In Xi'an, deep within China, lies one of humanity’s largest monuments dedicated to death.
This monument is the Terracotta Army, filled with thousands of clay soldiers. Erected over 2,000 years ago, it was constructed to protect Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife.
Qin Shi Huang had an irrational fear of death, going so far as to dedicate a large portion of his life searching for a magical “elixir” that would grant him immortality. Obviously, no such potion was found, and it is speculated that the emperor died of mercury poisoning labeled as elixir.
His desire for permanent longevity was well known: so much work was spent constructing a city-sized mausoleum to house his corpse, guarded by the Terracotta Army. But all of this effort in commemorating the life of Qin Shi Huang, as well as his fruitless search for immortality, misses the mark. We are already immortal, just not in the way that most people think.
Life is not an individual experience. Sure, we will only ever know what it is like to live in our own skin with our own perception and perspective of the world, but those experiences are shaped by our environments.
More importantly, while our own genetic compositions are unique to us, they are pulled from our relatives and ancestors. Every cell in your body has an imprint with your family on it. We never die, just merely change forms.
Reconciling with this fact means being at peace with and understanding your roots. If you don’t know where you come from, you’ll have a hard time figuring out where you’re headed.
But, we are more than mere strands of DNA. There is also an imprint left on our mind and soul from our family as well. Most of us come from a background that either inspires us, or makes us aspire to do something great.
Some of us have backgrounds we are extremely proud to have. Ancestors who escaped persecution, influenced change or simply made a positive difference in the world. These stories can inspire us to carry on their legacy, and to keep the torch they lit in life ablaze.
On the other hand, some may have roots or ancestors that don’t make us feel the same way. In some cases, they may even make us feel guilty or at fault for their actions. In these instances, we should aspire to do better; not out of guilt or shame, but out of sheer desire to pave a new path ahead for one’s heritage and family name.
Above all, if you don’t know where you come from, other people get to decide your identity. Own your roots. Searching so desperately for immortality and longevity, like Qin Shi Huang, will only leave you feeling empty and hopeless.
Qin Shi Huang was extraordinarily powerful in his time, being the first person to rule over a united China and arguably is the reason a Chinese state exists today. But as Carrie Gracie of the BBC put it, “both Qin Shi Huang and Mao live on powerfully in China's imagination, but China is bigger than its emperors. When Qin Shi Huang died, his dynasty lasted only months. It was the idea of China which survived.”
Our legacies and our existence are not made up of a single human’s flesh. They are long weaving tapestries with genetic and spiritual material that transcend our meager mortal experience.
Ultimately, Qin Shi Huang's death is partly to blame due to his fear of death. We can stand to learn a lot from his misfortune, lest we risk falling into the same trap as those who came many millennia before us.
Matthew Geiger is a senior studying economics and political science at Ohio University and is also digital managing editor of The Post. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk to Matthew? Tweet him @Mattg444.