Aspirations of Immortality

From this day forward, the practice of assigning posthumous names will be abolished. We shall be called the First Emperor, with successive generations of rulers being numbered Second, Third, and so forth for ten thousand generations, and in this way the succession will be passed down interminably.

—The First Emperor, attributed by Sima Qian, Records of the Historian (109-91 все)

To borrow from the cluster of metaphors proposed in the preceding chapter, one potential origin of the series of “hoaxes” (Wilber), “gaps” (Kafka), and “explosions” (Cai Guo-Qiang) that have yielded the Wall as we now know it could be traced back to a deci­sion made in 215 все. It was in that year that the first ruler of a uni­fied China—known as Qin Shihuang, or literally “the first emperor of the Qin dynasty”—ordered his general Meng Tian to take more than a hundred thousand troops and drive the foreign tribes out of the northern regions of his newly unified empire. To preserve the territorial gains from the resulting expedition, the First Emperor further instructed Meng Tian to construct a line of defensive forti­fications along the northern frontier of his new empire, starting from the Gulf of Bohai across from the Korean Peninsula and ex­tending deep into the Gobi Desert in Central Asia. The resulting structure is regarded as the first iteration of what has now become the Wall, and symbolizes not only the Qin emperor’s success in uni­fying the rival feuding states in the Central Plains but also his al­leged tyranny in governing the resulting empire. The dynasty col­lapsed in 206 все, less than a decade after the emperor sent General Meng Tian on his northern expedition, but the memory of the fron­tier fortifications he built would long outlive the emperor, the gen­eral, and the dynasty itself.

Despite the significance this Qin dynasty wall has subsequently assumed in the popular imagination, the fact of the matter is, we know surprisingly little about the structure itself. Although there is considerable archaeological evidence of early border walls in what is now northern China, none of these physical remains can be dated conclusively to the narrow historical window between Meng Tian’s 215 все expedition and the collapse of the dynasty nine years later. Not only is there scant physical evidence of the original Qin dy­nasty construction, the textual record is also surprisingly modest. The most immediate account of the Qin Wall can be found in Sima Qian’s Records of the Historian, which was not composed until more than a century after the Qin dynasty’s collapse. Even this sem­inal text, however, contains just a few short passages describing Meng Tian’s expedition, only one of which specifically character­izes the structure as an actual “long wall” (chang cheng); the text’s other substantive descriptions of Meng Tian’s wall refer to it as a se­ries of barricades and barriers, but do not use the term that has now become virtually synonymous with the Qin dynasty construction. Despite the relative spareness of these descriptions, Sima Qian’s text remains the most immediate source for our knowledge of the Qin dynasty Wall, and it is one of the primary inspirations for the vast body of history and legend that has developed around the structure.

Like the Wall itself, the origins of the emperor who allegedly or­dered its construction are shrouded in mystery and contradiction. Sima Qian records that the future sovereign was born in 259 все, in the first lunar month (pronounced “zheng” in modern Chinese) and that his father accordingly assigned him the etymologically related and nearly homophonous name of Zheng (pronounced “zheng” and literally meaning “governance”)—this name being particularly apposite for someone who would help put in place the institutional foundations for the next two millennia of centralized dynastic rule. Despite his auspicious name, Zheng’s path to power was not en­tirely straightforward. At the time of his birth, his father—Zichu, known to history as King Zhuangxiang—was being held hostage by the rival state of Zhao, as part of a common practice wherein states would exchange members of their respective nobility as an expres­sion of good faith. Zheng was therefore initially given the clan name of Zhao, rather than Ying, the name associated with the royal house of Qin, and the one by which he would subsequently be known. Zheng’s paternity is further complicated by Sima Qian’s claim, in Records of the Historian, that his real father was actually the merchant Lu Buwei, who had granted Zichu one of his own concubines (Zheng’s future mother) not long before Zheng’s birth. Regardless of the questions surrounding his origins and ancestry, Zheng inherited the Qin throne in 246 все, at the age of thirteen, and went on to establish the region’s first unified dynasty.

The state of Qin was founded in 897 все, when the Zhou ruler granted a local horse breeder an estate in what is now western Shaanxi Province, on the condition that he provide the court with horses. This minor estate subsequently become an autonomous state that relocated its capital several times before eventually set­tling on Xianyang—located near what is now Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province. Although the Qin dynasty is best known for its unification of the Central Plains region under the First Emperor, its military expansion actually began decades earlier. In 286 все, the Qin had conquered the kingdom of Song (itself a remnant of the Shang, the dynasty the Zhou had conquered a millennium earlier), followed three decades later by what remained of the Zhou ruling house. It was under Zheng, however, that the Qin’s path to regional domination began in earnest. After he officially came of age in 238 все, the king’s first conquest, in 230, was the state of Han, just down the Yellow River from the Qin. Two years later he conquered his own birth state of Zhao, to the northeast of Qin, followed by the states of Wei, Chu, and Yan. Finally, in 221 все the Qin ruler defeated the last remaining independent state, the state of Qi next to the Gulf of Bohai, and was therefore able to declare himself the single sovereign power in the entire Central Plains region.

