The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia is currently hosting an amazing exhibit of Chinese terra-cotta warriors. It is an awesome display of art, engineering, and history. But its very size and ambition also illuminate the problems of China today and the beauty and importance of a much smaller exhibit just a mile and a half away.
The terra-cotta warriors were discovered in 1974, when a group of Chinese farmers were digging a well. They hit some clay shards and called the authorities, before archaeologists eventually uncovered the burial ground of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China.
If it wasn’t clear already, the protection of Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife must have been awfully important: The exhibit claims that more than 700,000 workers were forced to carry out this megalomaniacal exercise. Artists whose work was not up to standards were executed, and harsh treatment was the norm.
We should judge the emperor by the standards of his time, but even by those standards, he was particularly bloodthirsty and brutal. It is true that he built roads, created a unified country, and achieved many engineering feats. Though he could get the job done, it wasn’t always done without cost. He burned scholars alive. He castrated his enemies and imposed a system known as Legalism, which holds: “When the people are weak, the state is strong; hence the state that possesses the Way strives to weaken the people.” Within legalism, he created a system in which individuals were expected to spy on one another. Ultimately, his legacy includes the deaths of a million of his citizens and the breathtaking remains of his burial complex.
If you go to Independence Hall, you can see the room — yes, the one, relatively small room — where these historic documents were given birth. There are no terra-cotta warriors, no self-aggrandizing monuments, no Ozymandian announcements of greatness to the world there. None of the men who wrote and signed these documents sought to be tyrants, dictators, emperors, or even kings. In fact, they came together expressly to reject monarchy and assert the rights of individual human beings to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those ideas have triumphed in the political and social marketplace far more powerfully than any oppressive ruler.
Unfortunately, the cause of liberty is anything but assured today, especially in China.
But the incredible success of the American democratic experiment has made us lazy. We breathlessly marvel at engineering feats and administrative achievements with barely a passing mention of the brutality that often made them possible. We wonder at China’s power and growth on the world stage and excitedly teach our children to speak Mandarin with barely a moment to spend on China’s brutal history and tradition of state-sponsored murder and efforts to “weaken the people.” When we speak of the “blessings of liberty,” it is more like a trivia question than a strongly held and defended ideal.
Unfortunately, the cause of liberty is anything but assured today, especially in China. According to Freedom House, residents of the Chinese region Xinjiang must install the surveillance app Jingwang (“Clean Net”) on their phones. Those who fail to do so can be jailed. A group of women of Kazakh ethnicity was recently detained for simply discussing emigration in a chat room (after they had installed the Clean Net app). The officially atheist Chinese Communist government insists on appointing bishops in the Catholic Church. In 2010, Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in honor of what the committee called his “nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights” in China. The Chinese government blacked out news reports of this event, cut off trade talks with Norway, and arrested Mr. Liu’s wife. Mr. Liu was jailed for the remaining seven years of his life and died in a military hospital.
Today, in Beijing, there is another mausoleum anyone can see. About 30,000 people do so every day. It is an enormous building called the Chairman Mao Hall, in Tiananmen Square. It holds the crystal coffin of Mao Zedong. Mao killed more than 40 million of his people and created the Communist party that rules China today. It should come as no surprise that 700,000 people were involved in building his mausoleum, too.
— Charles E. F. Millard lives in New York.