The Mysteries of China, one of the offerings screened at the St. Louis Omnimax, affords a long look into the past: the year is 201 B.C., the death of Qin Shi Huang, the first self-styled emperor of a unified China. A military genius, a ruthless tyrant, steeped in the blood of warring states around him, he created multiple enemies who wanted him dead. Within the protection of his generals, however, he carried on his economic and social reforms and had slaves build the national road system and the Great Wall; of no consequence were the deaths of thousands engaged in these labors.

But not so for himself.

Terror of dying compelled him to search the known world for an elixir of life. Paradoxically, the mercury potion prepared by Chinese alchemists caused his death when forty-nine years old.

Yet, Qin Shi Huang did begin preparing for this eventuality after his accession to the throne. Thousands of laborers constructed a necropolis with an underground palace and a life-sized terracotta army of eight thousand, each with a unique face, together with one hundred and thirty chariots and five hundred and twenty horses. Only in 1974 did farmers, digging a well in Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi province, happened upon this phenomenon. Whatever was to come, Qin Shi Huang would be protected, or so he thought.

Such ostentatious funereal sites give me pause. They are are still around.

 

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