Packing for the Afterlife

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Xi’an, Oct. 24-25

Packing is a challenge for most folks—knowing what and how much to take for your journey. Regrettably, I’m of the packing school that figures, if there’s a 50-pound limit, see how close you can get without incurring excess-baggage charges. Sure, I can go on a two-day business trip with a bare minimum of gear—but packing to go to China? I might as well be packing to go to the Moon, though I suspect that has a stricter weight limit than United Airlines.

A few days before we left, I laid it all out on the bed in one of the kids’ rooms. (Our grown-up “kids” are no longer in residence.) I congratulated myself on being a smart packer when I decided I didn’t need a quantity of socks and underwear equal to the number of days I would be gone. I would do some laundry about halfway through China.

As I packed my Chinese-made suitcase, I observed that many of my toiletries, all of my shoes, and most of my clothing bore the “Made in China” label. I came to an important realization: The true purpose of going to China was to take my belongings home for a visit.

It was in this spirit that I approached the Qin emperor (221 BCE to 206 BCE) and his famous terra cotta warriors. As I had packed to the limit to go to China, so this long-dead emperor had packed for the afterlife—and there was no 50-pound limit for the emperor.


On the way…

Think how many of the places that tourists throng to are either palaces or tombs. The biggest attractions around the world are either places that great rulers built for themselves to live in—or places they built for themselves to be dead in. Of course, there are many great religious sites and, during the past couple of centuries, a few great museums. But nothing beats a palace, pyramid, or mausoleum as venue in which to marvel at how enormous wealth and power—especially combined with belief in the supernatural and a dash of hubris—has created a view of history that is all about these few men. (Face it, it’s all about the men.) The palace perspective is one with the human condition.

The museums that modern China has built to preserve and display its cultural patrimony are beautifully planned and executed. At the site of the terra cotta warrior excavations, huge pavilions have been constructed over three sites.

The Qin Emperor—the first warrior to unify all of China under a centralized feudal state—appears to have outdone all of the world’s former leaders with his recently discovered tomb complex at Bingmayong, near Xi’an. With the possible exception of the Great Pyramids, there’s nothing like it.

People had long been aware of the large funeral mounds in the foothills of the Lishang Hills outside the ancient walled city of Xi’an. But it wasn’t until 1974, after a farmer digging a well nearby unearthed some interesting pottery, that the world became aware of just how big the Qin tomb really was. You probably know that story—the subject of endless Discovery Channel programs: This funeral mound and underground mausoleum are the largest ever discovered.

Some quick facts:

• The entire complex covers a total of 2.18 million square meters—just under a square mile—with the tomb mound itself covering 220,000 square meters.

• The mausoleum originally consisted of inner and outer sections. The outer section had a circumference of 6,294 meters—almost 4 miles.

Some 8,000 life-sized terra cotta warriors have been unearthed, mostly in the outer section.

According to Records of the Historian, written over 2,000 years ago by Sima Qian, construction involved 700,000 laborers and took 36 years to complete.

Another fact: the Qin emperor was probably dead for quite a few years before he was entirely fixed up with his terra cotta army, which was to protect him in the afterlife. But, I wondered, what if his soul took off for the underworld before the whole thing was finished?

Pavilion 1

Outside the first pavilion—an enormous shed that probably could have docked the Graf Zeppelin.


Inside the first pavilion—breathtaking. These displays artfully blend “working” archeology and reconstructed artifacts. Most of the clay figures were broken or damaged by the collapse of the wooden roofs of the underground chambers where they were buried 2,200 years ago. Some can be seen as they were found, in pieces, and others have been painstakingly restored.




Fragments of statues show the condition of the warriors in areas still being excavated.


The stripes indicate where the timbered roofs of underground rooms collapsed. This site is part of the terra cotta warriors museum, where the army assembled for the imperial journey into the beyond.




Three soldiers in sepia. They were in glass cases in one of the pavilions, so you could see them up close.


These magnificent bronze horses and chariot—about a quarter of life size— are one of two sets uncovered with the clay figures.

As we sat on a curb waiting for the Swarthmore group to coalesce at the end of our visit to the terra cotta warriors, I asked Shao Yan, the national guide who had been with us since Beijing, whether she is a religious person. It seemed like the right place to have such a conversation—here, where an emperor had prepared for a life beyond this one.

She said that she didn’t belong to any particular movement, but that if her sympathies lay anywhere, it was with Buddhism. I told her a little about my own religious journey—and my spiritual experiences in China. (See “A Prayer for Peace.”)

Then I observed (as I had in that posting), that although there seemed to be a fair bit of religious freedom in China, the government definition of religion was narrow enough to exclude Falun Gong, which we had been told was a “cult.” I said the difference seemed to be that Falun Gong had crossed some sort of line, straying into politics. “They just tried to move too fast,” Shao Yan said. I had heard the same thing said of the 1988 pro-democracy movement when we were standing in Tianamen. “Too fast,” she repeated, a little ruefully perhaps.

Of course, the Dalai Lama, who is seen outside China as a major spiritual leader, is reviled by the Chinese government and press. While we were in China, President Bush invited him to the White House, and the press here (we read the official English-language China Daily almost every day, taking it with more than a grain if salt) was attacking both Bush and the exiled Tibetan Buddhist, who not only represents the Tibetan independence movement, but will be succeeded by own reincarnation.

The Peoples Reoublic has devised a perfect solution to the succession problem in Tibet—in August, they passed a law that makes it illegal to be reincarnated without the permission of the central government. Now, isn’t that laughable?

The object of this law is to enforce government control over the choosing of “soul boys,” the potential successors to the great lamas of Tibetan Buddhism, including the famously exiled supreme lama. Here’s how a PRC “white paper” on religious freedom explains the situation. Follow the logic carefully (italics are mine)…

The reincarnation of holy men, or “Living Buddhas,” is a unique form of succession in Tibetan Buddhism which has long been recognized and respected by the State. In 1992 the Religious Affairs Bureau of the State Council approved the succession of the 17th Karmapa Living Buddha. In 1995 China successfully concluded the search for and identification of the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama and the title-conferring and enthronement of the 11th Panchen Lama after lot-drawing from a golden urn according to the established religious rituals and historical conventions of Tibetan Buddhism, and with the approval of the State Council. These actions highlight the fact that the Tibetan people’s right to religious freedom is respected and protected, thus winning endorsement and support from the converts of Tibet.

Huh? This absurd document goes on to argue that the regulation of reincarnation has long historical precedent in Ming and Qing times—and is therefore historically legitimate. Of course, so was foot binding, but they don’t do that anymore!


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