Having presided over the expansion of his kingdom into an em­pire, Zheng concluded that wang, or “king,” no longer accurately reflected his political authority. Therefore, he took the terms for the legendary Three Sovereigns (san huang) and Five Emperors (wu di), who were reputed to have ruled China before the founding of the legendary Xia dynasty, and combined them to yield the neologism huangdi—which could be translated literally as “august thearch,” or simply “emperor.” After proposing to abolish the traditional practice whereby rulers were assigned honorary titles by their suc­cessors, Zheng proceeded to specify that he wished to be known to posterity as Qin shi huangdi (First Emperor of the Qin), which is now typically shortened to Qin Shihuang. The emperor further de­creed that his son would be known as the Second Emperor, his grandson as the Third Emperor, and so forth down to the “ten — thousandth generation.” This act of self-identification, however, proved to be somewhat premature. While the Qin ruler did succeed in dictating how he and his son would be known to history, his dy­nasty collapsed after the death of his son, and his original vision of an interminable line of succession was cut short before fully reach­ing its third generation.

Even as the First Emperor was speculating grandiosely about his imperial line stretching far into the future, he was trying to as­sert a clear break with the past. Specifically, he attempted to leave his mark on history by extending his centralization efforts from a purely political level to an institutional one, calling for the stan­dardization of the nation’s script, its monetary system, its system of weights and measures, and even the width of carriage axles so that all carriage wheels would fit into a uniform set of ruts in the roads. To facilitate transportation and communication throughout the unified territory, the emperor called for the construction of the Direct Road (running northward from the capital, Xianyang, to the city of Jiuyuan, near the Qin border), together with the creation of a national postal system. The emperor’s endeavors also extended to a number of less progressive measures, including the burning of all books, out of concern that they might be employed by those seeking to “use the past to criticize the present”—exempting only texts on practical subjects such as medicine, agriculture, and divination. When Confucian scholars protested this edict, the First Emperor al­legedly responded by burying several hundred of them alive.

Despite the emperor’s notorious reputation for book burning and scholar burying, most of what we know about him comes from an influential book by a pair of Confucian scholars: the second — century все Records of the Historian, begun under the supervision of Han court astrologer/scribe Sima Tan and completed by his son, Sima Qian. Composed between 109 and 91 все, this text presents a systematic historical overview from the legendary Yellow Emperor up through Sima Qian’s own emperor, Emperor Han Wudi. Re­cords of the Historian is regarded as the first of China’s official dy­nastic histories, and its careful structure, attention to detail, and rhetorical skill have helped earn it a preeminent reputation within early Chinese historiography. The text brings together information from a variety of sources to present not only a narrative account of the Qin dynasty, but also a historical genealogy that peers back to the preceding Zhou dynasty and even earlier.

In addition to its general historical objectives, Records ofthe His­torian may well have had a rather more personal edge. In 99 все, Sima Qian had gotten embroiled in a controversy involving a Han general who had led an attack against the northern Xiongnu tribes before eventually being defeated and captured. When Sima Qian expressed support for the general, Emperor Wu took it as a per­sonal betrayal, and sentenced him to death. The sentence was even­tually commuted to castration, and upon being released from prison Sima Qian declined to take his own life—as would have been customary for an official who had suffered such a disgrace—and in­stead resolved to devote the remainder of his life to completing the monumental historical project his father had begun before him.

Some modern historians have argued that the book-burning and scholar-burying sections of Sima Qian’s text are so beyond the pale that they must have been introduced by a different hand after the text was already completed. This may well be true, but to the extent that we might doubt the veracity of these reports of the emperor’s notorious brutality, we might also question some of the descrip­tions of his remarkable achievements. Could all of the standardiza­tion and construction projects attributed to him realistically have been completed under his reign, or might they have been proposed as mere goals or ideals? Did the First Emperor really oversee the complete standardization of the nation’s writing system, its mone­tary system, and its postal system? Did he really oversee the con­struction of the Direct Road and a canal linking the Xiang and Li rivers? And what of the Wall, the emperor’s most notorious accom­plishment and one that has subsequently become one of the most resonant symbols of his tyranny?

