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By Sam Burt, on The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

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Why did the Emperors of the Qin and Han dynasties obsessively pursue immortality? It would be a relatively simple question if there existed at the time some uniform body of authoritative ideas on such matters. But the centuries that mark China’s transition from a loose confederacy of feudal kingdoms into an empire were marked by tempestuous struggles over the appropriate operating principles for a historically-unprecedented political entity.

The ancient Chinese saw man ‘as being made of a body joining two souls together. Whereas the hun soul came from the sky and returned to it, the po soul derived from the earth and fell back into it’ (1). John Keay has written of the First Emperor that, ‘A ruler’s first responsibility was to his lineage—past, present, and to come. In honouring his ancestors, he anticipated his becoming one of them and so demonstrated the legitimacy of his succession and that of his heirs’ (2). In other words, it was believed that one’s safe passage into the spiritual realm was facilitated by assistance from ancestral spirits, which was secured by observing the ancestral rites: ‘Ancestors were cherished not just as loved ones but as progenitors deserving of the Confucian respect due to all parents, and as intermediaries in any dealings with the spirit world’ (3). This chain of cosmic interdependency reflected the social hierarchy on Earth, so the tombs of emperors and their officials were grandiose in order that their status would be duly acknowledged in the spiritual realm; if they were not, then the ranks of masses beneath them would have faced uncertainty after death, and would have wasted their lives observing official rituals.

This helps to explain the epic scale on which these imperial mausoleums were executed. They were microcosms of the material world vacated by their occupants, as demonstrated by the extraordinary range of everyday objects on display—from decorated door-knockers to jade boardgame pieces, an early ginger-grater, a skin exfoliator, and a minimalist stone lavatory. They were all excavated from tombs that mirrored, in form and function, the original palaces. One imperial mausoleum yet to be excavated is described in the official histories as a microcosm of the emperor’s vast domains, with rivers and lakes of mercury and a jewel-studded ceiling depicting the night sky. The undeniable centrepieces of the exhibit are two magnificent Han-period ‘jade suits’: tight-fitting suits of armour made of over two thousand small jade platelets stitched together with thread of gold, silver or silk. Jade was thought to have preservative properties, so these suits were designed to protect their royal wearers in the spirit world.

The Qin First Emperor (Shi Huangdi) was so obsessed with death after three attempts on his life that he made death a taboo subject at court, its mere mention punishable by death. As the first of his kind, his power and authority always seemed insecure and lacking in roots, so he turned to the doctrines of legalism to provide an ideological framework. For a long time, scholars had associated legalism with draconian punishments and authoritarian laws, but archaeological finds in the 1970s have given us a more balanced picture. The justice system embodied pessimism about human nature but legalism was nothing if not pragmatic. Everything was valued insofar as it strengthened the central state.

He grounded his claim to rule—and the legalist measures necessary to buttress it—in the Daoist theory of the ‘Five Phases’. This holds that history is a recurring cycle of elemental phases—earth, wood, metal, fire, and water—in which each overpowers the other in turn. Significantly, this theory is a fatalistic counterpoint to the Confucian idea of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’, which posits that a ruler’s legitimacy derives not from the mechanical rotation of elements but from the agency of intervening spirits signalling disapproval through natural disasters.

So, there was a milieu of competing ideologies in China at the turn of the first millennium. The First Emperor’s response to the creeping influence of feudal ideas amongst his advisers was to issue an edict ordering the burning of all books which were neither for practical instruction nor politically correct. He came to believe that all the great achievements of his reign—the river-management projects, roads, and defensive barriers effected through mass mobilisation—might be destroyed in the political instability that the ‘Five Phases’ theory predicted would follow his death, as the ‘rule of water’ was dammed by earth. Thus, the First Emperor lavished vast expenditure on procuring life-prolonging elixirs from various sorcerers and miracle-men, and dispatched two unsuccessful expeditions by sea in the hope of finding the Islands of Paradise, which were thought to be inhabited by immortals.

The only way to cheat history would be to cheat nature, or at least conceal it from the masses. Thus, he sealed off his palaces with closed walls and corridors, and made his whereabouts a sworn secret: ‘Removing himself from public sight was supposed a step towards transcending the passage of time’ (4). If he could not physically cheat death, he at least wanted to trick his people into thinking he had. When he expired, possibly after a self-administered toxic potion of cinnabar, the news was suppressed, ironically, by scheming eunuchs who wanted time to plan their course of action first; they continued delivering meals to his carriage and positioned a wagon of fish nearby to mask the stench.

The First Emperor’s quest for immortality had been in vain, but the ideas which shaped and were shaped in turn by that imperative had some undeniably beneficial effects at a crucial stage in the history of Chinese civilisation. The sense of urgency and ambition that sprung from a curious blend of Daoism and legalism can be seen as a dialectical reaction against cautious and conservative tendencies in Confucianism (which specified responsibilities according to social position and tended to naturalise the social hierarchy). The Han dynasty that succeeded the Qin gradually built the model imperial state that would last for almost two thousand years on a foundational synthesis of Confucianism with elements of statist ‘realism’.

Besides the search for immortality, another key theme of the exhibition is factional politics in the Han dynasty and in particular the power-struggle between the Han imperial family in the northern ‘cradle’ of Chinese history, with its capital at Chang’an (modern Xi’an) and the Kingdom of Nanyue (‘Southern Yue’), with its capital at Panyu. What distinguished Nanyue from the other kingdoms—which were rendered increasingly dependent on Han patronage—was that it owed nothing of its authority to Han Gaozu and harboured its own imperial ambitions (one of the jade suits on display in the Fitzwilliam belonged to the King of Nanyue). The critical moment came when King Wu of Nanyue declared himself an emperor; it would be nearly a hundred years before Han Wudi finally brought Nanyue to heel and converted his own dominion into a powerful empire. In the process, Han Wudi also became preoccupied with the allure of immortality. He retrospectively claimed to rule by the ‘earth’ that had overcome the Qin’s ‘water’, and revised the calendar to synchronise the dynasty with the Five Phases. As a consequence of this, he advanced a strange synthesis of Daoism, legalism, and Confucianism which, though lacking in intellectual coherence, struck a successful and durable balance of compromise and coercion.

While emperors may have used ideology to rationalise their essentially selfish desire to cheat death, that is only part of the story. Equally important is: why they chose to choose particular ideologies for this purpose; how ideas were adapted in order to win support from rival claimants to supremacy; and how those adaptations ultimately eroded the original ideological rationale for prioritising the immortality of the emperor (at least in theory, the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ made the earthly claims of emperors more fragile).

Although it is not the stated mission of this exhibition to tackle such questions, and although the individual displays are contextualised, the experience would be a more rewarding one if it gave a more vivid impression of how the spirit world was imagined in ancient China, and the significant ways in which philosophical canons, as well as thrones, were loci of conflict. Nevertheless, it is a rare opportunity to glimpse the rich and beguiling world that provided a backdrop to the ubiquitous terracotta soldiers. It should not be missed.


  • China: A History, Arthur Cotterell, Pimlico (1990), p97
  • China: A History, John Keay, Harper Press (2008), p88
  • Ibid, p123
  • Ibid, p103


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