My wife Julia and I visited the National Geographic Museum to see the Terracotta Warriors this past Friday. Even though only a few statues and artifacts from the vast archaeological digs in China were on display, we saw enough to be very impressed.
Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, started constructing statues for his burial site when he became emperor at 13. (Qin is pronounced “Chin,” from which we get China.) In addition to warriors, there are statues of musicians, administrators, horses and carriages, and everything else that he believed he would need in the afterworld. Qin’s most impressive grave site may not even be the one that contains the warriors. Supposedly the emperor’s burial mound, which has never been excavated, contains a huge map of the emperor’s conquests, complete with replicas of China’s rivers that are filled with mercury for verisimilitude.
As I walked through the exhibit, I kept trying to wrap my mind about the bigness of everything: the size of the empire, the number of elaborate clay figures, the number of people it took to make them, the number of people who died making the emperor’s many palaces. Walter Benjamin once wrote that “there has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.” Both culture and barbarism were front and center in this exhibit.
I found myself flailing as I tried to fight back. My belief that each individual life is of value seemed swamped by the numbers I was seeing. So did my notions of morality. If an emperor can casually slaughter thousands without apparent compunction, what does that say about human beings? Was there no providential retribution? I learned that Qin had made so many enemies that he was paranoid, reportedly sleeping every night in a different palace so that assassins would not find him out. Is that then the moral here–you can exert life-and-death power over millions but never find true peace of mind? I wondered whether, as he was nearing his end, he sensed any doubts that the vast alternate universe he had constructed might not in fact conquer the realm of the dead–that he was a mortal man like the rest of us and so subject to nature’s laws. Maybe such a realization made his dying truly horrific.
I also found myself debating political questions. Perhaps, although many people died under Qin, many more did not because of the political stability he established. But at what a cost!
As always when finding myself disturbed and challenged, I turned to literature for perspective. Percy Shelley’s well-known sonnet “Ozymandias” stepped forward. Here it is:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Qin Shi Huang, I noted, makes Ozymandias look like small potatoes. Ozymandias, after all, thinks that his worldly possessions will give him a kind of immortality in life. Qin, by contrast, is prepared to lead his troops to dominate over the afterlife.
The irony that Shelley directs at Ozymandias may not work with Qin. After all, what stretches far away in Qin’s case are not lone and level sands but row upon row of spectacular sculptures. It’s true that Qin is dead and his palaces have been destroyed and the grave mounds have fallen in. But the image of himself that he may have wanted to convey he has in fact conveyed.
Then again, the vast emptiness that Shelley describes is also the loneliness of one who has cut himself off from humanity. All the wealth of the world cannot fill that abyss. Whatever afterlife Qin encountered upon his death, he may already have spent his life in hell while alive. I don’t know if that serves to console those who are crushed by the Qin’s of the world, but it should at least release us from envying them.