Apart from a handful of passing references, Sima Qian’s text con­tains only two detailed discussions of the structure—the first in the chapter on Meng Tian’s biography (chapter 88), and the second in a chapter on the Xiongnu (chapter 110). Both passages present the same basic information regarding the Wall’s trajectory and the his­torical circumstances of its creation, and neither provides much de­tail regarding the structure’s composition or the process of its con­struction. I will begin by considering the passage from the Meng

Tian chapter, and will turn to the parallel Xiongnu discussion in Chapter 3.

Even after the Qin conquered its final rival (the state of Qi) in 221 все and established itself as the preeminent authority through­out the Central Plains region, the new dynasty continued to be plagued by attacks from the northern pastoral-nomadic tribes— variously identified in Han historical texts as the Xiongnu, the Hu, and the Rong and Di. In 215 все, an envoy the emperor had sent in search of elixirs for immortality returned and presented the em­peror with a text containing the cryptic prophecy, “That which will destroy Qin is Hu.”1 The Qin sovereign interpreted this to mean that the northern Hu tribes (also known as the Xiongnu) were the primary threat to the Qin dynasty, and he sent his general Meng Tian to drive the Hu farther north and construct a line of fortifica­tions to keep them there. As Sima Qian relates,

After the Qin had unified all under heaven, Meng Tian was sent to command a host of three hundred thousand soldiers to drive out the Rong and Di peoples along the north. He took from them the terri­tory to the south of the Yellow River and built a long wall, construct­ing fortifications that took advantage of passes in following the con­figurations of the terrain. These fortifications began in Lintao and extended to Liaodong, stretching over a distance of more than ten thousand li. After crossing the Yellow River, they wound northward, reaching Mount Yang.2

It is in this description of Meng Tian’s construction of a “long wall. . . stretching over a distance of more than ten thousand li” that we find the locus classicus of the formal name used for the Wall in modern Chinese: wanli chang cheng (“ten-thousand-li-long long wall”). Beyond specifying the Wall’s beginning and end points, however, Sima Qian actually offers surprisingly little detail here— or anywhere else in the text, for that matter—about the Wall itself. This relative dearth of detail concerning what is now regarded as

one of the emperor’s most ambitious projects has long perplexed Western readers. One modern historian, for instance, characterizes Sima Qian’s description of the Wall as “casual and brief to an ex­treme,” while another suggests that he “[treats] the building of the Great Wall like a summer picnic.”3

Whatever the exact dimensions of the First Emperor’s “long wall,” it is clear they must have been comparatively modest. To be­gin with, Meng Tian had less than a decade to finish his work be­fore both he and the First Emperor died and the Qin dynasty itself collapsed. Furthermore, even had Meng Tian been given unlim­ited time to complete his assignment, he still would not have con­structed anything resembling the massive brick and stone structure we see today, given that at the time virtually all walls—ranging from the walls of buildings to city walls to territorial “long walls”— were built using a more modest terre pise, or “tamped earth,” method of packing soil and gravel tightly between two wooden barriers and then incrementally raising the boards until the wall reached its desired height, with stone or rubble sometimes being used for the base.

The precise trajectory of the Qin dynasty Wall is not known. Sima Qian states that the First Emperor’s line of fortifications ex­tended from Liaodong, where the Liao River empties into the Gulf of Bohai in the east, to Lintao, in what is now Gansu Province, in northwestern China. From Sima Qian’s specification of the em­peror’s desire to regain control over territory “south of the Yellow River,” however, we may conclude that the geographic focus of Meng Tian’s campaign must have been significantly more limited. Given that along most of its course the Yellow River runs well within the territory that was controlled by the nascent Qin empire, the only region where the emperor could have anticipated having border skirmishes south of the river would have been in the west, where the Yellow River loops northward through the Loess Plateau (which, incidentally, is also where it picks up the loess silt that gives the river its distinctive color) and then turns southward again be­fore continuing its northeasterly route to the sea. Meng Tian’s cam­paign, therefore, would have been primarily concerned with the area within this loop, known as the Ordos region—a combination of desert and arid grassland that was a natural fit for pastoral peo­ples like the Xiongnu, but which has presented a perennial defen­sive challenge for the Chinese societies of the Central Plains.

