The Great Wall was originally built by Qin Shi Huang to ward off nomadic tribes. Qin Shi Huang was an empire builder, responsible for unifying China at the end of the Warring States period (246 BCE). Although his reign only lasted 15 years, he managed to carry out many large-scale projects, including building the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army (at the expense of many lives) and unify Chinese script and Chinese currency. He called himself the “First Emperor”, and tried to erase all traces of the long history that came before him as well as ideas that he did not agree with. This involved killing scholars and burning books. (This all sounds similar to 20th century dictators; in fact, when someone compared Mao to Qin Shi Huang, Mao replied: “He buried 460 scholars alive; we have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive… You [intellectuals] revile us for being Qin Shi Huangs. You are wrong. We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold”).
Qin Shi Huang was also obsessed with becoming immortal. He sent thousands of servants on a mission to find a famous 1000-year old magician, who was said to have the elixir of life. They failed, and so he ordered his alchemists to design a pill of immortality. Ironically, he died of mercury poisoning from the pill that one of his alchemists made for him.
What drove Qin Shi Huang to build to establish an Empire, to build the wall, and to seek eternal life? I think these three things are often related, and I think they are related to a mindset that has manifested itself (in less extreme forms) throughout history. They are caused by the desire to conquer, own, and never let go. Nostalgia for the past or visions of a glorious future can leave one disappointed with the fleeting nature of one’s life, and the response is sometimes to create something greater than oneself, and try to defend it for all eternity. Empires come and go, but they hold on as tightly as possible, hoping to keep going.
As J.M. Coetzee says in his powerful novel Waiting for the Barbarians:
What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation. A mad vision yet a virulent one: I, wading in the ooze, am no less infected with it than the faithful Colonel Joll as he tracks the enemies of Empire through the boundless desert, sword unsheathed to cut down barbarian after barbarian until at last he finds and slays the one whose destiny it should be (or if not his then his son’s or unborn grandson’s) to climb the bronze gateway to the Summer Palace and topple the globe surmounted by the tiger rampart that symbolizes eternal dominion, while his comrades below cheer and fire their muskets in the air.
We only exist on this planet for a short period of time, and it can be hard to accept that. It can be hard to accept how finite we are. Imagine the universe spreading out before you: the human race is a tiny dot in this immensity. It is the same when looking at the individual in society: the majority of people play a very small role, and will eventually be forgotten. Impermanence is so very hard to accept for many people because they obtain meaning from the thought that their work will last. How can my life’s work, all my efforts, have meaning, if they are going to be destroyed? How is it possible I will one day die? I think that many religions serve the purpose of filling this gap between what we perceive in the world, and what we would like: the eternal.
For people that take satisfaction in ends and not in means, the realization of finitude can be too much to bear, and they must find a way to extend themselves, in both space and time. The drive to conquer is not that different from the desire to live forever. It is a matter of greed: greed in space or in time. Unhappy with simply existing, simply being, they must dominate others, and create something bigger than themselves, something that could be inherited by their descendants and live on forever.