My family and I recently visited an exhibition in Liverpool of some of the Terracotta Army uncovered in China. This extraordinary discovery dates back to 200 BC when Emperor Qin Shi Huang created a gigantic mausoleum for his death containing thousands of models of life sized warriors that he believed would protect him in the afterlife.
Before we entered the exhibition we were shown a short film about China, which essentially talked about how great China was. At one point it used the striking phrase that China is ‘fearlessly progressive’. I guess it depends what you think of as progress. China is making lots of economic and technological progress. However if you were thinking about democracy and human rights, fearlessly oppressive might feel more apt.
I couldn’t help wondering who’d made the film. It felt like propaganda and I was left questioning if the film was the price for being able to put the exhibition on.
The exhibition itself was impressive but for me ultimately horrific. The Emperor sacrificed hundreds of people to be buried alongside him. Many others who’d built the mausoleum were killed to keep its existence a secret. That’s before you even consider the likely oppression of the workers. The whole thing was a massive demonstration of brutality, vanity and abuse of power. The site of the mausoleum was 56,000 square kilometres and cost a third of the taxes collected!
What the exhibition showed was that the Emperors were obsessed with gaining power and doing all they could to keep hold of it. As well as preparing an army to keep him in power in the afterlife, the Emperor was desperate to find potions to make himself immortal. Unfortunately for him one of the potions contained mercury, which killed him! I happen to believe in an afterlife but I also believe in the old phrase ‘you can’t take it with you’ and that we should put what we have to use in this life. For someone hoping his army would rise up in the afterlife the idea that instead it would end up broken and fading would surely have been a pretty big disappointment.
I think I was supposed to be impressed by the exhibits as things of wonder. Instead I was repulsed by the willingness of the Emperor to use people for the sake of his ego. As you can imagine from the opening film, the exhibition was not set out to pose any questions about the use of power. I’d say that was a missed opportunity but no doubt not one the Chinese government would have been up for.
Power of course takes many forms. There is the power of the dictator, not up for debate at the exhibition. Then there is the power of the crowd. It is notable than in an age of supposed tolerance that people do not seem too keen to tolerate views other than their own. We see this in the new court of social media and the modern phenomena of ‘no platforming’ controversial speakers.
Just as I am repulsed by 2000 year old abuse of power I am dismayed by the modern trend to shout people with a different view down.
The linked frustration for me is that the only people who appear to be talking about freedom of speech are the right wing press who demand the right to hold negative views about other people and their lifestyles. I don’t want to judge, criticise or condemn any section of society. I do however think we should have the right to see life differently and to offer a different view, respectfully, as part of a conversation rather than a tirade or an argument. I’m no historian but if we’re not allowed to do that I think there are plenty of historical warnings that our society is not going in a healthy direction.
As a Christian I don’t believe that I should look to gain power over others. As much as there is a need for people to have positions of authority and exercise leadership, the heart of this should be an attitude of service rather than an opportunity to get people to do or think what you want them to. Jesus of course was the ultimate example – he had all the power there was and chose to give it up for the sake of others. His call is simple – not to try and change the world by getting others to bend to your will but to love others, think the best of them and put their needs before our own. Imagine what kind of society we’d have if we all did that.