Thursday, February 21, 2013

Qin Shihuang's Immortality at The Asian

The Asian Art Museum has been sponsoring a promotional stunt involving someone appearing in public around the Bay Area as a "LOST" terracotta warrior who is looking for the rest of his army. On Wednesday morning, he was "found" at the Civic Center Farmers Market by the formerly homeless gentleman above whose first name is Moses, which seemed appropriate, who brought the warrior into the museum for a press preview.

China's First Emperor, Qin Shihuang (259-210 BCE), led one of the more colorful, action-packed lives in world history, and his death turned out to be similarly spectacular, with reportedly 700,000 slave laborers working on his underground tomb for decades.

In 1974, farmers digging a well uncovered the burial complex, which contained 8,000+ individualized terracotta warriors with thousands of bronze weapons to either guard the emperor's tomb or to conquer heaven itself. As part of the Asian Art Museum's 10th anniversary in its Civic Center location, China has loaned ten of the warriors along with other ancient objects found in nearby tombs. It makes for a fascinating, spooky exhibition that will be installed at the museum through May.

Qin Shihuang was born into intense palace intrigue in the the empire of Qin, and once he came to power, "unified" six neighboring warring states through military force. He was equal parts tyrant and creator throughout his 36 year reign. He had a central roadway system built, started the construction of the Great Wall of China, and simplified and codified written Chinese along with weights and measures. He also fended off numerous assassination attempts, including an attempt by a blind, virtuoso musician who tried to kill him with a lead lute. He also banished all foreign scholars as spies, and tried to destroy the Confucian intellectual movement by burying its scholars alive.

His historical reputation was blackened thoroughly after his death by Confucian scholars who survived the persecution, and who wrote damning accounts of his brutality. According to a good Wikipedia article, his historical reputation has been improving lately in China. The Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek was being approvingly compared to the First Emperor in the early 20th century, while Mao was said to have bragged that he had exceeded him:
Mao Zedong, chairman of the People's Republic of China, was reviled for his persecution of intellectuals. On being compared to the First Emperor, Mao responded: "He buried 460 scholars alive; we have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive...You [intellectuals] revile us for being Qin Shi Huangs. You are wrong. We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold."

Qin Shihuang was obsessed with the idea of immortality, and had magical elixirs created for him in order to live forever. The irony is that most of the life-extending elixirs were laced with mercury which probably helped hasten his early death via poisoning. The final irony is that thanks to his spectacular burial complex being discovered intact so recently in modern history, he really has made himself immortal.

1 comment:

Nancy Ewart said...

Building a huge tomb and/or filling it with beautiful objects (a la King Tut) really is the recipe for immortality. Well, until we manage to destroy everything.