Monday, February 13, 2006

Under Your Qin

I came to Xian mainly to follow & film William’s Peking Opera journey. But like everyone else, I was compelled to make my way out to see those silly Terra Cotta warrior statues. You know, those life-size replicas built by Emperor Qin to protect him in the afterlife, in place of burying real soldiers alive, standard practice at the time. The soldiers were lucky - his many concubines, servants and all but one of his 22 children did receive the honour of being buried with him, whether they wanted to be or not. Emperor Qin was the first emperor to rule a united China, but also a bit of a paranoid megalomaniac tyrant. It seems that paranoid megalomaniacs always do well, historically speaking. The Bush Dynasty in America is a prime example.

After uniting China, Qin set about making sure the whole bloody continent of a country was kept busy glorifying his magnificence, and built the greatest mausoleum the world would ever see. The terra-cotta warriors were only one small part of the 25-kilometer complex that was to ensure his greatness was never forgotten. The workmen involved in building the most sensitive part of the complex, the emperor's tomb, were buried alive in it immediately after it was finished just to ensure no one would know of its secret whereabouts. Talk about a bum rap eh! You spend 25 years - your whole life - slaving away underground on some loony's tomb, and then as soon as you finish, they bury you alive in it. I guess those poor slobs had pretty weak unions. That’s why I gave up my IASTE card…lol.

The irony is that only a year after his death, peasant uprisings destroyed the emperor's vast monument to himself, looting what they could, demolishing what they couldn't and burning the rest. Even the Terra Cotta warriors had their metal weapons stolen and were smashed to pieces. The warriors you see today were apparently put back together again by teams of archaeologists, who are so patient and skilled, they could probably reconstruct Humpty Dumpty plus the wall.

The Chinese can be a very destructive lot when they set their mind to it. They can build on a massive scale, unthinkable by other cultures, but they can also tear it all down again at frightening speed. I know it's a crass generalization, and not my first, but since so little of China's long history is still standing I can't help but make the assertion. Often when it is standing, you’ll find it's just a replica of something that was destroyed earlier, often several times over, and always for no apparent reason. The Cultural Revolution and the vandalism of the Red Guards were just a more recent, and comparatively mild, example of China's periodic lapses into a destructive insanity.

Fortunately, for the emperor, the peasants couldn't find the entrance shaft to his tomb. It was hidden in a mountain, so they never laid their hands on his most valuable loot. There is a replica of the tomb, which modern archaeologists have seen, and it apparently makes Mao’s Mausoleum look like a pauper's grave, but I suppose Mao would be glad to hear that.

Qin’s coffin is in the centre of the enormous circular vault-like tomb, and the coffins of his favourite concubines were buried into walls around him. Those lucky beauties were allowed to swallow poison rather than being buried alive. Bloody favouritism, eh? There are jewels everywhere and more gold than the Aztecs or Egyptians could shake a stick at. There were apparently also rivers of toxic lead and mercury, part of Qin’s deadly booby-traps to protect his loot, which is why tour groups can't see the original, or that's what they told us.

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