Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Shihuangdi's Tomb

“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it’s not there! We even found the jade burial suit—where’s the body? Where is the Emperor’s body?”
Paul pulled off his air mask, wiping sweat from his face. “Robert, we’re standing on top of the greatest archaeological project of the entire twenty-first century and you’re going where’s the body like a TV detective!”
We were standing, in fact, on the mound that covered the burial complex of Chin Shihuangdi, one of the most magnificent graves in the history of humanity. Paul took me by the arm and steered me down the slope of the tumulus, away from the hired diggers, the Chinese archaeologists the government had assigned to work with us, the reporters with their webfeeds.
“Calm down, now. Get a grip. Remember, we’re in public here—“ he nodded towards the top of the hill. “I agree, it’s disturbing that the body’s missing. But that’s not the main thing. The main thing is that we have a job to do, we have to oversee this dig and we have to do it professionally and competently. You know there are hundreds of people who’d like nothing better than a chance to replace us here. Do you really want them to see you having hysterics on the World-Wide Web?”
“What do you think happened to it?” I demanded.
He sighed. “I have no idea what happened to the body and I think it would be unwise to speculate until we have some evidence. On the face of it, it seems unlikely that grave robbers would have left the rest of the tomb intact… Robert, are you going to get it together, or do I have to walk back up there and talk to the news vultures myself?”
“No. I’ll go with you. I’m okay.”
Paul was right about the precariousness of our situation, but he was wrong about the body not being the main thing. To me, everything else was window dressing; the vast army of terra-cotta figures, the lake of mercury, the vault roof with its constellations of pearls, the garden of plants with flowers carved from precious stone. The main thing was, and always had been, the man at the heart of the mystery: Chin Shihuangdi.

In 1974 a team of well-drillers stumbled across what would later be called Pit Number One, and revealed the pottery army to an astonished world. I was a teenager then; I was fascinated by the angular clay faces of rank upon rank of soldiers, standing silent between earthen walls. Some six thousand figures, no two alike, occupied the vaulted chamber, and it was said there were many thousands more elsewhere in the complex. Yet this immense find was only one of the outlying areas of the main tomb, a suburb of what amounted to an underground city.
I lay awake at night, studying pictures in Natural History and National Geographic. Sketchy biographies of Chin Shihuangdi occupied sidebars on the facing pages. King of the state of Chin at the age of thirteen, Shihuangdi had unified most of the vast area we now call China within ten years, and built the Great Wall to help define its boundaries. He standardized Chinese writing and instituted universal currency and a measurement system. He also eradicated hundreds of classical Chinese texts and worked thousands of people to death on road and canal-building projects, to say nothing of his constant wars. The tomb complex at Xi’an was under construction within months of his accession to the throne.
Contradictions took shape in my mind. Shihuangdi the dreamer, pursuing his vision of a China united by culture, language, custom and government. Shihuangdi, a boy like myself, fearfully and solemnly planning his immense and elaborate grave. Shihuangdi the ruthless conqueror, leading irresistible armies across the plains of northwestern China, grinding the neighboring states under his bloody heel.
I could not reconcile these disparate images into a single figure. Shihuangdi haunted me; I dreamed of him as an animate terra-cotta statue, a sort of Chinese golem. Scrawled sketches of Xi’an artifacts filled my schoolbooks.
My path unrolled itself with easy precision. High school archaeology summer camps in the Southwest. An Earthwatch dig in Chaoshan, which mangled my Mandarin 101 by exposing me to Cantonese. In college and grad school I worked on sites all over China. I won a permanent teaching position on the strength of my field credentials, and settled easily into the academic routine; digs in China every summer, the rest of the year teaching my classes and writing up the summer’s work. I went to conferences, corresponded with archaeologists and scholars all over the world, cultivated my contacts, and kept an eye on the Shihuangdi tomb.
Minor excavations continued in the outlying areas; I worked on some of them. Bronze chariots, shattered figures that might have been acrobats or wrestlers, armor made from polished stone… the list of discoveries went on and on. But the central mausoleum remained sealed. Between me and Shihuangdi stood bureaucratic inertia, xenophobia, academic rivalry and plain human greed, all magnified by the intense reverence in which the Chinese held their legendary Emperor.

