Cities of the Dead

In the beginning, the women ruled. Six thousand years ago is not quite the beginning, but it is the time of the village called Banpo, not far from Xi’an, the ancient capital of China, about two hours west of here by air. Banpo was a developed neolithic village with a moat, decorated pottery, and thatched huts familiar to the Pequot and many other cultures. It may also have been a matriarchy. North of the village lay a cemetery, where the best graves were for the women. They had the most grave trinkets and crocks of food set very carefully at their feet. They might lie with their daughters, even if it meant adding a body later to the grave. The men were separate, in not such spiffy holes. Everyone was buried facing west, and many were found with nearby separated phalanges — fingers — at their side. In some cultures, you cut off your hair in grief. But for extreme sorrow… . Also in the village, archeologists found large pots embedded in the walls of huts, and in the pots, the bones of infants. They kept their lost ones close, in this village of love.

About four thousand years later, in 246 BC, a thirteen-year-old boy named Zhao Zheng became the king of the land of Qin (pronounced “Cheen”). The Qin lords were determined warriors, and in 221 the last of the other warring states was defeated. Zhao Zheng declared himself Qin Shi Huang Di, “First Emperor of Qin.” Having conquered the lands of the living, he set out to conquer the dead. A history written a century later reported that seven hundred thousand workers built his other kingdom, a vast tomb to the east of Xi’an. (Recent estimates scale this back to less than 100,000.) The mausoleum, they say, was a vaulted microcosm with one hundred rivers of mercury beneath a sky of jade and constellations of pearls. Zhao Zheng built his death-universe beneath a pyramid of rammed earth one hundred meters tall, covering a square mile. It remains unopened, protected by legendary booby-traps, and more recently by a respect for fragile antiquity and the deadly mercury content of every core sample. According to our guide, the Chinese plan to excavate the site in 100 years, when the technology is ready.

Qin Shi Huang did not go alone. All the concubines who had not yet had a child were buried alive with him. So also the workers who built the place, maybe to toil on, or maybe to keep their mouths shut about the service entrance. These graves have not been excavated either, but in 1974 a farmer digging a well about mile from the tomb unearthed some shards of terracotta. Archeologists followed, finding the fragments of a life-size terracotta soldier, and then another, and another…. So far three pits have been opened and a fourth begun, covering several acres. About ten thousand warriors have been uncovered; exactly one of them was found intact (a kneeling archer). A modern archeological army has rebuilt the ancient one. Each warrior is close to six feet tall, varying in height by rank. Each carried a real weapon, a spear, bow, or cross-bow. Each has an accurate uniform, armor, and hair and trimmings appropriate to his rank. Each face is unique. The commanders look forward with shrewdly distant gaze, but the ranks of warriors have the downcast eyes of the subservient, reconciled to their eternal duty, ready for battle forever. They are waiting now, most still under several meters of earth — the terracotta army we can see now occupies a tiny percentage of the necropolis of twenty square miles.

In his galactic ego and unquenchable paranoia, Qin Shi Huang is not only very un-Chinese but inhuman. For example, many of his two hundred palaces were linked by underground tunnels, so that he could slip beneath the notice of the evil spirits (and assassins) who stalked him. He despised the history before the Qin, despised any philosophy other than “legalism” — obedience to the law and the ruler –, despised intellectual life in general. The histories alleged that he burned books and scholars alike, by the thousands and hundreds. He’s the one who conceived and began the Great Wall. But arguably he is one of the most important figures in history, possibly even the single most important. He standardized the system of weights and measures, the currency, and even the wheels and axles of carts across the realm. More important, he standardized written Chinese into the form that Chinese speakers can still read and understand. In short, by war and tyranny he made a single vast nation whose unity has endured despite every conceivable whiplash of power. While the Roman Empire fragmented into the languages, cultures, and countries of Europe, this one country held together, and will continue as one into this century, a time that will likely belong to China. The Chinese call their nation the Middle Kingdom (or Middle Land. America, by the way, is “Beautiful Kingdom.”) But most of the rest of the world calls it China — the land of Qin.

Qin Shi Huang bent all his energies toward immortality, and his undead city of fear is one of the most awesome creations of humankind. His powers were as limitless as his imagination, and his campaign to defeat the empire of death occupied his whole reign. (He began the tomb while still a teenage Qin warlord.) Nevertheless, in 210 BCE, he died.


About lloyddan

Professor, Trinity College, Connecticut, but living in Tianjin, China, until July 2011
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