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Re-discovering China's 'Son of Heaven'

Archaeologists uncover a new trove of terracotta statues, raising more questions about beliefs in the afterlife.

Last Modified: 02 Jun 2013 11:22
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Archaeologists uncover ancient relics from China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang [Kevin Holden/Al Jazeera]

Beijing, China - As archaeologists here excavate a palace complex that has been buried for more than two millennia, new puzzles are emerging surrounding ancient beliefs of the afterlife.

Decades after discovering thousands of sculpted terracotta warriors and bronze war chariots deployed to protect China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang, on his journey through eternity, scientists are now exploring the nearby remains of a subterranean palatial compound - believed to have been built on his orders, so he could continue his reign.

The assemblage of palaces, courtyards and watchtowers now being excavated is part of an underworld cosmopolis, guarded by the terracotta army, that stretches out across 50 square kilometres.

The First Emperor believed he was the Son of Heaven.

- Sun Weigang

The palace complex, designed symmetrically along a north-south axis and protected by a vast perimeter wall, "included the emperor's residence, along with palaces for his court officials to administer affairs of state" in the netherworld, said Sun Weigang, an archaeologist who is leading the excavation. 

"Qin Shihuang believed he would become immortal; the entire underground palace complex was built around this premise," Sun explained.

Enthroned in 246 BC at the age of 13, in the kingdom of Qin, Shihuang carved out an empire by invading and annexing a succession of states. He named himself First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, and created a highly centralised system of governance that has prevailed in China ever since.

To consolidate his rule, the First Emperor embarked on a book-burning campaign that raged across the land. Hundreds of Confucian scholars who dared to criticise him were buried alive, according to an imperial scribe, Sima Qian, who wrote about Qin Shihuang a century later.

In his chronicles of the Qin empire, Sima Qian also recorded that Qin Shihuang had constructed a huge underground imperial city, filled with glorious architecture and artifacts, to extend his reign through the afterlife. These records, which depicted a subterranean doppelganger version of the Qin empire, with gemstones to mark out celestial constellations and mercury-filled waterways that coursed through Qin Shihuang's underworld, were so fantastic that later scholars questioned their accuracy - until the terracotta warriors were unearthed in the 1970s, near mercury-rich channels resembling now-dry riverbeds.

Sima Qian's depiction of the wondrous architecture and design of the First Emperor's afterlife palaces are proving to be accurate, said archaeologist Sun Weigang of the current excavation.

Yet China's great historian also wrote about the dark side of Qin Shihuang and the construction of his city of the dead: 700,000 dissident scholars, sculptors and slaves were conscripted into an army of forced labour to build the necropolis.  Many of the First Emperor's concubines, along with artisans who designed and built the site, were sealed inside the mausoleum after Qin's interment, all in order to protect the secrecy of the tomb's location and its treasure-trove of artifacts. The First Emperor, Sun said, "believed he was the Son of Heaven".

Secrecy through death

A long line of Chinese emperors who termed themselves the Son of Heaven believed they would be deified upon passing over into the afterlife, explained Yang Xiaoneng, co-author of Son of Heaven: Imperial Arts of China.

"As for the artisans who made the terracotta army, we are not sure whether or not they were all killed and buried," said Yang, a scholar at Stanford University in California. "Sculptors who knew the secret of his underground palace would have been killed."

During the centuries leading up to Qin Shihuang's rule, "human sacrifice was common for the elite" as part of elaborate burial rituals for supreme rulers, Yang wrote. 

The army would also have to fight aggressive wars in the supposed netherworld.

Armin Selbitschka

"For many centuries," he noted, "the custom endured of 'following in death', whereby servants and concubines were put to death when their lord passed away ... the Qin First Emperor seems to have followed that custom."

Lukas Nickel, a scholar on the Qin dynasty at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, said one mass grave containing the remains of more than 100 contemporaries of Qin Shihuang had already been unearthed in the First Emperor's underworld, and added future excavations could uncover more mass graves containing the human sacrifices chronicled by Sima Qian.

"Qin Shihuang's tomb still hasn’t been opened," said Nickel. 

"The terracotta warriors are standing in marching formation, waiting for orders from their commander." 


Conquests in the afterlife

The First Emperor, with his sculpted warriors, battle-ready chariots and high-tech bronze crossbows, set out to create a microcosm of his empire that he could activate in the afterlife to continue his military expansion, said Armin Selbitschka, an expert on Qin Shihuang at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich.

China's founding emperor knew he had created enemies across the kingdoms he conquered, and was prepared to defend against their counterattacks, Selbitschka said. "The army would also have to fight aggressive wars in the supposed netherworld." To record his military conquests into the afterlife, Selbitschka added, Qin Shihuang's underworld empire was also peopled with terracotta scribes.

Attempting to reconstruct Qin Shihuang's mindset towards the end of his reign, when he faced a series of assassination attempts and an alienated class of scholars and other malcontents, Nickel said, "The First Emperor might have thought there could be an uprising upon his death. He was the first person to unify all those states, and faced the threat that it could all fall apart when he died."

Even as archaeologists piece together the palaces and master plan for the First Emperor's afterlife abode, other scientists - from China and Germany - have joined forces to preserve and restore his sculpted clay archers and charioteers to their original colouring. After being individually carved, the eyes, armour and attire of the terracotta troops were carefully painted so that from afar, they might have appeared to be living combatants poised to do battle.

Qin Shihuang believed he could continue his reign after death [Kevin Holden/Al Jazeera]

Catharina Blaensdorf - a scientist at the Technical University of Munich, who led a series of conservation projects with the painted soldiers - said the First Emperor's ability to deploy massive human resources on his underground city, along with "the astonishing artistic skill" in the creation of the terracotta figures, all made the complex unique.

"It was the emperor and the enormous size of the country under a centralistic rule which made it possible to realise such an enormous burial complex," she said.

Susanne Greiff is a conservation expert at the Roman-Germanic Central Museum who helped restore a group of huge, naturalistic bronze waterfowl that populated the banks of Qin Shihuang's quicksilver waterways She said the First Emperor's netherworld complex had turned out to be "one of the most outstanding archaeological discoveries ever made".

Sun said as he and other researchers systematically uncovered and deciphered the sculptures, artifacts and architecture of the First Emperor's afterlife city, they were also reassembling the thinking, beliefs, designs and ambitions of Qin Shihuang.

The founder of imperial China, Sun said, had three overarching dreams for the afterlife that could be pieced together from the ruins of his still-astounding underground capital. The palace complex now being examined, he said, represented Qin Shihuang's dream of a powerful central government; the terracotta soldiers were designed to bolster the goals of an ever-stronger military; and the quicksilver streams and seas might have symbolised the emperor's wish to launch new maritime expeditions off China's east coast.

Yet it was the emperor's nightmare - of an armed uprising against his dynasty - that became reality after his departure for the tomb. Leaders of the rebellion entered one section of Qin Shihuang's underground city and set it ablaze. "The roof collapsed and crushed the terracotta warriors," said Alexandra Hilgner, another German restoration expert who has worked at the site. 

The First Emperor's necropolis and terracotta troops were discovered - by chance - during the twilight of Mao's rule in 1974. 

"The tomb of the First Emperor became one of the most famous archaeological discoveries ever, and was on the [Chinese] leadership's mind when they built Mao's huge mausoleum" in 1976, said Nickel. Both structures, he added, were filled with sculptures and symbolism, and with the ambition to project power beyond the tomb.

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