All the Emperor’s Men

The other day I was standing in the checkout line at the grocery store watching a fish slowly gasp it’s last in a plastic bag as the conveyor belt lurched forward so it’s dead body could be scanned along with the soy sauce and toilet paper. Gingerly I placed my items on the moist rubber, wondering what else might have died there. Yesterday I saw a father helping his little son pee into a plastic bag hanging below the meat counter. In China most children’s clothing is sold with a split crotch, for, uhm, convenience. That has nothing to do with my story, but I saw it and I needed to tell someone. I knew I smelled more than seafood.

The way they drive in China, you’d think nobody feared death, though they’re not keen on the number four which sounds perilously close to “dead.” Emperor Qin, the first emperor of China feared death though, so much so that he spent vast resources looking for the elixir of life, and damaged the economy of his newly unified country building a tomb complex of over fifty-six square kilometers, the largest single tomb in the world, if you don’t count all the people murdered to keep him company.

Recently our family visited Xi’an, the home of the Terracotta Warriors, Emperor Qin’s army reproduced man by individual man to protect him in the afterlife. It is said that any Chinese man can find his own face among the warriors, an ancestor perhaps, a portrait from the dust. To keep Qin comfortable there were all manner of riches buried with him, not to mention a terracotta menagerie and acrobats and carriages and an underground palace complete with heavenly constellations, quicksilver rivers that actually flowed by mechanical means, and whale oil candles to ensure an eternal flame. Crossbows were set to deter thieves by, you know, killing them. As an added precaution most of the records were destroyed and many artisans and officials were killed to keep the secret. They’ve excavated a field of corpses nearby, some of them frozen in the act of struggle, as though they’d been buried alive.

Old Qin was serious about his privacy, but that scale of buried treasure is hard to forget. Even after 2,200 years there lingered in Xi’an mythic tales of a ghost army that lived underground, right up until the day in 1974 when a farmer digging a well came upon a terracotta face with painted pink skin and black hair, though all the colors have now faded in the open air. Some said it was a human being, put it back, but he didn’t. We met the farmer, he signed our book. He’s in his eighties now and they’ve already marked his tomb, in among the warriors. I suppose it saves time, working so near your final resting place, though I would find it a little unnerving. It’s probably good I don’t speak much Chinese because it would be tough not to ask his thoughts.

I have other questions too, about what you can and can’t take with you . . . love, maybe, brains, kindness, anger, bullheadedness . . . As someone who’s been waiting for her luggage for nearly five months, I feel a certain sympathy for Qin. It’s been 2,200 years and all his grand comforts are still sitting on the loading dock to be ogled by tourists, scientists and kings, all of whom will also die someday and probably want to ask him about it. I suspect Qin dragged a load of baggage into the afterlife, though not quite what he intended.

Meanwhile breath bursts forth, life and death lurching forward on a grocery store conveyor belt, peeing in the meat department, crowding the subway, cutting in line in front of polite foreigners. The dead wear our faces, calling a single question into the thunderous silence, “Where is your treasure?”

17 March 2012

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