‘Remains of the Grains’ — Dynasty dolls in Xian are all faces in the dust, reminding me of what I should leave behind in my own afterlife

Bin Ma Yong, a Terra Cotta Warrior, Tomb #3.
Photo by Arielle Emmett (c) Arielle Emmett
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DSC_0699In Xian yesterday I made a clean sweep of all the Han and Qin Dynasty tombs. Hadn’t been there for 17 years, and all I remember were dusty roads and the army of terra cotta warriors inside a football field protected by a tent.  I remember also being led to a bath and an underground well, allegedly belonging to Yang Gui Fei (), the infamous consort of the Tang Emperor Xuan Zong ( 唐玄宗; 713-756).

Mistress Yang had married the Emperor’s son but soon became Xuan Zong’s mistress.  She was blamed for leading the Emperor into decadence, distracting him from the business of Empire. Imperial Guards soon rebelled, forcing Xuan Zong to have Yang Kuei Fei strangled.  I remember the words of the young guide who doubled as a taxi driver. He led me to the empty well (baths?) and described the legend of Yang’s devastating beauty.

This time, I return to Xian’s Han Yang Ling (汉 阳 陵 博物馆)tomb northwest of current Xi-An proper.  Here were twin hills looking suspiciously like burial mounds belonging of the Han Emperor Emperor Jing Di  (景 帝) and his beloved wife Empress Wang.  Jing Di wasn’t a conquerer.  He was fourth emperor of the Western Han (188 BCE – 141 BCE) known for having negotiated a peace with the Xiong (Huns) of the North.

Dr. John Brown and I descended into a dark modern triangle reminding me of a bomb shelter or a spike in the earth. I head down a ramp and below, inside a cavernous hall, is a pagoda lit in red, shrouded in a dark gray light, and I walk on glass walkways with surgical booties affixed to my shoes.

This museum is intimate and touching — perhaps moreso than Emperor Qin’s football field displays.

Han Yang Ling
Figures of Emperor Jing Di in the Han Yang Ling underground museum in Xian.

Pit after pit of Han dollies stretch before me in darkness – effigies of courtesans, soldiers, craftsmen, pigs, dogs, sheep – mild and beautifully calm, some of their bodies still buried in dust, others exposed, naked male dolls with tiny penises, naked female dolls with small bumps for breasts, many of them knocked over – lying in the red dusty clay of each pit.  Tour guides and their groups walk past me – guides speaking Chinese, Japanese, English – and all I can see are the tiny heads popping out of the dirt, the millions of tiny humans in effigy, some with long straight legs and beautifully sculpted faces.

Each doll has a unique profile, the strong high cheekbones of the Han people crowded together, some of their lips pursed, some of the heads turned and nestling together, all the faces washed in amber and crimson.  The sight of each rectangular pit makes me want to jump down inside and pick up these dear Han dollies, as though I were a child again.

So many quizzical smiles on faces with eyes closed.  So many souls represented in clay while the real souls fly away along with the flesh, so that the bones of real horses, rare birds, children, can be found in these pits, along with pottery, lacquer boxes, and the thousands of warrior, concubine, and servant dolls that will be left to care for the Emperor in this afterlife.

My favorite pit label from Han Yang Ling tomb is  “Remains of the Grains.”  Even better than Remains of the Day.

Apparently this Emperor was a Taoist.  He reduced taxes and the labor of his people, but still found it necessary to build two enormous tombs for himself and his wife, Empress Wang.   Han Yang Ling is the eastern most of all the tombs; and it is his.  The Wei River runs South; the Jing River north; and after 2180 years the above-ground buildings have all crumbled above the mausoleum.  South of the tumuli are the burial pits with the armies of clay figures; north of the tumuli are more burial pits with clay figurines, ritual buildings, a prisoner’s graveyard.  Buried in these pits are rows of warriors holding weapons in their hands, courtesans doing dances in silk dresses, according to a museum guidebook.

All the Chinese emperors believed that servants would continue to supply goods and services in an afterlife world when they died. “They wanted to bring everything in their life time to the after life,” the book says. But why in miniature?  And why effigies?  Why not do what the pharaohs did, and bury alive every courtesan, every artisan, every warrior, every sycophant in your entourage??

Dr. John Brown reminds me that mass suicide/homicide would not boost the Chinese Emperor’s popularity quotient.  Still, there is something so strange about those happy little heads popping out of the mud, their bodies still packed upright. I am reminded that we turn into stiff bodies with mouths smiling or lips pursed with eyes closed, buried in the dust.  And is this all of me, all that’s left of me?  Not even that, I think.

Maybe I should leave a set of instructions for my children specifying not just what I leave behind, but what I take with me?

Songs for my Afterlife

I don’t think I’ve even thought about this before — I guess because I come from the School of ‘You can’t take it with you,’ — so what will I take with me in the afterlife, except the memory I leave to my children?

I should probably bury a piano and a writing tablet with me, and a swimming pool and a Trader Joe’s  and a lively little book store.  And perhaps I can leave behind a doll or two representing every child I have loved, every man I hoped for and never had, every one that wanted me and that I refused…oh I could leave a lot of wonderful little effigies in my mausoleum…pictures of my mother berating me, and then charming me…models of my father in a certain sweater that I recall with red and green accents and spikes as he led me down the hill from our home on Turtle Cove Lane into a tumulus of white.  I can bury my blue and gray civil war wax soldiers, and my chemistry set and observatory I set up for the heavens in, of all places, my basement…and the monkey that we kept who used to grab ping pong balls as my sister and I went at it furiously in that basement.

I could gather up the ultrasounds of my daughter before she was born, showing the beauty of her head, and the very large genome of my son, which surely predicted how tall he would be, and how like a god he accidentally sprang from loins never prepared to contain him.  Oh and I could bring with me the wasps and bees that stung me, and the sculptures of faces and friends murdered in Brooklyn Heights. What a feast would be in my Mausoleum! It would keep my little tin music box with yellow plastic 78 rpm records I used to play sitting in my attic room: Robert Schumann’s crazy Mazurkas, and Schubert and Chopin, and Beethoven’s 9th, and the paintings of all the effigies I created in my mind growing up.

Terra Cotta Warriors of Emperor Qin.  Photo by Arielle Emmett (c) Arielle Emmett

With all these things in my little tomb I would be just as splendid and prepared as Emperor Jing Di. And I would be more comfortable with the size of my tomb than that of the Terra Cotta Warriors of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (246-210 B.C.) the first to “unify” China for  15 years.  The tombs, for some reason, do not impress me as much as Han Yang Ling.  I have no relationship to the football size fields of warriors dedicated to Qin’s protection. One  cannot argue with the monumental structure of the tombs, or the modeling of the individual faces (although I learned that the Qin terra cotta sculptures used only 8 heads as models reproduced thousands of times, representing different functionaries, warriors, statuses serving the great Emperor of Qin.).  I did feel doubly strange passing along the perimeter, only to discover that the majority of Chinese tourists were much more interested in photographing themselves grinning and holding up two fingers (universal “coolness” sign for peace) rather than looking carefully at the figures far below them.

Third Tomb of Emperor Qin Photo by Arielle Emmett (c)
Arielle Emmett

Nonetheless it was a splendid reunion for me, seeing these figures, and especially those little stone and clay pigs and hounds huddling anxiously in  Jing Di’s tomb from the Western Han.  To think that if you made all these representations of who you were and what you had, that people would actually remember you…and even more, that gods would welcome you as something more splendid than anything you actually were.  Well, I like this idea.  And soon, with a head cold, I plan to sleep on it.

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