These questions of the Wall’s physical composition and geo­graphic trajectory bring us to Sima Qian’s famous characterization of the structure as “stretching over a distance of more than ten thousand li.” It is worth noting that Sima Qian uses the same word here, wan (ten thousand), to describe both the length of the First Emperor’s Wall (“more than ten thousand li”) and the length of the emperor’s projected dynastic line (“and so on for ten thousand gen­erations”). Just as the construction of a ten-thousand-li-long Wall illustrated the Qin ruler’s vision of the virtual boundlessness of his new empire, his evocation of an imperial line extending for ten thousand generations expressed his desire for a virtually boundless dynastic reign. These assertions of the empire’s territorial and tem­poral vastness, however, reveal an implicit anxiety about the dy­nasty’s inherent limits. Despite Sima Qian’s characterization of the Wall as a natural extension of the First Emperor’s assertion of his boundless reign (“after the Qin had unified all under heaven”), for instance, he simultaneously notes that the emperor was motivated by a realization that his territorial authority was actually all too bounded (“Meng Tian was sent to. . . drive out the Rong and Di peoples along the north”) and that his dynasty’s grip on power would prove to be all too finite (“that which will destroy Qin is Hu”). It was in an attempt to assert the virtual boundlessness of his new empire, therefore, that the First Emperor created the Wall that would paradoxically become the preeminent symbol of the nation’s boundaries and limits.

One of the most striking illustrations of the First Emperor’s fasci­nation with the possibility of unbounded power may be seen in the monumental mausoleum that was either being planned or actually under construction from the time he was crowned king of the Qin, at the age of thirteen, until his death thirty-five years later. An enor­mous structure that reportedly employed the labor of 700,000 men, the mausoleum remains unopened to this day, though Sima Qian provides an evocative description of its contents:

When the Emperor first came to the throne he began digging and shaping Mount Li. Later, when he unified the empire, he had over seven hundred thousand men from all over the empire transported to the spot. They dug down to the third layer of underground springs, and poured in bronze to make the outer coffin. Palaces, scenic tow­ers, and the hundred officials, as well as rare utensils and wonderful objects were brought in to fill the tomb. Craftsmen were ordered to set up crossbows and arrows, rigged so that they would immediately shoot down anyone attempting to break in. Mercury was used to fashion the hundred rivers, the Yellow River, the Yangtze, and the seas in such a way that they flowed. Above were set the heavenly bodies and, below, the earth’s features. Oil from a sea mammal was used for lamps, which were calculated to burn almost interminably without going out.4

The Qin emperor affirmed his political authority by filling his final resting place with physical artifacts brought in from throughout his empire, together with abstract representations of the empire itself and of the cosmos within which it is located (though it is worth not­ing that Sima Qian does not use terms like image or replica in this passage, but rather describes the “heavenly bodies” and “earth’s features” as if they were the real thing). In this way, the Qin dy­nasty is presented as a miniature version of the cosmological order within which it was located; by asserting a representational author­ity over the earth and heavens the emperor was implicitly reaffirm­ing his own political sovereignty over the terrestrial empire he had founded.

One of the ironies behind the enormous mausoleum the First Em­peror built for himself is that he appears to have had no intention of ever having to use it. Fascinated with the possibility of cheating death, he was determined to employ alchemical means to attain the same control over his own mortality that his armies had allowed him to achieve over his new territory. To this end, he experimented with a variety of pills and potions, and also sent several expeditions to the isles off the Bohai Gulf coast in search of elixirs of immortal­ity. Although the First Emperor invested considerable energy in his pursuit of immortality, in the end it was this very quest that appears to have contributed to his death. Sima Qian recounts, for instance, how at one point some of the envoys the emperor had sent to the Isle of Penglai to retrieve elixirs of immortality returned empty- handed and reported that they had been stymied in their quest by several large fish. Soon afterward, the emperor had a dream in which he was battling a sea deity in human form—which was sub­sequently interpreted to mean that he must endeavor to drive away evil sea spirits and attract beneficial ones. The emperor therefore armed himself with a crossbow and traveled to the coastal moun­tain of Zhifu, where he found and impaled a fish, and it was soon after this that the emperor unexpectedly died. After the emperor’s death, his chief chancellor, Li Si, directed that the death be kept a secret until the body could be returned to the capital, and when the odor of rotting imperial flesh became increasingly pronounced, he ordered that the carriages be loaded with dried fish to help mask the stench.

We might see the emperor’s death, therefore, as the result of a se­quence of events set in motion by his pursuit of immortality—a sort of karmic retribution, perhaps, for his killing of a fish that was itself a symbolic substitute for the one that had stymied his envoys’ quest for elixirs of immortality. Furthermore, the fish symbolism in Sima

Qian’s account of the First Emperor’s death makes an uncanny re­turn in his description of the lamp that would keep the emperor’s tomb illuminated in virtual perpetuity. Sima Qian specifies that the lamp was to be fueled by oil from what he calls a renyu (a “man — fish”)—apparently a reference to an aquatic mammal of some sort, but also implicitly alluding to the mutually intertwined fates of man and fish that lay behind the emperor’s own mortality.

