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Issue number nine




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The Tomb of Shih Huang-Ti by Ben Williams


The histories relate that Chao Cheng's first acts on taking control of the western kingdom of Ch'in from the regent Lu Pu-wei were to banish him and order his advisors executed. He then began a military campaign at turns brutal and devious, which culminated in the unification of the Seven Kingdoms. He made his capital at the walled city at the centre of the world and bestowed upon himself the sacred title Shih Huang-ti, first sovereign emperor.

Every year he would set out on a tour of the empire. The original purpose of these tours was to inspect the progress of the Great Wall, the Canal, or some other public work, but as the emperor grew older and became increasingly obsessed with his approaching death, they became quests for ways in which to prolong his life. He visited temples, making sacrifices to the local gods, calling them to witness his deeds and begging them to favour him with longevity. He called magicians and alchemists of renown to his capital to continue their search for the elixir of immortality within its walls.

As the emperor became less interested in affairs of state, rebellions broke out. These were quelled mercilessly. Assassination attempts became commonplace. The emperor became isolated within his vast palace, surrounded by his advisors and magicians. He attempted to obliterate the past, burning all books except for those dealing with animal husbandry, agriculture and prognostication.

Eventually he began to doubt that his magicians and alchemists were capable of granting him eternal life. He realised that before he died, if die he must, he must accomplish two things. He must secure his earthly reputation for the future, and he must make himself a place in which to pass eternity.

The emperor summoned his scholars, ordering them to compose the history of his incomparably splendid reign and the chaos from which it had sprung. He summoned his geomancers and ordered them to determine the most propitious site for his eternal resting place. They wandered the empire, performing their long, complex divination rituals, finally returning with the verdict that his tomb be built at the end of a labyrinthine cave at the foot of a cloud-wreathed mountain, far to the west. He summoned his architects and ordered them to design a tomb containing everything he might need in the afterlife. They returned after a year and nervously displayed the fruits of their labour to the emperor. They envisioned a vast subterranean palace, inspired by the emperor's current abode and laid out in accordance with the pattern of the cosmos. It would contain wide halls, numerous courtyards, fountains, libraries and storehouses of treasures. Within its walls would be quarters for the many subjects, including magicians, scholars, advisors and guards, who would accompany the emperor in the afterlife. With a satisfied nod the emperor approved the plans. Relieved, the architects withdrew.


Deep within the chosen cave at the foot of the cloud-wreathed mountain, ivory gates were erected. Beyond them would be carved the halls of the emperor's palatial tomb. Legions of slaves armed with pick and shovel toiled and sweated, overseen by the architects, who were in turn overseen by the emperor, who now left his palace only to make the arduous journey to the construction site.

After a decade the splendid tomb was completed. The architects led the emperor, now a stooped old man, and his advisors through its halls. When they came upon an empty library, the emperor asked what it would contain. The architects looked askance at the advisors, who calmly replied that the history being composed by his scholars would form the basis of the collection, but that the scholars entombed with the emperor would continue to write the history of the afterlife, that this history would come to dwarf the other. The emperor considered this, eventually asking what they would write on. The architects, pleased to be able to answer, replied that a wide storeroom for silk and a deep reservoir for ink had been dug beside the library. The emperor considered this, finally asking what would happen when they exhausted the supplies of silk and ink, for surely time is endless while the supplies are not. The architects looked askance at the advisors, who could find no answer. It appears, they ventured to admit, bowing low, that there has been an oversight. It will be remedied before your next visit.

The problem facing the architects was how to contain the infinite within the finite. The solution that occurred to them was to include within the tomb means of producing those things required in infinite quantities. In order to produce ink, certain molluscs and plants were necessary, as well as artisans skilled in their preparation. Provision would have to be made for the artisans. Great basins of salt water would have to be created for the molluscs, as well as greenhouses for the plants. Silk required silkworms and moths, looms and weavers. Again, provision would have to be made. Then the advisors pointed out that the scholars would need brushes with which to write. Brushes required camel hairs for their bristles and hence camels. A sandy enclosure would have to be prepared. The architects, believing that they had solved all of the problems, began to alter the tomb. Unsatisfied, the advisors continued to ponder, raising more problems. They pointed out that leather wears out, that wood rots or becomes brittle, that other things hitherto deemed imperishable would, at some point in the future, have to be replaced. News came that the emperor wished to inspect his tomb. The advisors looked at each other fearfully and sent a reply, begging him to delay his visit.

