Asians View of Life after Death
While reading about a regiment of life―size ancient Chinese terra cotta soldiers and chariots excavated from the massive grave of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (221―206 B.C.) that are now on a tour of the United States, I was reminded of how ancient Asians viewed life after death. These clay figures are only a fraction of the 7,000 terra cotta soldiers, 400 horses, and chariots, most of which are still buried in an area of 22 square miles in remote Lintong County, Shaangxi Province.
Even before Buddhism spread in Asia, people believed that life continued after death, and some even romanticized death as a passage to an eternal life, richer and more fulfilling than life on earth, waiting for them on the other side of this planet. Obviously, Emperor Qin Shi Huang was no exception. As a warmonger who unified all states in the vast land and became the first Emperor of Imperial China which lasted until the communists took over, Emperor Qin perceived himself as the undying chief commander of his devoted army, and took them with him to his grave, this time, made of clay, in a battle formation.
On a smaller scale, common folks like my parents tended toward romantic feelings about life beyond death. While I was still in Korea in the early 1960's, they heard the news that the Seoul Catholic Diocese had just opened the first Catholic Cemetery on a scenic mountain village some 20 miles north of the city and were elated. The next day, my father took a day off from work and left home early to investigate the place, with a box lunch Mother had packed for him. Returning that evening, he broke the news that he purchased the best spot available.
"You'll like it," he said to Mother at the dinner table, acting as though he was a new owner of a vacation home in Hawaii. "Our plot sits on a terraced slope that gives a distant view of the Han River and overlooks a peaceful green valley. It's an ideal spot for a family picnic, too." They were only in their early fifties.
Back then, as a young adult itching to leave home and explore the modernized world out there I didn't share their excitement about finding their eternal rest place. I even thought they were silly. Why did it matter whether they would lie among Catholics or Buddhists or Hindus after they were gone? How could they appreciate the surrounding scenery when they couldn't see it?
On my first trip back home in the summer of 1978, I finally understood their wishes. Their joint grave, which they had chosen with care and loving intentions, had become a gathering place for their children and grandchildren. One of my four brothers who had been living in San Francisco for some time returned home at the same time as I did, and with other siblings and their children living in Seoul, a dozen of us gathered at our parents' grave. After a humble ceremony of prayer and silent dialogues between them and us the living, we had a picnic, just as our parents had wished that we would.
One's grave isn't just a mound of dirt that keeps the remains in place, but rather, it is a place for the living, to renew themselves and to reflect on the past, present, and future. Emperor Qin's terracotta soldiers on tour of the United States will do no less for the American viewers: They will learn much about Emperor Qin, his leadership, his ambition, and what China was like 2300 years ago but also think about his/ her journey of life after death.
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