After the emperor’s remains had been returned to the capital, the emperor’s chief eunuch and chief chancellor destroyed a letter he had written to his eldest son, Fusu, instructing him to return and as­sume the throne. They then substituted an apocryphal letter order­ing both Fusu and General Meng Tian to commit suicide, combined with a spurious imperial edict instructing that the throne be trans­ferred to the First Emperor’s youngest son, Huhai. Three years later, however, Huhai himself was forced to take his own life, thereby bringing to an end the empire his father had founded (while Huhai was succeeded briefly by the son of his half-brother, the Qin dy­nasty by that point had reverted to its former status as a kingdom, thereby relegating its final leader to the status of mere king, rather than emperor). In this way, the prophecy that “that which will de­stroy Qin is Hu” was ultimately borne out, although not in the way the emperor had anticipated. It was not the northern Hu tribes who brought down the nascent empire, but the emperor’s own son, Huhai—meaning that the Qin’s greatest threat ended up coming not from without, but from within.

Although the First Emperor died in 215 все and his dynasty col­lapsed shortly afterward, many of the political and social institu­tions he helped put in place long outlived him and the dynasty he founded. The Qin model of dividing the empire into separate ad­ministrative commanderies and counties, for instance, provided the basis for the province-county administrative system that has per­sisted up to the present, just as the court’s efforts to standardize the transportation, communication, and monetary systems would be emulated, to varying degrees, by subsequent regimes right up to the current one. The immortality the First Emperor craved so ardently was therefore realized virtually, through the institutional models he helped conceive and implement.

A good illustration of the emperor’s fascination with immortality can be found in the thousands of terra-cotta statues that were bur­ied in three large pits about a kilometer from his imperial tomb. When these statues were discovered in 1974 by a Xi’an peasant dig­ging a well, their existence came as a complete surprise, since the historical record makes no mention whatsoever of this vast army. Beyond the mere fact that they existed at all, these life-size figures were also astonishing for their sheer artistry and verisimilitude, which has no known precedent in Chinese culture. In fact, the stat­ues are so realistic that it was initially believed that they were each modeled on actual individuals, though it turns out that they were created through a mass-production process using a set of standard molds, which were then individually modified to give the figures their distinctive facial expressions, hairstyles, and other details.

The discovery of the Qin emperor’s funereal army happened to coincide with a general resurgence of interest in China in the Qin dynasty and the First Emperor. In 1958, for instance, Chairman Mao had famously praised the First Emperor in his remarks at the Second Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee, noting that “Qin Shihuang was an authority in emphasizing the present while slight­ing the past.” He added, “Of course, I do not approve of citing Qin Shihuang either,” to which his chosen successor at the time, Lin Biao, interpolated, “Qin Shihuang burned books and buried Con- fucian scholars alive.” Mao then proceeded to riff enthusiastically on the topic:

What did the First Emperor amount to? He only buried 460 scholars alive, while we have buried forty-six thousand. Haven’t we killed counterrevolutionary intellectuals? In my debates with some mem­bers of the minor democratic parties, I told them, “You revile us for being like the First Emperor, but that is wrong. We have actually sur­passed the First Emperor a hundredfold. You revile us for being like the First Emperor, for being dictators. We don’t dispute this. In fact, you haven’t even gone far enough, and we need to supplement your criticisms!” [Laughs].5

While Lin Biao is not known to have made any further mention of the First Emperor, a document attributed to his son and released shortly after Lin Biao’s suspicious death in a plane crash in 1971 ac­cuses Mao of having “become a contemporary Qin Shihuang.” The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) distributed this document widely to Communist cadres and the masses, exhorting them to “criticize this counterrevolutionary program of Lin Biao line by line and paragraph by paragraph.”6

To the extent that alleged counterrevolutionaries like Lin Biao and his son were associated with criticisms of the First Emperor, it seems logical that the appropriate revolutionary stance would therefore be to support him. This circumstance contributed to the enormous popularity of a generally positive biography of the First Emperor published the following year by the historian Hong Shidi. Based on a longer and more scholarly 1956 biography of the em­peror, the 1972 volume was an immediate best seller, and by the time the emperor’s terra-cotta warriors were discovered in 1974 it had sold more than two million copies.

