Emperors and Immortality

As a tourist in China, I found the theme of empire inescapable. In Beijing the must-sees are the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. Both are extraordinary, in very different ways, forming a symbiotic pair. The Great Wall crawls along ridgelines for thousands of miles as a bristling defense of what’s inside—The Forbidden City. Those ancient palace grounds are ornate, many-chambered, beautiful and obsessive. Every detail screams out: you are not I!

The Forbidden City is a huge—about 180 acres, I read—monument to the unique life of the emperor, with his tens of thousands of servants and thousands of concubines. All a modern person can see is extravagance and absurdity. What did an ancient person see?

Xi’an amplfies the same views. Xi’an was the capital of the world in A.D. 700, home to two million citizens and immense wealth, the eastern terminus to the Silk Road.  Today it is known as home to the terra cotta warriors, part of a huge tomb complex built to usher an emperor into eternal life. The terra cotta warriors are life-size clay statues, each one carefully crafted with unique faces. An army of 6,000 has been dug up. If elegance marks the Forbidden City, and brute force is the message of the Great Wall, these are somewhere in between. The effort to build such a tomb complex is unbelievable. And all for one man!

If Mao and the Cultural Revolution wanted to trash this fabulous past, it’s obvious that modern China has embraced it. There is natural and justifiable pride in the strength and capacity of China’s past, with the obvious suggestion that China’s present is in the same league.

But what differences. No doubt Hu Jintao has a nice house, and his death will be solemnly marked (if he is still in political favor). But 3,000 concubines? The age of emperors appears to be gone forever, along with the divine right of kings. Who says that nothing changes?

These emperors all apparently shared the wish for immortality, and tried to ensure it through their elaborate tombs and burial rituals. They have achieved a different sort of immortal fame through the millions of visitors who ogle the monuments they built to themselves. It was not what they had in mind.


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One Response to “Emperors and Immortality”

  1. David Graham Says:

    I’ve been reading your “China Reports” with interest, as I’ll be there in a month myself. Thanks for the photos and the thoughts.

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