Paul fielded most of the questions. Yes, the body is missing. No, we have no idea where it might be, but much of the tomb complex remains unexplored. No, the casket appears to be intact. Yes, the jade burial suit is still in the casket…
“Now, the burial suit is made of hundreds of piece of jade, held together with gold wires, isn’t that correct?” asked the BBC reporter.
“I’d say thousands, but yes, you’re correct.”
“So, were these wires cut to get the body out?”
Paul hesitated and turned to me. He hadn’t looked that closely.
I said, “The wires were not cut.” I could see them with perfect clarity in my mind’s eye, standing out from the tiny holes in the corners of each little square of jade.
“Do we know that the body was ever actually in there?” asked someone else.
Paul took over. “These suits are normally assembled around the corpse. They’re quite rigid when complete and, well, you couldn’t really stuff the body in. Especially once rigor mortis sets in…” He smiled apologetically. The finesse worked; someone asked something else, and the press conference went on without anyone noticing that he hadn’t, after all, answered the question.

Paul Moore designed and built small remote-controlled robots to explore fragile or inaccessible sites. “If you’re worried about letting air in—or mercury vapor out!—we can build a little airlock in the access tunnel,” he said. “The cameras work with very low light intensities, so fading is minimized. We can actually do a lot of mapping with sonar, then use visible light just for stuff we actually want to see…”
I said: “It sounds good. It sounds fantastic. Have you run field tests?”
“I’ve used this equipment on real digs, Dr. Keith. I’m not asking you to gamble on it.” He mentioned three major projects that had published remarkable results in the previous couple of years; projects that had relied heavily on his devices. Projects, I remarked, for which he’d gotten no credit.
“I was screwed,” he said blithely. “Academia, hey?”
(Later, Paul and I got drunk together to celebrate the final approval of the Shihuangdi project. He told me then how badly those early betrayals had hurt him. “I figured I could trust you, though. You weren’t in it for fame and fortune. You don’t really care about anything but Shihuangdi.”
“If you can say that correctly you are not nearly drunk enough,” I retorted.)
Paul’s innovations allowed us to design a completely non-invasive approach to the tomb complex. I called in favors and shmoozed with government officials on both side of the Pacific. Slowly, slowly, the balance tilted in our favor.
The first couple of seasons at Xi’an exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations. The sonar mapping revealed a half-scale replica of the Chin palace under the mound, with miniature trees and shrubs scattered among the buildings. It was here that we took our first visible-light images, revealing the exquisite calligraphy on the silk leaves of the plants, the incredibly delicate flowers carved from translucent stone. The palace buildings gleamed with lacquer and bright paint; every room contained furniture, painted screens, intricate and colorful vases in stone, ceramic, and lacquered bronze—all half-sized. It was an unbelievable treasure trove. When the Chinese Army showed up and surrounded the site, we all agreed on the need to keep looters away, and politely ignored the need to keep an eye on the foreign researchers.
By that time, the fascination of the luxurious grave goods had receded, at least for me; my mind’s eye had been captured by another sight. Beyond the palace, the lake of mercury shimmered in the camera light, beautiful and poisonous. In the center of the lake, an enormous block of polished marble supported a massive bronze casket.
Paul built a bot that paddled across the lake and around the plinth, using a camera on a telescoping rod to scan the top and sides of the casket. The bronze had been polished mirror-bright and coated with a thin, transparent glaze like red glass, to protect it from the corrosive effects of the mercury vapor. Otherwise, it was almost completely undecorated; a legend engraved across the top read: “These are the mortal remains of the Emperor Chin Shihuangdi.”
Legend had it that there was an important secret inscribed on Shihuangdi’s coffin. Some claimed it was a Taoist alchemical formula of incalculable value; others, a map to yet further treasure, supposedly buried under the Great Wall or in some other remote location. Since our images showed nothing on the outside, speculation naturally turned to the inside. Paul and I were unofficially advised that our hosts (the Chinese government) would be pleased with our help in “dispelling superstitious rumors” associated with the tomb. We took the hint and applied for permission to enter the tomb and open the casket.