Not only did Mao praise his Qin dynasty predecessor, but his own reign suggestively mirrored that of his notorious predecessor. Both rulers presided over a transformative realignment of China’s political system, and in each case their military, political, and insti­tutional accomplishments were compromised by their reputations for ruthlessness and tyranny. Even the chronological trajectories of their respective careers mirrored each other with startling precision. Mao’s tenure as the titular head of the People’s Republic of China, for instance, is conventionally divided into the initial “seventeen years” from the founding of the PRC in 1949 until the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and the decade-long Cultural Revolution that officially concluded with Mao’s death in 1976. If we begin counting from when Zheng turned eighteen and began ruling under his own name, then his tenure as head of the Qin may similarly be divided into his initial twenty years as king of the state of Qin, and his final eleven-year reign as emperor of the newly founded Qin dynasty. Both rulers, in other words, spent approximately the first two decades of their reign establishing and consolidating their re­spective regimes, and the final decade pursuing an ambitious socio­cultural revolution during which they formed a cult of personality as well as a reputation for tyrannical ruthlessness.

After Mao’s death on September 9, 1976, his corpse was hur­riedly embalmed (despite his express wish to be cremated) and later placed in a crystal coffin in an elaborate mausoleum built in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. This structure incorporated material from all corners of the nation, with 700,000 workers contributing mostly symbolic labor (in a nod to the number of workers said to have built the First Emperor’s own mausoleum). In stark contrast to the hypervisibility of Mao’s mausoleum in the center of Beijing— the site is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, despite perennial rumors that the corpse on display might be merely a wax replica—the First Emperor’s tomb in Shaanxi remains unopened to this day. Even with the contemporary surge in interest in the Qin emperor, Chinese archaeologists steadfastly refuse to touch this holy grail of archaeological sites—officially out of a concern with damaging its fragile contents, but possibly in response to a more general anxiety about disturbing the deceased emperor’s remains.

One of the most notorious examples of this sort of prohibition against disturbing an imperial tomb can be found in the so-called curse of the pharaohs that was popularized after one of the mem­bers of a 1922 archaeological expedition to Egypt died from an in­fected mosquito bite a few months after the team’s historic discov­ery of King Tut’s tomb. This death was attributed in contemporary newspaper accounts to an inscription in the tomb that allegedly read: “Death shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the king.” This malediction, however, was revealed to have been a fabrication, invented by an overimaginative reporter trying to spice up his story. Apart from the unfortunate victim of the mos­quito bite, most of the expedition’s team members went on to enjoy long and healthy lives.

Meanwhile, the legend of the curse also went on to enjoy a long and healthy life. It would provide the inspiration for the 1932 Boris Karloff movie classic The Mummy, together with its endless sequels and spin-offs. In one of the most recent iterations of the motif, Rob Cohen’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, the legendary Egyptian curse is united with China’s own semilegendary First Em — peror.7 The third installment of a blockbuster action/horror fran­chise, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is set in 1940s China and fea­tures Brendan Fraser as the mummy hunter Rick O’Connell. The film begins with O’Connell’s son accidentally unearthing the First Emperor’s tomb and in the process resurrecting the mummified (or, technically speaking, “terra-cottafied”) Qin sovereign. A Chi­nese Nationalist organization seeking global domination then at­tempts to march the Qin emperor’s terra-cotta soldiers past the Wall in order to grant them immortality, whereupon the group led by O’Connell and his son resurrects the Qin soldiers that the First Emperor had buried beneath the Wall, and recruits them to help de­feat the emperor and his terra-cotta forces. The work’s appropria­tion of the curse-of-the-pharaohs conceit, however, rests on a curi­ous paradox, insofar as the curse’s implicit critique of the (Western) desecration of ancient imperial tombs is directly contravened by the film’s generally positive depiction of the O’Connells as heroes try­ing to save the world. Not only does The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor stop short of criticizing the O’Connells for raid­ing ancient Chinese treasures, but the work itself also implicitly rep­licates their act of grave robbing in its own appropriation, for com­mercial purposes, of the Chinese legends of the First Emperor and his Wall.

The West, needless to say, does not have a monopoly on the stra­tegic appropriation of symbols of ancient China, and numerous contemporary Chinese directors have similarly attempted to resur­rect the legend of the First Emperor—seduced by his larger-than-life reputation even as they struggle with the conflicting political impli­cations of his legacy. This contemporary fascination with the Qin emperor and his Wall is particularly evident in the work of Zhang Yimou. A native of Xi’an (having been born near the former Qin capital of Xianyang), Zhang is possibly the most prominent Chi­nese director alive today, and his success in breaking into both the global market and the international film festival circuit has brought him acclaim and criticism back home. Like the First Em­peror, Zhang Yimou tends to do things on a monumental scale, and his series of reflections on the legacy of the Qin ruler and his legend­ary Wall are all virtually unprecedented in their size and ambition.

