Emperor's Enigma: Tomb's Secrets Stay Sealed; China Debates Exploration of Founding Father's Resting Place

Article excerpt


For more than two millennia, the weathered, unimposing tumulus of Qin Shihuangdi, China's first emperor, has loomed among the cornfields and fruit trees east of Xian.

While the discovery 29 years ago of the marvelous terra cotta warriors that guard the burial site came as a complete surprise, the existence of the mound was common knowledge. Yet, to this day, the tomb of Qin (pronounced "Chin") Shihuangdi who united warring states and took the name "China's First Emperor" remains untouched by the spades of archaeologists. A conundrum wrapped in legend and rumor, the resting place of the emperor holds the promise of a treasure trove that staggers the minds of those who have studied, contemplated and dreamt of unearthing it.

"It is the greatest enigma in archaeology," said Wang Xueli, a professor at the Shaanxi Provincial Archeological Institute who is considered one of the foremost experts on the burial site. Upon its completion, the Emperor's earthen mound rivaled the pyramids of Egypt in scope and ambition. While the pyramids have been opened and found largely looted and empty, nobody knows exactly what Qin Shihuangdi's sepulchre contains.

In the past 12 years, the Shaanxi provincial government, mindful of the vast potential for tourist revenue, repeatedly has sought permission from the National Cultural Relics bureau. But the answer has remained the same: China does not have the financial and technological resources for such a vast undertaking.

There are more urgent excavations to be done. This task should be left to future generations. Said an official at the bureau: "We have the responsibility to preserve the artifacts for posterity."

"There are two parties in Shaanxi. Those who do not want to excavate, and those who do. I belong to the latter," said Mr. Wang, even as he acknowledged that much preparatory work remains to be done before an excavation can take place.

Others, such as Zhang Yinglan, an archaeologist at a museum near Xian containing the terra cotta warriors, believe caution and more time is necessary before the tomb can be opened properly.

"There are many Han graves and many Tang graves, but there is only one tomb of Qin Shihuangdi. We cannot afford to make any mistakes," Mr. Zhang said.

The mystique of Qin Shihuangdi's tomb is closely linked to the emperor's pivotal role in history. In 231 B.C., as the king of Qin, one of the seven major states at the time, he embarked on a remarkable series of campaigns, conquering his neighbors one by one. In 10 years, China was created.

The emperor's political skills and ruthlessness were legendary, as were his megalomania and fear of death. Construction on his splendid mausoleum east of his capital, Xianyang, began soon after he became king at age 13. As his fortunes waxed and he subdued more kingdoms, the grave grew in scale and ambition.

At one point in the 36 years it took to construct the underground complex, more than 700,000 laborers toiled at the site. When the emperor died in 210 B.C., the finest treasures gold, jade, precious gems, silks from every corner of his empire accompanied him to the afterlife.

The foundations of two massive, rectangular walls encircling the tomb area have been found. During construction of the tomb, a gigantic pit measuring about 300 square yards was excavated in terraces to a depth of more than 100 feet. Archaeologists estimate the size of the subterranean palace built at the bottom of the pit to be about 400 feet by 525 feet, equal to 48 basketball courts.

After the burial vault, side chambers and passageways were built, and the pit was covered with earth and topped with the terraced mound.

According to the "Shi Ji" ("Historical Records") of Sima Qian, a scholar from the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 25), which contains the earliest account of Qin Shihuangdi's mausoleum, the emperor was laid to rest in a bronze casket amid a sea and rivers of mercury, which was circulated by a kind of perpetual-motion device. …