The solution of the architects was to have the slaves excavate a vast cavern enclosing the palace. They suspended a powerful lamp from the cavern ceiling to imitate the sun. They had soil spread upon the rocky floor. They had a subterranean river diverted to irrigate the subterranean pastures. They ordered the necessary trees and crops planted, the necessary animals introduced.

As quickly as the architects were able to find a solution to a certain problem and order the slaves to make a certain modification to the tomb, the advisors exposed new shortcomings. For every problem solved, a dozen new ones appeared.

Again word came that the emperor desired to visit his tomb. Again the advisors implored him to delay his visit. They knew that he would not accept a third delay. They called for more slaves. The pace of the work increased.

As the slaves and architects toiled, the advisors began a list of all the things that the tomb must contain. The list lengthened steadily; they found themselves unable to bring it to an end. It became increasingly clear that everything in the world is related to every other thing. The architects found themselves in the unenviable position of having to recreate in miniature the entire world. The cavern was enlarged until it included cities, plains, mountain ranges, deserts and seas, all radiating from the original palace. The palace too was modified. It included a wing to be occupied by architects, whose presence would be necessary in the afterlife should any shortcomings in the tomb's design become evident. The original lamp was replaced by a new, brighter one that ran on rails across the cavern ceiling, imitating the movement of the sun. Another mobile lamp, fitted with elaborate shutters allowing it to wax and wane, imitated the moon. Astrologers advised the architects on the placement of smaller lamps that would burn only at night.

Finally, just before the emperor was due to visit, the tomb was completed. The histories relate that on that last night, the architects and advisors inspected their handiwork. That when they stood upon the shore of the eastern sea and saw the sun rise over the restless ocean, the architects wept with joy at the perfection of their creation and the advisors fell to their knees, finally realising that the enterprise in which they had participated was blasphemous.


The histories that survive agree that the emperor died shortly before his tomb's completion and that his empire rapidly descended into chaos. They do not agree as to what befell the emperor's body and his tomb. Some histories tell that the architects and advisors emerged from the labyrinthine cave to find members of the emperor's funeral procession searching for the tomb entrance, that the chosen subjects carried the emperor's body through the ivory gates into the palace at the centre of the tomb, and the gates were sealed behind them.

Others histories maintain that the emperor's body never reached his tomb. Some of these state that his funeral procession never arrived, that it was lost in the mountains or ambushed by bandits, that his body was left in a hastily dug, unmarked grave. Others maintain that his funeral procession never even set out. That the emperor's body was left within his capital while chaos raged beyond the walls. Some of these histories mention that the architects and advisors, waiting at the cave mouth, heard news of the collapse of the empire and realised that the emperor's body would not arrive. That instead of returning to their homes they preferred to re-enter the tomb and seal the gates behind them. These histories speculate that the descendants of these architects and advisors continue to inhabit that tranquil paradise. That they may have forgotten that the perfect world they inhabit is not the true one.

Still other histories insist that after many adversities the emperor's funeral procession finally arrived, but that the burial did not go according to plan. That the subjects to be entombed with the emperor found him less terrifying than in life and no longer felt compelled to pass eternity with him. That they deposited his body within the tomb and withdrew to the world. Some of these histories even claim that when these subjects went to deposit the emperor's body in the tomb, they were disoriented by the turnings of the labyrinthine cave. That when they believed they were entering the tomb, they were in fact returning to the world, and when they believed they were retreating to the world, having sealed the ivory gates, they were in fact entering the tomb. That they continue to occupy the tomb, believing it to be the world. These histories also pose an interesting question. How can we conclusively prove that the world we inhabit is truly the world, and not the vast tomb of Shih Huang-ti?

The histories agree that the ivory gates have been lost. Myriad expeditions have failed to rediscover their location. They must lie either at the end of a labyrinthine cave at the foot of a fog-wreathed mountain, or in a vast and crumbling palace. Generations of poets have exhausted themselves speculating on what a successful expedition would find upon forcing open these gates, and entering the tomb that is a world, or the world that is a tomb.

Benjamin Williams lives in Wellington, New Zealand. A story in a similar vein to this one appeared in Southern Ocean Review.

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