Zhang Yimou developed the theme of the First Emperor’s monu­mental Wall in the record-breaking $100 million Opening Cere­mony he directed for the similarly record-breaking $43 billion Beijing Olympics in 2008. Performed for a global audience in the newly constructed Bird’s Nest Stadium, the ceremony featured thousands of performers in exquisitely choreographed homages to Chinese culture and civilization. The First Emperor’s Wall was fea­tured in a portion of the ceremony celebrating printing as one of China’s “four great inventions” (the other three being paper, gun­powder, and the compass), in which 897 performers appeared en­sconced within oversize reproductions of ancient movable-type printing blocks. The performers proceeded to raise and lower their respective blocks in carefully calibrated patterns, presenting the au­dience with a series of rippling mosaics of culturally resonant im-

[To view this image, refer to the print version of this title.]

Image of the Wall formed out of oversize printing blocks, Beijing Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, directed by Zhang Yimou (2008).

ages. This performance culminated with the blocks coming together to form an undulating image of the Wall. The image was held for several seconds, and then the entire array appeared to burst into bloom as pieces of pink fabric emerged from the top of each block. Finally, the lids of the blocks flipped open and the performers popped their heads out, waving enthusiastically to the crowd.

This image of the Wall at the conclusion of the Opening Cere­mony’s “movable-type” performance reflects the structure’s status as an icon of both China and the Chinese tradition. The immediate dissolution of the image into a sea of flowers, meanwhile, could be seen as a commentary on the process by which the Wall itself is con­tinually being transformed and reinvented, while the subsequent emergence of the young men from inside the blocks evokes the memory of the laborers who are said to have been sacrificially bur­ied beneath the Wall as it was being constructed. In this context, the appearance of the performers also lends a human dimension to the uncannily precise performance, symbolically redeeming the actual labor that made the production possible in the first place. By using the flesh-and-blood performers who were literally positioned in­side the contemporary reenactment of the Wall to allude to the leg­end of the laborers buried beneath the Wall itself, Zhang Yimou’s performance critiques the Wall’s traditional connotations of tyran­nical exploitation while affirming the inherently performative di­mension of the Wall itself.

Just as this segment of the Opening Ceremony celebrated China’s invention of paper and printing, it also paid homage to the lan­guage with which those inventions were inextricably linked. Like the Wall, the Chinese writing system is often regarded as having helped unite the vast nation, even as it links modern China to the nation’s historical origins. The Opening Ceremony’s image of a Wall created out of printing blocks inscribed with Chinese charac­ters, meanwhile, suggests a rather different perspective on the rela­tionship between the Chinese language and the Wall—with Chinese functioning here as a symbol not so much of unity and continuity, as of fluidity and transformation. The Wall, in turn, is presented as a cultural construction mediated through—and embedded within— language, whose significance must therefore be “read” and inter­preted.

Zhang Yimou’s reflection on the Wall builds on a couple of ear­lier projects on which he collaborated with the Grammy — and Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun. In 2002, Tan Dun contributed the score for Zhang’s first martial arts film, Hero—a work that, with an estimated budget of $30 million, was the most expensive Chinese movie ever made.8 Four years later, Zhang returned the fa­vor by directing The First Emperor, Tan Dun’s debut at the Metro­politan Opera in New York—a project that, with an estimated $2 million in production costs alone, was the most expensive opera the Met had ever commissioned.9 The Wall appears in both works as a symbol of the First Emperor’s attempts to unify China, though they reach diametrically opposed conclusions regarding the significance of his legacy.

Hero is loosely based on the story of Jing Ke, an itinerant soldier who made an attempt on the Qin ruler’s life when he was still trying to conquer the other Warring States kingdoms but was ultimately overpowered by the emperor himself. In Zhang Yimou’s version of the story, the aspiring assassin—in the movie he is called Name — less—does not fail in his attempt on the ruler’s life; rather, he de­cides at the last minute to spare his life, after concluding that the advantages to be derived from the emperor’s unification of China far outweighed the violence and brutality that would be needed to achieve that end. Tan Dun’s opera, meanwhile, takes its inspiration from the musician Gao Jianli—another historical figure who, like Jing Ke, is known primarily for his attempt to assassinate the future First Emperor. While the original Gao Jianli was actually a child­hood friend of Jing Ke, Tan Dun reinvents him as an old friend of the Qin ruler. In the opera, the First Emperor attempts to convince the musician to compose the anthem for his nascent empire. Gao initially refuses (in protest against the emperor’s brutality), and even after he accedes to the emperor’s demands he undermines them by secretly basing the anthem on a song sung by slaves build­ing the emperor’s Wall. Hero and The First Emperor, therefore, mir­ror each other quite precisely, in that one work transforms an at­tempt to assassinate the ruler into an emphatic defense of the First Emperor’s tyranny in the name of national unity, while the other embeds a critique of the emperor’s legitimacy within an anthem that is ostensibly celebrating his authority.

