photo: public domain
The first emperor of China wanted to live forever. Or did he want everlasting life in an afterworld shaped much like this one? Was heaven really heaven-on-earth? Delirious from the toxic elixirs of jade powder, chalk and mercury favored by his wisest advisors for the promotion of immortality, the emperor lay on his deathbed. Swollen, purple and bald, dead skin peeling off of him in layers, his vision and his hearing long departed, his fragile grasp of reality filtered crudely through prickling fingertips, the emperor genuinely wondered if he had already left the planet. “So this is what heaven feels like,” he thought, “or is this heaven-on-earth?"
Remembering the army of ten thousand soldiers being molded and baked in his honor, his failing heart drew solace. Death-proof battalions of imitation warriors in vast subterranean palaces: life-size statues armed with actual axes, standing guard over the booby-trapped tomb in which he would eventually be luxuriously buried, crouching sharpshooters with functioning cross-bows, life-size horses drawing life-size bronze chariots. The thought of being surrounded by these durable memorabilia comforted the dying emperor.
When the soul of the emperor passed, his body was entombed. Ten thousand terra cotta heads were placed upon ten thousand terra cotta bodies. The statues were arranged in formation, the chariots were pulled into place. And the underground chambers were sealed with the dark freshness of that autumn day.