Thursday, December 28, 2017

Emperor's clay army battles mortality -- Dec. 28, 2017 column


If you think your tweets will be your key to immortality, think again.

The Library of Congress, which has collected every single public tweet published for the last dozen years, keeping billions upon billions of our instantaneous utterings, has hoisted the white flag.

As of New Year’s Day, it will acquire tweets only “on a very selective basis.”

The library will preserve its massive tweet trove but doesn’t know how or when it may allow public access.

People say nothing on the internet ever dies, but the quest for immortality in the digital age evidently will remain almost as elusive as it was for the first emperor of China more than 2000 years ago.   

Someday people may pore over tweets to learn about our culture – oh, no! -- the way crowds in Richmond ponder relics of ancient China at a spectacular exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

“Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China” provides a glimpse of one man’s attempt to cheat death. A richly illustrated exhibit catalog helps piece together the remarkable story, and I draw on the catalog’s details here.  

More than 200 years before the birth of Christ, Ying Zeng became the king of the Qin State at the age of 13 in 246 B.C. By 221 B.C., he had united the seven warring states and proclaimed himself emperor of all China, Qin Shi Huang. He claimed his dynasty would last 10,000 generations.

Even before he became China’s first emperor, though, he was obsessed with immortality. A history says Qin Shi Huang deployed 700,000 slave laborers for three decades to create a huge underground kingdom.

The subterranean kingdom stretched 38 square miles and included a palace, armory, entertainment areas, stables for horse-drawn chariots and large burial pits. 

Nearly 8,000 horses and warriors made of clay and vividly painted would protect him in the afterlife where he planned to continue his reign.

The first emperor invented centralized government, built highways and connected existing walls into what would become part of the Great Wall. He instituted a common currency, system of weights and measures and script for writing.

His tyrannical reign depended on strict laws; he had books burned and scholars killed.

Wielding such power, he must have thought finding a cure for death was in the realm of the possible.

His underground kingdom lay hidden until 1974 when farmers came across a terracotta head. The archaeological find was one of the most consequential of the 20th century. 

Archaeologists have excavated only about 20 percent of the underground world. Untouched is the emperor’s burial chamber, which history says was constructed to mimic the country’s landscape with flowing rivers of poisonous mercury.  

The emperor’s mausoleum site museum was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

The terracotta army exhibit in Richmond includes life-size clay figures of an armored general and several other military men, each individualized with a different face, hairstyle and uniform.  

Besides building his underground kingdom, the emperor also ordered search parties on long voyages to mythical destinations to find the elixir of life. Just-released 2,000-year-old correspondence on wooden slats shows provincials reported on promising herbs and minerals from local mountains.

Today our quest to cheat, or at least delay, death continues, although along more scientific lines.

People restrict calories in hopes of extending life. Some resort to cryogenic freezing after death in hopes their bodies will be revived later. Researchers explore promising enzymes and gene therapies.

Last spring, the National Academy of Medicine announced it was developing a Grand Challenge in Healthy Longevity that will award at least $25 million for scientific advancements in extending healthy life.

Meanwhile, we can learn from Qin Shi Huang, whose dynasty didn’t last anything close to 10,000 generations and whose quest for eternal life probably killed him.

He reigned for 11 years and died at age 49, reportedly after taking mercury pills that were supposed to make him immortal. His dynasty ended less than four years after his death.  

The desire to live forever may be immortal, but the terracotta army exhibit in Richmond ends March 11. Tweet about it, if you like. Just don’t miss it.  

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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