Dead Man’s Folly

On a cold and blustery Chicago morning, I make my way to The Field Museum of Natural History. I had been hearing a lot about it’s exhibition of China’s First Emperor, and His Terracotta Warriors. In 1974, an accidental discovery of a terracotta statue by a farmer, led to one of 20th Century’s most important archaeological finds. I am intrigued, and wish to see for myself what had been unearthed from the site.

I have been accused by my daughters of being a museum lover. It is an accusation with merit. To me, museums, just like libraries, are hallowed places. Places where the human spirit finds joy and sustenance. Over the years, they have been dragged to museums all over the world. From the amazing Museum of Egyptian antiquities in Cairo to the exhaustive British Museum in London to the humbler Pondicherry Government museum, they have seen weapons and coins, artefacts and costumes, mummies and dinosaurs, and somewhat reluctantly absorbed the knowledge housed within. Or, at least I hope they have.

After having taken a somewhat circuitous route planned for me by Google maps, that entails circling back upon myself, walking past residential areas, through deserted parks, past a sullen waterfront where unmanned boats bob upon swollen waters, I find myself walking through a children’s aquarium. Abandoning Google maps, I decide to rely on good old fashioned common sense and make my way to the imposing building next door. Sure enough, that is The Field Museum.

When elephants and dinosaurs jostle for limelight in the lobby, you can be sure this is no ordinary edifice. Feeling a bit lost, and very very small, I asked a guard for directions to the Terracotta exhibit.”Take a left”, he says dismissively. And so I do, and there it is.

It is not a large exhibition. In actual fact, it takes me less than 40 minutes to cover it. Regardless, it is fascinating.

The story of the First Emperor of China goes thus: Qin Shihuang ascended to the throne at the tender age of 13 amidst the chaos and conflict of the Warring States period (475-221 BC). Seven States had been embroiled in centuries of warfare for regional dominance. Qin, while ostensibly proclaiming loyalty to the Zhou dynasty, had already started making inroads into conquering vast tracts of land. By the age of forty, Qin (pronounced Chin) had conquered and united all the warring states, built a network of roads to facilitate commerce, standardised writing, created a unified currency, and also built a Great Wall, the precursor to the present Great Wall of China (the majority of it being constructed during the Ming Dynasty). It is no wonder that that the name China is derived from Qin.

However, while undoubtedly being a hugely influential ruler who shook off the the title of King, to assume the grander appellation of Emperor, he was also regarded as a tyrannical despot, with an obsessive fear of assassination. From this fear of death, arose his need to find the elixir of life, for which he undertook several journeys and employed various quacks and healers. None of them however, were able to provide him with the key to immortality, and he reportedly died ingesting mercury pills made by his alchemists and court physicians.

From a relatively young age, Emperor Qin undertook the task of creating a mausoleom for his afterlife, the kind of which had never been seen before or since. A palatial tomb that housed all his worldly treasures, and paid homage to his position as divine ruler of China.The mausoleum complex was built to mimic the Emperor’s world and was filled with precious goods, such as musical instruments, weapons, armour, jewellery, and models of warriors, officials, and entertainers, all intended to ensure the emperor’s place in the next world. To guard his mausoleum he commissioned an army of terracotta warriors, some as tall as 6 feet, each handmade and painted, with facial expressions and features distinct from one another. To create these 8000 odd figures of horses, archers, charioteers, infantry and generals, it is estimated that at least a 1000 convicts and conscripted men would have been pressed into service. In all, it would have taken 700,000 labourers approximately 40 years to complete the terracotta army and tomb complex.

For 2,200 years this complex covering 56 square kilometres remained uncovered and untouched, until the fateful discovery. Most of it still remains unearthed. Excavation and restoration of the figures is ongoing, and from a historical and anthropological perspective, remains a veritable gold mine of information.

Yet, some things remain unchanged.

The Great pyramid of Giza, the Pantheon in Rome, the Taj Mahal, all display humankind’s pre occupation with death. Wittingly or unwittingly, these mausoleums become a legacy and a reminder of the fragility of life.

Qin, much like the Egyptian Pharaohs, believed that as and when he made that final journey, he would be able to surround himself with all his home comforts in whichever realm his royal personage resided. We now know that death doesn’t allow baggage. What we do not know, and make leaps of faith to comprehend, is exactly what happens to us after death.

Christians believe in Heaven and Hell, with a waiting room of Purgatory. The Hindus believe in Reincarnation, a cycle of life and death, punctuated by Karma. The Buddhists believe that a life of good deeds could lead to an end to the aforementioned cycle and a fast track to Nirvana (an end to suffering and rebirth). The Muslims believe in a judgement day by Allah, where you either head to Paradise (Jannah) or get cast into Hell (Jahannam). Judaism is rather vague on the details, with some believing that souls will join their ancestors in the Ever After, and others believing that a retreat to a place of solitude like Sheol might occur. Atheists believe that once life ends, then that’s it. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and no soul travelling nonsense. These are but a few (over simplified) belief systems that exist in the world. The one thing they all agree upon is that mortality is a guarantee.

What then to make of Qin’s extravagant mausoleum? A dead man’s folly? A vainglorious attempt to burnish his after life? Or, should one, with the hindsight afforded by 2,200 years, see it as an amazing testament of man’s ability to harness power, resources and creativity to conceive and construct that which outlives his own paltry existence on earth?

Qin’s futile search for immortality might have ended in a carriage on the road at the hands of his own physicians. But his bequest to the world is its own kind of athanasia.

Life is the childhood of our immortality, said Goethe. Perhaps, we, just as much as China’s First Emperor, would do well to understand this.

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