Friday, September 14, 2007

Qin Shi Huangdi and the quest for eternal life

This morning's most intriguing read is from New Statesman. If you're in a hurry, keep moving. This will take a few minutes, although you might want to scan, mark and come back later...

There are at least three levels of reading here. First, of course, is a narrative, the story of how China's first emperor became obsessed with the idea of eternal life...realized in a magnificent obsession that survives as one of history's most breathtaking personal monuments to that quest. Second, the reader can reflect while reading on how this man's vision puzzles together with what we know of history elsewhere. The pyramids of North Africa and Central America come to mind and the echoes of a concern with life after death that resonate from them.

Finally -- and this is one that is easy to miss -- at the top of the article there is an icon (Listen )connecting the reader with a computer-generated voice reading the article. I was already impressed with the content, but I found this wonderful cyber-bauble to be just as interesting. Listen closely to a sophisticated, mildly British invisible reader and see if you are as impressed with her inflection and timing as I was.

The reports of the First Emperor's burial arrangements were written by Sima Qian, the same historian who declared that the ruler was a man possessed. From his Records of the Grand His torian, we learn that Qin Shi Huangdi was born Ying Zheng and inherited the Qin kingdom at the age of 13 in 247BC. He proved to be a tyrannical leader, conquering the nine warring feudal states of the region and declaring himself the first emperor of a new nation in 221BC. Under his rule, the borders were mapped, weights, measurements and currency were unified, and a political and legal system was formulated. As if that wasn't enough, he also started building a huge cross-country fortification that would be continued and completed by successive dynasties, and which stands today as the Great Wall of China. Qin is pronounced "chin"; the ancient family name was lent to a nation on the rise.

He ended up deep within the man-made mountain beneath my feet. Qin Shi Huangdi's ruthless pursuit of earthly power during his brief, 11-year reign over unified China was undermined by a paranoid fear of death. During his lifetime, the secret of immortality became his overriding quest. He set off on epic journeys in search of the elixir of eternal life, but died aged just 50 while searching for the legendary island of the immortals off the east coast. Power passed to a young prince so out of his depth that China was soon engulfed by civil war.

Thanks to Morgan Meis at 3Quarks for this link.

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