Sunday, July 27, 2008
Ch’in Shi Huangdi’s tomb
In 1974, peasants digging a well in a field about 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of X’ian unearthed pits containing thousands of life-size, carefully detailed terra-cotta warriors, horses, and chariots. The soldiers were poised to defend the tomb of Ch’in Shi Huangdi (259–210 b.c.). Among the greatest archeological finds of the twentieth century, the ceramic army is but a small part of the great funerary monument—a necropolis with huge underground rooms around a gigantic burial mound—that the despotic ruler commissioned for himself many years before his death. The imperial tomb itself has not yet been uncovered.
In 246 b.c., when he was thirteen years old, Ying Zheng ascended the throne of Ch’in, the strongest of China’s seven surviving territories. Unifying the divided states into a single nation, in 221 b.c., he took the title Ch’in Shi Huangdi (literally “Ch’in, the First Emperor”). Great changes ensued in his short, tyrannical reign. The feudal system was abolished, and China was divided into about forty provinces, all controlled by a centralized bureaucracy. To ensure its efficiency over such a vast area, Ch’in Shi Huangdi commissioned the construction of over 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometers) of roads and more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) of canals, which also served for irrigation and flood mitigation. Southward, his empire extended to Vietnam’s Red River Delta, encompassing most of what are now Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan Provinces; to the north, it reached as far as Lanzhou in Gansu Province and into parts of modern Korea. To defend his domain against nomad incursions, the first emperor commissioned the building of the Great Wall of China. He also initiated census taking, as well as the compulsory standardization of currency, weights and measures, writing, and even axle widths. As another means of control, in 213 b.c. he decreed that history and philosophy books, especially those contradicting Ch’in theories, should be burned. His despotism was resented by the common people. The foreign wars, the construction of the Wall, and other extravagant, self-indulgent public works (including his tomb), supported by policies of military conscription, heavy taxation, and forced labor, had imposed a terrible financial and social cost. Toward the end of his life, fearing assassination, Ch’in Shi Huangdi became reclusive. He died in 210 b.c., and his empire collapsed. After eight years of widespread rebellions, Liu Pang founded the Han dynasty.
The first-century-b.c. historian Sima Qian described Ch’in Shi Huangdi’s tomb as a microcosm of the universe. Ironically, the first emperor’s obsessive quest for an elixir of life had probably caused his madness and death; he had ingested mercury as a means to immortality. Because it was intended to serve as Ch’in Shi Huangdi’s capital in the afterlife, the necropolis has many of the elements of a living city: encircling walls, parks and gardens, buildings for officials and the army, cemetery walls, and, of course, a palace. It was built mainly underground by (according to historical records) a labor force of 700,000 conscripts from all over China, over a period of thirty-six years. The 7,500-strong terra-cotta army stood guard in three vaults, about 0.75 mile (1.2 kilometers) to the east. Their weapons were looted, possibly during the uprising after Ch’in Shi Huangdi’s death. The tomb complex proper, oriented perfectly to the cardinal points of the compass, was surrounded by a 65-foot-high (20-meter) wall that enclosed the rectangular imperial tomb gardens, covering an area of about 1.3 by 0.6 miles (2.17 by 0.97 kilometers), In the center of the precinct stood the building in which funerary rituals were performed. Close to it on one side were three blocks housing the Residence of the Garden and Temple Officials; on the other side were twenty-seven graves of Ch’in Shi Huangdi’s high-ranking counselors and bureaucrats, buried with him so they could continue to serve him. Nearly 100 other pits (now containing the skeletons of horses and terra-cotta grooms) were the emperor’s eternal stables. It is thought that other pits containing clay models of plants and birds were evocations of his parks and gardens.
The building known as the Main House, a sort of servery for Ch’in Shi Huangdi’s food, stood near the 164-foot (50-meter) pyramidal grave mound, axially located at the southern end of the complex, within a second walled enclosure, measuring 749 by 632 yards (685 by 578 meters). There was a wide gate on each side. The burial chamber was lined with a waterproofing layer of bronze sheets. The tomb is believed to have been an opulent palace that accommodated all the emperor’s needs, based on his accustomed extravagant lifestyle. According to reports, it was rich with “fine utensils, precious stones and rarities.” There were scale models of palaces, towers, and official buildings, and a mechanically circulated system in which rivers of mercury represented the rivers of China and the Pacific Ocean, under a ceiling studded with pearls describing the constellations. Lamps burned whale oil to illuminate the space, and crossbow booby traps were installed to kill grave-robbers. An official account reads, “Once the First Emperor was placed in the burial chamber and the treasures were sealed up, the middle and outer gates were shut to imprison all those who had worked on the tomb. No one came out. Trees and grass were then planted over the mausoleum to make if look like a hill” (cited in Cotterell 1981, 17). Archeological excavations continue at the site.
Yuan Zhongyi, leader of the team of archeologists working on the grave site, believes that the burial ground extends over an area of about 20 square miles (50 square kilometers); only a fifth of it has been uncovered. Work is funded by proceeds from the museum at the terra-cotta warriors’ site; most of the money is used to maintain that site, but in 1997, Yuan Zhongyi’s annual budget was only U.S.$25,000, about a tenth of what is needed. Consequently, the dig at the tomb was temporarily suspended. The team also lacked the special conservation skills needed to handle the 2,000-year-old artifacts of silk and wood. Work resumed in 1999, and new discoveries continue.