Both of these contemporary works take as their starting point the emperor’s obsession with immortality and our fascination with the assassination attempts that sought to bring a premature end to his grandiose ambitions—and both, accordingly, are concerned with how the emperor’s vision of his own futurity intersects with our un­derstanding of his historicity. These considerations of temporality and identity are developed even more suggestively in a film from near the beginning of Zhang Yimou’s career. Although this earlier work, unlike Hero and The First Emperor, makes no mention of the Wall and alludes only tangentially to the First Emperor, it neverthe­less presents an interesting perspective on the historical logic that helps shape our understanding of both the emperor and his Wall.

In 1990, four years after his directorial debut, Zhang starred in a Hong Kong flick called Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior.10 Directed by the horror — and action-film specialist Ching Siu-tung, Terracotta Warrior opens with a love story between one of the First Emperor’s generals (played by Zhang Yimou) and his beloved (played by Gong Li). Their romance is interrupted, however, when they are both sacrificed during the funerary rituals following the First Emperor’s death. Zhang Yimou’s warrior watches in horror as his love is burned in the imperial funeral pyre, whereupon he him­self is caked with mud and buried alive with the emperor.

As it turns out, this double sacrifice on behalf of the Qin sover­eign is only the beginning of the story. In an ironic inversion of the belief that the First Emperor may have been poisoned by one of his own mercury-laced immortality pills, Zhang Yimou’s warrior is re­vealed to have inadvertently swallowed one of those same pills shortly before his scheduled sacrifice, and consequently he doesn’t die after being buried but enters a state of suspended animation. He is reawakened more than two thousand years later when a biplane piloted by a young starlet acting in a 1930s spy thriller (also played by Gong Li) accidentally crashes through the earth covering the em­peror’s mausoleum. The warrior immediately recognizes the actress as his beloved but is devastated to discover that she has no recollec­tion of her former identity. What ensues is a second romance, dur­ing which the reawakened general struggles to convince the starlet of her “true” identity until she is ultimately so impressed by his de­votion that she decides to adopt the identity he has assigned her.

Fight and Love presents two distinct models for understanding the relationship between the past and the present. On the one hand, Zhang Yimou’s warrior symbolizes what could be seen as a conven­tional model of history, in that he enjoys a continuous existence from the Qin dynasty up to the present. Gong Li’s Shanghai starlet, on the other hand, represents a rather different historical model, in that she bears a suggestive resemblance to her putative Qin dynasty predecessor but nevertheless has no memory of that earlier incarna­tion. Imagined either as an amnesiac reincarnation or a coincidental doppelganger, she symbolizes not historical continuity but histori­cal rupture, and her connection to the past is extrapolative at best. As the relationship between the warrior and the starlet develops, she gradually begins to embrace her earlier identity for the sake of her suitor. By the end of the film, Gong Li’s character has remem — bered—or constructed a memory of—her (putative) former incar­nation, suggesting a model of historicity emphasizing the role of the present’s desire to reconnect with its own past. While contemporary discussions of the Wall typically treat the structure as either a his­torically unified entity or a multitude of independent fragments, Ching Siu-tung’s film concludes with a model of historicity that stresses the present’s role in actively reaffirming its relationship with the past.

Just as Gong Li’s starlet chooses to affirm her identification with the warrior’s memory of his beloved, the relationship between the Wall and its historical antecedents can be seen as a product of retro­spective identification. This relationship is real, in other words, pre­cisely because it has been actively affirmed from the perspective of the present. Each new era doesn’t directly inherit a preexisting Wall as much as it strategically appropriates an earlier body of beliefs about the structure to suit its own particular needs. Some of these beliefs may well be fictional or fallacious, but to the extent that they help generate future discourses about the Wall, they become part of the monument’s actual history. Regardless of whether Sima Qian’s description of Meng Tian’s construction of the Qin dynasty Wall is strictly accurate or not, for instance, his account has played a criti­cal role in shaping the ensuing history of the structure, as subse­quent regimes have implicitly appealed to (or strategically rejected) the link between territorial border walls and imperial authority that Sima Qian articulated in his seminal text.

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