Are the United States and China presently set on a course of collision or cooperation? If the best way to know a nation’s future is to know its history, an excellent way to begin learning something about China is by viewing director Keith Melton’s truly marvelous Mysteries of China. The film is currently playing at the Franklin Institute’s Tuttleman IMAX dome theater.
I was awed by its depiction of the way China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, unified the seven warring states. By inaugurating the Qin Dynasty (222-207 BC), he ultimately brought his people into the heartland of what would, over centuries, become a nation.
Better than being there
In a piece I wrote this year in BSR, I opined that history is best learned from books. However, as viewers of the History Channel or world travelers might attest, there are other ways to do so. Mysteries of China proves this. It’s mostly about the archeological discovery of the terracotta Chinese army hidden within the emperor’s grandiose tomb. The cache, 25 stories high, was buried under a grassy mound for at least 2,000 years.
A group of peasants digging for a well uncovered the first soldier in 1974. The reclamation project has been going strong ever since, stopping only at the tomb’s innermost space, due to anxieties about damaging what may lie within.
I remember reading a National Geographic story about this discovery, but nothing brings the fascination of this tale to life as vividly as its IMAX version. It tells the story in a comprehensive, detailed, and thrilling manner, achieving an immersive “you are there” feel.
The artifacts are numerous and often exquisitely wrought. The hypothesis is that the tomb is similar to the Egyptian pyramids in that it provided the emperor with a vast panoply of what he needed in the afterlife. There, he would retain his elevated status in a higher realm.
Each of the thousands of soldiers bears individual countenances expressing various emotions. Originally, like Roman and Greek classical statuary, they were painted in bright colors.
Knowing when enough is enough
The emperor-general was a builder of civilization. He made a system of canals that connected several of China’s major rivers as well as a system of roads. He introduced a common language and uniform weights and measures, and started the building of the Great Wall.
But he was also a cruel, harsh, hubristic tyrant who persecuted scholars, burned books, and hankered after physical immortality. Court alchemists fed him balls of mercury, unaware that instead of prolonging life they were administering poison. This unhealthy dietary item aggravated his preexisting paranoia and caused a gruesome demise.
The IMAX experience takes you there and lets you see all there is to see and wonder at, though I found the presentation somewhat overpowering and loud. At the end, after leaving the great building off Logan Square, I recalled these lines from the Tao Te Ching: “When you know what is enough, you will be rich. When you know what is enough, you will be safe.”
And that was how I, dancing down those marbled stairs, missed the museum’s exhibition Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor. This includes 10 of the actual life-size clay soldiers, with jade and gold pieces, bronze chariot replicas, and 170-plus other artifacts. Visitors to the museum with more time on their hands can take in both the film and the objects.
I hope the United States and China will achieve peace and fruitful engagement. Time will tell. “I am a historian, not a prophet!” as our own Hungarian-born Philadelphian John Lukacs exclaimed after 9/11. “Madam,” he added, “It is in God’s hands.” Yes, and in ours too.