After the press conference, we walked back to our trailer. Dusk was beginning to fall over Xi’an. “Are you all right?” Paul asked me.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You seemed to be taking it a bit personally.” He hesitated. “Robert, we both know it’s normal for researchers to be a little crazy. Obsessive. That’s how we get things done. But do you think your expectations for today were… maybe a little unrealistic?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, suppose the body had been there. What would just looking at it have told you about Shihuangdi? It’s not even as if there would have been an actual corpse—bones, maybe some mummified skin and hair… Skeletons don’t really have a lot of personality. You’d have been no wiser.”
“Maybe not. But now I have another mystery to contend with.”
“Just be grateful,” said Paul, “that the whole expedition was on video. We can’t be accused of having made off with his body ourselves.” I winced.

“I can’t believe I’m really here,” I confided to Paul, in the new, human-sized access tunnel. He grinned at me, teeth flashing in the light of my headlamp. The tunnel was cramped, hot, and airless, and we were weighed down by protective clothing and breathing equipment, but none of that mattered.
At the airlock I offered to flip a coin, but Paul shook his head and gestured for me to precede him. Speechless, I squeezed his shoulder, worked the door, and went through.
Inside the tomb, it was like a different world. I stood still, waiting for Paul and letting it all sink in. The air was dry and cool, almost cold compared to the heat of a Northern Chinese summer. The ceiling was invisible in the darkness; when I tilted my head back and looked up, the beam from my lamp picked out faint glints far overhead. Stilt-bots with overhead cameras had shown us a night sky depicting Shihuangdi’s birth date on the inside of the vault, with pearls for stars and gems for planets. Various auspicious signs filled up the corners.
The oxygen masks kept us from speaking much, but in any case there was nothing to say. We walked silently and carefully through the grounds of the Lilliputian palace, shadowed by one of Paul’s bots. Every move we made was transmitted live. We touched nothing, not even pausing to admire these familiar marvels.
Wading through mercury is strange. You feel much more buoyant, yet at the same time it resists your motion more than water does. The heavy silver ripples threw up reflections that chased liquidly across the red-glazed bronze of the casket. I felt my breath come slower, stretching time, savoring the moment. I was closer to Shihuangdi than anyone had been in over two thousand years.
We fitted handles to the casket lid, attaching them with powerful suction cups. The seam was tight, but not sealed. I took the head, Paul the foot. We lifted the lid and swung it free, revealing the contents.
The inside of the lid was bronze, smooth and featureless. The casket was lined with quilted scarlet silk. And there was the burial suit, thousands of jade squares each less than an inch on a side, linked by gold wires at the corners.
Empty. The suit gaped along the midline like an eviscerated corpse. The wires were sprung, standing stiffly out like a fringe of fine gold hairs. There was nothing inside.
After that I remember nothing much, until the moment I found myself at the top of the mound, shouting at Paul. “Where’s the body? Where is the Emperor’s body?”

