We went to see a fascinating exhibit about the Han Dynasty at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (England) today.
First, a little bit of background, in case your Chinese history is as woeful as mine. The Han Dynasty ruled in China for four hundred years from about 200 BC to 200 AD. It was a period of economic prosperity and significant technological and scientific advances. These included paper-making, the wheelbarrow, ship rudders, suspension bridges and pipeline to fuel natural gas furnaces. In mathematics, the square root and negative numbers were discovered. The Han Dynasty was roughly contemporaneous with the early Roman Empire, and it was during this time when the Silk Route between China and the West opened up trade between the East and the West.
The exhibit features newly discovered tombs of great Han rulers,comparable in some way with the Egyptian pyramids. The Chinese rulers were buried with everything they needed to continue life as they knew it, with the very best of everything they might need. That included cooking and eating utensils, pots for making drinks, musical instruments,medicines, fighting armour, potions for fighting off evil spirits, even a state-of-the-art toilet. The tomb itself was secured by a lock that could be opened only from the inside once it was finally closed.
The comparisons between the Han’s view of life after death the traditional Christian view fascinate me. Both are elaborations of life as we know it here on planet earth – with eating and drinking, entertainment and illness, enemies and war. Both include the existence of both good and evil spirits. And both include the survival of the individual. Neither includes a self-less merging into a transcendence in which the ego disappears.
My first thoughts as I wandered through the exhibit was to wonder how someone who still believes in the traditional idea of a Christian heaven would evaluate this tomb. Here are all the paraphernalia laid out, unused for some two thousand years. Even the royal toilet, with its luxury seat located conveniently located over a deep trench remained in pristine condition. How does Christian belief in an after-life have any more credibility?
As I pondered this question, I thought perhaps that on a more profound level, what both belief systems have in common is an intuition that life doesn’t end with death. I live in a different time with a modern scientific view of the universe. I myself do not intuit that my own individual ego will survive beyond my life here on earth. Personally I don’t believe it does. But life will go on, and my participation in this great universal process will not go unmarked. The life each one of us lives makes a difference in the way the future unfolds.
One of the other striking characteristics of the Han Dynasty – indeed of Chinese philosophy going back to Confucius – is the concept of divine rule. The Chinese believed that their rulers had a mandate from heaven. It is similar to the divine right of kings developed in the West, but with a critical difference. The mandate was not hereditary. If the Chinese ruler failed his people through arrogance or misuse of power or even through ignorance or as the result of unforseen circumstances such as drought or flood, the mandate of heaven would be withdrawn and given to someone else. Power was not class-based, but based on merit – an idea we Americans tend to think was born with the U.S. Constitution.
This idea that rulers will be replaced if they do not rule for the good of the people is still a part of Chinese culture. Although there is no time limit to how long rulers can remain in power, even the Communists today are aware that if the majority of people come to believe that they are not serving them, they believe that their authority is no longer legitimate.
It feels more like some Western democracies today than I would have thought possible before my visit to the Fitzwilliam.