and in the process systematically killing anybody who got on his nerves. He seems to have been particularly fond of burying people alive. He did away with Confucian thought by burying scholars and burning their books. Qin Shi Huang was an unstoppable conqueror, crushing (sometimes literally) all who opposed him as he claimed ever more territory for his empire.
But despite all his power, there was one foe Qin Shi Huang could never crush: the grim reaper. As he grew older, he devoted himself to various peculiar schemes in hopes of achieving eternal life. He made repeated trips to Zhifu Island seeking a youth potion, and sent hundreds of his subjects on a quest to find the legendary Mount Penglai, home of the Eight Immortals. These people all disappeared mysteriously. (Well, perhaps it's not so mysterious, given that if they had returned to Qin Shi Huang empty-handed, he probably would've buried them alive.)
As it became obvious that he was not going to cheat death, Qin Shi Huang decided that dying would serve as a gateway to a wonderful new world for him to conquer. He put thousands of men to work building him an entire tomb kingdom, with towering palaces, offices standing by for important post-life business, and, by some accounts, whole rivers of mercury. He was buried with an army of more than 8,000 terracotta figures: horses, chariot riders, and entire platoons of life-size, armed warriors—many of them facing East, as though to hold back any invaders from the warring states he had conquered in life. He also had some unlucky tomb builders buried alive with him, so he wouldn't have to worry about them giving away the secrets of his tomb's treasures. Even in death, Qin Shi Huang remained a cunning, ostentatious, world-class son of a bitch.
Qin Shi Huang's necropolis remained hidden for two millennia, until it was discovered in 1974 by humble farmers digging a well. In the years since, much (but not all) of the First Emperor's army has been dug up and dispersed around the globe. The First Emperor's mighty regiments of terracotta terrors have spent the last few decades as a traveling tourist draw, patiently posing for pictures alongside Cousin Eddie and Auntie Mildred.
Each figure is unique, constructed from modular elements like some kind of colossal, mix-and-match Lego kit. The figures are ranked, with the generals being the largest. Once upon a millennium they were all painted in lifelike colors, but today those colors are long gone and all that remains is the fiddly detail of their original sculpting: the rivets of their armor, the individual hairs of their mustaches, and those eerie, serene little smiles. Spending a few dozen lifetimes in the dark guarding a dead guy doesn't appear to have dampened their spirits any. Perhaps they're smiling because they finally have the chance to get out and mingle again.
When you're first confronted by Qin Shi Huang's crumbling commandos, your Hollywood-damaged brain is tempted to see them as recreations, as fiberglass props. They look like something from one of the Indiana Jones movies, those sculptures who stand in rows looking creepy - until our hero steps on the wrong floor panel and then all of the figures suddenly creak to life, centuries of dust and dead bugs falling away as they reach for their stone swords. They can't possibly be real, these ancient warriors built to defend the glory of a man who has not breathed since before the time of Christ.
Qin Shi Huang wished to build an empire even greater than the one he knew in life, an empire that would last for all eternity. Now his city of the dead has been plundered, his warriors dispersed, his dreams of universal conquest a footnote in the history books. But stand face-to-face with one of his stone soldiers, look him right in his tranquil, unblinking eye, and you will feel a little shiver of the fright that the First Emperor was so desperate for you to feel.
(This post original appeared, in an extremely altered form, as an article in OC Weekly.)
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