By the time I’d showered and changed, it was almost completely dark. I sat on the steps of the trailer, alone for the moment, and let myself sink into depression.
I was being petty, I told myself. Look at everything we’d accomplished over the past few years. How extraordinarily, uniquely privileged we were; the first to have seen the images from the tomb. The first, and still the only, men to have actually set foot within the burial chamber. I’d touched the casket with my hands, seen its contents with my own eyes. Why couldn’t I be satisfied?
Because it was Shihuangdi that I cared about, not the fantastic artifacts of his tomb? Because people are more important than things? That would sound better if you cared more about real live people. And that was true. I wasn’t what you’d call good at relationships; late middle age, no wife or kids, cordial but distant with my parents and siblings, plenty of professional associates but no real friends. Even Paul, who knew me better than anyone else alive… I wasn’t sure I could claim him as a friend. Or claim to be his friend. Pretty worthless human being, you are.
The smell of cigarette smoke drifted past me, then I heard footsteps. “Mr. Robert, you not happy?”
It was Zheng, one of our foremen. Zheng wasn’t local—at least, he seemed not to be part of the network of family and clan obligations that tied the local men together—but he knew the area well, commanded a lot of respect among the workmen, and was very good at organizing and motivating. Zheng had also joked the men out of a couple of outbreaks of superstitious panic. He’d been a great asset to the project.
“I’m okay, Zheng. I’m just disappointed.”
He squatted, politely downwind of me, admiring the last stains of sunset on the western sky. “You care too much about old bones.”
“I want to know who Shihuangdi really was,” I admitted. “I mean, everyone in the world knows what he was. What he did. But to me, that’s not the important thing…”
Zheng seated himself cross-legged, stubbing his cigarette out on the ground. “I tell you a story, okay? A story about Shihuangdi. Maybe then you satisfied.”
“I’d like to hear your story, Zheng.”
He switched to Mandarin. “When Shihuangdi was a little boy, he was terrified of dying. Any time a pet or servant died, or if they found a dead bird or mouse somewhere in the palace, he would go into screaming fits. As he approached his teenage years, it only became worse. His parents were at their wits’ end; not only was this unseemly behavior for the future King of Chin, but they were grieved for their little boy. So they sent for a wise man, a Taoist sage, to come reason with young Shihuangdi.
“No one knows what the sage and the prince said to each other. Shihuangdi’s parents left him alone with the wise man for three days, and at the end of this time the sage left the palace. He told the King: ‘I have given the young prince three keys to immortality. He must see which will unlock the door for him.’
“After that time, Shihuangdi’s behavior changed. He no longer seemed frightened, but there was a sense of purpose about everything he did. He began to study architecture, especially the architecture of tombs. He also studied law and history and Taoist science. He became very learned even at his young age. When the King died and Shihuangdi ascended the throne, he felt ready to use the three keys the sage had given him.”
Zheng paused and looked at me expectantly. I said: “So one key was the building of this huge, immense tomb to preserve his mortal remains. The second key was… to create an empire bearing his name, one that would outlast him?”
“Of course. Shihuangdi created ‘China’, as you Westerners say. As long as it endures, he will be remembered.”
“And what was the third key? Did the old sage give him some Taoist formula for immortality?”
“Taoist immortality is a method. It’s not some medicine that you swallow and it makes you immortal all at once. The sage had told him, ‘For every day you spend on your tomb, you will need to spend a year on your empire; for every day you spend on your empire, you will need to spend a year studying Taoism.’ So he started on the tomb immediately, the empire shortly thereafter, and devoted time to his Taoist studies as he could. It was many years before he even began to practice.”
“I thought you said no one knows what the sage said to him.”
Zheng shrugged. “It is only a story. But if it’s true, then you see why there’s no body in the casket.”
I played along. “Shihuangdi achieved immortality, physical immortality, through this Taoist method. He faked his own funeral… why?”
“In studying Taoism, Shihuangdi learned that all things must change in order to live. He understood that an immortal Empire with an immortal Emperor would be very conservative. It would reject anything new, stifle innovation. Eventually it would destroy itself rather than accept change. In order for China to live forever, the Emperor must die.
“He pretended death, using Taoist medicine. He allowed them to place his body in the casket and the casket in the burial chamber. The lake basin was filled with mercury and the vault sealed. And then, Chin Shihuangdi opened his suit from within and rose from his casket, dug a tunnel through the mound, and went his way. He had used all three of his keys, and each had opened a different door. Shihuangdi had achieved three-fold immortality.”
I closed my eyes for a moment. The terra-cotta Shihuangdi had gone from my dreams long ago, replaced by the looming casket on its plinth. Now, I saw only a dim figure strolling off into a misty dawn. I could live with that, I thought.
“Zheng, that’s a good story. Where did you hear it?”
“Oh, it’s very old. You hear it here and there. Someone wanted very badly for you and Mr. Paul to open that casket; probably they thought the Taoist secret of immortality was written inside.” Zheng winked at me. “Now you see it would have done them no good.”
He stood up, switching back to English. “More work tomorrow, eh, Mr. Robert? Good night.” I watched him walk away, a short broad figure, proportioned very like the terra-cotta statues of Xi’an.

Find out what happened to the Emperor's body here

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